I’m at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Philadelphia. The MLA Delegate Assembly voted today on two resolutions, for and against, of an academic boycott of Israel. The resolution against the boycott was carried narrowly, the resolution in favor of the boycott was defeated by a wider margin.
There were several forums which addressed the pros and cons of the boycott at this meeting.
Speaking as someone who cut his political teeth as part of the group coordinating the boycott of apartheid South Africa at my UK university in the late 1960s and early 70s, the arguments and observations made by the anti-boycotters here were uncannily similar, indeed eerily so, to those I encountered from apartheid supporters and sympathizers decades ago.
Hence, it was said here that the boycott of Israel would hurt Palestinians more than Israelis, in exactly the way that apartheid supporters said the same on behalf of nameless and countless black South Africans.
Palestinian civil society launched the boycott movement (BDS) and called for international support, in just the way that the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa called for an international boycott of their country.
Both Palestinians and South African blacks said they were willing to make the concomitant sacrifices. Who are we to deny their request, unless we happen to be Zionists now or supporters of South African apartheid then?
The old canard of “academic freedom”, and the alleged violation thereof by BDS, was trotted out.
Er, what about the across-the-board violation of the academic freedom of Palestinian teachers, scholars, and students?
Palestinian schools and universities are routinely raided and vandalized during “security searches” (and bombed to smithereens when Israel decides to “mow the lawn” periodically), the curriculum is routinely suspended by arbitrary curfews, the commute to school invariably requires negotiation of army checkpoints that can delay students and teachers for hours on end, volleys of tear gas fired onto campuses disrupt classes, Palestinian professors are not free to travel to conferences and seminars, distinguished foreign academics such as Noam Chomsky are prevented from lecturing at Palestinian universities, “incitement” laws restrict meaningful discussion of Israeli policy, power shortages created by the Israeli government require classes to be held in candlelight, and so on.
Whose “academic freedom” should we be talking about at this convention?
It was also alleged that BDS is a futile and self-aggrandizing gesture on the part of privileged western academics. The same was said about the South African boycott, though it was of course successful in the end, especially when it came to severing sporting ties– sporting prowess being a matter of immense national pride for white South Africans.
The academics against BDS, alas for their argument, are my equally privileged colleagues at US universities!
So: what about their privilege, especially since many are invited to give lucrative lectures at Israeli universities, most likely as a token of gratitude for their stance against BDS?
No impoverished Palestinian university can afford to pay someone like me and likeminded BDS colleagues tuppence to give a lecture there. We’d go for free if asked, though given our support for BDS, acquiring the requisite Israeli entry visa may be a fraught undertaking.
Also heard were heartfelt (or so they sounded) pleas that as an academic organization the MLA should not involve itself in dubious political grandstanding, but should instead advocate for “real issues”, such as “promoting its associated disciplines” (invariably part of the boilerplate mission statements of all academic organizations), championing adjunct faculty on paltry “gig” contracts, as well as alleviating the burdens of severely indebted graduate students, etc.
Several adjuncts and grad students spoke in favor of BDS, and pretty much blew this argument out of the water.
As put-upon, indeed exploited, academic proletarians their natural affinity was with underprivileged Palestinian academics and students, and not the holders of handsomely-paid distinguished chairs and other sinecures at American universities who pay no price for supporting the Zionist cause and being anti-BDS.
Moreover, the “promoting its associated disciplines” argument is an absolute evasion. There is no obvious way to “promote” a discipline. Even throwing huge sums of money at it only works in some instances.
So how about turning the question round and asking “how do we remove impediments to studying a discipline (philosophy, history, literature, etc.) in X or Y (where X happens to be Palestine)?”.
The response in anti-BDS quarters made here that an American organization should only concern itself with what goes on in the US (“we are not experts in Middle East politics” is typically said by such people) is thoroughly bogus.
Academia is many things, but one of the things it is, is an age-old patronage system, and today academia is globalized, so this American patronage system is willy-nilly global in its reach.
Therefore, the most productive answer to the “we should only be in the business of promoting our own disciplines in this country” refrain is simple: in principle, all global impediments to education in its broadest sense of the term will be detrimental, whether in the longer or shorter term, to the overall promotion of an academic field.
And this is occurring in Israel-Palestine on a massive scale.
Allied to the “pointless political grandstanding” argument made by the anti-boycotters was the proposal that the MLA should instead underwrite practical ground-level measures providing “real relief” for Palestinians.
This proposal came from Cary Nelson, who CounterPunch readers will remember as one of the main protagonists in the disgraceful “unhiring” of the Palestinian-American Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne.
Nelson has a reputation for being a wily customer, known to operate from behind the scenes (the “unhiring” of Salaita comes immediately to mind), and his proposal was rightly viewed as a window-dressing evasion.
Numerous major international organizations have been involved for decades in providing substantive relief for the Palestinians– WHO, UNICEF, UNHCR, Doctors without Borders, Red Crescent/Red Cross– and have had their efforts diluted and wrecked by successive Israeli governments.
The idea that the MLA can somehow prevail, by mere advocacy on the part of Cary Nelson of largely cosmetic measures, when these ostensibly powerful international organizations have not been consistently successful in aiding the Palestinians, is a painfully feeble joke.
Moreover, it was pointed out to Nelson that he was posing his proposal as an alternative to BDS, when BDS is perfectly compatible with any such practical relief efforts!
The good professor had no response, since his transparent aim is to derail BDS, window-dressing sympathy for the Palestinian cause notwithstanding.
The “Why pick on Israel, when there is also North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, and so forth?” plaint was also heard at this conference, and for me this resonated very closely with the similar complaint made by South African apartheid sympathizers: “Why pick on South Africa? What about those African cruel dictators– Mobutu, Idi Amin, the “Emperor” Bokassa—who treat their people as excrement?”.
The answer to this objection is fourfold:
1/ No African despot ever pretended to uphold “western values” (whatever these may be) in the way Israel does, and white South Africa did, at least symbolically.
2/ If the African tyrants were asked whether they respected “democracy”, their deep resounding laughter would have answered this question. Israel on the other hand….
3/ Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid, nearly all of which is used to subjugate the Palestinians. If the US turned off this tap, Israel would probably soon be motivated to mend some of its ways. So would Saudi Arabia, effectively an Israeli/US proxy in the Arab world along with Egypt. No such tap exists where North Korea is concerned. The simple lesson is that we fight battles where we can be effective.
4/ The logic of this argument is faulty. Consider the following analogy:
You own a house and the land it’s on. Some people come to your house, citing some holy book if it suits them, and they take it over by force of arms, perhaps invoking the holy book. You are told that from now on you must live in the tiny tool shed at the back of the property.
You protest, saying “but this is my house and land!”. “Tough”, they say, “from now on this is ours”.
The law (as international law does for the Palestinians), however, allows you to use all legal means, including justifiable force, to resist them and get them to end their seizure of your house and land.
As you are about to do this, someone comes along and says at the Philadelphia MLA conference: “No, you can’t take measures to get them to leave. In this town, there are several other houses that have been taken over by lawbreakers, who also tortured their owners, kidnapped their children, and so on. So, you can’t evict the illegal occupiers of your own house, until you go out and protest against these other illegalities, initiate boycotts of their perpetrators, and so on”.
The appropriate response: “If the law is on my side, I can resist the home invaders, so you can go *@#$ yourself”.
The weakest of the arguments made at this conference by the anti-boycotters was that “the BDS resolution will do irreparable harm to the MLA”. Hence it was said that if the BDS resolution was adopted, membership would decline, the MLA would lose prestige and become a laughing stock, it would show itself to be little more than a partisan pressure group, etc.
The current and past presidents of three academic associations which adopted BDS resolutions recently formed a panel at this conference discussing the impact of these resolutions on their organizations. One, the president of the American Studies Association, pointed out that its membership had in fact grown after its adoption of a BDS resolution.
Moreover, those of us who have been around for a while will recall that the MLA suffered no short-term decline in membership when it passed a BDS resolution against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In fact, MLA membership grew significantly in the 1990s, though it has since declined.
Nor was this issue raised when the MLA passed, a short time ago, a resolution condemning the ongoing victimization of Turkish academics who speak out against the repressive policies of the Erdogan government.
The face-palm moment here in the town hall on the BDS resolution was provided by an American anti-boycotter, who said that as a visiting professor in Israel she held classes in which Arab women were taught alongside men. She said this was a liberating experience compared to the gender-segregated patriarchy they would encounter if they attended Palestinian universities. BDS would end her challenge to Palestinian-Arab patriarchy!
In response, a Jewish-American professor in favor of BDS got up and threw his hands in the air, saying: “OK, you talk about Arab women and the misogynist men they have to deal with– but what about religiously ultra-orthodox Jewish women, and the patriarchy they confront?”.
Indeed, these ultra-orthodox Jewish women can only use beaches reserved for them one day a week. They must be covered from head to toe, and are harassed by “modesty patrols” if they do otherwise. These Jewish women must also sit at the back of the bus and avoid public dancing. They can’t initiate divorce proceedings (only a man can do this), can’t take jobs involving interactions with men, can’t pray alongside men, can’t have their photos published, can’t have their voices broadcast on radio, and so on.
So much for being against BDS in toto because one American visiting academic gives a few Arab women in Israel the opportunity to escape their version of patriarchy by sitting in a co-ed class!
In addition to the two votes on the resolutions for and against BDS, the Delegate Assembly had two other resolutions before it.
One– condemning Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for their violations of Palestinian academic freedom with no mention of Israel’s transgressions! — was clearly the work of the Zionists who proposed the initial resolution against BDS.
As my friend, Salah Hassan, a delegate, pointed out when the Zionists asked for it to be tabled indefinitely after their resolution against BDS was carried, this was a despicable ploy on their part to have a fallback resolution, allowing them the chance of a minor victory, in case their anti-BDS resolution failed. Now that their anti-BDS resolution succeeded, they wanted to make a hollow “conciliatory” gesture by tabling their fallback resolution.
It got tabled, but not before a handful of people stood up and said that a resolution which failed to mention Israel’s massive violations of Palestinian academic freedom while blaming Hamas and the PA, was a vicious distortion of fact and amounted to racism of the most bare-faced kind.
But what else can we expect from supporters of the Zionist apartheid system?
The soon to be ex-US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was careful to avoid the word “apartheid” in his recent speech condemning Israel’s long and flagrant flouting of international law where the Palestinians are concerned. To all intents and purposes “Israeli apartheid” is what he meant.
Kerry has known for years that endless illegal settlement expansion is Israel’s agenda. Like Obama, the wretched fellow bit his tongue until his last days in office, in the hope he could somehow facilitate the illusory two-state solution.
Anti-BDS academics know this as well, though like Kerry until he finally loosened his tongue, they pretend otherwise. All the meeting rooms in this convention, where Israel-Palestine was discussed by the anti-boycotters, reeked palpably of this pretense.
It is high time American academic organizations mean what Kerry (at last) meant when he was on his way out, and acted accordingly.
The time for pretense is over.
The supporters of Zionism in American academia are prevailing for now, with the tacit collusion of fence-sitters of the usual high-minded intellectual variety, with their platitudes about “the value of dialogue and discussion” with scholars in Israeli universities, and so forth.
The struggle continues.
The Delegate Assembly then passed an “emergency” resolution proposed by Michael Bérubé, an ex-MLA president who was one of the opponents of the BDS resolution. Bérubé’s resolution denounced the incoming Trump administration and its expected threats to academic freedom.
This resolution was a catalogue of boilerplate flummery regarding various “freedoms” (speech, political and religious belief, etc.) of concern to academics, all couched in the most anodyne terms, the kind of stuff one expects in a low-gear civics class.
The speeches lauding this resolution came in the main from the self-same Zionists who earlier had opposed a resolution in support of Palestinian academic freedom!
By this time, I had enough of their puke-inducing hypocrisy, and left the hall before the vote was taken.