On January 5, 2017, The Modern Languages Association (MLA) has voted down a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The vote was 113 against the resolution and 79 in favor (59-41 percent margin). Moreover an anti-boycott resolution passed, with 101 voting in favor to 93 opposed. This is the second defeat of pro-boycott resolutions by academic associations notable for their leftward political orientation. Last spring the American Anthropological Association also voted down a boycott resolution.
The MLA was founded in 1883. It claims 25,000 members in over 100 countries. It “promotes the study and teaching of languages and literatures through its programs, publications, annual convention, and advocacy work.”
An anonymous delegate at the MLA convention described the scene of the vote,
For the other 99% of conference attendees, on the other hand, the MLA was business as usual. The bar in the lobby of the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott was constantly packed, the atmosphere was social, festive, and gregarious. In the corridors just outside the rooms where the BDS focused sessions were taking place, you’d be hard pressed to detect that anything other than great fun. It’s not clear how many of the estimated 8,000 or so conference attendees even knew, much less cared, about the drama at the Delegate Assembly this weekend.
Inside Grand Ballroom GH, where the Delegate Assembly meeting was held, you could feel the tension, but you also couldn’t help but notice how empty the room was. The front half of the room, reserved for the actual delegates, was relatively full (although, given vote tallies, approximately two thirds were in attendance). The back half of the ballroom, reserved for the non-delegate audience, was strikingly vacant. A handful of activists and members of the press crowded the front two or three rows, followed by seven or eight rows of mostly empty seats.
This is the state of play at many of the BDS debates at student governments, faculty senates, and academic associations across the country.
Despite the press, the pomp, the social media storms, etc., the number of those invested is strikingly small. Yet the activist fringes constantly attempt to seize upon this apathy to hijack these associations with agendas of their own.
The defeat of the boycott resolution by an association that is situated within a political milieu in which anti-Israel activism is commonplace represents a significant setback for the BDS movement. Many MLA members commenting upon the vote indicated that they are tired of political grandstanding and want to see the association focus on issues directly relevant to their academic discipline.
The vote also reflects the hard work of academics opposed to anti-Israel resolutions. “Our work is not over with,” said Cary Nelson, the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. Nelson said that “it will be a challenge” to garner enough votes in support of the anti-boycott resolution to meet that 10 percent threshold.
This article was originally published on CAMERA.org