As I reported last week, the Modern Language Association was considering at its annual convention a resolution endorsing an academic boycott of Israel.
To judge by the crowing of its supporters after a town hall meeting on Friday, one might have expected the resolution would at least clear MLA’s Delegate Assembly. That Assembly passed a resolution condemning Israel in 2014, though that resolution failed when it went to the full membership. Supporters of the resolution said that the anti-boycott forces ran out of speakers an hour before the meeting ended, that a sea of pro-boycott voices emerged, that those voices were “more numerous, more varied in their arguments, more informed on the issues, and more diverse in terms of their institutional, cultural and disciplinary identities.”
Yet in the MLA Delegate Assembly this time around, the boycotters–now explicit in a way they had not been in 2014 in their attempt to get the Modern Language Association to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement–lost, 113-79. To add insult to injury, a counter-resolution, sponsored by boycott opponents and explicitly declaring that the MLA should refrain from endorsing the boycott, passed. Here is the text of that resolution, from Legal Insurrection, which has done excellent reporting on the debate:
Whereas boycotting Israeli universities contradicts MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature,
Whereas boycotting universities and refusing to evaluate work of Israelis conflicts with Resolution 2002-1 which condemns boycotts against scholars,
Whereas honoring the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel entails ending dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians which would block convention sessions involving such dialogue,
Whereas the boycott, applied to MLA’s commercial transactions, would prohibit sales of MLA publications including the Bibliography to Israeli universities, reducing MLA income,
Be it resolved that MLA refrain from participating in a boycott of Israeli universities.
That resolution passed 101-93. The delicious result is that the MLA, which the pro-boycott forces hoped would be the first major academic organization to support BDS, may end up on record against it. Just as the 2014 anti-Israel resolution failed when it went to a vote open to all members, though, so, too, might this one. The rules of the MLA specify that a mere majority in such a vote is insufficient for passage—the majority must represent at least ten percent of the membership. That has proven to be a high hurdle in the past.
Whatever may happen to the anti-boycott resolution, the flat failure of the pro-boycott resolution is a big deal, and, not surprisingly, BDS supporters are perturbed—they were almost too stunned to boo when the Delegate Assembly went against them. They are now recovering enough to act. The anti-boycott forces are “like Trump” and very, very white. Soon, the complaints about the influence of Zionist money will start to appear.
For now, however, I congratulate MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights, who have led the fight to prevent a hostile BDS takeover of their association, on a well-deserved victory.