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Will the MLA Resolve to Discredit Itself?

Tomorrow the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association considers a resolution urging the “U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” I have focused on the MLA panel on academic boycotts because a boycott is a more radical gesture than the proposed resolution.

But the resolution is bad, too. Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University and Bruce Robbin of Columbia University proposed it. As I have noted here before Ohmann signed a mind-boggling letter describing Israel as an apartheid state and as the perpetrator of “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.” Robbin has endorsed the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. I suspect that the present resolution is the most anti-Israeli one Ohmann and Robbins think they can get this year.

In 2008, Ohmann proposed and the MLA ultimately passed a resolution, complaining that “those teaching and writing about the occupation and about Middle East culture have regularly come under fire from anti-Palestinian groups on extra-academic grounds,” affirming that “education at all levels in the occupied territories is being stifled by the occupation,” and expressing “solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture.” That resolution does not mention Israel by name. This one does. That’s progress, if your aim is to delegitimize Israel.

Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, has been fighting such resolutions for some time. A supporter of an economic boycott of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank, he is not a reflexive defender of Israeli policy. His piece opposing the resolution, published as the conference began, explains why even academics with no strong convictions about Israeli visa policies should vigorously oppose the resolution. Simply, if MLA scholars vote for a resolution founded on a set of factual claims they are in no position to judge, they will “have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one.”

Nelson lists some of the questions the Delegate Assembly, and later the MLA’s membership, would have to answer in order to cast a responsible vote. “What are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries … able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country … feel justified in enforcing?”

To answer such questions, the delegates would “ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning.” Instead, “they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors.”

Supporters of the resolution provide supporting materials, which consist mainly of interviews and stories, drawn from sources like the Electronic Intifada, about the impact of Israeli visa policy on West Bank universities and foreign nationals seeking to teach in them. Some of these stories are genuinely disturbing. But the professors who are being asked to sign up for the resolution would chide any student who drew such a broad conclusion on so narrow a basis. As opponents of the boycott observe, the materials include a State Department description of entry and exit requirements for U.S. citizens to show that Israel makes it hard to enter Gaza but leave out some other things the State Department has to say: “The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, including by sea. U.S. citizens in Gaza are advised to depart immediately. Gaza is currently under the control of Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization.”

The resolution’s opponents offer a document of their own, which points out, that “in 2012 only 142 Americans were denied entry out of about 626,000 who wished to enter, a refusal rate of about 0.023%…. The American refusal rate for Israeli applications for “B” visas was 5.4% in 2012. The United States has a much more restrictive practice than Israel in this regard.” The authors also argue that the resolution’s backers neglect the conditions that produced Israel’s security policies and that Israel’s visa policy is probably not the main reason that universities in the West Bank and Gaza do not get many applications from qualified Ph.D.’s.

Nelson concedes that what he calls the “case for the defense,” like the case for the resolution, sometimes draws on sources with a strong interest and position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But that is merely to highlight that there are at least two sides of the question the resolution addresses, that the sides disagree concerning the facts, and that the MLA Delegate Assembly has not conducted and is not capable of conducting a credible fact-finding investigation.

Nelson’s principles are not hard to grasp: scholars diminish themselves and undermine their own status when they use their (ever dwindling) prestige to pronounce on matters about which they are ignorant.


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