MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, lead by Russell Berman and Cary Nelson, is a small group of academics that Israeli agencies and pro-Israel lobby organizations in the US have endorsed in the battle against academic boycott. Scholars’ Rights came into existence primarily to oppose MLA Members for Justice in Palestine and seeks single-mindedly to undermine solidarity with Palestinians among academics. Behind its shallow liberal discourse on academic freedom, the Scholars’ Rights group engages in all manner of misinformation and misrepresentation to defend Israel from growing public criticism.
To garner support for the anti-boycott Resolution 2017-1 that Russell Berman and Martin Shichtman proposed at the MLA Convention, and is currently subject to a members’ ratification vote, Scholars’ Rights launched a massive email campaign on Tuesday May 16, spamming a large segment of the MLA membership. The nature and format of the May 16 email, which was sent possibly to several thousand MLA members reveals the suspect ethical character of this pro-Israel group.
First, by spamming the membership, Scholar’s Rights violated MLA rules on use of member contact information. No matter how, the group managed to generate the mailing list, MLA policies on membership privacy clearly prohibit the compiling and retention of member contact information:
To protect members’ privacy, the MLA does not allow use of the online Member Search for commercial purposes, nor does it allow the collection and retention of member information for mass mailings of any kind. The MLA may at its sole discretion remove the search privileges of any member.
Second, the opening line of the email uses the formulation “the executive committee of MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights is writing,” which may mislead readers, who could mistakenly think the correspondence comes from the executive council of the MLA. For many unsuspecting MLA members, who received the message out of the blue and are not informed about the debate on Resolution 2017-1, the email may look like official correspondence from an official entity within the association.
Third, despite the disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the message, this confusion of the Executive Committee of MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights with the Executive Council of the MLA is reinforced by a polished if rather bland video endorsing Resolution 2017-1. The video features in its opening segment MLA Executive Council member David Pan, who is also an outspoken supporter of MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights. In the video Pan explains the mission of the MLA from a position of assumed authority. The video also includes extensive segments with former MLA President Russell Berman, which lends the video a quasi-official veneer.
And finally, the letter and the video suggest that MLA members who do not vote “Yes” to Resolution 2017-1 are in effect casting a vote to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Here again the message from Scholars’ Rights muddies the waters, creating futher confusion among MLA members who might incorrectly think that the ballot includes a resolution in support of the academic boycott of Israel. The MLA does not endorse the boycott of Israel and the membership is not voting on a resolution to endorse the boycott.
The Scholars’ Rights mass mailing provoked noteworthy reaction by members who wrote to the MLA leadership complaining about Scholars’ Rights subterfuge. For example, Hassan Melehy, Professor of French at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sent an email to Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, pointing out that “the recent message from MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights seems to be creating some confusion. In stating that the EC has decided in favor of submitting Resolution 2017-1 to the membership for a vote, it gives the impression, at least to those not familiar with the process, that the EC favors the resolution.” And after receiving the mass mailing, Julie Rak, Professor and Associate Chair (Graduate Studies) in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta replied to Scholars’ Rights, copying to Feal, “How dare you send this to me and pretend that you represent the rights of MLA Members in any way. How dare you hijack the MLA members lists and write directly to me with a link to the vote. And how dare you misrepresent the tenor of debate in the Delegate Assembly.”
In correspondence with members who complained about the spamming, Rosemary Feal, notes that the MLA tried to take action in the past when the same group had similarly sent bulk email to the membership:
I know that some people are confused by the message, thinking that we on the MLA staff gave or sold the email addresses of members to this group, even though that is not the case. . . . The email does not come from mla.org, and we aren’t governed by an “executive committee.”
We sent out a clarification about this last time the group sent an email and we were publicly accused of taking sides (Cary Nelson in his book goes so far as to name some MLA officers and their supposed positions on the matter and excoriate them for clarifying the source of letter). They changed their messaging this time to correct the deficiencies we noted last time. And these folks carefully followed the “letter of the law,” distasteful as it is.
In a modest attempt to address Scholars’ Rights mass mailing to the membership, Diana Taylor, the current President of the MLA, sent a brief message on behalf of the Executive Council (see insert) that merely clarifies the MLA’s neutrality on Resolution 2017-1, without making any reference to the Scholars’ Rights misleading email.
The wide circulation of the Scholars’ Rights letter and the accompanying video has produced at least one creative critique of their anti-boycott campaign. Culture Jamming for Palestine posted online a comic version of the Scholars’ Rights video that mocks the hypocritical nature of the group’s discourse on the academic boycott movement. A one-minute video titled “Russell Berman and Friends Explain Academic Boycott” draws attention to the demonization of academic boycott advocates, scholars and students whom Berman calls “fanatics.”
The anti-boycott campaign orchestrated by Scholars’ Rights is aligned with the current priorities of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which a March 26 Haaretz report referred to as “Israel’s BDS-Busting Ministry.” The Haaretz report notes that “In October 2015, the security cabinet finally gave the Strategic Affairs Ministry responsibility to ‘guide, coordinate and integrate the activities of all the ministers and the government and of civil entities in Israel and abroad on the subject of the struggle against attempts to delegitimize Israel and the boycott movement’.” Scholars’ Rights claims to be independent and does not acknowledge any direct connection to the secretive Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs; nevertheless, the anti-boycott faction with the MLA shares the primary mission of the Israeli Ministry. According to its website, Scholars’ Rights “was founded to analyze and organize opposition to efforts within the MLA to abridge academic freedom through boycotts and other means.” To achieve its goal of defeating the MLA boycott movement, Scholars’ Rights has embraced a politics of deception and manipulation that is characteristic of Israeli hasbara, which often entails adopting unprincipled tactics that mislead rather than inform the public.