By Jennifer Schuessler
CHICAGO — A movement to pressure and isolate Israel gained further ground among American academics on Saturday, when the Modern Language Association took a step toward approving a resolution calling on the State Department to contest what it characterized as Israel’s discriminatory “denials of entry” to American scholars seeking to visit the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.
After nearly three hours of fractious debate and procedural maneuvering, the group’s delegate assembly voted 60 to 53 to adopt the resolution, which will be submitted to the group’s nearly 28,000 members after review by its executive council. If it is approved, the Modern Language Association would be the fourth, and by far the largest, such group to endorse a measure critical of Israel in the past year.
The travel resolution did not call for a boycott like the one announced last month by the American Studies Association, which has prompted a backlash, including statements from more than 100 university presidents criticizing boycotts as a threat to academic freedom.
The group’s delegate assembly also voted against considering a second resolution, introduced by its Radical Caucus, to condemn the “attacks on the ASA” and defend the right of individual scholars and groups to “take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism.”
But among partisans on both sides, the debate on the resolution was seen as an important skirmish in the larger battle over the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS.
“The main goal of the process is raising awareness of egregious and decades-long complicity of Israeli institutions in the regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid,” Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian founder of BDS, said Thursday after participating in a round-table discussion of academic boycotts.
Before the group’s four-day annual meeting began, the debate seemed to bring as much attention to the policies of the MLA, starting with the approval last spring of the round table on boycotts. Two pro-Israel groups, Hillel International and the Israel Campus Coalition, issued a statement criticizing the group for accepting a lineup with only scholars who were broadly supportive of the BDS movement. They also organized a counterpanel at a nearby hotel featuring prominent MLA members who are opposed to boycotts.
Some of them defended the group’s right to approve such a gathering, saying that many scholarly panels are devoted to exploring one point of view. But at the panel, and in leaflets distributed during the meeting, they questioned the documentary evidence provided by supporters of the travel resolution, as well as its singular focus on Israel.
“I would strongly support a resolution looking into refusal of visas for all countries,” Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, said during the debate on Saturday. He added: “This is a biased resolution.”
Full passage is by no means assured. Some of the scholars chatting in the halls between panels on topics like “Middle English Keywords” or “African American Voices From the Civil War” said they were unconcerned about the measure, or even unaware of it.
Others expressed dismay at what they saw as a conversation that slid too quickly on both sides from issues of academic freedom to partisan claims.
“It arrived partisan, and it never had a chance to become nonpartisan,” said Derrick Miller, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington and a member of the delegate assembly. “I hear echoes of cable news debates rather than something academic.”
Discussion grew even more heated at the assembly. Nelson suggested that removing the word “arbitrary” from the resolution’s description of Israel’s denials of entry had made the resolution meaningless, while supporters criticized a last-minute effort to introduce a substitute resolution applying to all governments as “procedural obstruction.”
After the vote, Nelson and other opponents predicted it would damage the association and its broader mission of promoting the beleaguered humanities. But Bruce Robbins, a professor at Columbia and one of the resolution’s sponsors, defended the measure. “I don’t think it’s a dangerous politicization to defend the rights of academics,” he said. “That’s what we did.”