Activism in the Academy: #Ferguson2MLA and BDS

Back in 2013, when the Association for Asian American Studies became the first U.S. academic organization to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, it caused somewhat of a stir. But that was nothing compared to the clamor that followed the American Studies Association's endorsement shortly after. This act, by a much larger organization, even made the front page of the print edition of the New York Times.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education recently wrote, in featuring the ASA on its "2014 Influence List":

As national organizations go, the American Studies Association is fairly small. But its impact this year on political discourse has been outsized. By voting in favor of an academic boycott of Israel, its 18-member executive body provoked a bitter debate nationally and internationally, within higher education and beyond.

And now the Modern Language Association, with a membership more than four times that of the ASA, has decided to take up serious, sustained discussion of the academic boycott of Israel, and of academic boycotts in general.

At its recent annual meeting, the MLA devoted a sizable portion of its Delegate Assembly meeting to the topic (the Delegate Assembly is the representative body of the association). Along with the delegates, all members attending were allowed to speak at an open mic on Saturday.

Previously, in the '70s and '80s, the MLA had taken a number of progressive public stances. For example, at its 1980 Delegate Assembly meeting, it took up two resolutions: one stipulated that the Executive Director communicate to appropriate officials of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the strong disapproval by the Modern Language Association of any attempts to suppress Jewish culture and, in particular, the Hebrew and Yiddish languages; the other protested the closure of Birzeit University by the Israeli military, noting, "The closure is a serious attack on the principle of academic freedom. It denies the right to education of 1,700 Palestinian students and deprives the surrounding community of needed academic and social services. We urge the immediate reopening, and the cessation of harassment, of Birzeit University." These two resolutions get to the heart of the idea of academic freedom, and of solidarity, and that is that, simply put, academic freedom is indivisible. Also, in 1980 it resolved "that the Modern Language Association urge its membership to take open stands against racist violence." But since that time, the organization has been relatively quiet when it comes to matters that do not have an immediate relation to the study and teaching of language and literature.

Now the issue of Israel-Palestine, as forcefully presented to the American public by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, has changed that. But there is another reason too -- the demographics of the organization have shifted.

Younger scholars are both energized by the new forms of knowledge they are discovering and producing, and also more activist and engaged, less complacent in their academic lives. They also see the direct connection their academic subjects have with real life crises, such as that of the increasing use of precarious contingent labor in the neoliberal university, and racial violence as exercised by a militarized police operating with impunity.

Indeed, just the day before the Delegate Assembly there was a #BlackLivesMatter action, #Ferguson2MLA, coordinated by Pranav Jani, Roopika Risam, Adam Miyashiro, Lenora Hanson, and others. Over two hundred people assembled in one of the huge ballrooms of the Vancouver Convention Center and heard impassioned and inspiring speeches from the organizers. When both the younger scholar, Professor Koritha Mitchell, and senior scholar and past president of the MLA, Professor Houston Baker, Jr., spoke, the demonstrators heard pleas for an end to self-censorship and were reminded of the activist legacy of the MLA. And along with citing black intellectuals, speakers quoted the late Palestinian activist-scholar Edward Said (also a former president of the MLA). They then marched out into the public spaces in front of the Center.

This action was remarked upon at the Delegate Assembly the next day, and its spirit could be felt in the discussion that followed. Straw polls were taken by after the main points had been fully debated. The Delegate Assembly affirmed, by sizable margins, that it wanted to talk more about academic boycotts; that academic boycotts helped, rather that harmed, academic freedom; and that those who spoke out on this controversial issue should be protected from retaliation. One of the people who spoke up was in fact Steven Salaita, whose firing from his position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is one of the most egregious cases of retaliatory censorship we have.

The results of these straw polls, while non-binding, are hugely significant. It means that a new generation of scholars is joining older progressive voices to inject a new energy into the organization. But even more than that, it means that the MLA joins other organizations, such as the American Anthropological Association, in opening its convention to robust debate -- rather than passive silence -- on one of the most urgent political and ethical issues we have before us -- the continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people.