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BDS Fever
Israel Feels Wrath of Modern Language Professors

The American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli universities has met with mockery and scorn for the most part, but one scholarly guild is feeling inspired. The annual convention of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association held a panel last week called “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” It probably seemed satisfyingly cutting-edge to the participants and their admiring audience, but will sound pretty humdrum to anyone familiar with academe: no one who disagrees with the BDS movement against Israel was allowed to speak on the widely-attended panel. Haaretz reports:

The audience consistently applauded the panelists’ calls for boycotts against Israel and harsh condemnation of Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. Panelists also compared Israel’s actions in the territories to the apartheid government in South Africa and alleged that Israel suppresses Palestinian education and research. […]

After the session, which ended without disruption, [panel moderator Professor Samer Ali, University of Texas at Austin], said “I think it went really well. People were very respectful. This was MLA at its best.”

He also defended the decision not to include any dissenting voices, saying this was a common approach in academic environments where panelists who agree on a particular model discuss their approaches while the audience raises critiques.

The MLA isn’t boycotting Israel quite yet, but its delegate assembly will vote this weekend on a resolution to condemn the Jewish state for various moral infractions. We’ll venture to guess that the resolution will pass, and that the modern language professors so sensitive to the needs of Palestinians will feel like the Great and Good upholders of ethical norms their university positions clearly entitle them to be.

Newly outraged charges of anti-Semitism likely will follow, and we have no doubt that some genuine bigotry against Jews poisons the dark recesses of the MLA. But, as we wrote in the wake of the ASA boycott, there’s something a bit more complicated going on here. The cheering audience was probably made up of academics who are (unforgivably) misinformed about the ethnic makeup of Israeli society, confident they’re fighting colonial injustices committed by a white, European country when in fact the majority of Israeli Jews are (or descend from) refugees from Arab or Slavic lands; scholars of Arab or Muslim dissent who understandably sympathize with the Palestinian side of the conflict most; and left-leaning American Jews who feel (again, understandably) justified in holding Israel to a higher ethical standard than any other nation.

As with the ASA, these groups are part of a body of professionals generally uncomfortable with dissenting opinions and tending to have little experience in the world outside the university. The result is a steady stream of ill-informed and self-righteous panels and resolutions. Those who find themselves shocked by all this should probably brace themselves for quite a few more disturbances like these.

Israel faces graver threats today than misguided modern language professors, but this is still an issue worth keeping an eye on. It’s disquieting that many academics in the West are hostile to intellectual and academic freedom. Ill-informed anger directed at the Jewish state is but one manifestation of a larger trend our campuses need to fight.

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  • TommyTwo

    “A Conversation about Israel and Palestine”

    I am pleased to report the conclusions of a conversation I had with myself about our respective merits: I am wonderful and you are horrible.

    “Israel Feels Wrath of Modern Language Professors”

    Only to be expected, given Israel insists on using an ancient language.

  • Andrew Allison

    The MLA has has abandoned intellectual integrity. What, pray tell, is the relevance of Hebrew to modern languages. Were such blatant antisemitism not so nauseating, it would be laughable.

  • Peripatetic

    Wrath? Academics don’t feel such petty emotions — remember, academics merely give voice to norms of Public Reason. This, you see, is why there is really no need to include dissenting views: such dissent could only arise from unreasonable prejudice.

  • qet

    Attention editors: “scholars of Arab or Muslim dissent.” (Unless this is an intentional pun, in which case I say, Well done!).
    The misinformation runs deeper than what you say. A simple glance can determine the ethnicities, were the whiners interested in seeing. And no perception of anything is necessary to superimpose a political ideology onto a set of facts; the ventings of these academics is merely a form of psychotherapy. What is missing is an understanding of the history of this conflict, notably the absence of any Palestinian “people” until recently, invented after the fact, and the complicity of the neighboring Arab states in the miseries of these poor unfortunates. These academics are walking proof of the decline in significance of advanced degrees.

    • Kavanna

      What is even more amazing is the absence of any “conversation” about what’s going on in the Arab/Muslim world — say, the historic turmoil in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, or North Africa. Or the miserable prison that is Iran.

      • Kavanna

        I was being sarcastic, of course. I’m not expecting anything connected to the real Middle East coming from the MLA or similar organizations.

      • qet

        Agreed, but the Israel-Palestinian conflict is, I think, detachable from the larger Middle East conflict context. Its properties are different, being (i) a conflict between Islam and not-Islam, and (ii) an almost totally artificial creation, one invented for purposes of shoring up the international relations position of the Arab world vis-a-vis the West. It has also gone on continuously for many decades, and, having endeared itself to the Western media and Western academics, is by far the most politically relevant of the ME conflicts within the domestic politics of the Western nations.

  • free_agent

    When I read the title “Israel Feels Wrath of Modern Language Professors”, I thought that Israel must be really terrified now!

    • Kavanna

      I know. The Israelis will soon be feeling the heat from misplaced modifiers and signifying monkeys raining down on the Holy Land.

      • free_agent

        “signifying monkeys raining down on the Holy Land”

        Now there’s a Sign of the Apocalypse worthy of Dante!

        • Kavanna

          The inner circle of Hell … inhabited by MLA professors!

  • free_agent

    The seminar’s title is “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine”. This use of “conversation” reminds me of the concept of “conversation” that Megan McArdle discusses in “You Can’t Have a Conversation About Sexism at Gunpoint” ( One side states its grievances and the other side admits fault.

    • Kavanna

      Indeed. A conversation is not what this is, but a malicious, uniformed monologue. There was an attempt by some MLA members to have an actual debate. But it had to be held outside the official convention.

      • free_agent

        I think I could argue that the seminar was not *entirely* malicious or uninformed, but you are certainly correct that it was a monolog, and thus shouldn’t be called a “conversation” … especially by the teachers of the proper use of the English language!

  • DiaKrieg

    This headline jumped out at me today. Shouldn’t the MLA call an emergency panel and propose a boycott?

    “Nigeria passes law against gay relationships”

    Bill introduces long jail terms for gay marriage, public displays of same-sex relationships and belonging to gay groups.

    • free_agent

      It would make sense in principle. But I doubt there’s any interaction between the MLA and any Nigerian academic institution, so the boycott would be invisible.

      • DiaKrieg

        Actually there are 50 universities in Nigeria, including 25 federal ones. The University of Lagos is particularly distinguished. It has 45,000 students. I notice that it has departments in English, English literature, European literature and English literature education. Hard to imagine there are no connections with the MLA.

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