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Michael Saenger
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MLA – Not just a style sheet (but maybe it should be)

It's bad when the Modern Language Association sides with the terrorists; it's worse when it shuts down their victims
The logo of the Modern Language Association. (via X, formerly Twitter)
The logo of the Modern Language Association. (via X, formerly Twitter)

The Modern Language Association, North America’s major professional organization for college-level teachers of literature, does not sound like a controversial institution. According to its website, it “promotes the study, teaching, and understanding of languages, literatures, and culture.” The MLA claims to “support and encourage impartiality, fairness, and justice throughout the humanities ecosystem,” to “champion intellectual freedom,” and to ensure that “all members should feel a sense of belonging within the association.”

But the MLA has violated its principles of fairness and intellectual freedom by siding with the terrorists who attacked Israel on October 7. On January 6, in Philadelphia, the MLA Delegate Assembly passed an emergency motion about how to view the conflict in the Middle East and its impact on American academic life. The underlying questions were these: What should a learned society do in a time of war? Should it side with one warring party or another? Should it advocate education, debate or protest?

Spurred by the Radical Caucus, the MLA voted to support the narrative promoted by Hamas. The MLA insisted 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.” This version of “context” means that all of Hamas’s actions must be understood as resistance against oppression. The “recent events” were the brutal sexual assault of Israeli civilians, the slaughter and torture of hundreds of men, women and children, and the abduction of over 200 Israelis — a trauma which no Israeli citizen will ever forget.

The MLA wants to protect from harassment those students and faculty who advocate for Hamas. This is a worthy goal, however wrongheaded the protestors might be. Unless campus protests spill over into violence, or disrupt a peaceful learning environment, as some have, they should be seen as protected speech. The problem is the MLA’s one-sidedness. When offered an amendment that would have also protected from harassment those who disagree with pro-Hamas activist groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, the Delegate Assembly voted against it.

The MLA embraced a narrative of the conflict in the Middle East that presents all suffering as the product of Israeli aggression, and it explicitly voted not to defend the rights of anyone who contests that position. Advocates of Israel were offered no protection. Indeed, even those who seek to explore an open conversation were offered no protection. The Delegate Assembly chose ideology over learning. When an MLA member raised a concern about the resolution — he mentioned Hamas’s use of rape on October 7 — they hissed him into silence.

Many American campuses have seen disruptions related to the war in Gaza and Israel. We have all seen news stories recounting harassment of Jewish students and faculty. Some campuses, and some classrooms, have devolved into tense zones of denunciation, whereas others have opted for informed debate and community building.

The quarrel over the Israel-Hamas war has become far too incendiary. Last month, the MLA opted to add fuel to the fire instead of trying to put out the flames. Students and faculty will differ about the war, and each person should be able to express their view without fear of being shouted down. Unfortunately, the major professional organization for North American literature departments has decided to do exactly that — shut down any view that might be seen as pro-Israel. The MLA might be afraid of what would happen if there were an open debate over the war: the argument for Hamas’ terror would probably lose out. This is no excuse for clamping down on a conversation that needs to happen.

The MLA has scanted its responsibility to students and their parents. Students want a learning environment where open debate is possible, not an activist classroom where those with dissenting views are bullied into silence. Unfortunately, the MLA has cast its lot with one-sided activism and against the exchange of ideas that makes for a welcoming classroom. One of the most basic responsibilities of college professors is to protect their students from harassment and coercion. The MLA directly disavowed that responsibility, explicitly rejecting any protection for those who might challenge their views. They went even further, actively harassing those who disagreed with them at the meeting, by hissing and talking over their objections. Anyone seeking to maintain the university as a place that welcomes diversity and learning should be deeply concerned with these decisions.

In light of the conduct of the proponents of this resolution, we must ask pointed questions: Do they view protection of their opponents as unnecessary, or are they actually advocating for the harassment of those members of campus who disagree with them? Are professors using a professional organization to encourage threats against Jewish students?

The proponents of the divisive and aggressive MLA resolution are currently circulating a petition that would put pressure on the organization’s Executive Council to follow through on their demand that only one point of view be protected from physical, academic and professional harassment on campus. They insist that their side faces a “climate of threat and repression,” and so only they deserve to have their rights safeguarded. In fact, pro-Israel Jews have been threatened far more than anti-Israel protestors, but the MLA is determined not to listen to them. This way of thinking turns all discussion into a shouting match and a contest between different degrees of leverage. We can do better. Indeed, the university can only survive if it aspires to a higher goal. We might disagree about what a reasonable debate would look like. But when professors openly advocate that their opponents should have no protection from harassment, they are leading university life in precisely the wrong direction.

The above was co-authored by David Mikics, Moores Distinguished Professor in the Department of English and the Honors College, University of Houston.

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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