Politics and the Modern Language Association

The recent passage by the American Studies Association (ASA) of a resolution declaring an academic boycott of Israeli universities alerted many members of the American Jewish community to the troubling views held by numerous activist faculty members on campuses throughout North America. Even though only some 800 ASA members voted for that resolution, in taking into account the motives of those behind the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which has called for such steps and which in truth constitutes an assault on Israel’s legitimacy, concerns about this development are understandable. Equally understandable in their own way are the concerns of many communal organizations about what might happen when the Modern Language Association—a group some six times the size of the ASA—holds its annual convention in Chicago on January 9-12.

But as important as the upcoming meeting and the resolution that will be introduced there are, it is equally important to keep in perspective what actually is on tap to happen at the MLA meeting, and to understand what it all means. For though what will be happening indeed matters to the Jewish community, what is going on most centrally is an internal battle regarding the meaning and purpose of the MLA itself, and it is that body which is about to face its moment of truth.

My own familiarity with this organization goes back over five decades, to a time when I was a graduate student in English at the University of Minnesota. The annual MLA convention is, among other things, a major job-hunting venue, and I lined up my first academic position at the 1967 meeting, also held in Chicago, where I was offered a position at Tel Aviv University. That led to my teaching there for eleven years, after which I returned to the States and began a very different kind of career in Jewish communal service. If no longer as central to my professional pursuits, my interest in literature continued.

So it made sense when, two years ago, as I cut back my hours at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, I used some of the time made available to return to the classroom as a Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois for a semester and to begin to publish in scholarly journals once more. And  when the program for this year’s MLA convention was announced in early November, I renewed my membership and registered for the conference.

I continue to feel attachments to the historic purposes of the association. And I share the views of its members that the Humanities, which today suffer from decreasing support on the American educational scene, are of great value in general and in a democratic society in particular.  Additionally, I have an ongoing interest in several of the fields the conference covers, and among this year’s over 800 sessions, a number have topics that sound attractive to me. But at the same time, I have been troubled by the way that Israel has been treated at other academic conventions, and what I saw in this year’s program led me and a number of longstanding members of the MLA with whom I have been in contact to have deep concerns about what was about to happen here.

While this year’s MLA program does not include consideration of a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel like the one passed by the ASA, it does include a roundtable discussion session on the topic of academic boycotts whose panelists have all have gone on record in support of such boycotts or have otherwise demonstrated an animus for Israel.

The line-up includes Omar Barghouti, identified in the conference program as an “independent scholar” but far better known for having founded the Palestinians’ BDS movement. Another of the panelists is David Lloyd, a professor of English at  the University of California’s Riverside campus who wrote a column for the Electronic Intifada supporting the ASA vote and attacking what he called “the nightmare hidden within liberal Zionism.” His primary target in that piece was the commentator Peter Beinart, whom he condemned for writing a column for the Daily Beast which, while criticizing Israel’s settlements policy, also  strongly affirmed the need for a two state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. For Lloyd, who describes Israel as an “exclusively racist state,” the “two state solution threatens Palestinians,” and he decidedly rejects that solution himself.

In addition to that panel discussion, this year’s MLA program also includes a resolution on Israel which, though not on the subject of academic boycotts, is troubling in its way. It calls for the association to urge the U.S. State Department “to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West bank by U.S. academicians who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”  While on its face such language may sound reasonable to members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly who will vote at the end of this week, if examined carefully the resolution proves to be based on flimsy, limited evidence presented in a one-sided background report, and the resolution’s charges are made without any suitable context. The resolution’s insistence that measures taken by Israel in determining the implementation of its policies regarding foreign visitors are merely “arbitrary” is blind to the realities Israel faces, and the resolution’s bias is evidenced in its unfairness in singling out Israel alone for engaging in a widespread global practice and in the assumptions it implies about Israel’s motivation.

My  early years as a member of the MLA took place in the ‘60s, a politically volatile time in America when I myself, outside of the classroom, was involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Despite whatever may have gone on in MLA conventions at that time, and although through the years various political causes may have been supported by the association, the MLA has continued to have the core identity of an academic and scholarly enterprise. What is happening now has the potential of changing that utterly. Accordingly, the central  issue that is currently in play is not about a conflict of some sort between the Jewish community and the MLA, as some have suggested. Instead, the conflict which is unfolding is within the MLA itself.

Yes, the attempt to delegitimize Israel might get a bump if the supporters for implementing an academic boycott against Israel in the Roundtable discussion gain adherents. But that activity has never caught on in America as it has in England and Europe, and it remains unlikely to.  Though Omar Barghouti may have called what happened at the ASA conference a “tipping point,” the rejection of a boycott and strong criticism of the ASA for endorsing that position from one university president after another, and many faculty members as well, proves the contrary. Indeed, what the ASA did may have actually made the BDS movement weaker and less credible in America than it had been.

And yes, if the proposed MLA resolution passes despite its inherent flaws and despite the well-substantiated opposition of key MLA members, that probably would be portrayed by the resolution’s supporters as a major victory, and some damage would indeed be done. In that regard, some members of the MLA opposed to this resolution suspect that it is a “stalking horse” which, if passed, could lay the groundwork for the introduction of a boycott resolution next year, and the anti-boycott momentum created recently by the sharp negative response to the ASA’s action throughout the country could be blunted somewhat.  But the resolution still is significantly weaker than what the ASA passed.

So as much as supporters of Israel are right to take seriously what is happening at the MLA convention, that concern should be kept in perspective. At this point it is not the MLA as an organization but some of its members who are creating a problem, and what is really at stake in these meetings is the future of the MLA itself. The key question at hand thus is whether the MLA will continue to be a body defined by its proclaimed mission of serving as an organization with the purpose of “promoting the teaching and study of language and literature” which embraces academic ideals and the advancement of scholarly pursuits. The stark alternative, which would follow if the MLA chooses to enter on the path which the ASA has taken, is that it can come to be regarded the way the ASA is today—as a fringe organization more concerned with the advancement of a one-sided, unfair, ideology-driven foreign policy agenda—rather than as a credible scholarly association. What is at stake in these meetings is the very soul of the MLA.

About the Author
Michael Kotzin publishes widely on anti-Semitism and related issues. A collection of his writings from 1988 through 2013 entitled "On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World" is forthcoming.