WASHINGTON — Until recently, the rule of thumb in the pro-Israel community was that the bigger the academic group, the less likely it was to consider a boycott of Israeli colleagues.
But with the 30,000-member Modern Language Association (MLA) set to host a panel on boycotts at its convention this week in Chicago, the rule may have to be reconsidered.
Supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement have scored some victories in recent months, mostly among smaller groups. The American Studies Association (ASA), which endorsed a boycott resolution last month targeting Israeli academic institutions, claims about 4,000 members.
Though the MLA won’t consider an outright boycott of Israeli universities, it will consider a resolution calling on the U.S. State Department to oppose the “arbitrary denials of entry” to American academics seeking to teach or conduct research at universities in the West Bank and Gaza.
“They proposed the travel resolution as a fallback,” said Cary Nelson, an association member and former president of the American Association of University Professors. “They’re trying something else as a step toward a boycott resolution the next time. If they can win this, they will move onto the next one.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) released a statement that said it was working with the Israel Action Network (IAN), an initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America, to mobilize Canadian members of the MLA against the resolution, though it acknowledged that the relatively small number of Canadian participants means Canadian academics couldn’t defeat a motion without support from their American counterparts.
In a Jan. 7 conference call organized by the IAN, Nelson argued that the MLA did not deserve the scorn it has weathered for hosting the panel, which will feature five supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) and no opponents. The panel is among several hundred to be held at the convention, and Nelson said such panels typically reflect a single point of view and are not debates.
The MLA also is already on record opposing academic boycotts. In response to the removal of two Israeli scholars from a British journal, the group adopted a resolution in 2002 calling boycotts based on nationality or ethnic origins “unfair, divisive, and inconsistent with academic freedom.”
Still, activists on both sides of the issue say the success of individual boycott efforts is less important than the fact that boycotts are being discussed at all.
“The mere calling for a boycott will impede the free flow of ideas,” Russell Berman, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University and a past MLA president, said on the conference call. “The calling of a boycott will have a chilling effect on academic life.”
Rosemary Feal, MLA’s executive director, said what is truly alarming is the notion that just convening a panel implicates the group as anti-Israel.
“It’s chilling, the idea that putting on a session is wrong, that it signifies foregone conclusions,” Feal said.
Samer Ali, the associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas in Austin who convened the panel, said the point is to shed light on Israeli practices.
“I think the only tangible benefit to come out of academic boycotts of Israel [and the ASA vote, the MLA roundtable, etc.] is generating discussion about the daily effects of the occupation,” Ali wrote in an email.
Far from sparking a wave of pro-boycott measures, the vote by the ASA has engendered a broad backlash, with more than 100 university heads speaking out against it.
The heads of 19 Canadian universities have also issued statements opposing the boycott movement.
In response to the University of Toronto’s Graduate Students’ Union boycott endorsement in December 2012, that university, Canada’s largest, stated its opposition to academic boycotts.
“More than five years ago, the university president noted that the administration regards these boycotts as antithetical to academic freedom, counterproductive, and likely to do more harm than good as regards any issue of human rights and political or military conflict,” the university said in a statement at the time. “That view is unchanged.”
Other Canadian universities have made similar statements in response to boycott votes by their own student unions.
“Some may argue that BDS is picking up momentum,” said Geri Palast, who directs the IAN. “The reality is that the broad academic community is rejecting BDS in terms of its singling out one country and saying there is only one narrative. We are winning this debate.”
Nelson said he would attend the MLA’s BDS panel to offer his opposition before heading to a nearby hotel to speak on a panel organized by the campus group Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition.
With files from Cara Stern