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‘Common sense has moved on’: Report from MLA debate on Israel

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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mla2014-logoI didn’t get a chance to speak Saturday afternoon on the Modern Language Association (MLA) resolution to criticize Israel’s harassment of U.S. scholars trying to work in Palestine.  But it’s probably just as well.  I had stopped being confident that I could exercise any verbal self-control an hour or two earlier, when I was accused (as co-sponsor of the resolution, along with Dick Ohmann) of not being able to find Gaza on the map, among other lapses from professional competence.  Also, pretty much everything that could be said on either side of the issue had already been said, and more than once.  Patience was wearing thin.  And as it turned out, common sense prevailed.

If I had managed to get to the mic before debate was closed off, I would have said several things.  I would have said that reference to Gaza had been omitted from our resolution by the MLA leadership not because (as one distinguished opponent of the resolution suggested) we didn’t realize Israel no longer occupies Gaza but because the higher-ups did not want the discussion to be distracted by the question of whether Israel’s closing of its Gaza border was or wasn’t an appropriate response to the electoral victory of Hamas.  Fair enough.

I would also have felt compelled to correct a barefaced lie, irrelevant to our deliberations, but characteristic of the speaker’s disrespect for verifiable fact–as it happens, the same speaker–and therefore of interest to those trying to establish which speakers should and should not inspire trust.  This speaker declared that Israel has never used chemical weapons.  I would have suggested that the Delegates use their electronic devices to look up CNN footage during the 2008 bombardment of Gaza.  It was charged at that time that Israel was using white phosphorus.  (You know what white phosphorus is engineered to do to the human body.)  The Israeli ambassador of course denied indignantly that Israel was using white phosphorus.  Then footage was discovered of white phosphorus exploding in the skies over Gaza.  A day or so later the Israeli ambassador backtracked, saying that well, yes, maybe Israel did use white phosphorus, but only in uninhabited areas of Gaza.  Many of us wondered at that time where such uninhabited areas might be located.  The ability to read maps having been raised as an issue, I would have asked the aforementioned speaker against the MLA resolution to point them out on the map of Gaza and perhaps reconsider, in the light of the ambassador’s words, his confident assertion that Israel never used chemical weapons.

The same speaker had however made one excellent point, and I wanted to second it.  The point was that to remove from the resolution the words “arbitrarily” and “arbitrary,” as the MLA leadership had decided to do the night before, was to make it incoherent.  I agreed.  I think I understand why they did it.  At the preparatory debate on Friday (where I did get my chance to speak) a critic of Israel had complained that these words were badly chosen because this discrimination wasn’t arbitrary at all–it was simple racism.  On the other hand, Israel’s defenders objected that its control of the border reflected legitimate security concerns.  This is demonstrably false–did the Israelis hold Noam Chomsky at the border for so many hours because they thought he had a bomb in his briefcase?  I would have wanted to say that arbitrariness was absolutely central.  Palestinian department heads and administrators trying to recruit foreign faculty and plan course offerings have called for Israel to articulate some policy, some clear, transparent set of rules or norms dictating whether people will be allowed in, denied re-entry, lose their tickets, spend weeks in limbo, or whatever.  (Many nuts-and-bolts anecdotes of what actually happens to teachers and researchers with Arab-sounding names trying to work in the West Bank can be found in the report “Academia Undermined,” which provided some of the resolution’s evidence.)  If there existed a rule or norm, it would be possible to point to violations of it.  By refusing to lay out a rule or norm, the Israelis make the point, day after day, that Palestine’s borders are governed by nothing but Israel’s whims.  They make the point that Israel’s power is, precisely, arbitrary.

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. (Photo: Liz Shulman)

This was obviously a lot more than I could have said in the three minutes allotted to speakers–and three minutes was already too much to allot us.  One minute would have been fine, and less irritating for those resolute Delegates who stuck it out to the bitter end and somehow managed to keep actually listening to speaker after speaker.   They lasted through the high drama of a substitute resolution, proposing (more or less) that the MLA is against all bad things whenever they are done by anyone anywhere.  This piece of procedural obstructionism would have accomplished exactly nothing, and that was clearly the idea.  But it’s not entirely foreign to the MLA mindset, which is universalistic and uneasy about targeting any one state, even one that is substantially bankrolled by the US.  So it was important that speakers brought up South Africa (worth singling out) and American-style racial profiling, which is basically what Israel is doing, and on a massive scale.  The fact that the US State Department issues a travel advisory for US citizens with Arab names and backgrounds trying to visit Israel or the Occupied Territories was the one piece of evidence in favor of the resolution that its opponents didn’t even try to lie about.

Those opponents may be congratulating themselves on the fact that, at the very end of the afternoon, a hastily-worded “emergency resolution” in solidarity with the ASA did not get the 75% of the votes it needed.  But by this point in the day no one had any stomach left for further argument.  I would guess that at this point the MLA’s sentiments are not in favor of BDS, but they do run strong in favor of academic freedom, and academic freedom includes the freedom to say things of which people disapprove.  If Israel’s defenders aren’t careful, the tide of fanatical filth they have unleashed against the ASA’s boycott resolution will rebound against them.

Opponents of the MLA resolution had saturated the Chicago convention with printed materials.  The Israel-right-or-wrong folks are clearly as well-financed as ever.  But this time out their campaign had the feel of some eccentric Scientologist billionaire pouring unlimited funds into a cause that has lost whatever plausibility it ever had.  Common sense has moved on.

bruce robbins
About Bruce Robbins

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and director of the film "Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists." He is also author of "Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence."

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12 Responses

  1. Steven Salaita
    Steven Salaita
    January 13, 2014, 4:13 pm

    Professor Robbins may be too gracious to name names, but I’m not. The person he discusses is none other than Carey Nelson, whose conduct throughout this boycott debate has been disgraceful.

    • Steven Salaita
      Steven Salaita
      January 13, 2014, 4:15 pm

      Also: thanks for all the good work on the resolutions, Professor Robbins. It’s important that these conversations happen among scholarly communities.

      • Donald
        January 13, 2014, 11:03 pm

        I googled Carey Nelson and mla and found this article–


        The thread underneath is a carnival of stupidity, with a few bright spots here and there. All the usual hasbara deployed in full force. And the worst comments get the most up votes. You know, I’m not at all sure that the good guys are winning. If you think logic and truth always win out in the long run then just remember what Keynes said about the long run.

      • RudyM
        January 13, 2014, 11:45 pm

        As much as I would like to see MLA take a stand in favor of BDS, I’m pretty skeptical of the whole lit. crit. scene, and the general tone of those comments do nothing to change my mind about that.

        How many books by academics in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 just accepted the official story and then ran with 9/11 as a way of concretizing their particular concerns (the nature of religion, the ethics of conflict and terrorism, etc.)? Academics can be very conformist, especially when it furthers their career. American academics who don’t see why Israel should be singled out by an American academic association instead of Syria, or North Korea, or whatever the examples are, don’t seem to be thinking very seriously about the issue.

      • tree
        January 14, 2014, 1:39 am

        Interesting link , Donald. Compare Nelson’s and Barghouti’s comments from your link with this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about a Chinese professor.

        Cary Nelson, for one, dismisses the idea that notions of academic freedom vary by nation. A former president of the AAUP, he points out that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has laid out global principles for academic freedom. “I don’t know that the life of the mind is culturally specific,” he said.

  2. pabelmont
    January 13, 2014, 5:28 pm

    Academics, especially in MLA, listen up! I’ve got an issue of Modern Language to offer you! Noam Chomsky a security risk?

    “Security”, “security risk”, “national security” are words the academic community should give much attention to. On the one hand, they are words used operationally — governments do things and offer up the word “security” or “national security” as an explanation, legal justification, etc. On the other hand, these words might have concrete meanings (apart from how they are used). For instance, wikipedia provides

    Security is the degree of resistance to, or protection from, harm. It applies to any vulnerable and valuable asset, such as a person, dwelling, community, nation, or organization.

    I don’t know, for example, whether drunk-driving or auto-accidents are ever called “security” risks. I don’t know whether closing 3 of 4 lanes on a major highway should be called a “security” violation. I don’t know if failing to do a damn thing to avert, in whole or in part, CLIMATE CHANGE is ever deemed a “security” breach. Or whether FRACKING is ever characterized as a “security risk” when considering the harms of pollution and climate change.

    Operationally, these words are used as the authorized-users wish to use them, probably “arbitrarily”. I have never heard that any such authorized-user ever, ever offered up a definition of “security”, “security risk”, etc.

    If Noam Chomsky (or anyone else not carrying guns or bombs) is called a “security risk”, it is presumably because he is thought (by someone, perhaps a low-level know-nothing or ideologue) likely to TALK in a forbidden sort of way about political things (or, of course, to talk about guns or bombs). Presumably LINGUISTICS-talk would never be reasonably deemed a security risk. Some academic-talk might be deemed a security-risk, say, talk about torture or war-crimes or imperialism or international law — and this is because “security”-talk is likely to be used as often as not as a cover-up for private embarrassment or governmental wrong-doing.

  3. John Douglas
    John Douglas
    January 13, 2014, 7:42 pm

    Pabelmont is right to draw attention to the phase “national security”. It refers to the security of the nation state. In the U.S. case to the security of our way of life, particularly as enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But the odd fact is that at almost no time in the history of the U.S. has there been less of a threat from abroad to national security in this sense. This is not because of the strength of our forces but because of the weakness of our enemies (the use of our forces seems only to strengthen our enemies.) The British sack of the White House in 1812, Hitler’s rise in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet nukes in the 1950s through 1980s were threats to national security. In comparison, fear of terrorists is a genuine national hysteria, fueled by political and economic interests and rivaling the divorce from reality that spread through my home town of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Invoking national security today is the act scoundrels and if there is a threat to national security it originates in the actions of these very scoundrels.

  4. piotr
    January 13, 2014, 8:01 pm

    I just read that a Polish citizen was returned from an American airport, although people who invited him promise that this was lack of some document or formalities and that he will come few days later. Perhaps he is a security risk? Last time he visited USA, in the Fall, he has beaten a citizen unconscious. And he promises to do it again! Strangely enough, he is invited to do exactly that.

    • Mike_Konrad
      January 14, 2014, 7:41 am

      Can you locate the story of the Polish citizen? Why a Polish citizen? Why not Greek? Where can we find it on the internet? Give us the URL. Give us the link.

      What you said was bizarre.

      If this was hypothetical, as it seems to be, it is borderline incomprehensible.

      I think I know the point you are trying to make, but you did not make it.

      If you are saying that Israel should not have to admit people who are hostile to the Zionist project, I might agree with you. But then say it, and avoid the incomprehensible theoretical analogies.

  5. philweiss
    January 14, 2014, 12:36 pm

    Thanks for excellent report, Bruce, I admire your fortitude in hanging in there through all that debate. I especially appreciate the responses on the singling out issue.

  6. piotr
    January 15, 2014, 11:14 am

    At the “after conference anti-panel” one speaker >> said that when boycott defenders talk about facing false charges of anti-Semitism, they are engaged in “an attempt to silence the Jewish community.”<<

    Read more:
    Inside Higher Ed
    A flippant thought: very true! Jewish community hardly speaks about anything else. Well, there is also the Iran issue. It really reminds me "Senatores boni viri, senatus autem mala bestia." But this saying also offers a perspective: one can keep the Senate in low regard without being prejudiced against the senators.

    A scholarly discussion should refer to the classics.

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