Former president of Modern Language Association resigns following decision to ban debate on BDS

on 27 Comments

January 9, 2018

To Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the MLA, and to the Officers and other members of the MLA Executive Council

Dear Colleagues,  

I write with great regret to tell you that I have decided to resign from the MLA. My decision was long and hard in the making. No other past president has taken such a step, to the best of my knowledge, and I am not at all sure it is a step that will bear fruit. Please let me explain why I am leaving.

By passing Resolution 2017-1, which closed the door in a constitutionally unprecedented way on future debate about the Palestinian call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the Association has sent a message to the world that it wants protests about the conditions of teaching and learning in Palestinian universities off the table. Because the resolution misrepresents the MLA’s purpose in its opening clause, leaving out the Association’s long-standing efforts to advocate for humanities educators’ rights; and because the resolution prohibits future discussion of an issue of public concern, eleven past presidents with different views on boycott asked the Council not to treat the resolution as business as usual at its meeting last February. The decision to do just that means that the Association has gone on record as wishing to prevent further discussion of infringements of educators’ rights in the Occupied Territories; instead, the Association agrees that its proper business is with more pressing matters closer to home—home evidently defined as the United States that gives massive financial aid to Israel.  But the MLA’s multilingual members, both teachers and students, come from at least 104 nations; and MLA members of Palestinian descent have testified repeatedly to losing their freedom of expression and movement when they seek to enter the Occupied Territories in order to teach and do research.

As a member of a small, unofficial group of MLA members who visited West Bank universities in the summer of 2016, at the invitation of a member who works at the University of Bethlehem, I saw firsthand how teachers and students are prevented daily from doing their work of teaching and learning.  My experience in Israel-Palestine, detailed in this report, is one of the many reasons I am giving up my membership in an organization I have participated in and learned from for over 40 years—long enough to acquire the privileges of “life membership.” Those privileges are now a burden to me. I relinquish them to give myself a chance to speak out through a symbolic gesture of separation after having exhausted the means of protest available to me as a member.

My decision to resign is painful for many reasons. One is that my mother, Mary Anne Ferguson, served on the MLA’s Commission on the Status of Women in the late 60s and early 70s. She saw the Association, as I did then too, as a site in and from which humanities educators could work to effect social change, including improvements in what the current mission statement calls “workplace equity.” The question is whether “equity” will be interpreted narrowly or broadly. With the passing of Resolution 2017-1, the Association has opted for an interpretation eerily consonant with President Trump’s doctrine of “America First.”

In the years when I first joined the MLA and my mother was working on the Commission, the Association did vote after “divisive” debate to intervene in a public arena that was both national and international by making a statement against the U.S. Government’s conduct of  its war in Vietnam (for a discussion of this historical statement, see my  Presidential Address of 2014). Those were the years when the Delegate Assembly itself was created as a “voice for members” and as a structure that would enable the Association to become more representative (although that remains a difficult concept in the MLA’s documents and election practices). Since the Assembly was formed, the MLA has certainly become more open than it had previously been to the scholarly, pedagogical, political, geographical, and economic concerns of its members, most of whom do not work at the elite, East Coast American institutions from which the Association’s founders hailed in 1883. But the Association has evidently not become more open to discussing what I, and many others, consider to be one of the major assaults on access to education and academic freedom in our time. If the Association could amend its bylaws to affirm its commitment to allowing debate on all issues of public concern to members, I would eagerly rejoin.

For the time being, the MLA has taken an extreme and ethically untenable position by endorsing the idea, promoted by a group of members who were openly “assisted” by outside groups, that it is illegitimate for professional groups to protest Israel’s policies towards its Palestinian subjects. This despite the fact that the Executive Council clearly does not accept the narrow definition of the Association’s mission given in Resolution 2017-1 when it comes to speaking out about other communities of educators whose academic freedom and freedom of movement are threatened, whether in Trump’s America (see Resolution 2017-2) or in Erdogan’s Turkey.  Having spent part of the last year in a university in South Africa, I am acutely aware that the organization I was honored to serve was dishonorably silent about the South African regime’s apartheid policies.  At a watershed moment when even the mainstream press in the U.S. describes the creation of apartheid “bantustans” in Jerusalem neighborhoods just outside the “separation” wall, I find that I must leave an Association that has chosen again to remain silent, this time by actively proscribing debate.

Torn as I have been about what to do in the wake of Resolution 2017-1, I have found myself thinking hard about how another former MLA President, Edward Said, might have viewed these matters as he pursued his long effort to balance pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. Because he is dead, I cannot ask him for counsel. But I can ask you to consider some words from his book After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives: “Memory adds to the unrelieved intensity of Palestinian exile. Palestine is central to the cultures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism . . . . There is no forgetting it, no way of overlooking it.” The Palestinian call for justice will keep coming, and the MLA resolution enjoining deafness to it will be questioned from within and from outside in the coming years.

As the MLA’s elected leaders resume work after the 2018 Convention, where members in many sessions engaged with President Diana Taylor’s theme (#States of Insecurity) by exploring its premise that “the academy cannot be separate from the political, economic, and ideological turmoil of our time,” I hope that there will be robust discussion in your meetings about how, why, and to whose benefit the Palestinian call for boycott was deemed officially unspeakable by the world’s largest association of teachers of the humanities.

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Ferguson

Distinguished Professor of English (Emerita)
University of California at Davis

About Margaret Ferguson

Margaret Ferguson is a Distinguished Professor of English (Emerita) from the University of California at Davis.

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27 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    February 15, 2018, 11:39 am

    Bravo. Let us hope you will be joined, and vocally, especially by other former heads of MLA.

    • Fritz
      February 16, 2018, 5:02 am

      The former heads of MLA should join her, because she’s allready in the crosshairs of Canary Mission.

      • Cazador
        February 16, 2018, 9:57 am


        «she’s allready in the crosshairs of Canary Mission.»

        Is it better than the crosshairs of the Little Bully of the Middle East, calling itself the «Most Moral Army»?

        One day the world at large will hate that stolen country, and it will be a real dire situation for all Jews who are against Israel’s wrongdoings to the Palestinians, their land, their resources, their water sources, their orchards, their agricultural fields, their hospitals, their schools, their mosques, their right to fish in their offshore Mediterranean farther away than two miles from land…

        A full research would most likely add more items to the list. After all the most moral State and army have plenty of imagination, stating with that title of «most moral»…

  2. john douglas
    February 15, 2018, 8:52 pm

    This is amazing. Almost beyond comprehension to this retired academic. A huge academic institution, whose membership will no doubt overwhelmingly self-identify as liberal/progressive, votes to prohibit even a discussion of what is one of the world’s greatest, most evil, most systematic system of cultural denial, and cultural genocide. All people of good faith and half a brain recoil at holocaust denial, what about Nakba denial? The worst I’ve said about the MLA in the past is that too many loonies, with their looney theories, show up at their convention. Let’s add to that now that its leaders are hypocrites and liars.

    • Cazador
      February 16, 2018, 10:03 am

      The more they’ll go against freedom of speech, of thought, of choice about Israel’s wrondoings, in the Middle East, in the USA, in Canada, in England, etc., the more Israelis will have to face the world’s disgust about themselves. When Zionism is often called Nazionism and/or Zionazism, it’s quite a declaration of disgust about Israel’s politics, goals, doings, and that’s besides the other two: apartheid and genocide attempts…

      • Misterioso
        February 16, 2018, 11:26 am


        Speaking of “Nazionism and/or Zionazism.”

        “Palestinian Schoolteacher Mauled by Israeli Military Dog as Soldiers Watch”

        “Bursting into a schoolteacher’s house in the middle of the night, soldiers sicced their dog on him. The dog bit him and held on, as his family looked on, horrified”

        Gideon Levy and Alex Levac. Feb 16, Haaretz.

      • Marnie
        February 17, 2018, 7:36 am

        I clicked on your link and scrolled down the page to find this:

        No reasonable right-wing Jew can now say Trump is keeping Israel safe
        Haaretz | Opinion

        I couldn’t read your article or the one above for that matter but I have to admit it took my breath away to read the word reasonable coupled with right-wing jew. What in the hell is a reasonable right-wing jew – netanyahoo et al?

        I would change the article to “No reasonable Jew can continue to support the zionist state”. I sure as hell hope that would be correct.

      • Atlantaiconoclast
        February 28, 2018, 12:40 am

        Call them what they are, Jewish supremacists! Why is this so hard? Calling them Nazis will get you no where. Call them supremacists!

      • echinococcus
        February 28, 2018, 3:38 am


        They are much worse than mere racial supremacists. They have all the defining characteristics of Nazism –you may have missed the difference due to young age, US education or a number of other factors.

        “Calling them Nazis will get you no where”… I wouldn’t call the gallows in Nuremberg “nowhere”.

    • lysias
      February 24, 2018, 8:14 pm

      Meanwhile, ZeroHedge reports today that South Africa is about to break diplomatic ties with Israel in protest against Israeli apartheit.

  3. JosephA
    February 16, 2018, 1:33 am

    She articulated her resignation quite wonderfully. It’s with a heavy heart that somebody leaves an organization after so long.

  4. Misterioso
    February 16, 2018, 11:14 am

    Professor Margaret Ferguson


    Justice for the Palestinians will inevitably prevail!!

  5. CigarGod
    February 16, 2018, 11:40 am

    Infiltration and inordinate influence.
    When the largest humanities organization decides to ban talk of humanity.

  6. hophmi
    February 16, 2018, 12:02 pm

    The MLA decided not to force its members to adopt my extreme politics. WAHHHHHHH!!!! I’m leaving. Good riddance, lady.

    • eljay
      February 16, 2018, 12:58 pm

      || hophmi: The MLA decided not to force its members to adopt my extreme politics. WAHHHHHHH!!!! I’m leaving. Good riddance, lady. ||

      Yeah, shame on her for gracefully resigning her position. Not everyone has the power to do what Zionists do when they don’t get their way: Destroy careers and reputations with defamatory accusations of anti-Semitism and “Jew hatred”.

    • genesto
      February 16, 2018, 1:26 pm

      You totally don’t get it, hophmi. This woman is a true hero, who I define as someone who puts career – and sometimes even life – on the line for principle. All she’s calling for is academic freedom, hardly something a reasonable person can characterize as ‘extreme politics’! But then Zionists see the simple calling for true equality between Palestinians and Jews in Israel as extreme.

      I feel pity for the poor Zionists with their never-ending attempts to defend the indefensible. It must be exhausting for you!

      February 16, 2018, 2:04 pm

      So advocating open discussion of a First Amendment right to non-violent protest (BDS) is your idea of “extreme politics”? Or is it her support for the human rights of Palestinians?

      Either way, you must live in an Orwellian bubble filled with hatred and intolerance.

      Suggestion: read these two books by Jewish Israelis:

      The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe

      The General’s Son by Miko Peled.

      • Misterioso
        February 16, 2018, 5:19 pm

        @REDPILLED, et al.


        ​Cleveland Jewish News – February 16, 2018​

        “Israel to apply anti-BDS law to Amnesty International”

        Sean Savage | JNS

        “Israel is acting to enforce its anti-BDS law against Amnesty International, after the human rights organization embarked on a campaign calling for a boycott of products from Judea and Samaria and a weapons embargo on Israel, which it has accused of war crimes.

        “Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have formulated amendments to the law to enable the sanctions, and Kahlon will be able to enact them after three weeks of public hearings in which citizens can voice their objections.

        “Before imposing sanctions on Amnesty International, Kahlon is expected to invite senior officials from the organization to a hearing. Amnesty International could also be sued for damages for violating the anti-BDS law.

        “Under its Israel’s Occupation: 50 Years of Dispossession’ campaign, Amnesty calls for
        ‘governments to stop enabling the economy that keeps these illegal settlements growing and fuels the suffering of Palestinians … and help put an end to the cycle of violations suffered by Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation.’”

    • Misterioso
      February 16, 2018, 5:15 pm


      Face it. Slowly, but surely, Zionism and the anachronistic entity known as “Israel” are going down the toilet where they belong.

      • Marnie
        February 17, 2018, 7:40 am

        It can’t be flushed fast enough.

  7. NoSlack2327
    February 16, 2018, 7:57 pm

    Many of the government officials of Israel are obdurate. Thier INSISTENCE that they have the approval of God currently makes them incorrigible and completely unreasonable.

    Ultimately their ways will be their undoing.

    • lonely rico
      February 16, 2018, 11:19 pm

      > NoSlack2327

      Many of the government officials of Israel are obdurate

      Beautiful word “obdurate”
      but it doesn’t really answer.

      You see,
      they’re war criminals.

      Remember Eichman ?
      hung by the neck because he played along,

      and they play along.

  8. Kathleen
    February 17, 2018, 4:16 pm

    Yes. On top of such an honorable and brave decision she quotes Edward Said who was out on the front lines decades ago. Bravo indeed!

    Hope folks share this piece on their social media outlets.

  9. LHunter
    February 18, 2018, 3:18 pm

    Can there be a better example of what a great leader and humanitarian should be – Margaret Ferguson for President or senate or congress – please pretty please and this from a Canadian.

    Your enormous sacrifice will never be forgotten and will serve to embolden others to take a stand for human rights. You’re on the right side of history Ms. Ferguson. Thank you so much for your courage and bearing witness to an Israeli regime that has lost its way.

  10. jaspeace2day
    February 19, 2018, 4:38 pm

    Suppression is the name of the game and then to conquer and divide within that suppression is the ultimate; suppress it from the educating/educated minds and suppress it in the bought and paid for corporate media and there you have it.

    Well done and well said Ms Ferguson…all is not lost.

  11. Atlantaiconoclast
    February 28, 2018, 12:29 am

    This suppression of free speech must end. When you deny the right of free speech to one party, you endanger your own right.

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