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MLA votes against BDS, tables resolution blaming PA and Hamas for restrictions on Palestinian academic freedom (Updated)

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At the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia, on January 7, 2017, the Delegate Assembly voted against a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli universities complicit in the denial of academic freedom for the Palestinian people. A resolution that would add racist insult to injury, by blaming the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but not Israel, for the plight of Palestinian scholars, was tabled.

Resolution 2017-1 (the Anti-boycott resolution, proposed by Russell A. Berman and Martin B. Shichtman) reads:

Whereas endorsing the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature,

Whereas the boycott’s prohibition of the evaluation of work of individual Israeli scholars conflicts with Resolution 2002-1, which condemns boycotts against scholars,

Whereas endorsing the boycott could curtail debates with representatives of Israeli universities, such as faculty members, department chairs and deans, thereby blocking possible dialogue and general scholarly exchange,

Be it resolved that the MLA refrain from endorsing the boycott.

101 voted in favor, and 93 opposed this resolution.  Clearly, the 101 delegates are not concerned about present restrictions on dialogue and scholarly exchanges with Palestinian academics, fearing only about the privileges of “representatives of Israeli universities.”

The pro-boycott resolution, Resolution 2017-2, proposed by Rebecca Comay of the University of Toronto, and David Lloyd, of the US Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, reads:

Whereas the MLA affirms: “When academic freedom is curtailed, higher education is compromised”;

Whereas the US materially supports Israel’s ongoing violations of human rights and international law;

Whereas these violations include the systematic denial of academic freedom and educational rights for Palestinian scholars and students;

Whereas Israeli universities are instrumental in perpetuating these violations;

Be it resolved that the MLA endorses Palestinian civil society’s call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions; and

Be it further resolved that the MLA affirms the right of faculty and students everywhere to advocate for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, without retaliation.

The pro-BDS resolution was voted down, with 79 in favor, and 113 opposed. But what was even more egregious than the vote in favor of anti-boycott resolution was the following, Resolution 2017-3, which blames Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but not Israel, for the restrictions on the academic freedom of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Resolution 2017-3, proposed by Agnes C. Mueller, reads:

Whereas repeated attacks on the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students by Palestinian political organizations, including both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have been documented,

Whereas these attacks on academic freedom constrain scholarly pursuits in Palestinian universities,

Be it resolved that the MLA condemn attacks on academic freedom in Palestinian universities, whether they are perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority or by Hamas.

In an interesting development presented as a “conciliatory move” following the defeat of the BDS resolution, the sponsors of Resolution 2017-3 proposed that it be tabled.  The proposal to table the resolution passed, thus depriving many of the opportunity to expose who truly is behind the violations of academic freedom for Palestinians, namely Israel.  Such a discussion is available on the BDS website, and reads, in part:

Israel’s relentless and deliberate attack on Palestinian education, which some have recently termed scholasticide, goes back to the 1948 Nakba, when Israel plundered and/or destroyed tens of thousands of Palestinian books.

During the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), Israel shut down all Palestinian universities, some for several years, all 1,194 Palestinian schools and eventually kindergartens, prompting Palestinians to build an “illegal network” of underground schools.

Palestinian scholars and students are methodically denied their basic rights, including academic freedom, and are often subjected to imprisonment, denial of freedom of movement, even violent attacks.

In its assault on Gaza in 2014, Israel targeted at least 153 schools, including 90 run by the UN, and the largest university, according to UNICEF.

Israeli universities have not only remained silent, but in many cases have directly supported or justified the state’s ongoing suppression of Palestinian education.

At the time of this writing, there is talk of a mass walkout from the MLA, a collective letter withdrawing membership, even a boycott of the MLA.  The walkout would not be immediate, however, as the resolutions must first be put to a vote of the entire MLA membership, numbering close to 25,000 academics.

Correction and Update: This post has been corrected to clarify that Resolution 2017-3 was tabled and not passed.

The following press release was issued by the MLA about the votes and upcoming process:

For Immediate Release

January 7, 2017

MLA Delegates Move Resolution to Refrain from Endorsing Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions Toward Membership Vote

Members of the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association (MLA) agreed today to move forward for consideration by the entire MLA membership a resolution that calls on the MLA to refrain from endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Delegates meeting at the 2017 MLA Annual Convention in Philadelphia cast 194 ballots, 101 for moving the resolution forward and 93 against doing so. The MLA’s bylaws require a simple majority vote at the Delegate Assembly meeting to move a resolution forward for consideration by all members.

In accordance with the MLA’s bylaws, the MLA Executive Council must now examine the resolution to determine if any constitutional, legal, or fiduciary issues are posed by its language. The council will then either forward the resolution to the membership without modifications or with nonsubstantive modifications or determine that it is unable to forward the resolution for reasons set forth in the MLA constitution.

If the council forwards the resolution, MLA members will vote on it in 2017 after a monthlong commenting period. The resolution must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.

Today’s vote was held after two years of discussion by delegates. These discussions took place in the MLA’s online forums, at the 2016 convention, and at a town hall meeting at the 2017 convention where scores of members debated the question of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. MLA President Kwame Anthony Appiah commented on the Delegate Assembly’s moving the resolution forward: “The discussion leading up to the vote was thoughtful and informative. The MLA is committed to ensuring that the next stages of this process continue in the same spirit and that all members have the opportunity to make their voices heard.”

MLA delegates also considered other resolutions, including

  • A resolution to endorse Palestinian civil society’s call to boycott Israeli academic institutions, which received 79 votes for moving it forward and 113 votes against
  • A resolution to condemn attacks on academic freedom in Palestinian universities by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, which received 83 votes for postponing it indefinitely and 78 votes against
  • An emergency resolution to endorse the American Association of University Professors statement “Higher Education after the 2016 Election,” which received 104 votes for moving it forward and 8 votes against

Those resolutions will also be reviewed by the MLA Executive Council to determine whether they can be forwarded to the full MLA membership.

If any of the resolutions approved by the Delegate Assembly should be ratified by the full membership, they would be a formal expression of member sentiment or opinion. In the context of the MLA’s constitution and resolution process, resolutions cannot compel the association or its members to take or refrain from taking any action that requires the expenditure of association funds or the forgoing of association income.

Over 6,000 participants gathered at the 132nd MLA Annual Convention in Philadelphia for four days of presentations, discussions, and debate on a wide array of topics related to the study and teaching of modern languages, literatures, digital media, and the arts and humanities more broadly. The convention is the world’s largest gathering of humanities scholars.

About the Modern Language Association
The Modern Language Association of America and its 25,000 members in more than 100 countries work to strengthen the study and teaching of languages and literature. Founded in 1883, the MLA provides opportunities for its members to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to discuss trends in the academy. The MLA sustains a wide-ranging print and electronic publishing program that includes books, journals, style guides, and an international bibliography. More information on MLA programs is available at

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Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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16 Responses

  1. annie on January 8, 2017, 1:28 am

    i am completely flabberghasted!

    • Mooser on January 8, 2017, 3:38 pm

      And now the update says : It’s tabled! Which will give everybody a nice long look at it.

  2. Kay24 on January 8, 2017, 2:27 am

    Twisting arms, threats, and positioning your mindless puppets, to oppose those who fight for human rights. The zionist playbook.

  3. Citizen on January 8, 2017, 3:28 am

    Did anyone show evidence the PA and/or HAMAS were mostly responsible for negative activity against Palestinian scholarship? If so, how did they do that without showing the full context?

  4. just on January 8, 2017, 5:25 am

    How is it possible that Israel was able to infiltrate this organization to the point that ‘academics’ lie to themselves and the world?

    Are these ‘academics’ stupid?

    Thank you, Nada.

  5. Jim Holstun on January 8, 2017, 11:18 am

    These literature-oriented academics aren’t stupid, exactly, but they do chronically overestimate the political efficacy of “free debate” (as if that defined Israeli academia) and the exchange of ideas, just as they underestimate the importance of exercising force. And they are still afraid–afraid of people calling them anti-semites, of course, as the unprincipled and increasingly isolated Professor Cary Nelson does not hesitate to do.

    But it’s important to note how close the vote was: five delegates changing their minds would have tipped things the other way. The US Campaign and the other BDS groups have done excellent work. Because of them, I think I’ll re-up my MLA membership later this month, for the first time in years!

  6. nada on January 8, 2017, 12:54 pm

    Let us keep in mind that the MLA also refused to endorse a boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 80s. Then and now, wrong side of history.
    Interestingly, this JPost article says the sponsors of the anti-BDS resolution were assisted by “Jewish organizations.” Certainly not any Jewish organizations, but Zionist ones.

  7. echinococcus on January 8, 2017, 2:39 pm

    Thank you for the reminder about MLA’s past attitude.

    One remark, though:

    this JPost article says the sponsors of the anti-BDS resolution were assisted by “Jewish organizations.” Certainly not any Jewish organizations, but Zionist ones.

    The overwhelming majority of Jewish organizations are Zionist. Stark statistical fact.

  8. Maghlawatan on January 8, 2017, 4:29 pm

    This is an example of how important anti BDS activity is to Israel. BDS scares senior Zionists because it can’t be assassinated , it can’t be bought and it is not afraid of nukes

  9. dbroncos on January 9, 2017, 2:59 am

    Sorry for being off topic but I just watched this video of Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes giving a speech critical of Trump. She introduces her critique by emphasizing the diversity of the Hollywood acting community. She references a short list of American and international actors who were present in the audience. She calls them by name and tells us where they were born and raised. She says, “…and Natalie Portman who was born in Jerusalem where they do have birth cirtificates” I understood this to be an oblique reference to the birthers and Obama’s birth certificate but the meaning of her joke (if that’s what it was) wasn’t clear. It got a couple cheers but her big audience was otherwise silent. I think a lot of her audience understood that it was, at least, a comment loaded with political baggage regardless of her intent.

    Her ‘joke’ was certainly naive In the context of a speech challenging intolerance in the age of Trump. It could also be interpreted as a crassly hypocritical piece of hasbara. Her Jerusalem birth certificate comment is in the first few minutes.

    • eljay on January 9, 2017, 9:30 am

      || dbroncos: … I just watched this video of Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes giving a speech critical of Trump. … She says, “…and Natalie Portman who was born in Jerusalem where they do have birth cirtificates” I understood this to be an oblique reference to the birthers and Obama’s birth certificate … ||

      The transcript of her speech suggests to me that that’s exactly the reference she was making:

      … Amy Adams was born in Italy. Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? …

  10. dbroncos on January 9, 2017, 10:29 am

    I agree, eljay, but in a speech about tolerance and diversity it’s an odd comparison since there are inalienable rights attached to Obama’s birth certificate and a system of separate and unequal rights attached to Portman’s. Another case of selective moralizing and indignation on the part of a tone deaf PEP.

  11. BeamMeUp on January 9, 2017, 11:14 am

    Another travesty. When is this going to stop? By International Law what Israel has done, and is doing, to the Palestinians is illegal. And under International Law it is actually legal for the Palestinians to fight back. I am not anti-Semitic but very, very much anti-Zionist. How can we claim our ‘fight for human rights’ abroad and support Israel? Maybe because we’re seeking global control (hello NWO) and Israel has a good Army, lots of nukes, and is our ally? It all stinks to high heaven.

  12. Elizabeth Block on January 9, 2017, 4:06 pm

    I was in Palestine in March. We escorted kindergarten children – kindergarteners! – to and from school. And we visited a village where schoolchildren are regularly attacked on their way to and from school by Jewish settlers. They are supposed to be protected by israeli soldiers. Sometimes the soldiers show up, sometimes they don’t bother.

    If this is not a restriction on academic freedom, I’d like to know what is.

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