January 1, 2014
Amy Stoken and Jack S. Levin
Academicians from all
over the world will gather in Chicago for the 129th annual convention of the
30,000-member Modern Language Association. The MLA, according to its website,
provides opportunities for teachers of English and foreign languages "to
share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to
discuss trends in the academy."
The four-day convention,
starting Jan. 9, features exhibitions, opportunities for job interviews — and
810 sessions, all but one of which will address topics connected to the study
of language and literature. The one exception is entitled "Academic
Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine." "This
roundtable," the MLA website explains, "addresses the political
movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, seen by its
defenders as a viable means to end the Palestinian occupation."
That the only political
session at the MLA targets Israel must appear strange to the unbiased observer.
Anyone familiar with the Middle East will wonder what is meant by ending
"the Palestinian occupation." Does it refer to Israel's presence on
the West Bank? Israel took control of that area in 1967 in the course of
defending itself against an invasion from the army of Jordan, the country which
then ruled the West Bank territory. For decades Israel has pursued a series of
negotiations with the Palestinian Authority — just as it did, successfully,
with Egypt and Jordan — in hopes of reaching a peace deal to end any Israeli
presence on the West Bank. The latest phase of those Israeli-Palestinian talks,
under U.S. sponsorship, is ongoing even as the MLA prepares to gather in
Or, perhaps, by
"occupation" the conveners of this MLA session mean the very
existence of Israel itself, which, according to some diehard opponents of the
Jewish state has no international legitimacy, even though the United Nations
mandated Israel's creation and admitted Israel to U.N. membership. If that's
the case, this roundtable of academics is simply seeking to dismantle a U.N.
One would think that an
organization dedicated to languages and literature would value Israel, the only
democracy in the Middle East, where academic freedom is alive and well, a free
press flourishes, and there is no discrimination based on race, religion, sex
or sexual preference. If the MLA wants to pronounce on international politics,
why are there no sessions on countering repressive regimes such as those in
Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe or North Korea, where people, for example, suffer
imprisonment or worse for expressing politically incorrect ideas or adhering to
the wrong faith?
Even worse, this MLA
boycott "conversation" doesn't even pretend to examine both sides of
the question. All of the announced speakers are on record favoring an Israeli
boycott. In fact, presiding officer Samer M. Ali informed The Chronicle of
Higher Education that Israel's guilt is not open to doubt but rather, "(t)he
question that panelists will be debating is not whether Israel is violating the
rights of Palestinians, but what to do about it."
This academic scandal
headed for Chicago will not be an isolated incident, but simply the latest
phase in an effort by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural
Boycott of Israel to get American scholarly bodies' help in delegitimizing the
Jewish state. The Association for Asian Studies, the American Studies
Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association — all
relatively small —have endorsed academic boycotts of Israel, and the
"conversation" at the MLA convention is designed as the opening wedge
to pry an endorsement from a larger and mainstream body.
What happened to the
concept that academic organizations were designed to facilitate communication
between both educators within a single country and educators in different
countries, rather than to build walls between groups of educators in pursuit of
one or more perceived political goals?
Thankfully, the boycott
movement is opposed by all the responsible voices in the academy who have
spoken. The American Association of Universities and the American Association
of University Professors, as well as numerous individual scholars, have
condemned it as a violation of academic freedom. Most of our prestigious local
academic institutions, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and
the University of Illinois at Chicago, have voiced their rejection of these
academic boycotts. But the battle is far from over.
An alert to fair-minded
scholars in every academic field: Don't let your profession become a haven for
Amy Stoken is director of
the Chicago Regional Office of the American Jewish Committee. Jack S. Levin is
a past president of AJC Chicago and a part-time lecturer at the University of
Chicago and Harvard University law schools.