Why this boycott is not like the others

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At its annual conference on Thursday, the Modern Language Association (MLA) will hold a kangaroo-court panel discussion called, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” A few days later the MLA will vote on an anti-Israel resolution that would condemn Israel for the “arbitrary denial of entry to Gaza and the West Bank” of foreign academics.

Panel discussions at conferences are usually gatherings where people with different opinions debate the merits of something. But the MLA, a self-styled advocate of academic freedom and open discourse, will treat the Jewish state by different rules: the panel discussion will actually be a show trial in which Israel’s guilt is foreordained by a group of aggressively anti-Israel panelists. The MLA appears intent to join the ignominious ranks of the Association for Asian American Studies, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the American Studies Association, which all recently approved resolutions boycotting Israeli universities.

So how will the MLA’s resolution be different than all other academic boycott resolutions? Three ways.

First, the resolution is more targeted in scope. It does not commit the association to boycott Israeli institutions until the hoped-for end of the Jewish state. Rather, it protests Israel’s border security policies, which the activists say are causing harm to Palestinian universities by delaying visa processing of foreign academics, and it calls upon the State Department to intervene on behalf of U.S. academics and contest Israel’s security decisions.

It’s a savvy and deeply hypocritical opening gambit. Never mind that visa screening is routine in every nation, Western or otherwise, or that every Middle Eastern country except Egypt and Jordan refuse to admit anyone carrying an Israeli passport. Indeed many refuse to admit anyone – even academics – with so much as an Israeli stamp in his or her passport. None of this is cause for the slightest objection from the MLA.

The second difference is that, unlike the three associations that passed full boycotts, the MLA isn’t composed primarily of radical critical theorists. The MLA is the principal professional association for scholars of language and literature, consisting of nearly 30,000 members. They are the mainstream of academia, and due to their style and citation guide the MLA is also a household name among educated elites.

For the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the content of the resolution is thus unimportant compared to how the fact of its passage will fuel the perception that the movement is making inroads into mainstream academia.

The third difference is how brazenly anti-Semitic its advocates are. When the American Studies Association’s president was asked why his group singled out Israel he sought to downplay this uncomfortable fact by saying, “One has to start somewhere.” You will not find such circumspection among proponents of the MLA resolution.

The panel on Thursday will feature four belligerent anti-Israel activists advocates and a moderator who makes the panelists look like Likudniks. Barbara Harlow has already publicly endorsed an academic boycott. Richard Ohmann has declared that our “taxes have for years supported Israel’s project of ethnic cleansing.” David Lloyd wrote in the Electronic Intifada, a website devoted to Israel’s destruction, “It is not only that ... all Israeli institutions are complicit in the occupation. It is that the occupation and its practices are the truth of Israel itself.” Omar Barghouti, the fourth panelist, is a co-founder of the BDS movement who says “the white race is the most violent in the history of mankind.” In a hypocrisy nearly too great to be believed, Barghouti earned a Master’s degree from Tel Aviv University and is currently pursuing his second Master’s there.  The university was overwhelmed by a petition with more than 175,000 signatures calling for Barghouti’s expulsion, but it stood on principle and refused.

The panel moderator is UT-Austin’s Samer Ali, whose public Facebook page gives away the game. One of his posts reads: “Our enemy is not radical Islam. It is global capitalism.” His page features multiple posts depicting Iranians as morally superior to Republicans and a link to a video highlighting Ayatollah Khomeini’s alleged personal generosity.

The intellectual fare accompanying the panel is hardly more credible. The official “documentary evidence” filed against Israel contains articles from the hate website Electronic Intifada, and a report by the Palestinian group “Right to Enter,” which is based entirely on anecdotes and contains no mention of terrorism, security, or any legitimate justifications for visa security.

Will the MLA’s members look past the carefully hedged language of the resolution to the clearly audible music of hatred? Will they endorse a vile double-standard in which Israel is attacked for its legitimate security concerns while the policies of dozens of countries that refuse to grant any visas to Israelis are ignored? Unlike the past three resolutions, this resolution is not yet a fait accompli. It will be a litmus test of the credulity and morality of the MLA and indeed of America’s professoriate.

Max Eden researches education issues at the American Enterprise Institute.

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