Pro-Israel advocates are savoring a partial victory following the 2014 Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention—the first such victory in recent memory. MLA delegates only narrowly passed the one anti-Israel resolution and overwhelmingly refused to even debate a second resolution.
Considering that the MLA had previously voted overwhelmingly on an anti-Israel resolution in 2008, the mixed outcome of the recent votes suggests a significant turnaround. Some see this as a direct outcome of a more concerted and energetic effort by some Jewish organizations, especially the Israel on Campus Coalition, to counter Israel’s detractors.
For months, anti-Israel advocates attempted to dominate the conversation leading up to the Delegate Assembly meeting. As expected, a panel discussion on “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” at the convention featured unfiltered anti-Israel bigotry.
All four panelists joined in accusing Israel of restricting academic freedom and favor the “Boycott, Divestiture, Sanctions” (BDS) movement. The panel organizers refused to permit a single representative of the opposing viewpoint to participate.
Omar Barghouti, one of the panelists and a student at Tel Aviv University, is a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. In a paper published on the Electronic Intifada, Barghouti infamously wrote, “We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it…I, for one, support euthanasia.” Further enunciating his profound hatred for the Jewish state, Barghouti further declared, “The two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israel conflict is really dead. Good riddance! But someone has to issue an official death certificate before the rotting corpse is given a proper burial.”
Not to be outdone by Barghouti’s past incendiary rhetoric, Professor David C. Lloyd decried Israel to be a “colonial Zionist project.” And Professor Barbara Jane Harlow claimed to have joined the American Studies Association “in solidarity” following its membership vote to participate in an academic boycott against Israel.
Even the moderator of the panel, Professor Samer Ali of the University of Texas, was biased. Prior to the “discussion”, the professor issued a “request for crowd sourcing” on Facebook for anti-Israel arguments for use during the panel. Ali proclaimed at the delegate assembly, “I’m not an activist.” Yet, he has stated that Israel has engaged in “massacres of indigenous populations” and has a right to exist only because “anything else would be more tragic.”
The panel’s tone and content was expected, but rather than simply denounce the bias from a distance via a press release, ICC and some others in the Jewish and academic communities pressed for an aggressive, content-based response. They planned an alternative panel discussion for MLA delegates featuring respected academics who are also MLA members.
Interestingly, the alternative panel discussion came about only at the insistence of ICC. Initially, several Jewish organizations rejected the idea of a separate panel. According to insiders, the rejection was due to disagreements over “strategy and turf.” But when the ICC insisted, even booking a room at a hotel near the MLA convention (the MLA refused to let out a room to the alternative panel), the other groups agreed to support the event and some even took credit for organizing it.
The alternative panel discussion proved highly successful. The standing-room only attendance rivaled the turnout at the MLA sponsored BDS panel.
As Professor Troen, one of the four panelists, pointed out, “an Israeli who wants to enter the United States is about 200 times more likely to be denied entry than an American who wants to enter Israel, including those who want to enter the West Bank.” The professor also made the audience aware that 22% of Israel’s medical students are Palestinians, Palestinian literacy jumped from just 25% in 1948 to nearly 100% in 2014, and nearly 1/3 of the Haifa University student body is Israeli Arab/Palestinian or Druze.
This direct, physical communication of facts to MLA delegates and members began to blunt the effects of the BDS panel. After all, the alternative panel consisted of credible academics, including the moderator, Professor Russell Berman – a former MLA president.
Days later, two anti-Israel resolutions were considered during the 2014 MLA Delegate Assembly. The first resolution condemned Israel for its denial of entry “to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”
Delegates and other members of the MLA in attendance were allotted limited individual amounts of time to speak regarding the resolution. Immediately, lines began to from at three microphones interspersed throughout the crowd of approximately 250 people.
As expected, advocates of the resolution passionately spoke. For instance, Professor Nathan Brown of UC Davis stridently condemned the “use of chemical weapons by the state of Israel.”
This bias was expected. The big surprise, however, consisted of numerous delegates and other MLA members who eloquently questioned the premises and motivations behind the resolution. Professor Cary Nelson informed the audience that the “chemical weapons use” was merely tear gas.
Other delegates questioned the fairness in singling out Israel for condemnation when atrocities by other nations are far worse. Direct confrontation drew the anti-Israel bigotry to the surface.
Debate was spirited but haphazard, characterized by parliamentary disputes and errors. The pro-Israel side, pressed by ICC in particular, made significant efforts to not only introduce the facts to the discussion, but to force the other side to debate points of order and amendments. While these issues raged, the delegates steadily saw their numbers decline. And in the end, the assembly thinly approved the resolution by a vote of 60 to 53. The margin of approval was far slimmer than either side anticipated.
A short time later, a second resolution was proposed by Professor Grover Furr, a noted Stalinist apologist, on behalf of the Radical Caucus. His resolution promised solidarity on the part of the MLA for American Studies Association (ASA) members which recently committed to an academic boycott of Israel. In part, the resolution condemned “the attacks on the ASA” and expressed support for the “right of academic organizations and individuals…to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism.”
In a severe blow to BDS advocates, only 41% of the delegate assembly voted to send the Radical Caucus resolution to the floor for debate. In my follow-up interview with Professor Furr, he bemoaned that “there was a lot of a lot of…obstruction”, placing partial blame on “the Zionist contingent.”
Important lessons should be learned from this MLA Convention.
Silence does not work.
Instead an active, physical response to bigotry and bias is needed. Anti-Israel activists passionately communicate misinformation to their target audiences through public appearances, television interviews, and academic panels. Unfortunately, messaging recipients mistake the passion of BDS advocates for righteous indignation. In the past, the typical Jewish community response to the vitriol often consists of a simple press release or a fact sheet. This is akin to defending against a tank with a pellet gun. Tactics must be altered and modernized to meet today’s threats.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech resonated with the audience gathered on the National Mall in a far more direct manner than any “op-ed” column could have achieved. Of course, a plethora of communication strategy must be utilized in any campaign for truth. Books, articles, fact sheets, and press releases all play a part in accomplishing the task. But the power of personal, direct interaction with the opponents and the audience cannot be ignored.
Indeed, the physical presence of organizations such as the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) helped stem the tide of anti-Israel bias at last week’s MLA Convention. Through bold engagement on the battlefield of ideas, those committed to justice can alter the conversation and attain results.