Myths & Facts

In 2017 the MLA Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee will be presented a resolution calling for the association to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The proposed resolution is a response to the appeal from a massive number of Palestinian civil society organizations, unions, academics, artists, journalists and others to engage in a boycott until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law. In recent years, a growing number of US and International professional associations have endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. This document seeks to address some common misconceptions about the politics of academic boycott.

Please visit other pages on our website (https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/ ) for further relevant materials (including the text of the boycott resolution, and information on the boycott resolutions of our “sister” academic associations).

Download, print or email a pdf of MLABoycottMyths

Myth #1: The boycott prevents Israeli and U.S. scholars from working together.

Fact: The boycott is not directed at individuals. It is a boycott by an institution against Israeli institutions, stipulating that the MLA as an organization will not engage in normal academic activities with Israeli academic institutions. It does not deny Israeli scholars the right to attend conferences (including MLA meetings), speak at or visit U.S. universities, or publish their work in MLA or other scholarly publications. Nor will the boycott prevent U.S. scholars from traveling to Israel. Individual MLA members remain free to decide whether and how to implement the boycott on their own. The MLA will, however, resolve to speak out on behalf of members who suffer punitive consequence as a result of their decision to boycott or to advocate boycott.

 

Myth #2: Dialogue is a better way to support Palestinian rights than a boycott.

Fact: Boycott and dialogue are not incompatible. Individuals will continue to dialogue even after this institutional boycott is implemented. In fact by bringing the subject of institutional complicity into view, the boycott will open up for discussion a burning topic that has often gone unspoken. But dialogue is not enough. Conducted in a vacuum, it can be a way of buying time while conditions continue to deteriorate. Despite decades of dialogue and diplomacy, Israel has continued to act with impunity and the occupation has grown only more entrenched and dangerous. In fact, as the oppression of Palestinians intensifies, calls for dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinians serve to support Israel’s human rights violations, normalizing Israel’s practices and disguising a colonizer/colonized relationship as a “conflict” between two opposing sides.

 

Myth #3: The boycott undermines principles of academic freedom.

Fact: This boycott does not violate academic freedom. It energetically defends the rights of all individual scholars and students to research, study, and teach. The only individuals who would be subject to the boycott would be those explicitly representing the state of Israel or a boycotted institution (e.g. a university president acting in his or her capacity as president). The point of the boycott is to address the actually existing denials of academic freedom to Palestinian scholars and students. It is Palestinians whose basic right to education is being systematically violated by the Israeli state and universities through military assaults on Palestinian institutions of higher learning; discrimination against Palestinian students in both Israeli and Palestinian university systems; restrictions on mobility and travel; and censorship on Israeli campuses. The boycott aims to create conditions in which true academic freedom is enjoyed by all scholars in Palestine/Israel equally, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or ideology.

 

Myth #4: We should not boycott universities because this is where critical debate is fostered.

Fact: Critical debate and academic freedom are heavily suppressed by Israeli state and academic institutions. Israeli universities have built branch campuses in the occupied territories, and all Israeli universities supported the 2014 attack on Gaza. Palestinian and Israeli scholars are punished (in different ways) for speaking out against Israeli practices of discrimination and abuse. Israeli universities consistently violate the rights of Palestinians, both citizens and those living under occupation. And on December 28, 2015, Education Minister Naftali Bennett publicly urged the formal annexation of the West Bank, saying that Israel needed to “extend its sovereignty” further. It is the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in state operations that is in question, not the points of view of individual Israeli scholars, who may or may not support the boycott. It should be noted that support for the boycott has been declared illegal in Israel (together with other basic practices of resistance, such as commemoration of the Nakba of 1948). By challenging the discriminatory practices of Israeli universities, this boycott supports both Jewish and Palestinian critics of Israeli state and university policy.

 

Myth #5: The boycott is anti-Semitic.

Fact: The boycott is strenuously opposed to all forms of racism. This boycott is a political tactic aimed at the Israeli state and at Israeli institutions that are complicit in the systematic discrimination against and violence towards Palestinians. It is not directed at Jews or Judaism. Criticism of the state of Israel is not anti-Semitic. Israel does not speak for or represent all Jewish people, and no government is beyond criticism. The claim that the boycott is a “cover” for anti-Semitism is a smear tactic used to silence critics and deflect attention from legitimate criticism of Israel.

 

Myth #6: The boycott is hypocritical because it singles out Israel while the U.S. and other countries also violate human rights.

Fact: The MLA is not singling out Israel with this action. Historically, the MLA has taken a strong position in support of human rights and issued statements about political matters regarding peoples around the world. Supporting this boycott does not automatically entail accepting or rejecting any other boycott or political action. In this case, we have a special responsibility to act, since the U.S. provides extraordinary political, military, and financial support for Israel’s actions. Since 1962, the U.S. has awarded Israel more than $100 billion in aid; currently we provide $3.5 billion each year, far exceeding the support given to any other country in the world. We also offer Israel diplomatic cover by consistently vetoing UN resolutions. The boycott exposes and seeks to interrupt the bald contradiction of the U.S. on the one hand condemning illegal settlement building and violence, and on the other hand facilitating illegal actions and policies with their economic and diplomatic aid. It is completely consistent with the MLA’s positions in defense of academic freedom and human rights for the organization to refuse to participate in normal relations with this regime.

 

Myth #7: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a unique issue that is irrelevant to scholars of literature and language and therefore the MLA should take no position on the boycott.

Fact: The MLA’s Resolution I of 1969 states, “[T]he Modern Language Association, recognizing the right or even the obligation of individual members to take public stands on current issues, must not commit the language profession to any position on such issues unless they are directly connected with the promotion of literary or linguistic scholarship or are necessary to preserve professional integrity; nor should the Association seem to authenticate, by lending its name, any interpretation of literature whether written or spoken [emphasis added].”

We strongly believe that the professional integrity of the MLA depends on remaining constant to the values expressed in Resolution 1 of 1993:

Whereas members of the MLA enjoy internationally recognized human rights in the pursuit of their professions and in their personal lives while many people similarly employed all over the world do not,

Be it resolved that the Executive Council charge a committee with the purpose of collaborating with organizations concerned with human rights such as Amnesty International for the protection of the human rights of those engaged in the language and literature professions worldwide who are classified as prisoners of conscience, i.e., men and women detained anywhere because of their beliefs, color, sex, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, language or religious creed, provided they have not used or advocated violence.

Be it further resolved that the Executive Council charge said committee with establishing procedures for addressing human rights issues in ways appropriate to our profession at large and to the MLA in particular.

It is Palestinian scholars of language and literature that are systematically denied academic freedom and basic human rights by the state of Israel, based on their ethnic origin. We do not see how the MLA can maintain its professional integrity while ignoring the commitment it articulates in Resolution 1 of 1993.

 

Myth #8: The boycott seeks the destruction of Israel and/or supports a “one-state” solution.

Fact: The boycott opposes Israeli policies and actions which violate fundamental principles of human rights and international law. It aims to end discrimination against Palestinians, to end the occupation, and to support refugee rights. The boycott campaign does not take any specific position about future political configurations or have a policy about statecraft in a post-apartheid world. There is no intention of destroying the state of Israel. The point of the boycott is to join the international effort to pressure Israel to end its violent and racist practices. The boycott of Israel, much like the boycott of apartheid South Africa, does not seek to destroy a nationbut to help dismantle a set of undemocratic and unjust state policies and practices.

 

Myth #9: Academic boycott will not help Palestinians because boycotts are merely symbolic gestures.

Fact: Boycotts have been proven to be effective. This boycott makes complicity with the status quo more burdensome for Israeli academic institutions. The boycott of Israeli institutions exerts pressure on Israeli academics to demand policy change from their government and offers support for Israeli academics who are already doing so. As the boycott gathers momentum it will have an influence on public opinion in the US and this could have a decisive effect on American foreign policy. The extraordinary backlash against the academic boycott in both the U.S. and Israel is already a sign of its potential impact.  Boycotts have been effective in similar justice struggles, as in South Africa and the grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez and migrant farm workers in the United States. The clearest argument for this boycott is that over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations have called for it. They have identified the present moment as a critical one for exerting–and increasing–international pressure in the form of boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

 

Myth #10: Endorsing the academic boycott will destroy the MLA.

Fact: There is no evidence that an endorsement of the academic boycott will damage the MLA. To date, at least six U.S.-based academic associations have endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association. At the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, 1,040 members out of 1,176 voted to support academic boycott, and the entire membership of over 10,000 will vote on this resolution in April. Those in attendance at the National Women’s Studies Association conference also voted to put a resolution before their entire membership, with 88.4% of those in attendance at the conference supporting the resolution. After endorsing the boycott, these organizations have remained healthy. In fact, ASA membership renewals and new membership enrollments grew more quickly after the vote for boycott than at any other time in ASA history.