MLA condemns anti-Israel boycott efforts

Supporters of the boycott resolution said they had expected the measure to fail, but were "shocked" that the MLA would go so far as to repudiate the concept entirely.

The Modern Language Association has not only refused to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but its Delegate Assembly even passed a resolution urging scholars not to endorse the BDS movement.

One month after the United Nations passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, a major U.S. academic organization has rejected calls to boycott Israeli institutions.

Earlier this month, according to Inside Higher Ed, the Modern Language Association Delegate Assembly rejected a call for a boycott of Israeli institutions while simultaneously passing a measure calling on scholars to refrain from endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Supporters of the boycott resolution condemned Israel for its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians, but acknowledged that it was little more than a symbolic action.

“Our resolution is responding to a virtually unanimous call from Palestinian civil society,” Rebecca Comay, a professor of philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, said while introducing the measure.

“The boycott is an act of solidarity to counter the enormous injustices of dispossession, occupation, blockade, and racial discrimination that Palestinians continue to suffer daily,” she declared. “These injustices have stripped Palestinians of their basic human rights, including their rights to education and academic freedom, rights we ourselves take for granted and to which the MLA is committed.”

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Meanwhile, opponents argued that passing the pro-BDS measure would undermine academic freedom, pointing out the contradiction of professing the MLA’s commitment to “promote teaching and research on language and literature” while alienating Israeli academic scholars from universities and research institutions.

Despite professing support for a two-state solution and ending the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Sima Godfrey, the associate head of French, Hispanic, and Italian studies at the University of British Columbia, argued that the measure would do nothing to advance the Palestinian cause, but would merely demonize Israeli academics and institutions.

“This resolution is not about justice for Palestinians who have been living under deplorable conditions under the occupation,” she said. “Under such circumstances, as a Canadian, I should have boycotted most of the people in this room for the policies of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush, and I'm sure you realize that would have been ineffective.”

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“Similar proposals have been widely condemned and rejected by the MLA in the past,” Shahar Azani, the Northeast executive director of the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, observes in a column for The Huffington Post.

“One of the main challenges to hopes for peace in the Middle East today is the campaign to boycott and isolate Israel,” he declares. “Indeed, a large group of Nobel Prize winners called the boycott against Israel ‘antithetical’ to academic freedom and freedom of expression, and most likely a form of, ‘discrimination by virtue of national origin.’”

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Given that resistance to the idea, Comay told Inside Higher Ed that she was never expecting her boycott resolution to pass, but was “shocked” and “disappointed” that the Delegates had gone so far as to repudiate the concept entirely.

“I was prepared for our resolution to fail to win the approval of the majority, but I was not expecting that the MLA would now be taking a principled position against the boycott, which is a much more actively negative stance,” she complained, calling it “shameful” that the MLA “would take a [negative] position on the activity of boycott, which is protected by the First Amendment.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @JacksonRichman