Members Flee Modern Language Association After Refusal to Boycott Israel

Humanities professors say organization evading moral, professional duties

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January 7, 2018

Dozens of humanities scholars cancelled their membership with their field's leading professional academic organization ahead of its annual convention, in retaliation for the group refusing to impose boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

The defecting professors wrote to the Modern Language Association—published in the days leading up to the conference being held this week in New York City—that they will not be renewing their membership, due to the organization "disgracefully" voting in June against BDS and in favor of a statement denouncing academic boycotts.

Timothy Reiss, a professor emeritus of comparative literature at New York University, wrote he was leaving the organization he had been a part of for over 50 years "sadly but easily."

"I have to resign from a professional organization that has abrogated its moral, and professional, duties," wrote Reiss, characterizing censure of Israel as "the great moral issue of our time."

Many accused their anti-BDS colleagues of being bigots, with Bill Mullen, a professor of American studies at Purdue University and prominent BDS activist, calling objection to boycott in favor of open dialogue a "profoundly racist, ethnocentric vote and rationale."

Rajini Srikanth, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, attributed "appalling racism" to those who oppose BDS.

"Witnessing the dance of anti-Palestinian racism dressed up as deep concern for the academic freedom of Israeli academics was truly nauseating," she wrote of the summer session at which the final vote took place.

Cynthia Franklin, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, wrote she was leaving because "for an organization like the MLA to find itself unable to support an ongoing non-violent, anti-colonial struggle is deeply hypocritical, and also racist and nationalist."

Julie Rak, a professor of English at Canada's University of Alberta, wrote that anti-BDS scholars who proposed that the Palestinian Authority and the terror organization Hamas, which controls Gaza, should be held responsible for Palestinian oppression—and not Israel—represented the "xenophobia and racism" within the MLA.

Rak also claimed the anti-BDS members "received funding from the Government of Israel to pay for memberships in order to ensure that the [anti-boycott] vote was ratified." Though the Israeli government has invested millions of dollars in combatting BDS, no proof could be found for Rak's allegation that any MLA members had their dues covered by those funds.

Some of the disgruntled professors noted Palestinian scholars' lack of academic freedom, attributing responsibility for those conditions to Israel, despite documentation of severe and violent suppression of academic freedoms in the Palestinian territories by Palestinian political and university officials, as well as by students affiliated with terror organizations.

Scholars also accused the MLA of manipulating the voting process to the detriment of BDS, by mandating official voting procedure and moderating debates. They claimed the MLA delegate assembly had stifled and silenced dialogue on BDS, though the organization had held sessions to discuss the issue for two years prior to the 2017 vote.

The letters were published on the website of the peer-reviewed humanities journal Critical Inquiry, and reproduced by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, where they were accompanied with a template for a resignation notice other BDS supporters were encouraged to send to the organization's leadership.

Two of the now-former MLA members served on the Executive Council. In a long-winded letter, Lenora Hanson, an assistant professor of English at New York University, and David Palumbo-Liu, an endowed professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, said they had been elected on platforms highlighting BDS.

"The fact that we were elected on the basis of our platforms was a sign that a significant number of MLA members supported our commitments and convictions," they wrote.

A leader in the MLA's anti-BDS movement, Cary Nelson—jubilee professor of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former president of the American Association of University Professors—said Palumbo-Liu "lies" about running on a boycott platform.

"He claimed he was running on behalf of grad students," recalled Nelson of Palumbo-Liu's campaign.

Nelson suggested Palumbo-Liu acted prior to his executive appointment in the same way that boycott activists at the American Studies Association had allegedly hidden their anti-Israel associations in order to gain leadership positions ahead of that professional organization's successful pro-BDS vote in 2013.

Some of those resigning welcomed the recent election of Judith Butler as president of the MLA for 2020-21.

Butler has long been among the most passionate academic supporters of BDS. She serves on the advisory board for the pro-boycott Jewish Voice for Peace—a far-left organization that has feted a convicted Palestinian terrorist—and this week published a blog post at the MLA for Palestine website reiterating her strong support of BDS as a "movement for freedom."

Butler, a comparative literature professor at University of California-Berkeley, will fill the post of second vice president through January 2019, ascending automatically to the vice presidency and finally presidency of the MLA over the next two years. MLA officers are elected by the organization's 24,000 members.

According to Nelson, Butler's win reflected MLA members' respect for her work in gender theory, not her positions on Israel.

"As president, she will have to display reasonable neutrality. Of course, the BDS crowd is cheering her election, but they are mistaken if they think much to their benefit will come of her presidency," he added.

Nelson dismissed the resignations as "a symptom of defeat, a publicity stunt, a last ditch effort to capture press coverage."

"It will have no effect on the MLA save to deprive the anti-Israel coalition of some of its leaders. Some will no doubt rejoin the next time an anti-Israel resolution comes up for debate," he said.

"That said, the opponents of Israel will regroup and return to fight another day," he added.

In that vein, the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine contingent will hold an event Friday night at the NYU English Department on "new tactics and solidarities" to employ in pro-Palestine activism in academia.

Published under: College Campuses , Israel