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Boycott panel at MLA draws applause and fearful questions

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mla2014-logoThe Modern Language Association is holding its annual convention in Chicago this week and considering various measures to address the limits on the academic freedom of Palestinians. Yesterday it held a panel on academic boycott featuring supporters of boycott. Liz Shulman sent this report.

Those of us who attended the MLA panel on Thursday, January 9, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine,” and who are familiar with the BDS movement, heard the same evasive attacks by BDS critics over and over during the question-answer period. The panel, moderated by University of Texas Professor Samer Ali, included panelists University of California-Riverside Professor David Lloyd, Wesleyan Professor Richard Ohmann, University of Texas Professor Barbara Harlow, and Omar Barghouti, the founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. After each panelist gave his or her five minute talk, Ali opened up the floor for a question-answer period.

Piece opposing boycott that was set on chairs at the Modern Language Association yesterday. Foto by Liz Shulman

Piece opposing boycott that was set on chairs at the Modern Language Association yesterday. Foto by Liz Shulman

What shocked me the most–and I don’t why this continues to shock me, given how often it happens–is that no matter how calm and grounded the panelists were, no matter how rooted in nonviolence their messages were, and no matter the logic and rationale they used, so many BDS critics still would rather talk than listen. Now, in a room that seated hundreds, it did seem that most people there were in support of the panelists and genuinely wanted to listen. After the five-minute talks and after answers to questions, there was a large applause. But I was struck by how the questions from BDS critics were in response to their own fears about BDS rather than anything the panelists had said about BDS.

One man asked the panelists, if they indeed support BDS, would they also “ask Palestinians to stop attending Israeli universities?” Another audience member asked how could academics support the boycott of research-based Israeli institutions like Yad Vashem? Another woman asked, “Why aren’t we boycotting China?” To all of these questions, the panelists responded with grace and–the one thing that is scaring the U.S. Zionist lobby–truth.

Barghouti explained again–after having explained in his talk–that, no, Palestinians are not being asked to stop attending universities. Palestinians have no choice but to attend the very universities that are oppressing them. Again, he explained that Palestinians’ freedom is restricted every day. To support BDS, he said, means that “Israelis might be in fear of losing their privileges, not their freedom.”

To the woman’s question about institutions like Yad Vashem, it was said, again, the boycott call isn’t targeting individuals, but the institutions. Several panelists said this boycott isn’t about restricting academics–who do have the privilege of academic freedom–but of the daily restrictions placed on Palestinians–who do not have basic freedoms. Lloyd reminded us that “BDS threatens to be temporary, but the Palestinian occupation could be permanent.”

The question about China was answered by Barghouti, who reminded us that China is supporting the U.S. and not the other way around. The U.S. isn’t giving billions of dollars to China. This is why we’re not boycotting China.

At this point, as people kept asking questions that required the panelists to repeat themselves, I felt as though I was looking in a funhouse mirror where everything is distorted. Why all the confusion? Why aren’t people listening? The audience who attended the panel are good, progressive, well-educated folks. What’s going on here? And then I remembered we’re talking about Israel–the place that inhabits the most space in Jewish folks’ minds, the place that causes the mythos around it to grab hold of people’s hearts and minds and give them permission to check their logic at the door. I know the myth so well and understand its depths. But at some point, truth has to prevail. In his opening remarks, the moderator Ali said, “We are all of each other. Inclusion is the only way to go.”

Ohmann talked about the 80 U.S. university presidents who rejected the ASA’s support of BDS raising the issue that these presidents had rejected the boycott without consulting the tenured faculty. Lloyd said that a nonviolent human rights based movement that promotes social justice needs no defense. He said that BDS is moral force, just like the bus boycotts were. No one forced the blacks to stop riding on buses. There was a force that pulled people together to act. Barghouti reminded us–again–that BDS isn’t against Israel, but is against an oppressive regime.

When we talk about Israel/Palestine, we must talk about privileges and freedoms. The call to boycott academic institutions is a call to Palestinians’ international colleagues to take a stand for those who do not have the freedom to do so. In her five-minute talk, Barbara Harlow mentioned Iain Banks, who refused to have his books published in Israel. When he was asked why he would do that, he said, “Because I can.”

At the end of the session, Lloyd said, “We boycott Israel because Palestinians have asked us to. I listen to that call, and I respond.”

Liz Shulman
About Liz Shulman

Liz Shulman is a teacher in Chicago

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36 Responses

  1. Bill in Maryland
    Bill in Maryland
    January 10, 2014, 9:57 am

    Thank you Liz for this fascinating update on the MLA meeting and your prompt reporting.

  2. Donald
    January 10, 2014, 9:59 am

    Iain Banks, not Ian Banks. He died recently. Very good science fiction writer–his “Culture” books are hilarious at times. The sentient warships give themselves names like ” Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints”. I haven’t read his mainstream stuff.

  3. MahaneYehude1
    January 10, 2014, 10:40 am

    The question about China was answered by Barghouti, who reminded us that China is supporting the U.S. and not the other way around. The U.S. isn’t giving billions of dollars to China. This is why we’re not boycotting China.

    Sorry, but silly answer and I don’t understand why people, all of them academics I believe, didn’t respond to this answer. I thought the boycott is due to ideological reasons and not because of money. What would happen if the U.S. stop supporting Israel? Would MLA cancel the boycott of Israeli academia then as there is no boycott on China? At least Iain Banks’s answer was honest “Because I can”. I think the woman who asked about China should get the same answer: “Because we can”. Hypocrisy, hypocrisy and more hypocrisy.

    • annie
      January 10, 2014, 11:21 am

      I don’t understand why people, all of them academics I believe, didn’t respond to this answer.

      mystery abounds! if only you’d been there to save the day.

      “We boycott Israel because Palestinians have asked us to. I listen to that call, and I respond.”

      • MahaneYehude1
        January 10, 2014, 11:39 am

        “We boycott Israel because Palestinians have asked us to. I listen to that call, and I respond.”

        So what? I expect from academics to raise questions, to see the real reality, to analyse the facts, to listen to all sides, to learn who is the real victim in this conflict – academics, Annie, mean academics. This answer is one more silly answer.

      • annie
        January 11, 2014, 1:20 am

        you were not there mehane, and the transcript has not been made available. therefore you have no idea what was addressed and what was not.your outrage, or whatever it is, is hypothetical. meanwhile we’ve been listening to israel hasbrats diversions for decades. we’ve heard all their stale arguments (but hey, here’s more from team freak/zio but the fact remains, you have no idea what was covered there. quit hyperventilating based on conjecture.

      • MahaneYehude1
        January 11, 2014, 2:33 am


        Thanks for the link. I left a comment their and I hope they will publish it.

      • Hostage
        January 11, 2014, 7:09 am

        quit hyperventilating based on conjecture.

        I know how you feel. A while back a commenter blew a gasket because he was just certain that Max and Phil were making false claims that produce sold in a Ramallah market had originated in the Jordan Valley. He just naturally assumed the Israeli farmers had the luxury of selling everything they grow for top prices in Europe.

        Guess what? There is a story today in Ynet which says the farmers in the Jordan Valley are suffering steep losses from the Western European boycott and divestment movement and that export-driven income of growers in the valley’s 21 settlements dropped by more than 14 percent, or $29 million, last year.,7340,L-4475446,00.html

      • annie
        January 11, 2014, 7:17 am

        yeah, read about that last night

        music to my ears!

      • seafoid
        January 11, 2014, 4:40 am

        “I expect from academics to raise questions, to see the real reality, to analyse the facts, to listen to all sides, to learn who is the real victim in this conflict ”

        And you are a potato merchant? WTF.

      • MahaneYehude1
        January 11, 2014, 6:14 am


        And you are a potato merchant? WTF.

        Is it relevant? what do you expect from a seller in the market? I believe, first of all, honesty. So why not from academics?

      • talknic
        January 11, 2014, 10:29 am

        MahaneYehude1 “I expect from academics to raise questions, to see the real reality, to analyse the facts, to listen to all sides, to learn who is the real victim in this conflict”

        No you don’t you pathetic fake. Go peddle your potato somewhere else. You’ve blown your cretinous cover wide open

      • just
        January 11, 2014, 10:32 am

        MY1—Please state clearly who is the “real victim”, and your justification of your pov.

        Thanks in advance.

    • justicewillprevail
      January 10, 2014, 11:42 am

      Thankyou for illustrating Liz’s well argued point that zionists and their supporters never bother to understand the reasons for the boycott, but merely make categorical assertions about it which are utterly wrong. Of course they would love to divert the debate, it is a standard and boring tactic. They refuse, like you, to consider or listen to the proponents of the boycott, instead substituting a litany of lies, excuses and evasions (ideological reasons? so you have already decided without acquainting yourself with some facts). The truth is anathema to them, since it is incompatible with doctrinaire myths about israel they are unable to disengage from. How ever many times it is explained to them, they just repeat the same old dogma, preferring to believe their own absurd misconceptions in order to dismiss it, whilst screaming hysterically about AS. Clapping your hands over your ears and shouting ‘fire!’ isn’t a response worth considering.

      • MahaneYehude1
        January 11, 2014, 2:38 am


        Of course they would love to divert the debate

        Divert the debate? Please, look down and see how this debate about the boycott turned to be a debate about the level of my English.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      January 10, 2014, 11:43 am

      “I don’t understand why people, all of them academics I believe, didn’t respond to this answer. I thought the boycott is due to ideological reasons and not because of money.”

      What a ridiculous statement. Americans have no special obligation to boycott China in the way they have an obligation to boycott the zionist entity, because of the billions of dollars that is taken out of the mouths of hungry American children and from the backs of freezing cold homeless Americans, taken from the healthcare that could improve someone’s life and taken from the educational opportunity that could improve some American’s mind, all to support your vile state and its evil, racist ideology. That is about money and about ideology. Bringing up China is nothing more than whataboutery.

      “I think the woman who asked about China should get the same answer: “Because we can”. ”

      No, “because we should” Because the zionists have an evil state and do evil things for evil reasons and the USA, sadly, has supported that evil.

    • bintbiba
      January 10, 2014, 12:07 pm

      Congratulations, MY1…. Much better English today!

      • MahaneYehude1
        January 10, 2014, 12:47 pm


        Thank you, binti, for the compliment, but I think your blessings should be addressed to MondoWeiss, the site that helps me improve my English.

    • talknic
      January 10, 2014, 12:44 pm
      • Ellen
        January 10, 2014, 1:06 pm

        The mistakes made by the past were a dead giveaway that they were manufactured and not the honest mistakes of one thinking in another language and writing in English.

        Sad that one has to pretend weakness or vulnerability for acceptance and sympathy. Dishonesty.

      • gamal
        January 10, 2014, 4:04 pm

        his claim to Arabic fluency is combined with the genuinely hilarious rendition of al hamd-ul-illah as Al hamd Al illah, perhaps his perception of hip hip hypocricy is caused by some kind of linguistic parallax, but surely the SA boycott was hypocritical, they didnt do China in Tibet either, or anyone else, its so dispiriting when Arabs and their unique evil (hip hip hop Tm) arouse no ire anywhere, some one should give that Left a good talking to, their disobedience is shocking, perhaps if someone kidnapped their kids at 2am and tortured them they would see sense, then as friends of Israel we could all settle down to enjoying our superiority, democracy and criminality in the crepuscular shade of an almond tree, what a sad loss to Kurdistan you are M1. I knew a Tajik Jew once whose spoken French was like music really beautiful, of course M1’s English improves fast, they have extra IQ’s dont ya know.

    • Waterbuoy
      January 10, 2014, 1:55 pm

      If the US were to stop supporting Israel, financially and with their Security Council veto, apartheid in Israel-Palestine would collapse and there would be no need for boycott.

  4. Citizen
    January 10, 2014, 11:01 am

    Really frustrating that these Zionists have such a mental hold on America thanks to the USA mainstream media. Something needs to be done about it. We need to advance trust buster POV on the media, just as we need to kill the US campaign finance system. Keeping Dick and Jane misinformed and allowing the US voter to be victim to a continual auction of US interests to the highest bidder–not kool, or patriotic.

  5. pabelmont
    January 10, 2014, 11:06 am

    Great report on the meeting itself. I’ve read that MLA is considering a resolution of some sort, but NOT a resolution tio join the boycott. anyone know about that?

    I think (and have said) that no COMPREHENSIVE report on “BDS” academic boycott of Israeli institutions should fail to discuss the opposite, all the pro-Israel interferences with USA’s academic freedom. I think of the non-grant of tenure (several as I recall) to Norman Finkelstein at least one of which was the interferences by university ADMIN after FACULTY had said “Yes” to NF. Big-Money seems to rear its head quite often (see all those university presidents dissing BDS without seeming to understand it.) And so Big-Money needs to be talked about.

    Perhaps needless to say, BDS is not a product of Big-Money.

  6. Jim Holstun
    Jim Holstun
    January 10, 2014, 11:57 am

    Yes, the MLA is considering a resolution to protest Israel’s harassment of and discrimination against Palestinian-American academics attempting to enter Palestine/Israel.

  7. DICKERSON3870
    January 10, 2014, 12:56 pm

    RE: “I was struck by how the questions from BDS critics were in response to their own fears about BDS rather than anything the panelists had said about BDS.” ~ Liz Shulman

    MY COMMENT: I wonder if Uri Avnery might see these questions from BDS critics (seemingly in response to their own fears) as a symptom of “instilled memory and paranoia vera”*.

    * SEE – “Israelis afflictions: instilled memory and paranoia vera” ~ By Uri Avnery,, 7/10/11
    Uri Avnery considers the psychological disorders underlying Israel’s response to criticism and peaceful protest, most recently manifested in its over-reaction to the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza, and the Israeli public’s generally docile acceptance of what their government and media tell them.

    [EXCERPTS] I saw on TV the results of a scientific investigation by Israeli researchers into “instilled memory”. Their experiments show that people who have seen something with their own eyes, but are told by everybody else that they have seen something else, start to suppress their own memory and “remember” that they saw what the others had allegedly seen. Neurological research then showed that this is can actually be seen happening in the brain: the imagined memory replaces the real. Social pressure has done its work: the instilled memory has become real memory.
    I believe that this is even truer for an entire nation, which is, of course, composed of individuals. I have seen this many times. . .
    . . . There is a mental disorder called “paranoia vera”. Patients adopt a crazy assumption – e.g. “everybody hates me” – and then build an elaborate structure around it. Every bit of information which seems to support it is eagerly absorbed, every item that contradicts it is suppressed. Everything is interpreted so as to reinforce the initial assumption. The pattern is strictly logical – indeed, the more complete and the more logical the structure, the more serious is the disease.
    Among the accompanying symptoms are belligerent behavior, recurrent suspicions, disconnection from the real world, conspiracy theories and narcissism.
    It seems that whole nations can fall victim to this illness. Ours certainly appears to have.
    The whole world is against us. Everybody is out to destroy us. Every move is a threat to our very existence. Everyone critical of Israeli policy is an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew. . .

    SOURCE –

    • Waterbuoy
      January 10, 2014, 1:58 pm

      Very interesting, Dickerson3870. I’ve wondered about many (certainly not all) of my Jewish friends who, while being actual leaders campaigning for human rights, have such a huge “blindspot” with regards to Israeli atrocities.
      Thanks for that post.

      • DICKERSON3870
        January 11, 2014, 4:47 pm

        ALSO SEE – “Peer pressure makes people form false memories: study”, By Kase Wickman, Raw Story, 07/02/11

        [EXCERPT] A study [done in Israel*] released this week shows that when a person is peer pressured, they can form false memories, convincing themselves of different recollections of the past to fit what others insist is true. The study was published in Science this week.
        Study subjects watched a movie in groups, then were questioned individually about it afterward. Four days later, subjects were questioned again. In 70 percent of cases, the researchers found, participants changed their recollection of the film to match their groupmates’ incorrect memories. This held true even for questions that the subjects had initially felt very strongly that they had answered correctly.
        The [Israeli*] researchers called these “socially induced memory errors” because they found conclusive evidence that it was the group that caused the change in answers. . .

        * RELATED ARTICLE AT Mother Jones

      • DICKERSON3870
        January 12, 2014, 6:57 pm

        AND SEE: “Notes on Nationalism”, by George Orwell, 1945

        [EXCERPTS] . . . All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. . .

        . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind. . .

        SOURCE (“Notes on Nationalism”, by George Orwell, 1945) –

    • DICKERSON3870
      January 10, 2014, 10:40 pm

      P.S. FROM NORMAN POLLACK (1/10/14):

      [EXCERPTS] . . . Israel is determined not to have a settlement. Its characteristic mindset is obviously the militarization of Zionism and, to that end, making Judaism a State Religion. This is very different from the spirit immediately following World War II, when the socialist kibbutz was affirmed as the nation’s model. Judaism does not need Israel. It is a world religion with fundamental moral-ethical principles, all which Israel violates on a daily basis. When the oppressed become the oppressors, we have a profoundly sick psychoanalytic condition, the introjection of the crimes committed against it, now turned outward. That, I submit, has happened. Israel has left Judaism far behind, in its quest for power, superiority, expansion.

      American Jewry, once the fountainhead of liberalism and radicalism, reaching a high point in the New Deal, and manifested not only in politics, but culture, and a saving remnant existing into the ’60s, incorporating true humanism and inclusiveness as part of the civil rights struggle (Schwerner-Goodman-Cheney), has degenerated into NeoCon warmongering, reactionary politics and social policy, superpatriotism, in sum, the forfeiture of all that made me proud of my heritage. To criticize now is to be pilloried as a self-hating Jew, whether said criticism is directed to Israel or US global policy–Joe McCarthy with a yarmulke, functional red-baiting by e.g. AIPAC under a different label. I shall continue to affirm my Judaism, wholly separable from Israel. . .

      . . . American support for Israel surely goes beyond residual feelings of guilt for allowing the Holocaust to occur and continue (e.g., by joining forces with Europe after the invasion of Poland, or later, the siege of Stalingrad), admiration, post-war, for suffering humanity, here, Zionism qua a crusade of the displaced persons for security in a new land, or devoted respect of Judaism as a foundation stone of religion in the West. Some of this may be true (on the level of sentiment, and political expediency in attracting American Jewry), but the US pro-Israel position has always been firmly grounded in realpolitik, at first a bastion or forward line in the Cold-War confrontation with the Soviet Union, relatedly, preservation of the Middle East as a sphere of influence centered on the world’s oil supply, and then, access to oil itself, freed from Left popular forces and the confiscation of US oil properties.
      But as Israel developed, and especially proved its military mettle to the US in dislodging and forcing out the indigenous Palestinian populace, along with a general posture of identifying with conservative regimes (apartheid South Africa, various dictators in Latin America) and somewhat rigidly following the American lead in international relations, concomitant with abandonment of a socialist-kibbutz vision in domestic organization in favor of becoming a Mossad-style world player and nuclear-armed military power, the US rejoiced at the special relationship. Ideologically, Washington gives away nothing. This was love at first- or at least second-sight, testified from early on by the close working relations between the military and intelligence communities of the two countries. Now, perhaps more than ever, because of America’s struggle to maintain its global hegemony, it not only sanctions but applauds every abuse of the Israeli government, possibly acting as enablers for inhumane thought and practices which might otherwise not have materialized had such back-up not been provided. In any case, America’s overall policy toward Israel reveals its own ethnocentrism, militarism, and disregard for international law. To see Israel is to see America with clear eyes. . .

      SOURCE –

  8. hophmi
    January 10, 2014, 1:31 pm

    “The U.S. isn’t giving billions of dollars to China.”

    No, we just buy around $400,000,000 worth their crap (and have about $300,000,000 trade deficit with them), and they rob us blind by stealing our intellectual property and hacking our computers.

    • Ecru
      January 11, 2014, 3:59 am

      …and they rob us blind by stealing our intellectual property and hacking our computers.

      Sorry, lost the thread there for a second. Are you still talking about China or have you now switched over to Israel?

    • puppies
      January 11, 2014, 7:53 am

      @hophmi – Compared to the theft, spying, IT takeover, selling of military secrets to enemies and other interference with the US by Israel, it seems from your list that the Chinese are downright friendly.

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