Why I am not at the MLA

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I have been a member of the Modern Language Association, or MLA, for twenty years. I have served as a Delegate to the Assembly two times and have been on the executive committee of two MLA divisions. This year, my absence from the MLA Annual Convention is conscious and intentional.

Last year, the vote against support for the academic boycott exposed the MLA’s cowardice but, more so, its vote for the unconstitutional provision that prohibits any further motions regarding Palestinian academic freedom exposes the complicity in the occupation of Palestine. Indeed, that a proposed motion still remains to be voted on by the Assembly that blames Palestinians for abuse of Palestinian academic freedom only further demonstrates the MLA’s disgusting moral failure when it comes to the illegal occupation of Palestine and the systematic abuses of the Israeli occupation regime. To be clear, these votes and motions are not just infighting between two opposing groups within the MLA. They are an explicit, institutional disavowal of the Palestinians’ right to education and academic freedom and, to be equally clear, are an act of collusion, whether implicit or directed, with the Israeli government.

The MLA president, Kwame Anthony Appiah, issued a public statement, on the eve of the conference, about the boycott resolution.  It was intended to strike fear in the hearts of undecided MLA members, fear at a time when Trump’s hate breeched the lip of sanity and was pouring into all of our lives.  What has been less noted is that the President joined this call at the behest of another former president, the stalwart Likudist Zionist Russel Berman, and longtime Palestinian-hater Cary Nelson, both who worked closely the Committee of University Heads in Israel, a group of non-MLA Israeli scholars who organized to stop BDS organizations in a number of academic organizations.

As an assembly delegate, I stood in line waiting for my turn at the microphone for the full duration of debate (probably two hours), only to find myself as the last one standing at the mic and never able to use it. The Executive Director and Executive Council of the MLA effectively shut down discussion during the delegate assembly by allowing the anti-BDS camp to control the floor and the microphone through specious uses of Robert’s Rules.

Only one Palestinian American spoke at the assembly, while anti-BDS activists were permitted to jump the queue and given a number of turns at the mic. This is not about me, as an Arab delegate being frozen out of debate. Nor is this the kvetching of a sore loser. To the contrary, I am only bringing attention to the institutional collusion, whether indirect or direct, of the MLA in the vote last year.

The MLA has demonstrated itself to be a bankrupt professionalist and opportunistic organization that finally has publicly announced its complicity and, indeed, endorsement of the sustained and systematic abuse of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel.  Contrary to its own ethos, the MLA has made a public statement that it supports Israel’s continued violation of international laws and human rights conventions, even those abuses that involve higher education.

As this is being read, I am en route to Palestine. I am unsure if “the only democracy in the Middle East” will allow me entry because of my public advocacy of the BDS movement. I wonder how long this beacon of democracy will detain me for three hours, five, or eight hours again? Will they ask if I knew the MLA’s former president, Edward Said, again?  Will they require me to produce letters again from Jewish Israeli academics because letters from Palestinian academics and educational institutions hold no value?

If Israel bars me from entering Occupied Palestine in order to do scholarly research, I do not expect the MLA to protest or be my advocate just as I do not expect any longer for it to advocate for the rights of Palestinian academics or students who are prevented to travel or to get to their universities, or those who are illegally detained by the Israeli occupation regime.

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Gloomy picture. And I expected better of Appiah.

Great statement, terrible news about yet-another-complicity. The long arm of big-money-which-rules-politics strikes again, I suppose. A bit (one imagines) like the dean of Fordham University disallowing establishment of a club named “Students for Justice in Palestine” (SJP) after the student group charged with providing preliminary approval approved the club. Or Univ Illinois firing Stephen Salaita. To say nothing of Norman Finkelstein’s dispiriting adventures with academia. Jews may, it is sometimes averred, be a despised minority… Read more »

very powerful statement . it’s been a long haul getting MLA on board, only to have it shut down. but this: its vote for the unconstitutional provision that prohibits any further motions regarding Palestinian academic freedom exposes the complicity in the occupation of Palestine. unreal!!! i remember when alex, in 2013, first wrote about the upcoming convention featuring an academic boycott panel and resolution slamming Israeli denial of entries. http://mondoweiss.net/2013/12/association-convention-resolution/ then in 2014, MLA’s Delegate… Read more »

As a philosopher and long time admirer of Kwame Appiah, I’m very disappointed in him and, to the extent that he represents other philosophers, in my colleagues.

When I was in Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams (you don’t have to be a Christian! Who knew?), everybody’s favourite task was Kindergarten Watch – escorting little children to and from school. Kindergarteners needing to be protected from attacks by soldiers and settlers? If that’s not an attack on academic freedom, what is?