WASHINGTON — The 30,000 member-strong Modern Language Association has launched an all-membership vote on an anti-Israel resolution passed in the group’s Delegate Assembly last January.
Opponents of the resolution, which seeks State Department intervention regarding “denials of entry to the West Bank by US academics” traveling to Palestinian universities, complain that the MLA’s leadership has unfairly favored the pro-resolution camp in the run-up to the vote and are disturbed by voices within the organization that have made anti-Semitic comments.
Voting began on April 21 and will close on June 1 on MLA Resolution 2014-1, the only votable resolution to emerge from the academic organization’s annual conference, which was held in January. The initial resolution, as well as a conference session in support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement, took some members by surprise, and they scrambled to organize anti-BDS panels in advance of the January meeting.
The scholars, who formed a group that they call MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, applied after the deadline to be allowed to convene an official session opposing BDS, but their request was denied. Attempts to block Resolution 2014-1 in the Delegate Assembly also failed, and the resolution was referred to the organization’s entire membership for ratification.
Opponents of the resolution say they were deeply disturbed by comments made in the lead-up to the general vote on an online members-only forum set up to debate the merits of the resolution.
One such comment in support of the resolution argued that “this resolution rightly targets only Israel given the humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision-making process of Academia in general,” while others suggested that an external pro-Israel cabal was at work in funding opposition to the resolution. Another described the opposition as “Zionist attack dogs.” The MLA did not answer questions this week regarding the comment board’s editorial policy, issuing instead a general response that “since the comment period on the resolution is now over and voting by MLA members has just started, it is not appropriate for the MLA to comment at this point.”
Professor Martin Shichtman, the director of Jewish Studies at Eastern Michigan University and an organizer of MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, said that these statements “were atypical among hundreds” but noted that they were alarming.
Professor Cary Nelson, a member of the MLA for almost five decades, noted that “many of us felt that there was a real anti-Semitic flavor about the comments.”
Nelson said that the anti-Semitic rhetoric began with those who asked questions about where funding came from for the mass email distributed by MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, who sent out a missive to all MLA members with registered emails containing their side of the debate.
“People complained that ‘outsiders’ damaged the debate, asking where the money came from, accusing it of being part of the Jewish lobby with foreign money poured into the opposition and that it was externally engineered.”
“It was disturbing,” Nelson recalled. “It was interesting because it was just members, and it was a little less controlled than when people get up at a convention and give a talk.”
Nelson, Shichtman, former MLA president Russell Berman and Rachel Harris, an assistant professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, currently serve as the interim executive committee of the anti-resolution camp, and have circulated a petition that has garnered over 400 signatures opposing the resolution.
Members of MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights say that they have been confronted by institutional obstacles in their effort to oppose the resolution. In the latest iteration, they complain, last Monday’s announcement of the start of the balloting was emailed to MLA members with two attachments – a link to the online discussion forum and the supporting documentation that the resolution’s supporters had distributed during the January conference.
Scholars wrote to the MLA’s executive director, Rosemary Feal, to ask that the material presented to the delegate assembly in opposition to the resolution also be distributed to members, but she denied the request. Requests for comments from the MLA about this decision received the same response as those addressing the content of the message board.
In a February article posted to the MLA Commons, Feal discussed the events surrounding the January convention, addressing in particular the decision-making process involved in approving the pro-BDS panel.
“I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session,” Feal wrote. “I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an ‘opposing view’ to be added to the Program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a ‘counterpanel.’ I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.”
Feal noted that opponents to the BDS panel held a counterpanel unaffiliated with the MLA – but announced during the conference – at a nearby hotel. In her article, she never mentioned that the counterpanel’s organizers were themselves MLA members, instead writing that “an academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members—and only members—can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values?”
Feal’s article was offered by the MLA’s representatives this week as explaining the organization’s official stance toward Resolution 2014-1. In it, she noted that MLA members have the right to submit and debate resolutions, that contrary to popular belief, the MLA has not yet ratified the resolution, encourages members to read the text of the resolution, which is linked to the article, and notes the process entailed in ratification of the resolution.
Feal also cited an earlier statement by Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in which he said that “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support.”
That, say the organizers of MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, is exactly what they are trying to do. Their list of complaints against the resolution is long, and they have attempted to publicize them to the MLA membership.
Nelson described the resolution as “flawed” because it “unfairly singles out only one country.” He complained that the evidence offered in support of the resolution cited the experiences of only four US academics, three of whom were ultimately allowed entry to Israel and the West Bank.
According to Nelson, in the course of his work with AAUP, he encountered denials of entry to academics in many states, and is familiar with cases in which academics have been similarly denied entry to the United States. “We believe maximizing freedom of entry and access for faculty worldwide will facilitate international understanding and enhance research and teaching everywhere,” Nelson wrote in a statement concerning the resolution. “We urge our fellow MLA members to join the hundreds already in opposition to this flawed resolution that unfairly singles out only one country.”
He added that there had been no actual investigation of the claims. The AAUP, he said, followed stringent guidelines for addressing concerns like those listed in the resolution while the MLA has no such guidelines.
“There is a fair question as to why we’re having resolutions about Israel with the number of problems in academia,” Shichtman asked, while noting that the resolution’s supporters framed it as an issue of academic freedom rather than of a purely political stance. “As a director of Jewish studies, I see in my community real anxiety about this rhetoric. In some cases, the rhetoric is excessive and these attacks stifle speech. It is getting harder and harder within the academy to speak in support of Israel — this issue is closing debate and not opening it.”
Shichtman is concerned that the resolution is “an early gesture for a more radical BDS proposal.” One such proposal, an emergency proposal to declare the MLA’s solidarity for the American Studies Association’s (ASA) pro-BDS stance, was voted down by a large margin during the January meeting.
Shichtman said, however, that the more radically pro-BDS resolution suffered because it was “put together very, very quickly”, it was brought forward late in the meeting, and, as an emergency proposal, it required an exceptionally large margin of support to pass.
But Resolution 2014-1, Shichtman warned, “will open the door” for future such resolutions. “That is what I think the framers of the proposal are hoping and expecting.”
Shichtman, however, believes that the MLA’s membership will make the right decision.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. I think it is a really bad proposal, objectively, and I think that most members are going to see that, because the logic in it is flawed and I think that many members of MLA understand that it is very inappropriate for us to single out a particular nation, and what it means for us to be singling out this particular nation.”