MLA to join fray as academic boycott debate heats up

Modern Language Association invites pro-BDS voices only to discuss Israel embargo; Congressmen rap American Studies Association boycott move

Illustrative: An anti-Israel protest at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2009. (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)
Illustrative: An anti-Israel protest at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2009. (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)

Days after a group of American academics voted to impose a boycott on Israel, the 30,000-member Modern Language Association will debate sanctioning the Jewish state with a panel consisting only of pro-Palestinian voices.

The MLA, a professional organization of language and literature scholars, will hold a panel discussion on “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” at its Delegate Assembly in Chicago on January 9.

The boycott panel is to consist of a group of prominent academics who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, movement, as well as BDS founder Omar Barghouti, but will not have a dissenting or pro-Israeli voice.

The group will be led by University of Texas Professor Samer Ali.

The panel comes on the heels of a decision by the 5,000-member American Studies Association to boycott Israel.

“The debate at ASA breached a taboo that existed about how people discuss Israel and Palestine,” said David Lloyd, an English professor at the University of California who is an outspoken BDS backer, according to The Forward.

While an official boycott is not on the agenda for the meeting, the group will debate sending a protest to the US State Department over Israel’s alleged treatment of US academics who wish to visit Gaza and the West Bank, Haaretz reported on Wednesday.

Also this week, a Native American studies association became the third US academic body this year to recommend its members boycott Israeli universities.

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in a December 15 announcement said it “encourages NAISA members to boycott Israeli academic institutions because they are imbricated with the Israeli state and we wish to place pressure on that state to change its policies.”

The statement encouraged “generous dialogue” on the issue and said the boycott was open to discussion at the group’s national conference in May in Austin, Texas.

Like the American Studies Association boycott, the NAISA boycott does not target individuals and is not binding on members.

Earlier this year, the Association for Asian American Studies became the first US academic institution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. At its annual conference in Seattle in April, the group’s general membership unanimously voted in favor of a resolution that accuses Israeli universities of supporting systematic discrimination against Palestinian students, among other charges.

Suggestions of an academic boycott on Israel have ignited a heated debate among American scholars and politicians, with many opposing academic boycotts in principle and some suggesting that singling out Israel hints of anti-Semitism.

On Wednesday, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) released a statement blasting the ASA’s decision, which he said “applies a deeply offensive double standard.”

Nadler said that the ASA had “embraced an approach that is anathema to our desire for Israelis and Palestinians to co-exist in peace and security,” arguing that “such a stance undermines prospects for a two-state solution and ultimately will perpetuate the cycle of violence.”

The congressman warned that boycott would discourage direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which he described as the only route to “a peaceful and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“The ASA’s decision is particularly troubling in that it comes in the middle of newly revived peace talks led by the Obama Administration,” he said. “Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas opposes boycotts and sanctions against Israel, like the one passed by ASA, out of a concern for the potential damage to the talks and ultimately to an enduring peace.”

Earlier this week, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) also criticized the vote.

Rebecca Stoil, JTA and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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