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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.

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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