MLA resolution: What's it all about?

JUF's Michael Kotzin looks at the four ways to interpret the MLA resolution that urges the U.S. State Department "to contest Israel's denial of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics..."

Michael C Kotzin 2010 image
Michael C. Kotzin

On Jan. 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. 

While 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. 

This 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. 

But 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 resolution.

Looking 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.

Moving 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.

And 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.

Those 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. 

Thus, 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.

That speaker, 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.

The 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.

So as 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.

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