The Modern Language Association, perhaps best known for its rulings on writing style and bibliographical usage by English-language students, researchers and professors the world over, is wading once again into the murky pool of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the group’s convention in Chicago this month, members of its Delegate Assembly reportedly will vote on a resolution urging the State Department to contest what it calls “Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer or do research at Palestinian universities.”
The action would place the organization in the middle of the debate raging between academic institutions, departments and professors on similar resolutions pushing for outright boycotts, divestments and sanctions against the Jewish state. Of three resolutions condemning other countries the MLA has approved since 1982, two were against Israel, which led association
member Victor Lieberman, a history professor at the University of Michigan, to
criticize the vote.
“The MLA Delegate Assembly will consider a fourth resolution,” he wrote to voting members. “This too criticizes Israel, in this case Israeli restrictions on the entry of American academics of Palestinian ancestry to the West Bank. Given that three of four resolutions single out Israel, are we to conclude that Israel represents the principal threat to academic freedom not only in the Mideast, but in the world at large?”
Lieberman counted more than 50 African, Southeast Asian and South Asian countries that actively prevent the expression of unwelcome opinions on their campuses, as well as universities in Iran and every Arab country. He added that in Russia, Belarus and other ex-Soviet Union states, research centers and academics face concerted government attack for espousing unpopular views.
“What possible logic then could lead the MLA to conclude of 193 U.N. member states, Israel is the only one deserving repeated MLA censure?” asked Lieberman. “In truth, of course, this proposed resolution, coming in the wake of the recent American Studies Association resolution, is part of a broader critique of Israeli policy. … But in its odd selectivity and penchant for a priori logic, the proposed MLA resolution is embarrassingly anti-intellectual. I urge you to oppose its passage.”
In addition to the vote, the convention schedule includes a round-table discussion that purports to “promote discussion of strategy, ethics and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But the discussion, “Academic Boy9cotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” and organized by MLA executive committee member Samer M. Ali of the University of Texas, includes among its four speakers not a single opponent of the boycott movement. Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the boycott movement, is one of the speakers.
Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition requested permission to host an “open discussion featuring MLA members regarding academic freedom in Israel, its territories and Gaza” at the MLA convention, but they were denied permission. In turning down the request, the MLA cited their submission as falling outside the April 1 deadline; MLA policy does not permit renting space to nonmembers.
“We believe the members of the MLA deserve to hear a far more diverse set of perspectives on the issue of academic freedom in Israel and nearby countries,” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the ICC. “MLA members, as academics, certainly can appreciate the value of multiple perspectives on what is a very controversial issue.”
Melissa Gerr is digital media editor/senior reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, the sister publication of Washington Jewish Week.