Commentary Magazine


Topic: Modern Language Association

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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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.

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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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Misplaced Priorities in Academia: A Tale of Two Pictures

Toward the top of his piece on the debate about Israel at this year’s Modern Language Association conference, Joel Griffith posts a picture he took of the Delegate Assembly meeting, just before a resolution urging the State Department to contest Israel’s visa policy was to be debated. Though the room was not full, Griffith reports that there were 250 in attendance to discuss the Modern Language Association’s Middle East policy. Griffith tells me that the picture was taken at about 3:15 p.m.

Two minutes before, Lee Skallerup, professor and author of the blog College Ready Writing, had tweeted this picture from a panel on the plight of adjunct instructors, what she called, with some justification, “the biggest issue facing” the language and literature teaching biz. Such low-paid instructors, who typically do not receive benefits, make up an ever increasing percentage of teaching faculty not only in language and literature but in higher education altogether. While 250 people considered the plight of a handful of U.S. academics denied entry to the West Bank, five scholars were in attendance to discuss a problem the MLA might do something about.

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Toward the top of his piece on the debate about Israel at this year’s Modern Language Association conference, Joel Griffith posts a picture he took of the Delegate Assembly meeting, just before a resolution urging the State Department to contest Israel’s visa policy was to be debated. Though the room was not full, Griffith reports that there were 250 in attendance to discuss the Modern Language Association’s Middle East policy. Griffith tells me that the picture was taken at about 3:15 p.m.

Two minutes before, Lee Skallerup, professor and author of the blog College Ready Writing, had tweeted this picture from a panel on the plight of adjunct instructors, what she called, with some justification, “the biggest issue facing” the language and literature teaching biz. Such low-paid instructors, who typically do not receive benefits, make up an ever increasing percentage of teaching faculty not only in language and literature but in higher education altogether. While 250 people considered the plight of a handful of U.S. academics denied entry to the West Bank, five scholars were in attendance to discuss a problem the MLA might do something about.

Doing something about the academic job market may require, as Walter Russell Mead observes, producing fewer Ph.D.’s. But at a well-attended panel on “Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education,” speakers called for business as usual. As Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reports, while “many of those urging talk about the issue want to see programs shrink, the speakers here rejected that approach, with one even calling for programs to expand.” Onward.

It is unambiguously the job of a professional association like the MLA to be concerned about language and literature teaching and with what effect, if any, dependence on a contingent, economically insecure teaching corps might have on the quality of language and literature education. There is no question that officers and members of the MLA have expressed concern about these matters, but as the two pictures suggest, cost-free political posturing is more popular than facing the hard questions the MLA is actually charged with facing.

In the Times of Israel on Thursday, Sharon Musher writes movingly about a related matter, the American Studies Association’s recent vote to boycott Israel. That vote has bought the ASA wide condemnation, from over two hundred college and university leaders, several academic associations, the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and more than 100 members of Congress. Among many of Musher’s many excellent arguments—and I urge everyone to read the whole thing—is this one: the ASA leadership, in pushing the resolution, proceeded with complete disregard for the good of American Studies undergraduate and graduate students. Here is Musher, addressing the outgoing and incoming presidents of the ASA:

“I fear for my students’ future, the outlook for Stockton’s American Studies program, and the prospects for the field in the aftermath of the dangerous institutional decision you have made. As if the humanities were not in sufficiently dire straits, as if our graduates did not already need to struggle to manage their debt and find jobs in a bleak economy, as if public institutions of higher learning had not already seen their budgets slashed over the past few years, you have added fuel to the flames by turning the world’s attention to the ASA’s proclivity to political activism over scholarship and the intellectual exchange of ideas.”

Musher is leaving the ASA, and while other boycott opponents have chosen to stick around try to reform the organization from within, I think her decision makes sense. The recent history of the organization, going back more than a decade, offers very little hope of a near-term change.

No doubt supporters of the ASA boycott or the MLA anti-Israel resolution will argue that academics must be willing to sacrifice their interests in order to stand with oppressed Palestinians (as if impotent MLA or ASA statements are the sole or most effective way to take such a stand). Setting aside the debate over the substance of the ASA and MLA statements, which has been discussed more than once in these pages, it is striking that the only interests these particular academics are sacrificing are, as Musher emphasizes, those of their students. How noble.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Propagandizing at the MLA

As I have reported here, the upcoming annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, a 30,000 member association of language and literature scholars, will include a panel entitled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” The panel is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

In InsideHigherEd, Scott Jaschik reports on a welcome development: a “number of prominent MLA members” are organizing a “counter session,” to take place at a Chicago hotel near the convention right after the boycott panel ends. Jaschik considers the controversy over the first panel, and the organization of the second, under the heading “Should Panels Be Balanced?” But that is the wrong question. It gives the game away to the organizers of the panel, since it’s obvious that panels need not be balanced. If I am organizing a panel on the statesmanship of Lincoln, I am not required in the name of free discussion to include an anti-Lincoln scholar. What then is the issue?

What distinguishes scholarly work from most other kinds of work is the discipline of putting the truth above one’s cherished convictions. So that even when a scholarly organization plays host to partisans, as colleges, universities, and scholarly associations often do, they must strive to ensure, as I have put it in another context, that the aim of the event is “reflection rather than conversion.” The MLA panel does not come close to meeting that test.

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As I have reported here, the upcoming annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, a 30,000 member association of language and literature scholars, will include a panel entitled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” The panel is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

In InsideHigherEd, Scott Jaschik reports on a welcome development: a “number of prominent MLA members” are organizing a “counter session,” to take place at a Chicago hotel near the convention right after the boycott panel ends. Jaschik considers the controversy over the first panel, and the organization of the second, under the heading “Should Panels Be Balanced?” But that is the wrong question. It gives the game away to the organizers of the panel, since it’s obvious that panels need not be balanced. If I am organizing a panel on the statesmanship of Lincoln, I am not required in the name of free discussion to include an anti-Lincoln scholar. What then is the issue?

What distinguishes scholarly work from most other kinds of work is the discipline of putting the truth above one’s cherished convictions. So that even when a scholarly organization plays host to partisans, as colleges, universities, and scholarly associations often do, they must strive to ensure, as I have put it in another context, that the aim of the event is “reflection rather than conversion.” The MLA panel does not come close to meeting that test.

The panel’s organizer, Samer Ali, has invited two leaders in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement to participate: Omar Bhargouti, a founder of BDS, and David C. Lloyd, a founder of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Remarkably, the usually sharp Jaschik does not see fit, in the InsideHigherEd piece, to mention the leading role of either in the movement to delegitimize Israel. Alongside these two are Richard Ohmann and Barbara Harlow, both of whom have signed a 2009 letter urging then president-elect Obama to consider “Israel a regime no less criminal … than South Africa was in the 1980’s” and to act accordingly. As I noted in my previous post, the signatories also affirm that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians amounts to “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.”

Ali, himself a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, Austin who will also serve as respondent for the panel, professes to be an agnostic regarding the academic boycott of Israel. I am waiting to hear from him whether he is the same Samer Ali of Austin, Texas, who signed onto a letter thanking the National Council of the American Studies Association for endorsing such a boycott. In any case, his grasp of the difference between propaganda and truth can be gleaned from his Facebook page, on which he uncritically posts the rumor, spread by Hamas’s Disaster Response Committee, that Israel deliberately opened up dams to cause the recent flooding in Gaza. If Ali’s ambivalence about an academic boycott is genuine it is based on the premise that his Israeli colleagues at least sometimes oppose Israel’s “supremacist ideology” and its “denial of the lessons of the Holocaust.”

In fairness to the panelists not yet on record in favor of an academic boycott, it is possible to be virulently anti-Israel and to oppose such a boycott. Richard Ohmann for example, though he is not against boycotts altogether, did suggest, commenting on an article discussing the U.S. boycott movement in 2009, that U.S. academics have no right to lecture Israel: “Are U.S. academics in a position to lecture Israelis on this question, given that our taxes have for years supported Israel’s project of ethnic cleansing? I would sign a petition asking our European colleagues to extend their boycott to U.S. academic institutions.”

Nonetheless, Ohmann’s argument suggests that insofar as there is going to be a discussion at all, it will not be among truth-seeking scholars but among activists considering which strategy will best serve to bring a nation, which they all consider a genocidal apartheid state, to its knees.

But of course, though boycott supporters sometimes claim to want to provoke a discussion, David Lloyd indicates that he wants nothing of the kind. Dialogue, he says is “spurious … under such asymmetrical conditions of power and violence.” For Lloyd and his supporters, whatever is left of the devotion of scholars to inquiry and dialogue is an impediment to their work, which is to grow their movement as quickly as possible. That, and not the abstract question of whether panels should be balanced or not, is what ought to trouble even academics who have no interest in the Middle East.

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Next Stop for the Israel Boycott Road Show

The great Karl Weintraub, a historian in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, once told me that anyone willing to exert a modicum of energy could have a lot of influence on the committee. After all, the members of the committee are distinguished scholars who, for the most part, prefer not to be bothered with administration. The same is true to a point of all academic governance. Not many people become professors in the hope of becoming movers and shakers in their departments or professional associations, and, in my experience, the majority of academics in my discipline, political science, have no idea of or interest in what resolutions the American Political Science Association is planning to pass.

For this reason, academic associations are vulnerable to takeover by determined activists. That is what happened at the American Studies Association. The ASA is no stranger to political activism, yet even its members were not prepared for the propaganda push that took place at their annual conference this year. For example, the pro-boycott forces organized a “town hall” to discuss the boycott that was, by design, more like a rally. Sharon Musher, director of American Studies at Richard Stockton College and an opponent of the boycott, has described what took place for the Times of Israel. The town hall

“was a vitriolic anti-Israel event that served as a platform for promoting the boycott resolution . . . .. One of the authors of the proposal (J. Kehaulani Kauanui) was on the panel, participants in the Activism Committee were pointed out to audience members, and the resolution was handed around the room of nearly 500 for signing. Each of the six speakers articulated the same ideological message about ending the settler-colonialist Zionist project and America’s complicity in maintaining an Apartheid state.”

The “pro-boycott rally was followed by an award ceremony — given to Angela Davis, an outspoken opponent of Israel – and then the Presidential Address … used to advocate for the boycott.”

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The great Karl Weintraub, a historian in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, once told me that anyone willing to exert a modicum of energy could have a lot of influence on the committee. After all, the members of the committee are distinguished scholars who, for the most part, prefer not to be bothered with administration. The same is true to a point of all academic governance. Not many people become professors in the hope of becoming movers and shakers in their departments or professional associations, and, in my experience, the majority of academics in my discipline, political science, have no idea of or interest in what resolutions the American Political Science Association is planning to pass.

For this reason, academic associations are vulnerable to takeover by determined activists. That is what happened at the American Studies Association. The ASA is no stranger to political activism, yet even its members were not prepared for the propaganda push that took place at their annual conference this year. For example, the pro-boycott forces organized a “town hall” to discuss the boycott that was, by design, more like a rally. Sharon Musher, director of American Studies at Richard Stockton College and an opponent of the boycott, has described what took place for the Times of Israel. The town hall

“was a vitriolic anti-Israel event that served as a platform for promoting the boycott resolution . . . .. One of the authors of the proposal (J. Kehaulani Kauanui) was on the panel, participants in the Activism Committee were pointed out to audience members, and the resolution was handed around the room of nearly 500 for signing. Each of the six speakers articulated the same ideological message about ending the settler-colonialist Zionist project and America’s complicity in maintaining an Apartheid state.”

The “pro-boycott rally was followed by an award ceremony — given to Angela Davis, an outspoken opponent of Israel – and then the Presidential Address … used to advocate for the boycott.”

Up next is the Modern Language Association which, with 30,000 members involved in the teaching and study of language and literature, is about six times the size of the American Studies Association. The MLA, at its annual conference early next month, does not have a boycott resolution before it, but it will have a boycott roundtable. It is supposedly an open discussion: “Many academics face questions about how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.”

They have gathered an interesting panel for this “discussion.” Omar Bhargouti is a founder of and leader in the international BDS movement. Barbara Jane Harlow, a professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote a statement in favor of the ASA boycott and has long been on record in favor of one. David Lloyd is a member of the “Organizing Collective” of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Richard Ohmann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, signed a 2009 letter calling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.”

Samer Ali, the chair and respondent of the panel, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he set up the panel to serve those who wished to discuss the pros and cons of the resolution. Yet, as Haaretz reports in its own piece on the stacked MLA roundtable, Ali has been vigorously defending the ASA boycott on his Facebook page and, unless there is more than one Samer Ali who lives in Austin, Texas and is interested in the ASA boycott, has signed a letter to the ASA (he is number 3,681) offering the signatories’ “deepest congratulations and full support for the ASA National Council’s historic and principled decision to endorse and honor the Palestinian civil society call for the academic boycott of Israel.”

His “response” should be interesting.

As Musher’s account indicates, this is the playbook. Once the roundtable, whose audience will no doubt be packed with boycott supporters, has come off, a boycott resolution will be proposed for next year, justified in part by the strength of support evident at the roundtable. Many members will be caught by surprise, just as members of the ASA were, because few academics pay attention to what their professional associations are doing.

The good news is that the ASA boycott has been a wake-up call, and it is becoming clear, because the ASA is being denounced in places like the Nation and by people like Michael Kazin, the editor of Dissent, that even the left has little appetite for an academic boycott. This will not and should not be primarily a struggle of pro-Israel against anti-Israel forces, or of the right against the left, but a struggle to preserve what integrity scholars have left, against attempts to turn them into mouthpieces for a fringe movement.

But there is no natural party of moderation. People who disdain academic politics will have to get organized. There is still time.

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My MLA List

Perhaps nothing I have ever written has earned as much attention as what I posted yesterday — the MLA Rankings of American Writers. But I need to clarify, I guess. The rankings were determined by the amount of literary scholarship published on American writers, as listed in the MLA International Bibliography. The Modern Language Association, however, had nothing whatever to do with them. Officially or unofficially. And despite what has been tweeted:

https://twitter.com/#!/FSG_Books

The research behind the rankings was entirely my own. Not only am I not affiliated with the MLA in any way. I quit the organization in disgust over a decade ago.

The rankings are not a kind of coaches’ poll. They do not reflect the “popularity” of certain American writers, but the professional commitments, the devotion of time and energy, on the part of literary scholars. These are the writers who are principally taught in university English departments around the country, the writers who are being handed down to the next generation. If anyone asks, that’s the significance of the rankings.

Perhaps nothing I have ever written has earned as much attention as what I posted yesterday — the MLA Rankings of American Writers. But I need to clarify, I guess. The rankings were determined by the amount of literary scholarship published on American writers, as listed in the MLA International Bibliography. The Modern Language Association, however, had nothing whatever to do with them. Officially or unofficially. And despite what has been tweeted:

https://twitter.com/#!/FSG_Books

The research behind the rankings was entirely my own. Not only am I not affiliated with the MLA in any way. I quit the organization in disgust over a decade ago.

The rankings are not a kind of coaches’ poll. They do not reflect the “popularity” of certain American writers, but the professional commitments, the devotion of time and energy, on the part of literary scholars. These are the writers who are principally taught in university English departments around the country, the writers who are being handed down to the next generation. If anyone asks, that’s the significance of the rankings.

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MLA Rankings of American Writers

Since the 1980’s, literary scholars have complained of a “fixed” and “restrictive” canon of American literature. While working on another project, my curiosity was aroused. What actually is the American literary canon, as determined by what literary scholars actually work on?

Over the past 25 years, Henry James has been the top-ranked American writer, according to the latest MLA International Bibliography. More than 3,000 pieces of scholarship have been devoted to him in whole or part since 1987. Only William Faulkner approaches him in volume. If the scholarship is counted since 1947, however (the date of the earliest entries in the Bib), Faulkner is the runaway leader with 7,108 scholarly pieces on him. And James trails with 6,760.

One of the changes over the past 25 years, then, is that James has supplanted Faulkner as America’s best or most important writer. T. S. Eliot and Herman Melville have also swapped places. After that, things get interesting. Vladimir Nabokov has become of the five most talked-about American writers, and Toni Morrison (whose Beloved will be 25 years old in September) has jumped from far back into the top ten. The reputations of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Frost have slipped badly. Poor William Dean Howells has fallen out of the top 25 altogether (to be replaced by Richard Wright). Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon? You be the judge.

Here are the top 25 American writers as determined by the amount of scholarship on each. In brackets is the rise or fall of each writer when compared to his or her ranking since 1947.

( 1.) Henry James (3,188 items) [+1]
( 2.) William Faulkner (2,955) [-1]
( 3.) T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1]
( 4.) Herman Melville (2,579) [-1]
( 5.) Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5]
( 6.) Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-]
( 7.) Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2]
( 8.) Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9]
( 9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4]
(10.) Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2]
(11.) Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2]
(12.) Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3]
(13.) Willa Cather (1,482) [+5]
(14.) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3]
(15.) Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1]
(16.) Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5]
(17.) Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5]
(18.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3]
(19.) Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3]
(20.) Mark Twain (882) [-4]
(21.) John Steinbeck (823) [+2]
(22.) William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-]
(23.) Saul Bellow (706) [+2]
(24.) Richard Wright (670) [+2]
(25.) Robert Frost (661) [-5]

Disclaimer: These rankings are based entirely on the research of the author, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Modern Language Association in any way.

Since the 1980’s, literary scholars have complained of a “fixed” and “restrictive” canon of American literature. While working on another project, my curiosity was aroused. What actually is the American literary canon, as determined by what literary scholars actually work on?

Over the past 25 years, Henry James has been the top-ranked American writer, according to the latest MLA International Bibliography. More than 3,000 pieces of scholarship have been devoted to him in whole or part since 1987. Only William Faulkner approaches him in volume. If the scholarship is counted since 1947, however (the date of the earliest entries in the Bib), Faulkner is the runaway leader with 7,108 scholarly pieces on him. And James trails with 6,760.

One of the changes over the past 25 years, then, is that James has supplanted Faulkner as America’s best or most important writer. T. S. Eliot and Herman Melville have also swapped places. After that, things get interesting. Vladimir Nabokov has become of the five most talked-about American writers, and Toni Morrison (whose Beloved will be 25 years old in September) has jumped from far back into the top ten. The reputations of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Frost have slipped badly. Poor William Dean Howells has fallen out of the top 25 altogether (to be replaced by Richard Wright). Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon? You be the judge.

Here are the top 25 American writers as determined by the amount of scholarship on each. In brackets is the rise or fall of each writer when compared to his or her ranking since 1947.

( 1.) Henry James (3,188 items) [+1]
( 2.) William Faulkner (2,955) [-1]
( 3.) T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1]
( 4.) Herman Melville (2,579) [-1]
( 5.) Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5]
( 6.) Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-]
( 7.) Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2]
( 8.) Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9]
( 9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4]
(10.) Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2]
(11.) Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2]
(12.) Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3]
(13.) Willa Cather (1,482) [+5]
(14.) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3]
(15.) Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1]
(16.) Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5]
(17.) Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5]
(18.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3]
(19.) Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3]
(20.) Mark Twain (882) [-4]
(21.) John Steinbeck (823) [+2]
(22.) William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-]
(23.) Saul Bellow (706) [+2]
(24.) Richard Wright (670) [+2]
(25.) Robert Frost (661) [-5]

Disclaimer: These rankings are based entirely on the research of the author, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Modern Language Association in any way.

Read Less




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