Delegates to the Modern Language Association's annual convention upheld a resolution accusing Israel of keeping Palestinian academics from entering the West Bank, but rejected another expressing solidarity with academics that boycott Israel.
After an hour or so of acrimonious debate in Chicago on Saturday, the MLA's delegate assembly in a 60-53 vote approved a resolution calling on the U.S. State Department to"contest Israel's denials of entry to the West Bank by U. S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities."
The resolution goes to the MLA's executive committee for consideration next month. If the executive committee approves it, it goes to the full membership.
"The presenters of the resolution may have claimed at the beginning of the discussion of it that they regarded it only as a narrowly-framed expression of support for fellow academics, but as the discussion developed it became clear that many of its supporters were driven by an anti-Israel animus and had the broader goal of hurting Israel,"said Michael C. Kotzin, JUF's senior counselor to the president.
Another resolution referred to a vote last month by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities, and its aftermath, in which over 180 American universities have rejected any such boycott.
That resolution, defeated 59-41, "condemns the attacks on the ASA and supports the right of academic organizations and individuals, free from intimidation, to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism."
The resolution did not specify what intimidation the ASA had suffered as a result of its vote.
"Academic freedom guarantees the right of academics to debate issues with passion," said Geri Palast, the director of the Israel Action Network, which helped lead pro-Israel activities around the conference. "Statements made in the public sphere attracting public debate and controversy is not the equivalent of attacks and intimidation."
JUF, in consort with the Jewish Federations of North America's Israel Action Network (IAN), has been working to counter the movement--at the MLA convention and elsewhere--to single Israel out and unfairly impose boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Jewish state.
The MLA convention this year featured, among about 800 events, a panel of scholars who favor the boycott; another panel opposing the boycott, convened too late to be included in the official program, was held in a nearby hotel.
Speakers at the alternative panel, titled "Perspectives Against Academic Boycotts" (which IAN helped organize), included Cary Nelson, MLA member and University of Illinois professor as well as past president of the American Association of University Professors; Russell Berman, Stanford University professor and a past president of MLA; Gabriel Brahm, MLA member and professor at Northern Michigan University; and Ilan Troen, Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and a professor at Ben-Gurion University.
Troen highlighted the ease with which foreign teachers enter the West Bank, that Israeli-Palestinian and other non-Jewish enrollment at several Israeli universities is increasing and how Palestinian and Israeli institutions are working collaboratively.
"Israeli higher education makes a large and significant contribution to the education of Palestinians," Troen said. Any boycott "would manifestly injure the very population the MLA panelists claim to represent."
Nelson and some other MLA members also wrote a detailed argument against the resolution regarding entry to the West Bank, prior to the vote by the MLA Delegate Assembly.
The spotlight turned to the MLA convention in large part due to the recent American Studies Association vote calling for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. An editorial by JUF's Michael C. Kotzin places these MLA issues within their larger context.
"There was a striking bifurcation in the MLA's business meeting," Kotzin said. "First came a series of thoughtful, sophisticated remarks in a discussion segment focused on the desire to advance recognition of the value of the Humanities in American society today and to enhance the image of their association in connection with that. And then came the divisive, at times out-of-control debate of the partisan, ideology-driven resolution unfairly critical of Israel. The Delegate Assembly's passage of that resolution, albeit by a narrow margin, was troubling enough. If the MLA's Executive Committee and then total membership follow suit (as it is predicted they will not), then, despite the wishes of the speakers in the first segment, this organization will surely have marginalized itself and severely harmed its image in the public eye."