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Why I am not at the MLA

US Politics
on 27 Comments

I have been a member of the Modern Language Association, or MLA, for twenty years. I have served as a Delegate to the Assembly two times and have been on the executive committee of two MLA divisions. This year, my absence from the MLA Annual Convention is conscious and intentional.

Last year, the vote against support for the academic boycott exposed the MLA’s cowardice but, more so, its vote for the unconstitutional provision that prohibits any further motions regarding Palestinian academic freedom exposes the complicity in the occupation of Palestine. Indeed, that a proposed motion still remains to be voted on by the Assembly that blames Palestinians for abuse of Palestinian academic freedom only further demonstrates the MLA’s disgusting moral failure when it comes to the illegal occupation of Palestine and the systematic abuses of the Israeli occupation regime. To be clear, these votes and motions are not just infighting between two opposing groups within the MLA. They are an explicit, institutional disavowal of the Palestinians’ right to education and academic freedom and, to be equally clear, are an act of collusion, whether implicit or directed, with the Israeli government.

The MLA president, Kwame Anthony Appiah, issued a public statement, on the eve of the conference, about the boycott resolution.  It was intended to strike fear in the hearts of undecided MLA members, fear at a time when Trump’s hate breeched the lip of sanity and was pouring into all of our lives.  What has been less noted is that the President joined this call at the behest of another former president, the stalwart Likudist Zionist Russel Berman, and longtime Palestinian-hater Cary Nelson, both who worked closely the Committee of University Heads in Israel, a group of non-MLA Israeli scholars who organized to stop BDS organizations in a number of academic organizations.

As an assembly delegate, I stood in line waiting for my turn at the microphone for the full duration of debate (probably two hours), only to find myself as the last one standing at the mic and never able to use it. The Executive Director and Executive Council of the MLA effectively shut down discussion during the delegate assembly by allowing the anti-BDS camp to control the floor and the microphone through specious uses of Robert’s Rules.

Only one Palestinian American spoke at the assembly, while anti-BDS activists were permitted to jump the queue and given a number of turns at the mic. This is not about me, as an Arab delegate being frozen out of debate. Nor is this the kvetching of a sore loser. To the contrary, I am only bringing attention to the institutional collusion, whether indirect or direct, of the MLA in the vote last year.

The MLA has demonstrated itself to be a bankrupt professionalist and opportunistic organization that finally has publicly announced its complicity and, indeed, endorsement of the sustained and systematic abuse of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel.  Contrary to its own ethos, the MLA has made a public statement that it supports Israel’s continued violation of international laws and human rights conventions, even those abuses that involve higher education.

As this is being read, I am en route to Palestine. I am unsure if “the only democracy in the Middle East” will allow me entry because of my public advocacy of the BDS movement. I wonder how long this beacon of democracy will detain me for three hours, five, or eight hours again? Will they ask if I knew the MLA’s former president, Edward Said, again?  Will they require me to produce letters again from Jewish Israeli academics because letters from Palestinian academics and educational institutions hold no value?

If Israel bars me from entering Occupied Palestine in order to do scholarly research, I do not expect the MLA to protest or be my advocate just as I do not expect any longer for it to advocate for the rights of Palestinian academics or students who are prevented to travel or to get to their universities, or those who are illegally detained by the Israeli occupation regime.

About Stephen Sheehi

Stephen Sheehi is the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Middle East Studies at the College of William and Mary. He is the author of Imago: A Social History of Indigenous Photography 1860-1910 (2016), Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims (2011) and Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (2004). He is also co-author of Psychoanalysis Under Occupation (forthcoming, Routledge) with Dr. Lara Sheehi and co-author of Camera Palaestina (forthcoming, University of California Press) with Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar.

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27 Responses

  1. RoHa
    January 5, 2018, 6:57 pm

    Gloomy picture. And I expected better of Appiah.

  2. pabelmont
    January 5, 2018, 7:26 pm

    Great statement, terrible news about yet-another-complicity. The long arm of big-money-which-rules-politics strikes again, I suppose. A bit (one imagines) like the dean of Fordham University disallowing establishment of a club named “Students for Justice in Palestine” (SJP) after the student group charged with providing preliminary approval approved the club. Or Univ Illinois firing Stephen Salaita. To say nothing of Norman Finkelstein’s dispiriting adventures with academia. Jews may, it is sometimes averred, be a despised minority in the USA (are they? are we?) but Zionists are riding high. “Hi Ho Silver! Away!”

    • ritzl
      January 5, 2018, 8:50 pm

      Jews are not a “despised minority”, pab.

      Racists/bigots are.

  3. Annie Robbins
    January 5, 2018, 8:59 pm

    very powerful statement . it’s been a long haul getting MLA on board, only to have it shut down. but this:

    its vote for the unconstitutional provision that prohibits any further motions regarding Palestinian academic freedom exposes the complicity in the occupation of Palestine.

    unreal!!!

    i remember when alex, in 2013, first wrote about the upcoming convention featuring an academic boycott panel and resolution slamming Israeli denial of entries. http://mondoweiss.net/2013/12/association-convention-resolution/

    then in 2014, MLA’s Delegate Assembly passed the resolution by a vote of 60-53 http://mondoweiss.net/2014/05/association-resolution-criticizing/ and it was heavily debated.

    In the run-up to the MLA convention, Hirsch [past MLA president} wrote that she was bombarded by letters from pro-Israel advocates, including e-mails “accompanied by well-known photographs of Nazis with signs calling for boycotts of Jewish stores,” which were sent to link the BDS movement targeting Israel with the Nazis.

    then, again in 2014 “members voted to condemn Israel’s discriminatory border policies…But the 1,560-1,063 vote on the resolution was not ratified because 10 percent of MLA members have to affirm the vote for a measure to count.http://mondoweiss.net/2014/06/language-association-policies/

    then a bully israel lobbying group threatened them with a lawsuit http://mondoweiss.net/2016/12/threatens-endorses-academic/

    then they tried passing a resolution blaming hamas and the PA for lack of palestinian acedemic freedom!! http://mondoweiss.net/2017/01/restrictions-palestinian-academic/

    these are just a few of the many hurdles going on for years now.. and now, to “prohibit any further motions regarding Palestinian academic freedom”. utter disgust.

    i’m so sorry Prof Sheehi. it’s a uphill battle.

    • Rob Roy
      January 6, 2018, 9:22 am

      Thank you, Annie, for all your interesting input. Professor Sheehi, the wheels of justice do indeed turn slowly, but turn they must.

  4. john douglas
    January 6, 2018, 5:11 pm

    As a philosopher and long time admirer of Kwame Appiah, I’m very disappointed in him and, to the extent that he represents other philosophers, in my colleagues.

  5. Elizabeth Block
    January 6, 2018, 7:53 pm

    When I was in Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams (you don’t have to be a Christian! Who knew?), everybody’s favourite task was Kindergarten Watch – escorting little children to and from school. Kindergarteners needing to be protected from attacks by soldiers and settlers? If that’s not an attack on academic freedom, what is?

  6. jon s
    January 7, 2018, 7:50 am

    A local website has just published the list of organizations to be banned here. I can’t vouch for the accuracy:

    • AFPS( (The Association France Palestine Solidarité

    • BDS France

    • BDS Italy

    • ECCP (The European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine)

    • FOA ( (Friends of Al-Aqsa

    • IPSC ( (Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign

    • Norgeׂׂ(The Palestine Committee of Norway) Palestinakomitee

    • PGS- (Palestine Solidarity Association in Sweden) Palestinagrupperna i Sverige

    • PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

    • War on Want

    • BDS Kampagne

    • AFSC (American Friends Service Committee)

    • AMP (American Muslims for Palestine)

    • Code pink

    • JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace)

    • NSJP (National Students for Justice in Palestine)

    • USCPR ((US Campaign for Palestinian Rights

    • BDS Chile

    • BDS South Africa

    • BNC (BDS National Committee)

    • amigo
      January 7, 2018, 10:17 am

      “A local website has just published the list of organizations to be banned here. I can’t vouch for the accuracy:”Jon S

      Why don,t you provide a link to the the “Local website” before posting it.Isn,t that what is expected of a Teacher in your Historic Homeland and besides , we would all like to see what local websites you visit when doing research.

      “I am not an invader in my Historic Homeland.No Jew is an invader in their Historic Homeland.” Jon S.

      Please provide evidence of the authenticity of your claim as would any authentic teacher.

      • eljay
        January 7, 2018, 10:32 am

        || amigo: … “I am not an invader in my Historic Homeland.No Jew is an invader in their Historic Homeland.” Jon S.

        Please provide evidence of the authenticity of your claim as would any authentic teacher. ||

        He can’t authenticate his Zionist claim because he knows that geographic Palestine is not the “historic homeland” (or “ancient homeland” or “one true homeland”) of every person in the world who has chosen to embrace the religion-based identity of Jewish.

      • jon s
        January 7, 2018, 11:14 am

        I saw the list on a right-wing website , “Arutz sheva”, in Hebrew. I occasionally comment there to challenge the right-wingers. A while ago they banned me, but lately some of my comments there have been posted. Anyway, I assumed that the list would appear shortly on English language websites.

      • jon s
        January 7, 2018, 11:21 am

        eljay,
        You’re saying that Israel is NOT the Jewish historic homeland?

        The homeland is part of what it means to be Jewish, as is known by all Jews who know something about their heritage and whether or not they draw present-day political conclusions from that concept.

      • Talkback
        January 7, 2018, 2:40 pm

        jon s: “The homeland is part of what it means to be Jewish”

        This sentence doesn’t even make sense. A verb is missing before “the homeland”. Or do you eat earth?

      • eljay
        January 7, 2018, 6:39 pm

        || jon s: eljay,
        You’re saying that Israel is NOT the Jewish historic homeland? … ||

        I’m saying exactly what I said: Geographic Palestine is not the “historic homeland” of every person in the world who has chosen to be/come Jewish.

        || … The homeland is part of what it means to be Jewish … ||

        Geographic Palestine was and is a homeland to some Jews and a homeland to some non-Jews. It is not “the homeland” of all Jews. So you’re saying that “what it means to be Jewish” is flawed by design.

        Or perhaps you’re anti-Semitically suggesting that Jews who do not covet geographic Palestine are “insufficiently Jewish” or “not real Jews”. Huh.

      • Annie Robbins
        January 7, 2018, 7:22 pm

        homeland is part of what it means to be Jewish

        for some i suppose, but not for all, clearly.

        violent colonization thru brainwashing.

      • Mooser
        January 7, 2018, 7:37 pm

        “on a right-wing website , “Arutz sheva”, in Hebrew. I occasionally comment there to challenge the right-wingers. A while ago they banned me” “jon s”

        Gee, aren’t you lucky Mondo is there for you.

      • Mooser
        January 7, 2018, 7:45 pm

        “The homeland is part of what it means to be Jewish, as is known by all Jews who know something about their heritage and whether or not they draw present-day political conclusions from that concept.”

        And that gives you the right to steal it? Sure, ho-kay.

        Rabbi “jon s” our ‘Hillel in a handbasket’ on the Jewish faith, will now explain the entire Jewish religion while standing on one foot. He’s up on one foot! He speaks: “Judaism is whatever personally benefits me”!
        Brilliant summation, Jonny Rebbe

      • Mooser
        January 7, 2018, 7:48 pm

        “violent colonization thru brainwashing.”

        Remember what happened when “Jon s” came in contact with a Sabra and IDF vet, who committed the unpardonable sin of not enjoying his work for the IDF?

      • Mooser
        January 7, 2018, 7:56 pm

        “homeland is part of what it means to be Jewish”

        “Homeland”? You mean “Heimat”? Yeah, yeah, and only a Jew who is secure in the Heimat (with an American passport in his pocket) is a fully articulated Jew.

      • Mooser
        January 7, 2018, 8:00 pm

        “This sentence doesn’t even make sense.”

        But he repeated the shibboleth, the magic word, “homeland” for the 84th time.

      • Mooser
        January 7, 2018, 8:08 pm

        “Or perhaps you’re anti-Semitically suggesting that Jews who do not covet geographic Palestine are “insufficiently Jewish” or “not real Jews”. Huh.”

        Oh, certainly not. We can prove our support, and redeem our Jewish souls, with monetary support. Even illegal support, like settlements.
        Isn’t it wonderful how every aspect of true Judaism benefits “Jon s”?

      • Talkback
        January 8, 2018, 12:17 pm

        Seriouly, Mooser. What is the verb x?

        “x the homeland is part of what it means to be Jewish”

        Conquering? Returning to? Living in?

        You know why it is missing? Because he knows that whatever verb he would use it would be NOT what it means to be Jewish.

      • Mooser
        January 8, 2018, 1:57 pm

        “Seriouly, Mooser. What is the verb x?”

        Yes, I’ve noticed how they leave certain words out. Thus reducing a declaration into a non-sequitur, for one thing.

  7. Maghlawatan
    January 7, 2018, 12:20 pm

    This is excellent. Jewish property rights in the Levant west of the Jordan are bullshit.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/01/18/palestine-this-land-is-our-land/

  8. Dorot
    January 12, 2018, 11:19 am

    Don’t forget that the membership also overwhelmingly voted against your cause and that there is a broad-based academic support against your exclusion of Israeli academics in a professional organization.

    There’s a reason people want to be part of an association with professional conduct scrupulously following the commonly-used Robert’s Rules of Order.

    • Annie Robbins
      January 12, 2018, 1:06 pm

      no, there was not “broad-based academic support”. had that been the case all the tactics reported here, used at the conference would not have been used. there is broad based support within the pro israel community to bring down divestment #BDS, don’t pretend that represents MLA as a whole or society as a whole.

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