In early January, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association Convention — perhaps the largest and most influential academic gathering in the humanities — passed, by a vote of 60-53, a resolution urging its members to “contest” restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank.
Another resolution, urging solidarity with scholars supporting boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, was not brought to the floor, but referred to Executive Committee for discussion. The issues were aired at a tense session entitled, with cheerful understatement, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine.”
Since then, much had been made of the title of the session. In an age of shrinking attention spans, and in the wake of the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association, the appearance of the word “boycott” and “Israel” in the same title triggered cries of foul before any “conversation” could begin. Critics raged against the panel’s composition, since all panelists had previously voiced varying degrees of support for boycotting Israeli universities or enterprises.
“The United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia, not to mention Western-leaning nations in the Middle East, such as UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (which regularly partner with Western universities), all deny entry to individuals, for any number of reasons” — so wrote the leaders of Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), Eric Fingerhut and Jacob Baime.
“It’s a savvy and deeply hypocritical opening gambit,” wrote Max Eden in the Weekly Standard. “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.”
At the session itself, one woman asked: “Why aren’t we boycotting China?”
Now, MLA panels, like those at all academic conferences, are typically initiated by groups of scholars who have a compelling interest (or ax to grind). Every once and while, political subjects of interest to the academic community per se may be included. Conference organizers tend to give members a good deal of latitude here, since panelists have their say and then submit to the wisdom of the crowd.
Nevertheless, the outgoing president of the MLA, Professor Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University, was inundated with complaints and attacks thanks to this particular panel title. She and the conference organizers were accused of taking an anti-Semitic turn. As with much in the Middle East conflict, preemptive strikes were thought merely defensive.
Last week, Professor Hirsch responded in an eloquent “Viewpoint” article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviewing the affair and pleading for simple fairness:
The MLA was not considering a boycott resolution. Nonetheless, the emails I received were written as if a boycott resolution were not only under consideration but had already passed… The messages that poured in from individuals and groups like Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition persisted in mischaracterizing, exaggerating, and distorting both the session and the resolution. ‘Shame on MLA for the hate and anti-Semitism,’ one email read.
Hirsch goes on:
Many demanded ‘balance.’ But academic conference sessions are not talk-show debates; speakers explore a topic, raise questions, and advance nuanced conclusions. Disagreement can be voiced during the discussion period. Critics have claimed that academic boycotts violate academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. Yet the vehemence of the opposition, the hyperbolic fliers that were distributed condemning boycotts, and the portrayal of the session as a foregone conclusion, in fact blocked the open conversation that we in the U.S. academy need to nurture and protect…
If we could discuss the constellation of issues to which that term applies, we could also put into historical perspective the call to boycott by Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews. We could sort out how limited the practical effects of a boycott of institutions rather than individuals by scholarly associations like the ASA would be. We could sort out the ethics and politics of boycott as symbolic action. And we could explore alternative means of expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, means that might be less divisive.
Hirsch is a friend. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and a prolific writer (at times, with her husband, the historian Leo Spitzer) about, among other things, what can be salvaged from the culture of the Holocaust’s ghosts. That she, of all people, has had to endure charges of anti-Jewish sentiment for presiding over a conference in which the morality (efficacy, etc.) of academic boycotts are debated — indeed, where the only resolution passed condemned restrictions on the movement of scholars — seems a little surreal.
But the real issue here is whether MLA critics are right to complain that, simply because the session took place, the MLA was singling-out Israel for actions other countries take as well. Is it right to have a session on Israel and Palestine and not, say, China? The implication is clear, and we hear it routinely. Why focus on Israel when other countries are so much worse? Isn’t this a double standard?
And the answer (which we need to hear more often) is: No — this is a single standard; the question is whether Israelis really wish to be judged by it. When Chris Christie is caught using the powers of the state to muscle political opponents, you don’t expect him to say, My God, why pick on me when Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is so much worse? You expect him to know he belongs to a world-historical club. You expect him to feel the shame.
The standard is usually called “Western” (as Fingerhut, Baime and Eden suggest) but given where Athens sits in relation to Jerusalem, Israelis might think of it as Northwestern. For we are speaking about affiliation to a world of liberal-democratic states, what the Israeli orthodox-right rightly calls Hellenism. Most Israelis want to be thought a part of this world: democratic individualism, free enterprise, equality before the law, protected religious and sexual liberty, racial and ethnic tolerance. (Israeli universities are bastions of its Hebrew version.)
Israelis expect to mingle and compete in the West like citizens of the world. They expect to be visited and invested in like Western states. They expect to be integrated into global markets with free trade agreements. They expect to be defended by NATO states and peace-keepers as custodians of democratic values. They cannot violate their terms and then plead that tyrannies — typically shunned or merely tolerated for tactical reasons — are worse.
No other Western state is conducting an occupation, nor is Israel’s occupation of Palestine modeled on, say, the U.S. occupation of Germany after WWII. Clearly, the reason why members of the MLA question whether Israel grants appropriate entry to the West Bank of American-Palestinians is twofold. First, they question whether Israel is permitting the cultural and economic development of Palestine, which depends on the freedom of movement Palestinians lack. But, second, they are probing to see whether Israelis are really committed to liberal-democratic standards.
Hirsch knows where she and the MLA stand. Israeli leaders, too, must choose. There is room in the world for non-democratic states. But membership has it privileges.
Bernard Avishai is Visiting Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and Adjunct Professor of Business at Hebrew University. He is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism, The Hebrew Republic, and, most recently, Promiscuous: Portnoy’s Complaint and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness. He writes frequently for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, and other publications. He blogs atbernardavishai.com. On Twitter: @bavishai.