What the MLA vote showed: Israel is losing the battle for liberal support

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North America’s largest association of scholars in the humanities, the Modern Language Association, announced the results of its membership ballot on Resolution 2014-1 last week.

The resolution called on the US Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the Palestinian West Bank to United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities. The resolution gained the support of an overwhelming majority, 1560 of the 2623 votes actually cast. A recent constitutional amendment, however, requires that any MLA resolution receive the endorsement of no less than 10% of the Association’s members, which would have required around 2400 positive votes. As a result, the resolution did not pass. Nonetheless, as the initial reactions to the result have passed, it is worth reflecting on what the outcome of this vote actually indicates for Palestine solidarity in the United States.

The outcome, of course, continues to be spun by opponents of the resolution as a defeat for the cause of Palestinian solidarity. Without any evidence whatsoever, the tiny pressure group MLA Members for Scholars Rights announced that: “most MLA members were so opposed to the resolution and the attempt to politicize the organization that they refused to vote at all.” This remains a singularly nervous declaration of victory. For the fact remains that of those who voted, a large majority supported the resolution. If further comment needs to be made, it is about the apparent apathy of American scholars rather than about the merits of this quite modest and far from radical resolution. Notoriously, it is almost impossible to get 10% of the members to vote even on issues that affect them far more directly. If the framers of the constitutional amendment intended to paralyze political process in the Association, they knew what they were doing.

Yet the substantial majority that voted in favor of the resolution is striking. Its opponents expended enormous energy in the effort to delegitimize it, even before the Delegate Assembly deliberated at an unusually turbulent meeting last January. MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights took the unusual step of circulating an email to the whole membership urging them to vote against it. The pro-Zionist and right-wing commentators had a field day accusing the MLA of politicizing and discrediting itself for even contemplating such a resolution. The shadow of the American Studies Association’s recent passage of a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions and the campaign of legal recrimination and punitive measures that followed it clearly hung over the whole debate.

Despite this furious response to a resolution that simply confirmed a previous MLA statement on the right of scholars to freedom of movement, but in the context of Israel’s long-standing and systematic denial of such rights to Palestinian scholars, over 60% of members who did vote supported the resolution. This is an unexpected and remarkable outcome, given the traditional conservatism of this venerable association. What it strongly suggests is that on the battleground of ideas, Israel and its supporters are continuing to lose ground.

It is difficult to rally support for the unsupportable. While bandying accusations of anti-Semitism, resorting to the familiar charge that Israel was being unfairly singled out while far worse violators of human rights exist (a sadly ineffectual defense, it must be said), or accusing the members of ignorance or incompetence with regard to the fate of fellow scholars, opponents of the resolution failed to engage with the most damning evidence of Israel’s discriminatory policies: the US Department of State’s own travel advisory. This advisory notice signals what is on-its-face a discriminatory immigration policy directed by Israel against specific racial, ethnic and religious groups: US citizens, it warns, “possessing a Palestinian identity card, or who are of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel.”

Under any other circumstance, we would name such policies racial profiling. They are not the fantasies of ill-informed academics, but discriminatory restrictions consistent with a proliferating web of regulations that are designed to maintain Israel’s exclusively Jewish state at the expense of an indigenous Palestinian population that it regards as a “demographic threat”. They are consistent with policies that deny to students in Gaza the right to continue their education on the West Bank; they are consistent with Israel’s laws that deny family reunification to Palestinian citizens who marry residents of the West Bank or Gaza; they are consistent, in other words, with the whole legal and political apparatus by which Israel has always sought to dispossess, expel and contain the Palestinians whose very presence in their ancestral land threatens the Zionist enterprise. This apparatus is a product not of Israel’s need for security against terrorism, but of its core demand for racial and religious supremacy. In the name of what it calls “the Jewish state”, it maintains a separate and unequal set of laws, infrastructure, access to transportation, property, housing and education, that constitutes by any definition a calculated system of apartheid.

The MLA’s Resolution 2014-1 addressed a tiny segment of that system of legalized discrimination, one that affects US citizens and scholars seeking to travel to Palestine to teach or do research. But the members who voted for it recognized something beyond their immediate interest in safeguarding the rights of their peers. They recognized that Israel, the United States’ closest ally and a state that so often pretends to be the only democracy in the Middle East, fails to meet the most fundamental standards of political and legal equality so far as its Palestinian citizens and subjects of occupation are concerned. The façade of openness and normality that Israel has tried to present to the world continues to crack and it is becoming ever more impossible for liberal-minded individuals to endorse it. What Israel’s supporters increasingly fear is not an ignorant or incompetent professoriate, but an informed and critical public that acts upon its knowledge to condemn injustice wherever it finds it. That is not to single Israel out, but to ask that it finally accept the standards that every democracy must be judged by.

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Win or lose, these votes make a splash. Like the Brooklyn Park Slope Food Co-op which lost (on BDS) but got a lot of attention. Education is the game here.

Unless Israel can transfer the logic of IDF Hebrew into English it’s going to keep on losing liberals. Zionism is such a shallow and artificial framework but there are other cultures that can express the implications of the deep sadness involved in continuously making the wrong choices and ignoring the… Read more »

Worse, Israelis have been training American police departments. Remember the NYPD profiling flap? It’s not only that the US government is allowing profiling and discrimination against US citizens of Palestinian extraction, but America’s state and local municipal police departments are aping Israel’s security and policing double standards. These days, lots… Read more »

57% or so is good, but not great. 66% is a super majority.

Still awesome that the vore passed, but Im certain that we will see a supermajority within just a few years at most.

Only a question of time.

“Notoriously, it is almost impossible to get 10% of the members to vote even on issues that affect them far more directly. If the framers of the constitutional amendment intended to paralyze political process in the Association, they knew what they were doing.” – The framers didn’t paralyze anything. They… Read more »