At the Modern Language Association (MLA) 2014 convention in Chicago, delegates defeated a resolution to boycott Israel akin to one proposed by the American Studies Association (ASA), which had put forward an academic boycott this past year with the public support of Stephen Hawking.
At the MLA, though, the delegate convention failed to pass a resolution to support an academic boycott in a fairly close vote, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. Instead, the MLA delegates passed a resolution to ask the U.S. State Department to consider a boycott of Israel for occupying Palestinian territories. This was a far cry from their goal of an academic boycott of Israeli universities.
Indeed, MLA members and delegates we interacted with attested to the contentious nature of the debate.
Predictably, the Radical Caucus of the MLA, arguably a fringe group within a fringe group, was full-throated in its support of the ASA. Its resolution, submitted by Montclair State University president Grover C. Furr read:
“Whereas members of the American Studies Association voted in December 2013 in favor of an academic boycott of Israeli universities;
“Whereas ASA members have been threatened for upholding the vote;
“Whereas MLA resolution 2012-1 affirms that academics involved in social justice movements should not fear reprisals,
“Be it resolved that the MLA condemns the attacks on the ASA and supports the right of academic organizations and individuals, free from intimidation, to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism.
“Be it further resolved that the MLA encourages robust discussion of issues regarding the academic freedom of Palestinians.”
Like many of the allegations of the Radical Caucus, and Furr, for that matter, this bill of particulars was accompanied by no supporting documentation, in contrast to the case made by opponents of the boycott.
For example, a group called MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights claimed that, “The proposed resolution also neglects to mention the role of other significant obstacles in improving Palestinian higher education.”
“Research published in 2011 indicates that Palestinian universities have trouble recruiting international faculty because of low salaries and poor working conditions.” The group claimed that Cary Nelson wrote the brief that contained this observation. If so, it would be of a piece with an article he wrote which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on the day the convention began—January 9.
“Despite the claims of boycott advocates that they are all about promoting freedom, an academic boycott will inevitably inhibit interaction between American and Israeli professors,” Nelson wrote. “As more than 100 university presidents have argued in rejecting the American Studies Association boycott resolution, academic freedom can only survive if international exchanges are promoted, not curtailed.”