On Passover, Jews around the world celebrate a story — the liberation from Egypt — that embodies at once the sense of peoplehood and the notion that a people merits a homeland of its own. The story of liberation from bondage is woven into the Jewish fabric. Whether symbolic or real, it communicates the Jewish people’s longing and their common destiny. Part of that destiny is recapturing our national identity.
Much debate by proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in academic and public spheres is not genuine debate but rather the promotion of accusations and slogans directed against the state of Israel. Efforts at making a detailed, fact-based case are far less common, even full-length books are often largely polemical.
The Modern Language Association (MLA), the largest academic discipline-based faculty organization in the US has been debating resolutions to boycott Israel or its universities since 2007. I have been involved in fighting this movement both then and since.
The large room at the Marriott Wardman Park was filled to overflowing on Sunday afternoon for a special session billed as “Thinking Palestine Intersectionally.”
Cary Nelson is a English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an affiliated professor at the University of Haifa. David Greenberg is a history professor at Rutgers University. They are members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom.
Since 2014, there has been a disturbing surge in the number of invited campus speakers being repeatedly interrupted or actually prevented from delivering a public lecture. A startling share of these silencing efforts have been directed at Israelis or other speakers sympathetic to Israel who have run afoul of the growing anti-Israel movement on campuses.
Editorial introduction to the Symposium: Perry Anderson’s long essay, ‘The House of Zion’, was published in the November-December 2015 issue of New Left Review, the ‘flagship journal of the Western Left’. Fathom invited Shany Mor,Cary Nelson, John Strawson, Michael Walzer, Mitchell Cohen and Einat Wilf to respond to Anderson’s essay.
Available online, and given the status of an NLR ‘Editorial’, it was the Marxist equivalent of a Papal edict. Anderson was the journal’s long-time editor, and is perhaps the most gifted intellectual historian of his time, author of Lineages of the Absolutist State, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, Considerations on Western Marxism, English Questions, The Origins of Postmodernity, and more. In this outing, Anderson serves as episcopus servus servorum Dei, or, the servant of the servants of God (in this case a secular God). Over 14,000 words, he excommunicates the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and anoints an alternative: ‘the demand for one state is now the best Palestinian option available.’
In November 2015, the National Women’s Studies Association endorsed a broad boycott resolution calling not only for a boycott of Israeli universities but also for the “boycott, divestment and sanctions of economic, military and cultural entities and projects sponsored by the state of Israel.” In an effort to connect with the NWSA’s core commitments, the group condemned the “sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated [by Israel] against Palestinians and other Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel and in the Golan Heights.”
Thereby, the organization not only created a fictional claim about the only Middle Eastern country with relatively full gender equality, roughly comparable to that of America except for some cultural practices in conservative religious communities, but also ignored the real violence against women and repression of women’s rights throughout much of the Arab world. Embracing what it characterizes as an “intersectional” perspective, the NWSA argues that all oppression is “interconnected.” But apparently some examples of oppression are more interconnected than others.
In this comprehensive essay, Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, responds to a report by members of the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) visit to Palestine in June 2016, which details an assault on Israel’s legitimacy, policies, and right to exist, without accepting any responsibility to distribute contrary views or evidence. Nelson suggests that rather than indulging the BDS movement in its relentless hostility toward and effort to isolate Israel and Israelis, MLA members should be encouraged to promote initiatives to improve the situation for Israelis and Palestinians .
INTRODUCTION AND EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
In December 2016, as part of the lead up to the following month’s expected MLA Delegate Assembly vote on a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities, six MLA members issued ‘A Report on MLA Members’ Visit to Palestine, June 2016’, a document that merits a detailed response since its broad implications will be of concern to those both within and outside the academic community. Their report addresses numerous subjects of general interest, among them the status of academic freedom in the West Bank, a subject covered in my December 2016 report in the academic journal Telos, as well as the experience of Arab Israeli citizens who study in Israel itself. The Telos essay, ‘Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities,’ which could be consulted in tandem with the present paper, demonstrates that the major threat to academic freedom in the West Bank is not Israel but rather actions by Palestinian political and paramilitary groups, including Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, along with the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself. These two documents, which respond to the boycott initiative in the MLA, correspond roughly to the appropriate geographical and political divisions; the Telos essay concentrates on the West Bank and Gaza, whereas this essay concentrates on Israel ‘proper’.