In the wake of the recent condemnations of the American Studies Association vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions, there was a great deal of publicity for the Modern Language Association Conference, which opened today in downtown Chicago with a panel on "Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine."
The presenters, all on record for their animus and activism against Israel, were prepared for a crowd of over 500 in the two ballrooms set aside for the program. The attendance, only about 125 of the 4,000 conference attendees, and tepid audience response fell short of expectations.
As people trickled into the room, they found several fliers which rebutted the arguments of the boycott proponents. Most were prepared by MLA Scholars for Academic Freedom. As there was no panelist to counter the presenters, those with divergent views had placed materials on the seats. One flier quoted Omar Barghouti, the most prominent panelist:
"The two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is really dead. Good riddance! But someone has to issue an official death certificate before the rotting corpse is given a proper burial."
The moderator, University of Texas professor Samer Ali, University of Texas, Austin, wasted no time in his attack, calling Israel "racist" and implying a parallel to Nazi behavior. The lesson he learned from the Holocaust is that no group should claim superiority over another "like Zionists do." Despite being subjected to a "pro-Zionist fatwa," he said he was committed to bringing "the best people to present ideas on the subject."
The "best" people included Omar Barghouti, founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and a graduate student at Tel Aviv University. Barghouti started from the position that it is a given that Israel is "morally schizophrenic," "racist," "colonizers," and "Apartheid." The Israel government wantonly "pillages and destroys Palestinian books, closes Palestinian schools, and even bombed the Islamic Institute in Gaza." With Israel found guilty a priori, he evokes Martin Luther King and calls for "people of conscience" to support the "Palestinian civil society" by supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He lauded the recent ASA vote as a "tipping point" for the BDS movement.
Barbara Jane Harlow, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, Austin, joined Barghouti in admonishing Israel for "crimes against humanity" and "systematic repression," which included the destruction of Palestinian property and the murder of Rachel Corrie. She demanded that Israel dismantle the "wall" (a protective barrier which Israel erected after hundreds of terror attacks and deaths) and "pay reparations to the Palestinians." When an audience member questioned Harlow about why Israel is the sole focus of concern, she answered, "Why not?"
David Lloyd, Professor of English at University of California, Riverside, maintains that "Israel's detractors need no defense" since "Israel's guilt is a matter of record." Although he called Israel "brutal" and Gaza "an open air prison," his most pointed accusations barbs were directed against the "money, power, and politics" that blocked criticism of Israel. As for the over 100 colleges which came out against the ASA boycott, he called the statements by those presidents "authoritarian, malicious threats."
The final speaker Richard Ohmann, Emeritus Professor of English, Wesleyan University,stated that although he is against BDS, he silently cheered the ASA vote. Lest he be mistaken for a Zionist who accidentally found his way onto the stage, he explained, that he is against all U.S. aid and all U.S. academic cooperation with Israel. Boycotting Israel is not wrong; rather it is not sufficient. He was concerned that the academic rights of tenure track faculty who voted in favor of boycott are threatened by college presidents who denounced the boycott. (He cited no supporting cases of academic reprisals.) Even his own college president came out against the vote, and now Ohmann feels "Israel lobbies hot breath on my neck." and blamed Israel-connected groups such as StandWithUs for their efforts against a boycott of Israeli academia.
The speakers echoed the theme of Apartheid more than 12 times for each speaker and all referred to "occupied territories" when they spoke about Ramallah, Gaza, and Tel Aviv. Palestinians, in all instances, were referred to as hapless victims or a "civil society." They agreed that their road to success must go through academia because "Lobbying Congress is pointless ... They are all for the Zionist project." Bargouhti elaborated, "Congress is bought and paid for by the [Israel] lobby."
This session is the only one of the 810 panels at the conference on Israel, and on Saturday the delegates will be asked to vote on a resolution critical of Israel's "arbitrary denial of entry to Gaza and the West Bank"
To provide a balance that was lacking in the MLA programming, Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition scheduled an alternative panel "Perspectives Against Academic Boycotts" at a nearby hotel following the MLA BDS panel.
Peggy Shapiro is the StandWithUs Chicago Community Coordinator. She was a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago for 28 years, teaching Public Speaking, Oral Interpretation of Literature, and English as a Second Language. She was the chairperson of the Foreign Language/ESL at Harold Washington college, and is a member of the MLA.