Monday, January 13, 2014

Israel Feels the Wrath of the MLA. By Walter Russell Mead.

Israel Feel the Wrath of Modern Language Professors. By Walter Russell Mead. The American Interest, January 13, 2014.


The American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli universities has met with mockery and scorn for the most part, but one scholarly guild is feeling inspired. The annual convention of the 30,000-member Modern Language Association held a panel last week called “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” It probably seemed satisfyingly cutting-edge to the participants and their admiring audience, but will sound pretty humdrum to anyone familiar with academe: no one who disagrees with the BDS movement against Israel was allowed to speak on the widely-attended panel. Haaretz reports:
The audience consistently applauded the panelists’ calls for boycotts against Israel and harsh condemnation of Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. Panelists also compared Israel’s actions in the territories to the apartheid government in South Africa and alleged that Israel suppresses Palestinian education and research. [...]
After the session, which ended without disruption, [panel moderator Professor Samer Ali, University of Texas at Austin], said “I think it went really well. People were very respectful. This was MLA at its best.”
He also defended the decision not to include any dissenting voices, saying this was a common approach in academic environments where panelists who agree on a particular model discuss their approaches while the audience raises critiques.
The MLA isn’t boycotting Israel quite yet, but its delegate assembly will vote this weekend on a resolution to condemn the Jewish state for various moral infractions. We’ll venture to guess that the resolution will pass, and that the modern language professors so sensitive to the needs of Palestinians will feel like the Great and Good upholders of ethical norms their university positions clearly entitle them to be.
Newly outraged charges of anti-Semitism likely will follow, and we have no doubt that some genuine bigotry against Jews poisons the dark recesses of the MLA. But, as we wrote in the wake of the ASA boycott, there’s something a bit more complicated going on here. The cheering audience was probably made up of academics who are (unforgivably) misinformed about the ethnic makeup of Israeli society, confident they’re fighting colonial injustices committed by a white, European country when in fact the majority of Israeli Jews are (or descend from) refugees from Arab or Slavic lands; scholars of Arab or Muslim dissent who understandably sympathize with the Palestinian side of the conflict most; and left-leaning American Jews who feel (again, understandably) justified in holding Israel to a higher ethical standard than any other nation.
As with the ASA, these groups are part of a body of professionals generally uncomfortable with dissenting opinions and tending to have little experience in the world outside the university. The result is a steady stream of ill-informed and self-righteous panels and resolutions. Those who find themselves shocked by all this should probably brace themselves for quite a few more disturbances like these.
Israel faces graver threats today than misguided modern language professors, but this is still an issue worth keeping an eye on. It’s disquieting that many academics in the West are hostile to intellectual and academic freedom. Ill-informed anger directed at the Jewish state is but one manifestation of a larger trend our campuses need to fight.