Debating Israel and Palestine at the Modern Language Association Convention

By Ruth StarkmanJanuary 21, 2014

Debating Israel and Palestine at the Modern Language Association Convention

Wherein professors of language and literature duke it out 
over the Israel boycott and a resolution censuring Israeli travel policy


HAVE YOU HEARD about the bitter debate over boycotting Israel and the bristling, sometimes boorish, Delegate Assembly meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) that took place in early January in Chicago?

For those involved, it’s a daily struggle over competing claims and histories. To those remote from the conflict, the drama often proves puzzling. At the heart of the matter are real world tensions over Israel and Palestine, and what has now become an explosive intersection between politics and higher education that is roiling the academic community.

Here’s the short version of the events leading up to the MLA and their aftermath:

In December 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted with a 66% majority in favor of boycotting Israeli universities, which it claims are “complicit with oppression of Palestinians.”

The ASA thus joined the larger Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which began in 2005 by Palestinian non-governmental organizations and seeks “to end Israeli occupation and colonization of Arab land, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect for the right of return of Palestinian refugees.” 

Supporters of the boycott such as Professor David Palumbo-Liu of Stanford University have been careful to explain that the boycott censures only institutions, not individuals. Yet, boycotts in academia, which conceives its mission as the free exchange of ideas, remain a tricky proposition. By now more than 150 colleges and universities have issued statements critical of academic boycotts. A small number of universities have cancelled their membership in the ASA.

In the weeks before the annual MLA convention this month, a flurry of angry emails were exchanged about a panel called "Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” An anti-boycott panel formed in response, but was too late for the official program and had to find a room at a nearby hotel.

On Wednesday January 9, 2014, both pro and anti-boycott sides ramped up for the competing back-to-back panels, each offering statements to anyone wearing a press badge. Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) arrived early and leafleted the seats with anti-boycott, pro-Israel fliers. Despite such a tense prologue, both panels succeeded in producing remarkably civil exchanges.

Two days later came the vote at the Modern Language Association delegate assembly. After much confusion and vitriol on the floor, Resolution 2014-1, which censures Israel for “denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities,” passed in a narrow 60-53 vote.

At the end of a long afternoon, the exhausted delegate assembly also voted not to consider an emergency resolution 2014-3, introduced by the Radical Caucus condemning the “attacks on the ASA and supports the right of academic organization and individuals, free of intimidation to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism. 

As of yet, there is no MLA boycott of Israel, just a recommendation to the MLA executive council to consider sending the resolution 2014-1 to the larger membership.

One might ask: why is the boycott so controversial, and what does it mean that an academic association is currently debating it?

In part, the controversy lies in the boycott’s call to “end the occupation.” Which “occupation” do the boycotters want to end?  Do they mean the occupation of the West Bank since 1967? Or do they mean ending the presence of Israel as a sovereign state since 1948? Surely no Zionist of any stripe would agree to the latter. For the Israelis, 1948 was a war of independence that guaranteed sovereignty of an independent state for the Jewish people, which no boycott has a right to undermine.

The only occupation Israelis acknowledge involves the results of the Six-Day War of 1967. Most Israelis recognize how widely unpopular that occupation has grown, but treat it as necessary for security until the enemies of Israel recognize its right to exist. 

To be sure there were a range of positions from the boycott panel: for example, Samer Ali, Associate Professor, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, at the University of Texas, Austin adopts an “agonistic” approach to the boycott: affirming the existence of the State of Israel and possibility of a two-state solution, and acknowledging the “lessons of the Holocaust.”

Omar Barghouti, a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and a graduate student from Tel-Aviv University, appeared on the boycott panel and minced no words about the “racist, colonialist discourse of the occupation,” which he calls an “apartheid in which Palestinians are treated as lesser human beings.”

When asked about the vagueness of the boycott language, David Lloyd, professor of English at University of California, Riverside, and a participant in the MLA boycott panel, asserts that the goals of BDS and the ASA boycott are similar:

Officially, the BDS movement takes no position on the eventual outcome of the boycott, but it would not compromise on the demand that Israel, in a two- or one-state solution, recognize, without exception, the equal rights of all its citizens. At present, the distinction between citizenship and nationality precludes that.

Here, Lloyd refers to the difference in the Israeli constitution, which distinguishes between citizenship, ezrahut and nationality le’um. That is, an Arab-Israeli passport reads “citizenship: Israeli, nationality: Arab.” A Jewish-Israeli passport reads “citizenship: Israeli, nationality: Jewish.” Like Lloyd, many critics decry the ezrahut / le’um distinction as a legislated inequality. This criticism is at once fair but in need of better understanding because le’um is multiple. There are many nationalities listed as le’um for Jews and other Israelis alike. For example, Kurdish, German, Japanese. On the other hand, le’um is an ethnic distinction that grants Jews a special status in their Jewish State. Some Israelis fear this Jewish character will be lost if Palestinians were granted the “right of return.” For the boycotters, the ultimate goal involves ending the Jewish character of the state.

Critics like Lloyd maintain that a Jewish state for the Jews is as problematic as dedicating Northern Ireland to the Protestants or apartheid in South Africa. He was an activist in both and now he has turned his attention to Israel. In criticizing Israel, he draws a parallel to the academic boycott of South Africa:

The analogy is certainly with South Africa. No one believed the cultural/sports boycott, or even campus divestment, would bring South Africa to its knees (at least, I hope not!). But the goal was more to educate public opinion in the US (and globally) and to send the message to South African whites that they could not consider themselves a normal part of the Western democratic and cultural sphere so long as apartheid continued. The boycott is a small part of a larger struggle, but not insignificant.

Israel supporters meanwhile strenuously reject any comparison of Israel with the erstwhile South African apartheid state.

Ilan Troen, currently Director of Israel Studies at Brandeis University, was a faculty member of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for many years. Speaking on the alternative panel at the MLA convention, he drew on his personal connection to the recently late Nelson Mandela and commented that the famed African freedom fighter never drew the comparison between apartheid and Israel. Troen went on to reflect on the contributions of Israeli higher education to Palestinian life. That first-hand knowledge of higher education in Israel makes him critical of merely symbolic gestures such as the boycott.

According to Troen, critics of Israel should take a closer look at the actual inclusion and participation of Palestinians in Israeli education, science, industry and culture. There is extensive Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in higher education and in technological applications designed to improve the quality of life in the region. A boycott would only harm the people the boycotters claim to want to save . But what of the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank? Troen argues that the injustices experienced there could be ameliorated with a two-state solution and greater investment in education and Palestinian culture.

Forget about the right to return, say the anti-boycotters, and focus instead on raising a new generation of Palestinians who can enjoy a better quality of life in their own sovereign state.

Some critics of the boycott like Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, see the two-state solution slipping away:

The fundamental goal of the boycott movement is not the peaceful coexistence of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but rather the elimination of Israel. One nation called Palestine would rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Those Jews not exiled or killed in the transition to an Arab-dominated nation would live as second-class citizens without fundamental rights.

Rejecting this position as a “hysterical worldview,” resolution co-author Bruce Robbins, professor of English at Columbia University, implores “can we ramp it back down, please?”

Surely everyone prefers civil debate in less extreme terms, but it’s important to remember that the “hysteria” exists on both sides. In fact, this MLA debate has been so instructive precisely because it shows academics debating in a way — for better or worse — that exactly mirrors the world beyond academia. The cast of characters here indeed represents widespread positions — there are many like Cary Nelson. Just as there are many like Bruce Robbins, who wish to travel to Palestine.  For some, especially young untenured faculty like Rachel Harris, assistant professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, feels “it’s been risky to step into the public with political support of Israel”—even with her moderate stance that is inclusive of Palestinians. Reflecting on the resolution, she would have preferred one that rejects harassment “that is extended to all people of all academic positions.”

Others maintain it’s time to openly talk about justice for the Palestinians. Robbins himself remarked this was one of the goals of the resolution:

 My experience of the MLA convention left me with the impression that many people there had not heard of the resolution at all and had no idea there was such animated debate about it. That's natural enough. One point of the resolution was to get a conversation going on the subject. In that I think it has succeeded very well.

Anti-boycotters maintain organizations like the MLA have no business making political recommendations to sovereign nations like Israel. But boycott supporters find such a separation between university life and politics disingenuous, especially when so many institutions of higher education engage in global investments. They see their movement, rather, as the embodiment of the virtues of democracy and civil society itself. “The boycott,” says David Lloyd, “is a nonviolent way to engage civil society in criticizing injustice.”

The battle is far from over. Currently both sides are mobilizing their supporters, collecting signatures for letters and petitions, in the hope of influencing the MLA Executive Committee, which meets late in February. That committee will decide whether to send the resolution to the nearly 30,000 MLA members for a vote. If it is ratified by the members, the MLA will be on record for asking the US State Department to take up cases where US citizens are denied entry to Israel.

Lastly, the MLA may also decide whether to support the American Studies Association. While it remains difficult to judge the potential effect of a boycott, the debate has underscored the ever-greater efforts to isolate Israel.


Ruth Starkman teaches at Stanford University and writes on ethics, higher education, and Middle East politics.

LARB Contributor

Ruth Starkman teaches at Stanford University and writes on ethics, higher education, and Middle East politics.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.