The 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.
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.”