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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.

David Lloyd

David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

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16 Responses

  1. pabelmont on June 13, 2014, 12:52 pm

    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.

    • JustJessetr on June 13, 2014, 7:39 pm

      What happens when education works against you? Like when the Pixies un-boycott Israel?

  2. seafoid on June 13, 2014, 2:07 pm

    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 contingency of life. And there is so much dignity in the recognition.

    The Armenians took a different path alright.

  3. Citizen on June 13, 2014, 3:40 pm

    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 of police look like heavily armored and armed military occupiers themselves. And the 4th Amendment has been heavily diluted, both on the street and Under the privacy–invading NSA (& we wouldn’t even know about it except for Snowden, not to mention the NSA still gives Israel its trawling catch of private American electronic speech–unfiltered).

  4. Krauss on June 13, 2014, 4:23 pm

    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.

  5. stephenjones on June 13, 2014, 7:23 pm

    “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 may, however, have grown weary of (1) less than 10% of members claiming to speak for an entire organization, and (2) spending time on meek directives such as this: “Be it resolved that the MLA urge the United States Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” – – Did you get that? We RESOLVE to URGE them to CONTEST somebody else’s actions. This is the Six Degrees of Powerlessness game…

    • annie on June 14, 2014, 11:14 am

      Did you get that? We RESOLVE to URGE them to CONTEST somebody else’s actions. This is the Six Degrees of Powerlessness game…

      really? so when aipac resolves to urges congress to contest irans actions that’s a sign of powerlessness?

      and when aipac urges congress to sanction iran, that’s a sign of powerlessness?

      They may, however, have grown weary of (1) less than 10% of members claiming to speak for an entire organization

      so in your view the mere act of voting is “claiming to speak for an entire organization”?

      • amigo on June 14, 2014, 1:25 pm

        “really? so when aipac resolves to urges congress to contest irans actions that’s a sign of powerlessness?” Annie.

        But Annie , you forget.The Zionists have God on their side .They do not need to vote.

        If they had their way , they would scrap all this voting nonsense.

        Oh , sorry, they already have for many non Jews in Apartheid Israel and the so called Greater Israel.Palkari has his foot in mouth disease back again.

      • stephenjones on June 15, 2014, 1:10 am

        (1) AIPAC shovels out many millions of dollars and has extensive, explicit media and government connections. The MLA doesn’t. Power matters. Everything isn’t discourse, no matter what MLA deconstructionists think. Had the MLA resolution said that it would not co-sponsor any event with any Israeli institution until Apartheid is dismantled there, then they’d have something worth discussing & voting on.

        (2) When fewer than 10% of an organization’s membership affirms a position, it shouldn’t go down as the position of the whole organization. Such a low threshold trivializes democracy and the matter before the organization. Both the MLA and the Palestinians deserve better. I didn’t say education or a discussion or a vote couldn’t take place, but I did agree with the current MLA rules that under 10% voting “yes” on a resolution should not be allowed to stand as the will of the organization.

        So, in summary, my advice to the MLA is: don’t stage a feel-good vote on what the US State Dept should urge another party to do – vote on what YOU are going to DO as an organization; don’t trivialize yourself as a membership organization or the matter at hand by allowing a fraction of a small fraction of the membership to claim to speak for the whole organization. I offer this advice based on too many years of being on boards and in membership groups where these worthless resolutions would be voted on, amounting to nothing, all the self-important signification aside.

      • stephenjones on June 15, 2014, 1:48 am

        Can I also just say, that there seems to be one person who needs to slash and burn whatever I write here, as if enforcing some line. The 24/7 iron-fisting is creepy and unnecessary. For example, when I pointed out the obvious that there are people in the GOP popular base who would find it easier to can Eric Cantor because he’s Jewish, an observation based, in part, on my extensive personal experience in the region, the response was foaming at the mouth: “people like you w/the allegations”… allegations? The allegation that the GOP has sectarian bigots in it? Really? And now, simply pointing out that under 10% of the MLA membership probably shouldn’t be allowed to speak for the whole organization is something out of Mein Kampf, when it should be – again – an obvious point to anyone who takes democracy seriously.

        I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but the weird “You’re just INSANE, and NOBODY ON THE EARTH thinks that way except you!” shock and disbelief act should be beneath this website, especially for its writers and editors. Ponder these rules: (1) don’t willfully mischaracterize someone’s statements as all-or-nothing (e.g., “Eric Cantor lost 100% because of seething anti-Semitism in the heartland” – which is not what I said… at all), it’s a debate tactic that doesn’t even pass muster in high school; (2) people can be motivated by many things, even contradictory things… and there’s a difference between analyzing and sloganeering, and a place for both; don’t take an analysis to task for being insufficiently sloganeering.

  6. James Canning on June 13, 2014, 7:43 pm

    Very interesting.

  7. ToivoS on June 13, 2014, 9:20 pm

    The most interesting aspect of this vote is that even after being heavily lobbied by the Zionist faction who warned the members of this dangerous assault on Israel, over 90% did not bother to vote. That the Zionists are claiming a victory because over 90% do not care about Israel one way or the other is astounding.

    We have seen this for some time. Israel and its lobby can buy votes but they cannot convince people to support Israel. At some point they will run out of money and when that happens Israel is toast.

    • seafoid on June 14, 2014, 9:13 am

      I think they’ll run out of popular support well before they run out of money .

  8. JustJessetr on June 14, 2014, 8:17 am

    Where is the support for your idea that 90% don’t care about Israel one way or the other?

    My take on it is different, that they didn’t think the issue is worth discussing. Not a distinction without a difference: I believe they thought the debate simply isn’t worth having. Sort of in the way people don’t want to bother debating evolution one more time with creationists. I don’t claim the I/P conflict is as simple as creationism vs. evolution, but I think the attitude draws a parallel.

  9. Denis on June 14, 2014, 3:54 pm

    America’s Zionists, are losing the battle for liberal support? Well . . . hang on, in this short but sharp analysis of Cantor’s defeat, American Conservative writer Scott McConnell reckons that America’s Zionists are losing the battle for conservative support as well, and I think that is far more significant.

    Until America gets a Republican president and congress that is willing to spank GoI for its mischief and demand an end to apartheid, Americans will just keep coughing up $8 million/day. Liberals alone are powerless to stop that, even if they were smart enough to want to.


    But it may be simply that conservative southern Republicans are beginning to get tired of neocons telling them they have to prepare to fight another war. Antiwar Republican Walter Jones won his North Carolina primary earlier this spring, standing strong against a major media assault by Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel. Now, in an election result that stunned political observers more than anything than happened in their lifetime, Cantor goes down before an underfunded Tea Party candidate.

  10. Boomer on June 15, 2014, 8:39 am

    Thanks for this report on the MLA. Perhaps, as you suggest, Israel is losing the battle for liberal support. (It still has 88 Senators in the U.S. Senate, however, which probably matters more.) Actually, I don’t understand how any decent person–liberal or conservative– could support Israel’s current expansionist and oppressive policies, unless that person is incredibly ignorant of the reality, or blinded by group attachment to universal principles of fairness and humanity.

    I say “incredibly ignorant” because, in today’s world, despite the bias in U.S. media, it would seem to require a willful refusal to face reality to maintain such ignorance. The alternative explanation, of blinding group attachment, may explain support for Israel’s policies among Jews, but I find mysterious the explanation for such support among others.

    I say this despite having just heard Krista Tippett’s discussion with Jonathan Haidt about the psychology behind morality. It is an interesting discussion but–although ostensibly focused on the problem of the I/P conflict–not very revealing (to me at least) about how any decent person could regard Israel’s current policies and practices as moral.

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