In January, I wrote about a surprising and heartening turn of events at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, an academic organization devoted to the study and teaching of language and literature.
Well, not so fast. The MLA has occasionally taken a stand on political matters, and for many years a group of determined anti-Israel professors has been attempting to hijack the organization to serve the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Most recently, in January, members put a resolution before the Delegate Assembly calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In a sign that the BDS crowd had worn out its welcome, the Delegate Assembly voted resoundingly, 113 to 79, to reject that resolution. Moreover, longtime opponents of BDS, MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, had proposed another resolution, explicitly rejecting the boycott. Because, among other reasons, endorsing the boycott “contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature,” the resolution called for the MLA to “refrain from endorsing the boycott.”
That this resolution passed the Delegate Assembly 101 to 93 was stunning. While a number of academic organizations have voted down BDS resolutions, I know of no professional academic organization that has voted up a resolution rejecting BDS.
Yet the resolution to reject BDS had another high hurdle to clear, a full membership vote. The MLA, in order to prevent tiny minorities from speaking for the whole organization has a rule that resolutions require an affirmative vote of at least 10 percent of the entire membership to pass. Since only a small percentage of members typically bother to vote, it is very hard to muster that 10 percent, particularly when facing determined opposition. Moreover, insofar as humanities scholars lean even further left than the rest of the academy, one might expect them to be susceptible to the argument boycott advocates were making. To vote to reject BDS would be positively . . . Trumpian! As one prominent pro-BDS academic subtly puts it, “in a climate of rabid right-wing suppression of minority rights, of Trumpian chants to ‘build walls’ and ban Muslims, of egregious bigotry and hatred, any gesture curtailing political expression is a political disaster and a gift to reactionary zealots.”
But it turns out that even in the present political atmosphere and among left-liberals, the ritual invocation of Trump cannot disguise how contrary an academic boycott is to the spirit of scholarship and teaching the MLA claims to stand for. It cannot disguise how distasteful the BDS movement, which has flirted with anti-Semitism even in the course of otherwise staid MLA discussions, is. And it cannot disguise how harmful an endorsement of the anti-Israel boycott would be to the MLA’s reputation. The resolution to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” passed overwhelmingly, 1954 to 885.
Naturally, the boycotters plan to continue the struggle. They are not deterred that their attempt to pass a pro-BDS resolution has resulted instead in an anti-BDS resolution. Evidently the only thing worse than suffering a humiliating defeat is the idea of going back to teaching language and literature.