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Anti-Jewish Rhetoric at the Modern Language Association

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I have an update on the Modern Language Association’s debate on Israel. The Association is now voting on Resolution 2014-1, which calls on the “Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Voting ends on June 1.

The resolution barely passed the MLA’s Delegate Assembly back in January. That was a setback for the anti-Israel crew at the MLA, which had overwhelmingly won a similar vote back in 2008. I assumed that the resolution would easily win a full membership vote, but a group called MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights has made a real debate of it. Much of that debate has been conducted at an MLA member’s-only site, during a comment period on the resolution, which has now ended. Someone has been good enough to post most of it here.  At least two things are striking about the debate.

First, opponents fully understand that the resolution is not really about denials of entry. Neither those who sponsored the resolution nor those who are voting for it think that the State Department is deferring important policy decisions until the professors of language and literature weigh in. The resolution is “a Trojan horse for a boycott” or, to be more precise, for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, a movement that refuses to be pinned down on the question of Israel’s right to exist, that seeks to turn Israel into a pariah state on the model of apartheid South Africa, and that, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, has recommended that backers do their best to shun Israel academics because “academic exchanges with Israeli academics … have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.” This line, perhaps because of the bad publicity it has generated, was recently removed from the site of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, but it can still be seen in this snapshot.

We can be confident that support for BDS is the symbolic import of the resolution because of what we know about its sponsors, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University and Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University. Both signed a 2009 letter that, after describing the boycott campaign against South Africa, has this to say:

It is time for the United States to place a similar pressure on Israel. That Israel has been America’s beneficiary, unchallenged in its war crimes and in its acts of terror, uncontested for its racist civil constitution and illegal occupations, has not been to the United States’ advantage. On the contrary, such unquestioning support of Israel has fuelled the legitimate anger of the Islamic world, supplied the justification for terrorism, and continually tarnished the United States’ reputation among the democracies of the world.

Second, some of the resolution’s supporters, all MLA members, oblige those who find anti-Semitism in the BDS movement. For example:

As on the broader political scene, moves to seek justice and opportunity for Palestinians (or to remove obstacles to achieving those goals) are countered by Zionist attack dogs. When the Zionist lobby railroads its way through Congress, universities, and civil society no request is made for equal time for the other side. Only when a counter voice is raised in this tightly controlled wilderness, do the proponents of Israeli exceptionalism cry foul.

Another is more explicit: this “resolution rightly targets only Israel given the humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision making process of Academia in general.”

Supporters of BDS will assert that it is unfair to pin a few anti-Semitic comments on them. Set aside the fact that, as one supporter puts it, the “xenophobic rhetoric of ‘outsiders’ and conspiracies” pervades the debate. At least as telling is how the BDS movement itself reacts to well-founded accusations that prominent supporters, like Roger Waters and Alice Walker deploy classic anti-Semitic tropes. As far as I know, no BDS leader has uttered a peep, and both remain propaganda tools in good standing.

This silence is presumably related to the movement’s studied ambivalence about whether it wants to roll back 1967 or 1948. While there are presumably some anti-Semites among any group that criticizes Israel, anti-Semites are an important part of BDS’s base.



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