Commentary Magazine


Topic: boycott

The Boycott Movement Loses at the MLA

An anti-Israel resolution put before the full membership of the Modern Language Association failed to muster the approval of the ten percent of the membership that’s required for ratification. The MLA is a big organization, consisting of almost 24,000 scholars and teachers of language and literature. This is an important victory.

The resolution asked “the United States 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.” But as I have argued here, the resolution was a test of the boycott campaign whose proponents put it forward.

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An anti-Israel resolution put before the full membership of the Modern Language Association failed to muster the approval of the ten percent of the membership that’s required for ratification. The MLA is a big organization, consisting of almost 24,000 scholars and teachers of language and literature. This is an important victory.

The resolution asked “the United States 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.” But as I have argued here, the resolution was a test of the boycott campaign whose proponents put it forward.

Proponents of the resolution will claim that the vote went their way, and they will be right about the 11 percent of MLA members who voted.  1,560 members voted for it, and 1,063 members voted against it. But to put this vote in perspective, a 2012 resolution supporting Occupy Wall Street’s position on student loans easily passed, with 3,233 yes votes and 207 no votes.

The vote affirms that in spite of a lengthy campaign to commit the MLA to an anti-Israel stand, only a small minority of the membership is prepared to vote for such a commitment, let alone a boycott. The campaign succeeded in producing an anti-Israel resolution in 2008, before the MLA, in 2011, amended its constitution to prevent small minorities from committing members to specific positions on public and professional issues. Whenever you hear the boycott campaign in academia claim that it is gathering momentum, recall that it is farther from success at the MLA, a group that has not shied away from taking political stands, than it was six years ago.

For waging a determined fight against the resolution, we have to thank MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights, which distributed, without any support from the MLA, a fact sheet to balance the one-sided packet of evidence passed on to the membership along with the resolution. In return for their efforts, they were denounced as “Zionist attack dogs.”

In a statement distributed via e-mail, MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights said that the MLA has “wisely voted to . . . return the organization to its core purposes: deepening our understanding of our long, compelling, international literary inheritance; improving our resources for teaching our students; and promoting the role and presence of the humanities here and abroad.” Although that may be too optimistic an assessment of the extent to which the MLA’s rank and file separate teaching and scholarship from partisan politics, it is not an exaggeration to say that there is little support among them for turning the MLA into a propaganda outlet for the boycott campaign. The boycott movement is having a hard time succeeding because it represents not just any partisan political position, or even any leftwing partisan position, but a narrow and radical partisan position adopted by a deservedly unpopular wing of the anti-Israeli left.

That said, the passage or failure of such a resolution at the MLA turns on hundreds, not thousands of votes, and at organizations without the MLA’s wise ten-percent rule, a minority, however small, can succeed in taking over. For that reason, as the MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights statement says, “continued vigilance is essential.”

But let’s at least take a moment to celebrate. The good guys won this round.

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