Graduate Students MLA members on the MLA Academic Boycott Resolution

We are gearing up for the MLA 2017 Convention in Philadelphia and the debate on the resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Graduate student MLA members who support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions wrote the following message.

What will be the impact of the academic boycott resolution on the MLA?

At the 2017 Convention, the Modern Language Association will take the first step in solidarity with Palestinian academics, students, and teachers when it considers a resolution to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. If passed, the resolution will be a clear endorsement by the MLA membership of the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions and an affirmation of its individual members who engage in that boycott at their own institutions. It does not sanction individuals, prevent engagement with Israeli scholars, or keep Israeli scholars from participating in the MLA and its Convention. The boycott targets Israeli institutions that actively and tacitly support human rights abuses and infringe upon the educational rights Palestinians.

What are the educational impacts of the occupation?

At least two Israeli universities are built on occupied Palestinian land or on illegal settlements, but all produce technology and ideology that makes occupation possible. Not a single Israeli university or department has taken a formal stance against the occupation, which prevents Palestinian undergraduate and graduate students from equal participation in higher education, from accessing international institutions and from attending their own schools. The boycott resolution thus seeks to advocate for Palestinian rights to education and their academic freedom. It thus aligns with the MLA’s statement that “When academic freedom is curtailed, higher education is compromised.”

Why and how was the resolution brought to the MLA?

The resolution was submitted by MLA members who believe that Palestinian academic freedom and the right to education, principles that the MLA has frequently defended, is systematically violated by the Israeli state and its educational institutions. The resolution will be debated by the Delegate Assembly in January 2017 and if passed by the Delegate Assembly will go out to the membership for a vote in spring 2017.

How did the grassroots Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli occupation begin?

In July 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call asking socially conscious peoples from around the world to join the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement against the state of Israel and Israeli institutions that further the occupation of Palestine. BDS is a non-violent, international, grassroots movement that is people-powered both in and outside of Palestine. It is the most effective and the most legitimate means of expressing international solidarity with Palestinians.

What does the mission or work of the MLA have to do with Palestinian solidarity and the boycott movement? How is it MLA business?

The MLA’s stated mission is to “[ promote] the study and teaching of languages and literatures [and] support the intellectual and professional lives of its members.” This mission is inseparable from the issues of academic freedom, rights to education, and the political contexts in which languages and literatures are taught. Resolutions passed in 1969 and 1993 recognized the integral relationship between the teaching of languages and literatures and human rights and recent executive Council statements like the “Discrimination Against Transgender Individuals” (2016) acknowledged “state-sanctioned discrimination” as a threat to human dignity and “Statement on Islamophobia” (2015) condemned violations of academic freedom and free speech on the basis of religious or scholarly affiliation with Islam. The academic boycott is in accordance with precedents set by the MLA that advocate for education as a human right, a principle first set out Article 26 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Is Israel being singled out while other countries also commit violent acts?
Historically, the MLA has taken a strong position in support of human rights and issued statements about political matters regarding peoples around the world. The boycott will be one stance among many that the MLA has taken on exceptional violations of educational and human rights, for example mostly recently in connection with the Turkey’s violation of academic freedom (see January 2016 “MLA Statement of Support for Turkish Academics”). In addition, since the U.S. provides extraordinary political, military, and financial support for Israel’s actions, U.S. academics have a special responsibility to act. The boycott exposes and seeks to interrupt the bald contradiction of the U.S. condemning illegal settlement building and violence, on the one hand, and facilitating illegal actions and policies with their economic and diplomatic aid, on the other hand. It is completely consistent with the MLA’s positions in defense of academic freedom and human rights for the organization to refuse to participate in normal relations with this regime. And while there are many humanitarian crises taking place in the world right now, this claim is not an argument against taking particular political actions given Israel special relationship to the U.S.

Why should graduate students support the boycott?

Graduate students in the U.S. work in universities that are structured by intensified raced and gendered violence and labor exploitation. These conditions are global ones, linking U.S. institutions to others, and require international solidarity across national borders. Graduate students have a powerful role and a vested interest in speaking out against racialized violence, limits placed on academic freedom, and the depoliticization of knowledge production here and elsewhere. These conditions and struggles, which are the norm for Palestinian colleagues, should sharpen our vision about the international political challenges of our profession as we participate in it today. The gross violations of academic freedom and workplace precarity that characterize the Israeli occupation are bellwethers for us all.

How can I get involved?

Graduate student participation will be crucial to the boycott’s success. You can help by: becoming a voting member of the MLA; signing the open letter or writing a statement of support (which can be issued anonymously); follow our facebook page; attend the Town Hall session on Boycott (Thursday January 5 at 5:15), the Open Hearing on Resolutions (Friday January 6 at 10:15 am) and most importantly the Delegate Assembly vote on Saturday January 7 at the MLA Convention.

The BDS movement was developed in concert Palestinian grassroot efforts and it is an established, successful campaign that academic worker activists can join today.

Your continued support is essential to this campaign and to making the MLA a truly progressive and historically relevant professional association of scholars.