“Misleading or Flatly False”: Tim Reiss’s Statement Against MLA Resolution 2017-1

Timothy J. Reiss is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. His most recent books are Against Autonomy: Global Dialectics of Cultural Exchange (2002), Mirages of the Selfe: Patterns of Personhood in Ancient and Early Modern Europe (2003) and the edited collections Music, Writing and Cultural Unity in the Caribbean (2005) and (co-ed.) Topographies of Race and Gender: Mapping Cultural Representations (2008-9). He is currently finishing a book on Descartes and his age’s political practice and thought, another on rethinking the Renaissance as part of long continental and oceanic intercultural exchanges, and an edited collection on Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  See also his earlier statement in support of an academic boycott of Israel.

I am making a statement asking our membership to vote no on Resolution 2017-1 because it strikes me as so egregiously against everything the MLA represents. The resolution itself, that we refrain from endorsing “the boycott,” is a nonsense. As things currently stand, the MLA endorses no boycott. Within the framework of the MLA, therefore, there is nothing from which to refrain. Why are we having a vote at all on something non-existent? That we have supported boycotts and other forms of “political” action in the past does, however, show that every space possible must always be left open for debate within the MLA. To assert, as this Resolution does, that the one case preemptively never open for debate is that of Israel is simply to put the MLA on public record as endorsing some special status for Israel. Whatever one may think of the merits of BDS in particular (as a political intervention on behalf of academic freedoms the MLA most definitely claims to further) and of the MLA’s political role in general, such an endorsement surely exceeds any conceivable MLA interest.

Does the MLA really wish to go on record as promoting Israeli academics’ freedoms while denying those of Palestinian academics?

Click this link to VOTE NO on Resolution 2017-1.

Voting on MLA Resolutions: April 19-June 1.

Click this link to sign the petition against MLA Resolution 2017-1.

As if that were not bad enough, the justifications Resolution 2017-1 offers in its favor are either misleading or flatly false. Its first “whereas” could as easily and more justifiably be reversed: not to endorse a campaign to prevent the denial of academic freedoms and activities of teaching and research to Palestinian teachers and students “contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature.” Israel and all too many of its academic institutions proudly participate in such denial of Palestinian rights and academic activities. Does the MLA really wish to go on record as promoting Israeli academics’ freedoms while denying those of Palestinian academics? The second “whereas” willfully mischaracterizes BDS, which does not conflict with Resolution 2002-1, because it does not target individual scholars, but government and institutional actions and behaviors. The third “whereas” is therefore both false and misleading. The boycott in question may “curtail debates” with academics qua institutional representatives, but not at all as to their teaching and research: it will not block scholarly exchange and dialogue. Furthermore, the current situation most certainly does curtail and block scholarly exchange and dialogue with Palestinian academics. Does the MLA really wish to go on record as endorsing denial of the latters’ academic freedoms, while in this resolution selectively endorsing those of Israeli academics, and in its companion 2017-4, our own?

I can only beg my MLA colleagues to vote NO on this terrible Resolution 2017-1 (and 2017-4). Taken together, they fly in the face of everything the MLA professes to hold dear.

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