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Who Won at the MLA?

On Saturday, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association narrowly passed an amended version of the anti-Israel resolution I wrote about here on Friday. The resolution, as passed by a 60-53 vote of the Assembly, states that “the MLA urges the U.S. Department of State 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.” The resolution still must get through the Executive Committee and survive a general membership vote, but I doubt it will fail.

The original resolution included the West Bank and Gaza and spoke of Israel’s “arbitrary” denials. The changes are significant. The proposers had to remove the language in question when it became clear that they had not presented nearly enough evidence to substantiate it. That setback will be neglected in coverage of the event. But there are good reasons for thinking the anti-Israel forces in academia suffered a blow at the MLA.

Consider the context. In April 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies passed a pro-boycott resolution unanimously. To this day, as far as I know, no member has publicly dissented. In November the National Council of the American Studies Association unanimously endorsed a pro-boycott resolution. But unlike the Association for Asian American Studies, the ASA felt compelled to call a membership vote, and the resolution met determined resistance. It passed by a wide margin but has since been rejected publicly by, at last count, 183 colleges and universities.

The MLA resolution was not a boycott resolution, nor apart from actually naming Israel was it unprecedented. As I have noted here before, the MLA passed in 2008 a resolution expressing solidarity with students of Palestinian culture. The “whereas” section of that resolution declares that “education at all levels in the occupied territories is being stifled by the occupation” and 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.” The 2008 resolution passed by a much bigger margin, 77-9, than this year’s did. Although the anti-Israel crowd insists that debate, once stifled, is breaking out and that we are reaching a “tipping point,” their argument is faring worse than it was faring in April and, at least within the MLA, worse than it was faring six years ago.

Even more strikingly, the MLA’s Radical Caucus introduced an “emergency resolution” in solidarity with the American Studies Association. It declared that “the MLA 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. Be it further resolved that the MLA encourage robust discussion of issues regarding the academic freedom of Palestinians.” Emergency resolutions require a 75 percent vote of the Delegate Assembly to be considered. This one could not even muster a majority and went down 59-41. The failure occurred even though supporters of the resolution claimed, a bit preposterously, that a vote for it would not constitute support for the boycott. The Executive Committee could still choose to act on the resolution, but such action is unlikely in light of the decisive vote.

The tweet I just linked to quotes one Grover Furr, of Montclair State University. Furr is a defender of Stalin (perhaps one of the last remaining on the left), a retailer of disgusting allegations of Zionist complicity in the Holocaust, and a critic of non-violent protest (BDS is apparently too soft for him). Don’t take my word for it. He says it all on his own website here and here.

Furr, by the way, proposed the emergency resolution on behalf of the Radical Caucus.

While I am not given to optimism, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the overwhelming rejection of Furr’s resolution means that the MLA is starting to notice that the variety of Israel criticism that has been on display this year, most prominently in the BDS movement, is an embarrassment and a liability.