Controversial MLA Resolution on Israel Fails to Get Enough Votes to Pass

June 04, 2014

A controversial resolution concerning Israel and academic freedom failed to garner enough votes from members of the Modern Language Association to become official organization policy, the MLA announced on Wednesday. Both sides declared victory.

The resolution, which argues that Israel has denied academics of Palestinian descent entry into the West Bank, needed a majority of votes and a minimum of 10 percent of members to approve it—or 2,390 votes—in order to pass. In an online voting process that ended on Sunday, the resolution received 1,560 votes in favor and 1,063 against, according to the MLA.

The resolution urges the U.S. State Department "to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities."

While less controversial than efforts by other scholarly associations to boycott Israeli universities over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the resolution set off a storm of debate when it was approved by the MLA’s Delegate Assembly, in January, opening the door to a membership vote. Scholars, politicians, and others weighed in on whether the resolution stood up for academic freedom or constituted an unfair attack on Israel.

MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, organized to oppose the resolution, declared in a news release that the fact that only 6 percent of the association’s members had voted yes was a rejection of an effort to turn the organization "into a vehicle for the partisan politics of a minority of its members."

David C. Lloyd, a professor of literature at the University of California at Riverside who is active in the BDS movement, which supports boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, said the more noteworthy number was the percentage of the votes in support of action.

"Despite the barrage of opposition, which was basically accusing the MLA of politicizing itself for taking a stand," he said, "MLA members showed that they were 60 percent in favor of such a resolution."

Neither side had been quite sure which way the vote would go, and both had geared up for battle. Cary R. Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, helped form MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights. He attributed the resolution’s failure, in part, to solid planning. "We have a good core of activists ready to respond," he noted.

Mr. Nelson argued that those who refrained from voting had done so because they were against the resolution. "What worried me most was that one of the most frequent responses was, ‘I’m just opposed to this whole thing so I’m just not voting,’" he said.

Mr. Lloyd called that argument "ridiculous." He said the real problem was voter apathy—common in any scholarly organization.

While the resolution’s failure may make it less likely that members will move to enact an academic boycott of Israel, as the American Studies Association did last year, Mr. Nelson anticipates continued debate over Israel. "We will be ready for another battle next year, if that’s necessary," he said.

Mr. Lloyd remained sanguine, noting that several panels at the next MLA meeting include Palestinian scholars. "As always, it’s not so much passage of the resolution that counts," he said. "It’s that the issue is getting much more discussion than it ever did a couple of years ago. All of these are public advances."