By Richard Pérez-Peña
A resolution critical of Israel failed to win approval from a leading scholarly group, the Modern Language Association, the group said last week, after an overwhelming majority of its members declined to vote.
There have been several attempts within academic groups to criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and the Modern Language Association would have been the most prestigious organization to do so.
Smaller groups, like the American Studies Association, have called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
The language association’s resolution asked the State Department to pressure Israel not to erect obstacles to Americans’ teaching at Palestinian universities. In balloting that ended last week, 6.5 percent of the association’s 24,000 active members voted for the resolution, well short of the 10 percent needed for adoption, and 4.4 percent voted against it, while a small number voted on other questions but not on the Israel resolution.
Both sides claimed the upper hand.
“I think it’s a moral victory and maybe a practical one,” said Bruce Robbins, a Columbia literature professor and an author of the resolution. “I think of this as a successful exercise in getting people informed.”
Russell Berman, a literature and German studies professor at Stanford, said, “I see this as indicating a very strong reluctance to engage in politics extraneous to the core mission of the MLA.”
After the group’s delegate assembly voted narrowly in January to put the resolution to a membership vote, the two sides debated its basic claim, that Israel denies entry to the West Bank to American scholars of Palestinian descent.
Israel’s supporters contend that the barriers it erects are no more than inconveniences, and that denial of entry is often temporary. Critics say that even when professors are not barred, they face harassment.
Both sides agree on one thing: There will be more attempts to pass resolutions critical of Israel.