The Brandeis Center has sent a letter to the Modern Language Association threatening a lawsuit if the Association passes the resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The Brandeis Center is a legal lobby group that represents its mission as being “to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and to promote justice for all”, but lately it seems to have been devoting its time to suppressing legitimate efforts to achieve justice and civil rights for the Palestinian people. The Center claims that the resolution is in violation of the MLA’s charter and non-profit status. The threatened lawsuit would be frivolous and unlikely to pass muster, but the threat itself is hardly a surprise. On the contrary, it is an index of the growing success of the boycott movement in changing public understanding of Israel’s ongoing violations of international law and human rights.
For some years now, opponents of the boycott resolutions have turned to coercive means—lawsuits, legislative acts, so-called “civility” policies to shut down free speech on campus, and the opportunistic attempt to define criticism of Israel or of Zionism as anti-Semitic—where they find it impossible to oppose BDS with rational arguments. This threatened lawsuit would simply be yet another proof that it is no longer possible to defend Israel’s violations of international law in a manner consistent with liberal values. Indeed, it is increasingly impossible to defend Israel’s ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians or the apartheid system it has established without also endorsing the racist foundations of the state. So Israel’s advocates find it safer to silence than to debate. Coercion is not a very strong argument and will only repel people, as it has already done everywhere these methods have been tried, rather than deterring them. Those who threaten the exercise of free speech and the right to organize and educate on vital political issues. Those who threaten the exercise of free speech and the right to organize and educate on vital political issues violate the very essence of civil rights and the means that have historically been used to secure them.
The Brandeis Center’s letter to the MLA, couched in language solicitous for the association’s unity, is highly duplicitous. It claims that passage of such resolutions is divisive for associations: in fact, healthy debate on serious issues is always healthy for any association and the experience of the ASA is that the Association has more members and is in a better overall state since December 2013. A few embittered members of that Association decided to try to preempt the majority decision of the membership by initiating a similar lawsuit, but that only shows just how quickly Israel’s advocates resort to coercion when they lose the argument in free and open debate.
The letter also claims that the resolution violates the MLA’s founding principles. That is, at the very least, open to debate. The resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions cites in its first clause the MLA’s endorsement of the AAUP’s commitment to upholding academic freedom. In our view, that means that the Association is committed by its stated principles to opposing violations of academic freedom wherever they occur, including in Palestine or Israel. On the other hand, the resolution, even under the strictest construal, does not violate anyone’s academic freedom as that set of freedoms is defined by the AAUP.
Given the robust protections given by the first amendment to the exercise of political speech, it is highly unlikely that such a lawsuit will ever succeed. Nonetheless, the threatening letter sent by the Brandeis Center is an act of bullying that is an interesting test of the MLA’s resolve. We have been encouraged to unify and direct our collective efforts to opposing the likely attacks on education and the Humanities under a Trump administration. But if the MLA cannot find the will to resist a special interest lobby like the Brandeis Center, it is extremely unlikely to stand up to the bullying tactics that Donald Trump has made his signature style or to the cast of authoritarian diehards with which he is populating his administration.
In fact, a resolution that seeks to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian rights is all the more critical as Trump appoints openly Islamophobic, racist extremists to major positions in government. He has appointed an ambassador to Israel notorious for his extreme positions that include not only support for the illegal settlements, but also the view that Israel is entitled to annex the Palestinian West Bank. The conditions under which our Palestinian colleagues and their students are forced to work are already utterly deplorable and Israel’s violations of their academic freedom are routine and systematic. If the MLA proves too timid to endorse their call to impose non-violent sanctions on institutions that are directly complicit in the Israeli state’s regime of dispossession and discrimination, what hope is there that we will stand up for the rights of vulnerable colleagues and communities here in the United States?