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MLA vote: Will bias beat scholarship?

29,000 Modern Language Association members are now voting whether to ratify an anti-Israel resolution

There is a scene in Guys and Dolls, the Damon Runyan-inspired tale about entertaining mobsters, in which a thug nicknamed Big Julie From Chicago lays down the law: he will not be shooting craps unless the outcome is safely rigged in advance. He announces to Nathan Detroit, who has beaten him until then using actual dice, that they will now be using his own “specially made” dice.

“I do not wish to seem petty,” Detroit offers, “but your dice ain’t got no spots on them. They’re blank.”

“I had the spots removed for luck,” replies Big Julie From Chicago, “but I remember where the spots formerly were.”

The meeting of the Modern Language Association in Chicago earlier this year featured a resolution censuring Israel for applying visa restrictions to four individuals whom it regarded as a security threat, promoted by academics who pronounced themselves motivated by their passionate support for the free exchange of ideas. But the promoters deployed tactics aimed at preventing those with a dissenting view from being heard with a lack of sheepishness that would have made Big Julie From Chicago proud, and the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley positively beam.

Even so, the anti-Israel measure barely passed the MLA’s Delegate Assembly, eking out only a narrow 60-53 margin. It now goes to the MLA’s 28,000 members, who began voting on it this week, with on line balloting set to conclude on June 1.

There is considerable concern on the part of scholars that the MLA is in danger of being hijacked by a relatively small cadre whose hatred of Israel has become so unhinged that they care less about the MLA than they do about having their agenda serviced. The anti-Israel crowd’s focus on squelching dissent, on one hand, while holding themselves out as devotees of the open exchange of ideas, on the other, has not reassured the skeptics.

The less-than-inspirational commitment to encouraging the expression of dissenting views was on display from the beginning of the MLA session. The organization had 799 panels on academic topics, and exactly one non-academic panel, entitled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine.” Despite a promise from the MLA’s president that the panel would present a “diversity” of views, a diversity of views was precisely what there was not. Each of the panelists had publicly called for boycotts of Israel. No opponents of boycotts were invited to present a dissenting view.

Indeed, in a scene reminiscent of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, opponents of a boycott were obliged to hold an “alternative panel” off-site, at a nearby hotel. Those who wished to distribute materials opposing boycotts at the MLA meeting found themselves impeded from doing so. Meanwhile, the stalwart defenders of the free exchange of ideas denied press credentials to two journalists who wanted to cover the meeting, but who represented press outlets that MLA officials regarded as unlikely to fawn over what was unfolding.

When they introduced their resolution censuring Israel for denying entry to four American academics, the proponents stumbled. Having styled their resolution as one urging the State Department “to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank,” the anti-Israel academics muffed matters badly. Far from engaging in “arbitrary denials,” it emerged that Israel provides due process and substantive standards consistent with the world’s liberal democracies, notably the United States – whose State Department was being urged to “contest” the Israeli decisions. It emerged further that the United States was approximately 200 times likelier to deny a visa to an Israeli than Israel was to deny a visa to an American. As for the resolution’s criticism of Israel for refusing entry into “Gaza,” the proponents had failed to inform themselves that Egypt controlled the Gaza border, not Israel.

All of this required the sponsors to rapidly amend their resolution in order to jettison the patent errors, but not before their credibility and that of the resolution had taken a sizable hit. It was, observed Professor Cary Nelson, former President of the American Association of University Professors and a leading opponent of the anti-Israel measure at the MLA, “like a circus, with a surfeit of clowns.”

With MLA delegates showing some discomfort at a resolution whose bias outstripped its scholarship, the proponents had an ally in the Chair. Maggie Ferguson, the incoming President of the MLA and thus entitled to preside over the proceedings, was not what one would call an impartial arbiter of procedural disputes: she had formally, publicly endorsed boycotting Israel. Those who assumed she would feel honor-bound to recuse herself from ruling on disputes as a matter of fundamental integrity, however, were to be disappointed. She perceived no conflict in both advocating for anti-Israel boycotts and ruling from the Chair on challenges to the anti-Israel resolution, and when an alternative resolution was proposed designed to be “more inclusive and less partisan,” Ferguson ruled it “out of order.”

By the time the vote on the censure resolution was called, mayhem and disgust had taken their toll, and more than half of those eligible to vote had either left or disassociated themselves from the process. After it passed by seven votes, the anti-Israel crowd took one more opportunity to remind everyone what they were really after: a vote to boycott Israel altogether. Because the MLA had gone on record opposing boycotts and because they had represented that the censure resolution was in no way a stalking horse for a boycott, this required some thought – but not much. The adherents of freedom of expression settled on a second, “emergency resolution” which “condemned” those who had expressed their criticism of anti-Israel boycotts. Condemning others for dissenting from the call for boycotts seemed a bit too much like the actions of fledgling counselors at Stalinist summer camp for the Assembly, which soundly defeated the “condemnation resolution” by a 59-41 vote before leaving Chicago.

Over the next 6 weeks, the MLA members will vote to either ratify or reject the anti-Israel resolution. The proponents have continued to do their best to prevent their fellow academics from hearing views dissenting from their own.

Thus, when the MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights that had been formed by opponents sent fact sheets to the MLA membership demolishing the resolution, the MLA website erupted with howls of protest from those accusing them of “invad[ing] the privacy of members of the MLA” in a fashion that was “highly problematic.” When it was pointed out that the MLA directory was part of the public domain, resolution supporters changed their attack, warning darkly that the “funds” that must have been necessary to distribute the fact sheet strongly suggested “undue influence.”

That, too, was nonsense: the cost of sending the fact sheet was approximately 800 dollars, and was cheerfully borne by MLA members who wanted their fellow academics to have the facts. Resolution backers declined to apologize for the false charges, hewing to the remarkable line that there was something “unethical” about getting information that had been largely excluded from the MLA convention out to members, who might actually read it and conclude that they did not wish to be had.

As the MLA vote has neared, the ugliness of the comments posted by resolution supporters has gotten more pronounced. “This resolution rightly targets only Israel,” one backer posted, “given the humungous [sic] influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision-making process of academia in general.” Not a single supporter of the resolution posted anything critical of this fairly egregious bit of anti-Semitism. Opponents, however, noted that the resolution’s promoters had lost their way. “Only against Israel can we feel ourselves so powerful,” one wrote. “Such is the provocation of vulnerability. We have, let us face it, no shame.”

The MLA vote will determine whether the organization’s future lies in promoting the free exchange of ideas or in preventing it. Opponents of the resolution are placing their faith in the idea that a majority of academics prefer scholarship over partisanship, and will on that basis reject the ride offered them by the resolution’s backers. The vote will also say a lot about whether the kind of bare-knuckled blocking of dissent at the MLA will make Big Julie From Chicago the poster boy for future academic battles.

About the Author
Jeff Robbins, a former United States Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in the Clinton Administration, is an attorney in Boston, Massachusetts