Michael Saenger

The decline and fall of the Modern Language Association

In passing a motion to support just one viewpoint on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the MLA chose to self-destruct

At one time, the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association was a genuinely exciting event. Most academic conferences are relatively staid, but the MLA was a reliable source of excitement. People would go out of their way to reference the coolest theorists. Plenaries set off waves of interest and changes of direction. Meanwhile, many scholars of a wide array of fields crossed paths. Teachers of Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic gave papers, interviewed for jobs, and got a chance to connect with a wider community. It was an exciting place to be, and it was an open place.

Though that was true only a couple of decades ago, it seems now very far in the past. Saturday, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association voted to support one particular point of view with regard to the current conflict in the Middle East. That one view they deemed worthy of support was the notion that “recent events in Israel-Palestine must be viewed in the context of the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, Israel’s 56-year-long illegal occupation of the West Bank, and Israel’s 16-year-long land, sea, and air blockade of the Gaza Strip.” To be clear, the “recent events” to which they refer is Hamas’s decision to invade Israel, kill over 1,200 men, women and children, abduct over 200 people and commit horrific torture and sexual assault.

The implication is that Hamas had no choice at all, or only had a choice between complete submission to oppression or complete commitment to terrorism. We all know that is not true, but the Modern Language Association chose not only to support that point of view, but to only support that point of view, effectively blaming Jews for the actions of Hamas. They were given the chance, in the discussion before the vote, to accept an amendment that clarified that although the MLA explicitly and emphatically protects this support of Hamas, to stipulate that the MLA also urges “university administrations to defend from threats, harassment and violence…faculty members, students, and staff regardless of their position on the conflict in the Middle East and to preserve campuses as civil environments for academic freedom and free expression.” That amendment was rejected. It would be hard to conceive of a more moderate, fundamental amendment to the extreme motion that ended up being passed. The Delegate Assembly rejected that effort to show even a modicum of responsibility to diverse points of view.

Those who supported that amendment, and those who, with me, advanced a second resolution that would have advocated for a blanket protection against harassment regarding campus debate on the conflict, were all very clear that Palestinian and pro-Palestinian students and faculty should be protected. We merely wanted to extend that protection to Jews and those who support the Jewish state. 

Jews are under threat on campuses across the country, and the MLA explicitly chose not to offer them any protection. At a time when enrolment in foreign language programs is falling quickly, the MLA could advocate for the value of learning other perspectives, which can only be provided to students through fluency in new languages. Instead, it chose a different path.

The organization as a whole, and the annual conference, is already shrinking. As most initial job interviews have become virtual, the conference has lost many of its most energetic, new attendees. Higher education more broadly faces serious challenges, as costs continue to rise and enrolments fall. Foreign language departments are often among the first departments to get cut from university budgets. The MLA could easily defend them, and defend its own relevance, by advocating for intercultural understanding. Instead, it has chosen a path of self-righteous self-destruction, and it has chosen to abandon many of the students who are in most urgent need of protection.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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