The Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual convention is not an event known to raise hackles or attract global media attention. This year, though, the 30,000-member academic group best known for producing the MLA handbook on citations is in the hot seat–and it’s all because of a focus on Israel.
The MLA convention, set to be held January 9-12 in Chicago, will play host to a panel on the academic boycott of Israel and will consider a resolution condemning Israel’s denial of entries to academics invited to Palestinian universities. The resolution and panel, held fresh off the heels of the American Studies Association’s decision to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, has attracted a considerable amount of attention, particularly in the Israeli media. The convention also comes in the aftermath of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association’s endorsement of the academic boycott, a move that points to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement’s slow but increasing success in the halls of American academia.
“It’s really an extraordinary advance for the BDS movement to have the MLA even host a panel,” said David Lloyd, a University of California scholar who is on the organizing committee for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) and will be on the panel. Lloyd said the fact that the panel was not organized by USACBI members–and instead came from MLA members not affiliated with formal groups in support of BDS–”means that there’s been a real public shift” on the issue.
No resolution to endorse an academic boycott by the MLA is currently on the table, and any last-minute attempt faces procedural hoops to jump through. But the resolution condemning Israeli denial of entries, and a panel on the BDS movement, could lay the groundwork for a future academic boycott resolution.
The panel on academic boycotts has already been attacked in the pages of Haaretz for being “one-sided” and “anti-Israel.” The session, presided over by the University of Texas’ Samer Ali, will feature a number of BDS proponents. Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, will speak alongside Barbara Harlow, a University of Texas professor who endorses the call for an academic boycott; Lloyd; and Richard Ohmann, a Wesleyan University professor who supports the pressure campaign on the pension fund TIAA-CREF to divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation.
“Open academic and intellectual exchange is the hallmark of our scholarly association,” Rosemary Feal, the MLA’s executive director, said in an e-mailed statement. “The MLA supports its members’ rights to organize sessions at the convention and to present motions and resolutions for consideration by the Delegate Assembly…The session has been organized by MLA members to provide an opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding the BDS movement in general and the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on academic freedom in particular.”
The convention’s delegate assembly will also consider whether to approve a resolution criticizing Israel’s “arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U. S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” The resolution, which also urges the State Department to “contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank,” was introduced by Ohmann and Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins.
Like any other resolution proposed to the MLA, this measure had to be backed up by documentary evidence supporting the charges lodged against Israel. The evidence, a copy of which was obtained by Mondoweiss, is about 30 pages long. It features a report by the Right to Enter campaign on Israel restricting foreign academics’ entry to Palestinian schools; an Electronic Intifada article by Palestinian-American Rima Merriman, who in 2009 was “denied re-entry by the Israeli authorities and questioned at length” about her Palestinian heritage while trying to go teach at the Arab American University-Jenin; another Electronic Intifada article featuring the story of Palestinian-American teacher Nour Joudah, who was denied entry twice by Israel; and a Right to Enter article on the case of Julie Dylan, an American professor at Birzeit University who in 2008 was denied a visa extension by Israel and forced to leave her job.
If the resolution on denial of entries passes the delegate assembly–a body of several hundred members elected to represent various constituencies–it will be voted on by the MLA’s executive council.
“Although it is not couched at all in terms of the boycott language–and I think that’s going to take a bit of time for the MLA to work toward that–the impact [of the resolution] will be profound,” said Jennifer Wicke, an English professor at the University of Virginia who has been an MLA member for 25 years. “It would be trailblazing in allowing a certain kind of opening of consideration that heretofore hasn’t really been evident in the MLA.”
This MLA convention isn’t the first one to consider resolutions on Israel. In 1982, members of the MLA passed a resolution condemning the Israeli military’s closure of Birzeit University. In 2003, MLA members passed a measure against anti-Jewish and anti-Arab/Muslim racism, and added that they deplore “boycotts and blacklists against scholars or students on the basis of nationality, ethnic origins, and religious background.” And in 2009, MLA members noted that academics routinely came under fire from anti-Palestinian groups, and resolved to “endorse teaching and scholarship about Palestinian culture, support members who come under attack for pursuing such work, and express solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture.”
Wicke, the current chair of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee, which reviews proposed resolutions, says she expects some pushback if the resolution on denial of entries passes.
“There will be backlash from outside the MLA, because I think the MLA is perceived as an important voice,” she said. “It is taking a stand on something that brings certain things to very undeniable and vivid scrutiny.”