Modern Languages Association Prepared to Talk Seriously About Palestine

It's not often that academic organizations get into the news. While their members are deeply involved in the activities of these organizations, for those outside the controversies that create a buzz within these groups don't produce much of a reaction, and the media are not especially interested in them either. The ivory tower is pretty remote to most people. But the recent vote of the American Studies Association to impose an academic boycott on Israeli institutions got immediate coverage by the big media beyond The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. The New Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and others all ran multiple stories. And when nearly 100 college and university presidents joined ex-Harvard President Lawrence Summers to protest the boycott, that made even bigger news.

Nonetheless the controversy around the ASA vote subsided somewhat, as attention turned to the annual convention of the much larger Modern Languages Association convention, here in Chicago this past week. People interested in a possible academic boycott of Israel were looking to see what would happen at the MLA. While we heard two panels Thursday on the boycott (one essentially sympathetic to it, the other opposing it), there is not a motion on the floor for a boycott.

On Saturday the Delegate Assembly was presented with two resolutions. The first, which asked the MLA to actively work with the US State Department on Palestinian scholars' right to entry into Israel and the West Bank, passed after nearly four hours of debate and parliamentary maneuvering. It will now be taken up by the Executive Council. The Delegate Assembly voted not to discuss the second, put forward by the Radical Caucus, which asked the MLA to re-affirm its commitment to protect from intimidation and attack scholars involved in social justice causes. The resolution was prompted by the attacks on a number of academic organizations that have voted for an academic boycott of Israel in the past year. This "emergency resolution" makes a key distinction with regard to these attacks. It maintains the critical distinction between simple verbal attacks, which are rightfully protected acts of free speech, and the retaliatory and punitive acts of people in positions of power meant to silence and intimidate those who hold views different from their own. For example, the proposal from two New York state legislators to punish the ASA for taking its stance, and the action of Indiana University President Michael McRobbie who -- without consulting his faculty -- unilaterally ended relations with the American Studies Association.

Despite the fact that the delegates, no doubt weary of discussion and debate, voted not to enter into a discussion of the emergency resolution, the Executive Council of the Modern Languages Association announced at the meeting that it felt the Radical Caucus had raised important concerns that it would take up. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Radical Caucus.)

Attention continues to fall on Israel-Palestine. The debates and discussions have often been heated and rancorous. But at the MLA this week the prevailing sense is that it is too important an issue not to discuss in the most rational, informed, free-from-fear environment possible. When people talk about the issue of Israel-Palestine reaching a turning point, I think they are right. An important move in that turn was made here in Chicago -- it was to positively assert the importance of freedom of movement for all scholars, and to acknowledge the importance of protecting an open space for the conversation to continue.