Sad and amazing piece at the Chronicle on Higher Education from Marianne Hirsch, a Columbia professor and Holocaust scholar who is president of the Modern Language Association, on the campaign against her and the organization for even discussing the boycott movement. “I became the target of an intimidation campaign that took the form of hate-email blasts, public attacks, personal letters and phone calls, and insistent appeals to stop one of the convention’s 800 sessions before it was held.”
The specific resolution on the agenda of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly concerned restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Those restrictions are documented on the U.S. State Department website, and the resolution asked the MLA to urge the State Department to “contest” them.
The messages that poured in from individuals and groups like Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition persisted in mischaracterizing, exaggerating, and distorting both the session and the resolution. “Shame on MLA for the hate and anti-Semitism,” one email read. Many demanded “balance.” But academic conference sessions are not talk-show debates; speakers explore a topic, raise questions, and advance nuanced conclusions. Disagreement can be voiced during the discussion period. Critics have claimed that academic boycotts violate academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. Yet the vehemence of the opposition, the hyperbolic fliers that were distributed condemning boycotts, and the portrayal of the session as a foregone conclusion, in fact blocked the open conversation that we in the U.S. academy need to nurture and protect.
At the same time, the MLA resolution to “urge” the State Department to “contest” Israeli travel restrictions was mischaracterized as “condemning” Israel. Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel, and Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, wrote a letter to university presidents asking them to take pre-emptive action against the MLA. “Rather than speaking after the fact, as we were forced to do with the ASA resolution,” their letter reads, “we urge you to make clear, in advance of the MLA resolution, your opposition to it and to any other effort to hold Israel to a different standard than any other nation.”
Some of the emails my colleagues and I received were accompanied by well-known photographs of Nazis with signs calling for boycotts of Jewish stores. One, in particular, was sent by many dozens of people from around the country and abroad:
“I am writing in protest of the Modern Language Association’s resolution to ‘condemn Israel’s denial of entries to academics invited to Palestinian universities.’ … Boycotts of the Jewish people were commonplace in Europe leading up to the Holocaust, and led to the extermination of 6 million of our people in the Shoah. Less than 80 years ago Jews suffered our biggest losses, but we also made our biggest gain: a homeland for the Jewish people. Finally, after 4,000 years of unwavering persecution, a land to call our own. We will never leave that land, and the MLA can do nothing about it.
“The Jewish people have faced many enemies over the years. We have defeated all of them, including Nazi Germany. Your resolution is simply another attempt to remove us from our historic claim to the land of Israel. In doing so, you only serve to discredit yourselves.”
Note what the email conflates: “contest” with “condemn” and the resolution with a full-fledged boycott and an attempt to remove Jews from Israel. Note, above all, how it distorts history.
As a daughter of Holocaust survivors and as someone who has been doing scholarly work on the cultural memory of the Holocaust for over two decades, I was viscerally upset to read these accusations and to see Nazi propaganda images on my computer screen. But I was more disheartened by how American Jewish organizations and their members insisted on violating the painful history of Jews, including that of my parents, to foreclose discussion of the policies of the state of Israel and their impact on Israeli and Palestinian education.
This piece is important because it takes on that sacred means of shutting down debate, the anti-Semitism charge. Wielded against Jimmy Carter and Roger Waters and anyone else who dared to criticize Israel, often with great effect (others knew better than to open their mouths), the smear is now being used inside American elite circles; and Jewish scholars are sure to bridle. Hirsch was born in Roumania. She is a Holocaust scholar who has written about the power of that narrative over our patterns of thinking.
And all the MLA wanted to do was to have open travel to the West Bank. Especially as Israel grows more isolated, we are due for huge unrest in the discourse over the space for talking about Palestinian human rights and resistance. When the two-state solution officially goes down this year– or when the argument over the Framework is framed in just that way, as our last chance for the two-state solution– there is going to be tremendous intellectual ferment in the U.S., rapidly-rising consciousness re human rights abuses in the occupied territories. More and more thoughtful people will want to hear the boycott argument, and the meretricious use of the anti-Semitism charge will at last damage the pro-Israel side.