Jewish establishment slams MLA boycott panel for not including Israel advocates

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The Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual convention doesn’t kick off until next week. But major Jewish groups like Hillel aren’t waiting to take aim at the MLA over a panel on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that they say is one-sided.

The conference, to be held in Chicago, has become the latest battlefield over Israel in American academia because of a January 9th panel on academic boycotts.  It features three strong supporters of the academic boycott of Israel: Omar Barghouti, the most prominent Palestinian advocate for BDS; David Lloyd, a scholar and organizer with the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI); and Barbara Harlow, a professor who endorses the call for an academic boycott.  The panel also features Samer Ali, a scholar who is critical of the Israeli occupation but not supportive of academic boycotts, and Richard Ohmann, whose views on academic boycotts are unclear but who supports efforts to pressure a pension fund to divest from corporations doing business with the Israeli military.

As Ali told the Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s not a panel to debate the Israeli occupation.  Rather, it’s a panel to explore the merits of an academic boycott.  But pro-Israel groups are coming down hard on the MLA for not including their perspective–echoing frequently heard calls for balance when critics of Israel come to college campuses.

On January 1st, the Chicago Tribune published an Op-Ed by members of the American Jewish Committee arguing that it makes no sense to target Israel–” the only democracy in the Middle East, where academic freedom is alive and well”–and that the panel “doesn’t even pretend to examine both sides of the question.”

One day later, Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition issued a statement criticizing the MLA for refusing to include their perspectives at the conference.  The organizations were denied the ability to do so since the deadline to put together panels was April 1, 2013.  (The complaints over balance come in the midst of a separate controversy over how Hillel bars anti-Zionist Jewish students and advocates from speaking under the organization’s roof.)

The two groups say they are exploring hosting an off-site panel near the Chicago convention to counter the boycott panel and to hear MLA members who oppose a resolution being voted on at the conference condemning Israel’s denial of entries to academics invited to Palestinian universities.

Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the MLA, told Inside Higher Ed‘s Scott Jaschik that the association “often accepts sessions that present a particular viewpoint.”  Feal added that audience members will be given at least 30 minutes to discuss the issue.

BDS proponents also said that the issue of balance only comes up on this issue.

“Only in the context of Palestine does such a question arise,” David Lloyd told Jaschik. “It used, indeed, to be a regular condition of hosting an event on Palestine on many campuses that it should take the form of a debate or dialogue, spurious as dialogue must be under such asymmetrical conditions of power and violence.”

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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