BY BILL MULLEN
The Modern Language Association, one of the largest academic organizations in the world, voted by a margin of 101-93 in the Delegate Assembly in January to support a resolution declaring that the organization would not boycott Israeli Universities.
The resolution now goes to a vote of the general membership this week. If 10 percent of the membership votes to endorse it, the resolution will become binding.
Passage of the resolution would be a disaster for the MLA, for academic freedom, and for the right to free speech.
Under normal circumstances, it could be argued that a vote for or against boycott would be nothing more than an expression of the democratic will of the Association.
Yet in a climate or 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.
Indeed, the MLA would become the first academic organization in the world to declare itself opposed to the constitutionally protected right to boycott Israeli Universities. In so doing, it would align itself with right-wing state legislatures that have attempted to punish academics who support the boycott of Israeli Universities. The MLA would in effect do the work of the state in tamping down dissent against its support for Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian land and people, to the tune of 38 billion over 10 years. Donald Trump could not imagine a better gift.
Second, a vote against boycott would send a chilling message from within the ranks of academia about academic freedom. Indeed, even by doing nothing, the MLA would be better off: The organization has no official position on academic boycott, which at least sends a message of neutrality to members.
Thirdly, this anti-boycott resolution is a form of self-censorship. A vote declaring that the Association will not boycott is tantamount to saying members of the Association should think twice about speaking out on Israel-Palestine. The vote would send the exact opposite message to the one promoted by free speech: that debate, discussion, and the decision to take a political position is encouraged.
Fourthly, a vote against boycotting Israel would give confidence and strength to the state of Israel and its supporters who have made academic boycott a negative “litmus” test of free speech. The recent decision by the State of Israel to close its borders to visitors who support BDS shows that “democracy” ends in Israel where support for BDS begins. Why would the Modern Language want to claim impunity for a state that so openly discriminates against principles—academic freedom, free speech—that in every case but Israel it professes to protect?
Finally, an MLA vote against the right to boycott would encourage Universities, University administrations and media critics of the University to further hector academics who seek to balance their work with social justice activism. In recent years, we have seen tenured and untenured faculty fired from their jobs for taking positions on a range of political issues, including Israel and Palestine. The MLA would only give leverage to organizations and individuals seeing to police our campuses and narrow the protections of students, and faculty who dare to speak out on social issues of our time.
In short, those interested in saving the integrity and reputation of the MLA as an organization committed to free speech and free expression should vote against the anti-boycott resolution. In addition to defending the rights of Palestinians to protest and to their own academic freedom, they would be preserving the organization’s stated commitment to academic freedom, open debate, and the right to free speech.