BDS and the Modern Language Association (MLA)

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Saturday was my birthday. Saturday was also the deathday for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement targeting not just Israeli activities in the West Bank, but Israel proper, in particular, Israel’s academic institutions. Not because the motion supporting BDS failed at Saturday’s meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA), a 24,000-member scholarly association of academics and others concerned with the study of languages and the literatures in those languages. Nor because it succeeded. But because the issue had become irrelevant.

That claim will be elaborated in another essay. This one will deal only with the MLA boycott campaign and yesterday’s results.

What a difference fifteen years make. In 2002, the MLA passed a motion by a wide margin opposing “boycotts and blacklists against scholars or students” as inconsistent with academic freedom. Yesterday, they voted on three different resolutions put before the MLA Delegate Assembly (of 297 representatives) which, if passed, would go before the general membership for ratification. If the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the first major academic association to debate and support BDS, debates offer any precedent, a motion supporting an academic boycott of Israel that passed at AAA’s Denver meeting, failed to be supported when the full membership was asked to ratify the resolution. MLA seems to be following in the trail of AAA.

MLA has been in the forefront of using academic associations to advance BDS. At the December 2013 General Meeting of the 4,000-member American Studies Association, advocates of the movement supported a pro-BDS motion, which was subsequently defeated when put before the larger faculty association. At the December 2014 MLA meeting in Chicago, by a margin of 60-53, BDS supporters managed to get through a resolution challenging Israel’s control of visas for engaging in studies in the West Bank; but, in a general ratification vote, with only 6% of its members casting ballots, the vote failed to meet the minimum level required – 10% of members. In any case, the ratification failed by a margin of 3:2.

At the MLA meeting in Vancouver in December, Rebecca Comay (UofT) presented a motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions, which vied with a motion deploring all academic boycotts, but both were tabled for two years. Yesterday, there were three motions before the MLA. One motion favoured a boycott of Israeli universities. One opposed academic boycotts in general. And a third condemned the suppression of academic freedom at Palestinian universities. For a more detailed review of that history, see Cary Nelson’s explanation behind the third resolution that argued “the major threat to academic freedom in the West Bank is not Israel but rather actions by Palestinian political and paramilitary groups.” As Carey demonstrated, the long document supporting the pro-academic boycott position was riddled with flaws and factual errors, including:

  1. Failure to offer information and arguments on different sides of the question;
  2. The false claim that Arab students were prevented from entering college until aged 21, and, in any case, are ineligible for financial aid;
  3. Jewish youngsters can enroll in kindergarten at age 3 but the children of Arab citizens cannot do so until age 5;
  4. Tests for admission to college are only in Hebrew; in fact, they are in many languages, including Arabic;
  5. There is discrimination against the entry to Israeli academic institutions at Israeli universities;
  6. Arab student political speech and activities are suppressed;
  7. Most absurd of all, Druze, according to these BDS supporters, are Christian.

In fact, Arab participation rates at the college level have been steadily increasing and now surpass 10%. 22% of students in medical school are Arabs. At Haifa University, 75% of students enrolled as undergraduates in literary studies constitute 60% of the student population and 60% at the MA level. This does not mean that there are no discrepancies in funding for Israeli Arab versus Israeli Jewish students. There certainly are. But sustained efforts have been in place for some time to counter this problem.

Yesterday marked the BDS deathday, not because of the debate, or the outcome of that debate, but because of its irrelevance. The debate has been transferred to a whole different level and the issue is now relegated to a backwater. On 23 December 2016, Resolution 2334 passed at the United Nations Security Council by a vote of 14 to 0 with the U.S. abstaining rather than vetoing or supporting outright the resolution (for my series of blogs on that issue, click here). Res. 2334 called upon all states to distinguish in their dealings with Israel between activities over the 1967 armistice line and activities in what the UNSC considers Israel proper.

We are not just speaking of what most think of as the West Bank and the settlements located there but neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that fall on the other side of the 1967 armistice line.  Further, through the Human Rights Council, the UN has institutionalized a process for documenting and labeling activities that take place on the other side of the armistice line. That probably includes many large businesses in Israel with some activities there.

J-Street endorsed Res. 2334. Yet J-Street opposed academic boycotts. But academic boycotts are a sideshow compared to this new central battleground. And the American Congress has entered the fray with guns blazing. On the other hand, that sideshow has shown how institutions debating such contentious issues help destroy themselves. As the U.S., under Donald Trump with no known record of concern for academic freedom, leads the counter-attack, the victim may not just be an obscure academic association but the UN itself, a major vehicle to try to ensure that diplomacy remains at the forefront for resolving international problems. Because of UNSC Res. 2334, because the Obama administration failed to veto the motion, because the motion itself institutionalized the basic mechanism (the compilation of an authoritative database) for operating a successful boycott, the centre will now shift from marginal, academic BDS debates to international diplomacy.

Hence, 7 January 2017 will mark the deathday of BDS activities on campus as the resurrection and transformation of the boycott movements initiated just two days before Christmas was resurrected and given a new lease on life.

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