11, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association (MLA) meeting in
Chicago voted 60 to 53 to support a resolution which urged the U.S. State
Department “to contest Israel’s denial of entry to the West Bank by U.S.
academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian
universities.” To become adopted by the organization as a whole, the
resolution will next have to be approved by the MLA’s Executive Council,
scheduled to meet in late February, and if it passes it would face a vote of
the total membership.
the resolution passed by the MLA’s Delegate Assembly thus has yet to be
adopted, it still is a matter of concern and merits scrutiny. A useful way
to approach it would be to apply a variation on the analytic terms first
developed by medieval Kabbalists for reading the Torah – starkly different
though the nature of these texts may be.
approach proceeds by considering four levels of meaning, the first of which
deals with the literal meaning of the text. Looked at on its face, the
resolution thus is simply calling for certain State Department action. This
reading is in tune with the claim made by one of the drafters of the resolution
in opening the discussion at the MLA session where it was voted on, who
asserted that the resolution should be taken only in the narrow sense of coming
to the support of fellow academics.
looked at only in this way, the resolution has hardly any value. It is
hard to imagine the State Department truly “contesting” Israel’s application of
its security policies regarding academic visitors – especially because, as
research done by a newly formed group called MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights
showed, the proponents of the resolution could identify only one person who
might have faced the problem, which is cited as the purported basis of the
then for other meanings to this resolution, we can next see it as a symbolic
statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people, whom the drafters and
supporters of the resolution clearly regard as an oppressed people. If the
resolution is seen this way, what matters is not what it calls for directly but
how it could be taken by the Palestinians. Their sense of grievance and
victimhood was validated by the language of the resolution’s backers, who
repeatedly spoke about Israel’s “racist” system and “apartheid” regime when
they took the floor at the MLA meeting. Given that approach, this
resolution and other statements like it can be seen as perpetuating the
situation the Palestinians currently face, ultimately hardening both sides of
the Israel-Palestinian conflict instead of advancing reconciliation and
hastening the coming of the day when the Palestinians could have
self-determination in a state of their own next to the state of Israel.
on to the third level of meaning, the resolution can be seen as advancing a
narrative which, as supporters of the resolution demonstrated, sees Israel as
being a racist country practicing apartheid and using chemical weapons. As
we dig deeper and get closer to the true meaning behind a resolution like this,
we recognize that the rhetoric of its supporters is the rhetoric of the
delegitimizers of Israel, of those who would marginalize the state for what
they portray as its gross violations of human rights. This resolution may
not go as far as the one passed by the members of the American Studies
Association, whose right to call for an academic boycott was defended in an
“emergency resolution” that failed to achieve consideration by the MLA.
But the resolution’s defenders talked about Israel with the same animosity as
do the boycotters. The hostility of one speaker after another at the MLA
session was tangible.
this brings us to the resolution’s deepest, fourth level of meaning, to what
Cary Nelson, Professor of English at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, calls “the elephant in the room.” That is anti-Semitism.
of us who talk about these matters need to use the anti-Semitism charge with
care – both because its seriousness needs to be respected and also because, in
attempting to pre-empt consideration of this issue, Israel’s enemies are always
quick to claim that Israel’s friends use the term indiscriminately when talking
about any critic of any of Israel’s polices or actions. Though one of the
supporters of the resolution at the MLA meeting attacked what he called the
“rhetorical ploys” and “suppressive rhetoric” of Israel’s supporters, it is in
fact the enemies of Israel who try to suppress exposure of the anti-Semitism
that often suffuses their own rhetoric and approach.
though we should be careful about using the term anti-Semitism, when
anti-Semitic concepts can be identified within the verbal attacks on Israel, it
is far from improper to point that out. So when one of the supporters of
the resolution who took the floor during the Delegate Assembly meeting talked
about financial contributions to political candidates in America by a
“pro-Israel lobby,” which, he implied, corrupt American foreign policy, the
anti-Semitic reverberations were surely there.
along with several others, was opposing the charge that there is something
wrong with “singling out” Israel as does this resolution. In fact, the
pattern of singling out at the least raises the possibility that there is
something off-kilter in such treatment of Israel, and those who do the singling
out don’t like to be put on the spot about that. They talk about the
amount of financial aid that Israel has received from the U.S. through the
years and things like that as justifying particularist criticism of it. But
with the proponents of a resolution that singles out Israel rejecting the
replacement of it with a resolution that calls for freedom of movement for all academics, as was the case at the
MLA meeting, it’s hard not to suggest that the secret is out and that something
is at play that is not just about the rights of traveling academics.
introducer of this resolution, who spoke first at the meeting and who two days
before had been a panelist on a discussion session that supported academic
boycotts of Israel, said he was insulted by the claim that this resolution was
seen by some as laying the groundwork for a boycott resolution in the
future. Whether or not that was the intent, there clearly is an affinity
between the backers of this resolution and the supporters of such a
boycott. Their shared methods, it has increasingly been recognized,
marginalize Israel through a strategy of demonization and delegitimization
which ultimately, it can be suggested, is intended to lead to Israel’s elimination
as a Jewish state, just as apartheid-ruled South Africa was brought down. And
as much as the proponents of the boycott and other such measures may not like
to have it said, the denial to the Jewish people of the right of national
self-determination in their ancient homeland is an act of discrimination
equivalent to the kinds of bigotry-driven acts carried out against Jewish
individuals and Jewish communities in past eras.
much as it would be wrong in many ways to reduce everything to anti-Semitism,
neither should we fail to identify what much of all of this is about. What
we are witness to within the MLA and one academic association after another is
the application of an anti-colonial ideology which in the name of helping the
Palestinians does quite the opposite and which unfairly vilifies Israel as a
racist violator of human rights that does not deserve to exist. Given the
rhetoric with which these concepts are advanced, this ideology has become a key
transmitter of the anti-Semitic virus in our time. That needs to be seen,
and that needs to be called attention to.
Michael Kotzin is Senior Counselor to the
President of the Federation. He is an Emeritus Member of the MLA who
attended their recent convention in Chicago.