On Saturday, the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly affirmed in a straw poll by 48 votes to 26 that boycotts help to protect academic freedom. By 66 to 0, they also endorsed the idea that the MLA should roundly condemn retaliation against scholars who speak out publicly on matters concerning Palestine and Israel.
These polls came a year after the Assembly’s contentious discussion of a quite mild resolution criticizing Israel’s restriction on scholars’ freedom to travel roiled the Association and was broadcast across the media, amplified by the megaphone of Zionist indignation. Though that resolution was narrowly endorsed by the Delegate Assembly in 2014, and subsequently gained a two-thirds majority of those members who actually voted, it failed to pass because a recently introduced MLA rule requires all resolutions to gain a majority of 10% of the membership. This year’s meeting of the DA did not seek to pass any resolution, but its outcome was nonetheless far more significant.
The 90-minute discussion period, open to all members in attendance as well as delegates, was scheduled in response to two opposing resolutions, one calling on the MLA to endorse the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the other condemning all such boycotts as infractions of academic freedom. Since the two resolutions were deemed incompatible, the Delegate Assembly recommended that they be deferred for two years, during which time the issue of academic boycott would be publicly discussed on prominent panels and town halls. Voting on the resolutions will actually take place at the annual meeting in January 2017. Stay tuned.
It has been a major pillar of the case made by opponents of the boycott that even institutional boycotts violate the academic freedom of individual scholars. Yet it was precisely that argument that the Delegate Assembly rejected, as its straw poll revealed. While opponents repeated again and again the mantra that it is impossible to distinguish the individual from the institution, boycott proponents pointed out that we daily make the distinction between officials who represent an institution and scholars who are conducting their own research, even when the same person may play both roles. They pointed out that PACBI guidelines safeguard, with exceptional care, the academic freedom of Israeli scholars who directly or indirectly benefit from Palestinian oppression and dispossession, to the extent of affirming their right to teach and research, travel, publish and participate in conferences with institutional subsidies.
Most tellingly, advocates of the boycott reminded the Assembly that for all the concern expressed by boycott opponents for hypothetical injuries that might be done to Israeli academics’ freedoms and privileges, actual harm is being done on a daily basis not only to Palestinian scholars’ academic freedom, and even their access to educational materials and supplies, but moreover to the most fundamental human rights of all Palestinians: the freedom to travel, to speak without fear of retaliation or detention and imprisonment, the right to basic and necessary goods, like water and food, the right to assemble and protest, and the right to security and freedom from collective punishment and discrimination.
If academic freedom means anything more than a privilege granted to those who already enjoy security and material well-being, it demands that scholars step up to defend the freedoms of those most vulnerable to systematic violations of their rights and arbitrary deprivation of their freedom of expression and assembly. Academic freedom is a meaningless privilege unless scholars assume the ethical responsibility to secure it for all.
It was clear that the Delegate Assembly got that message, voting unanimously that the MLA should condemn retaliation against scholars who take a public stance on Palestine. If the protection of academic freedom has been the war-cry of the boycott’s critics, its restriction has been their consistent practice. With increasing regularity since the American Studies Association passed its endorsement of the academic boycott in December 2013, they have worked to suppress support for Palestine among faculty and students by intimidation of various forms, from the abuse of campus anti-discrimination codes threatening to law suits and Congressional and State Senate bills, from defamation to the denial of tenure or attacks on Title VI-funded programs in Middle Eastern Studies.
The most celebrated instance of this regime of bullying and censorship is last summer’s firing of Steven Salaita from a tenured position at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Salaita’s presence at the Delegate Assembly meeting, and his brief but eloquent condemnation of the hypocrisy of those who pretended to support academic freedom while brutally violating his own, was greeted by a spontaneous round of applause, despite the convention against applauding speakers in such discussions. If the sense of the meeting is anything to go by, campaigners against the boycott have seriously overplayed their hand during the last year, inducing disgust at their tactics rather than sympathy for their case.
Against all expectations, this year’s Delegate Assembly meeting suddenly began to feel like last year’s ASA open meeting, as speaker after speaker rose to preface their various comments by expressing endorsement of the boycott. A disparate body of delegates and ordinary MLA members, diverse in rank, gender, ethnicity and age, one by one expressed the logic of the boycott with passion and wit. Many of them had already been inspired by the large Ferguson2MLA demonstration the previous day to which several speakers referred in their comments. In numbers and diversity, they belied the charge that a small and aggressive minority was seeking to take over the MLA. And in comparison, their opponents mostly seemed monochromatic and superannuated, continuing to hammer at discredited and shop-worn talking points that have long ceased to persuade. Defending the responsibility of the MLA to speak out on political and not just purely professional matters, several speakers invoked a recent past in which the association had been more politically engaged and publicly relevant. It was not hard to think that that moment had returned again.
Above all, it was clear that in one more scholarly organization, the wind has changed for Palestine. The once improbable hope has suddenly become imaginable: that in a year or two the MLA will join the growing ranks of academic associations that have endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is now a real possibility.