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In Keeping with Conservative History, MLA Votes Down Resolution to Boycott Israeli Institutions

[This statement was released by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine on 9 January 2017.]

At the annual convention of the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association (MLA), a resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions for their involvement in violations of international law was voted down by 113-78. The Delegate Assembly is the representative body of the Association, and the resolution will not now move forward for consideration by the full membership, comprised of over twenty-five thousand scholars and teachers.

The MLA Delegate Assembly’s vote differs from that of a growing number of academic associations that have previously endorsed the boycott for Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality. In recent years over twelve associations and faculty unions have voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, including the American Studies Association, Native and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, and the National Women’s Studies Association.

Professor Rebecca Comay, one of the resolution’s sponsors, remarked, “The defeat of the boycott resolution is disappointing, of course, but it’s notable that forty percent of the Delegate Assembly actually voted in support of the boycott. To put this in context: the MLA voted against the boycott of South African universities in the 1980s —a movement that is now almost universally recognized as having been one of the contributing forces in bringing down the apartheid regime.”

“Associations that have endorsed the boycott have tended to represent scholars whose mission includes the study of race, colonialism, and culture. The MLA remains a conservative body that has shown itself over many years to be reluctant to take strong public stands on issues of justice and human rights,” said David Palumbo-Liu, MLA member and professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University University. “Nevertheless, the impact advocates of the boycott resolution have had on discourse in such a short period of time emphasizes the growing public support for the non-violent strategy of BDS.”

Unlike the boycott of South African academia during the divestment campaigns of the 1980s, which targeted all South African scholars, the Palestinian boycott exempts individual scholars and focuses on Israeli universities as institutions that have a documented track record of complicity in the Israeli government’s soon-to-be fifty years of occupation. Endorsing an academic boycott resolution does not prevent Israeli scholars from teaching, researching, traveling, or attending conferences such as the MLA Convention.

“Palestinian scholars and students suffer under daily restrictions on their right to education, from campus closures and detainment without charge to denial of visas to travel and restrictions on the import of books and materials. These restrictions affect them as individuals and institutionally,” says Salah Hassan, a professor of English at Michigan State University.

The resolution had been in front of the MLA for over two years, having originally been submitted, along with an opposing resolution, in October 2014, for consideration at the January 2015 Convention. It was then agreed to suspend both resolutions to allow the Association’s membership to hear a full debate on the topic of academic boycott. Since then there have been three Town Hall sessions, several panels on the issue, and an unprecedented number of panels dealing with Palestinian literature and culture that have done much to advance understanding of the conditions of Palestinians in Palestine and globally.

“While the resolution was not approved by the Delegate Assembly, it is notable that support for the boycott resolution grew incrementally over the period of debate and discussion. A broad segment of MLA members in almost every disciplinary area of the modern languages have expressed support for the resolution,” said Comay. “The resolution found strong and outspoken support among graduate students and contingent faculty, despite the documented possibility of retaliation against those who speak out for the equality and freedom of Palestinians. There’s a rising generation of scholars whose understanding of the humanities and of academic freedom embraces a commitment to honoring fundamental human rights everywhere.”

A counter resolution against boycotting Israeli institutions passed by a narrow margin of eight votes. The resolution must now receive ten percent of the MLA membership vote this spring in order to pass.

Noting the context of intimidation and retaliation that has dogged advocates of BDS, Cynthia Franklin, professor at the University of Hawai’I, noted that passage of the anti-boycott resolution “provides support for groups like Canary Mission and legislation criminalizing boycott.” Canary Mission is an anonymous website that posts personal information on professors or students who advocate for BDS.

Following the debate on these resolutions, the Delegate Assembly voted on an “emergency resolution” that expressed concern that the incoming Trump administration might threaten the academic freedom of US scholars. As David Lloyd, another sponsor of the boycott resolution, remarked during debate, “It is hard not to feel the hypocrisy of passing a resolution like this while denying our support to Palestinians who not only face a potential threat, but actually suffer the denials of academic and every other freedom that we are privileged to enjoy.” 

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