‘Progressive’ Defenders of the Racial State: Reflections on the Modern Language Association BDS vote

The news is in: on Saturday, a resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions was rejected by the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language….

The news is in: on Saturday, a resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions was rejected by the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association, the largest and most traditional humanities association in the United States. An opposing resolution that directs the MLA not to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities passed by a narrow margin of eight votes. MLA members who disagree will not now get the chance to express themselves on the issue except by rejecting the latter resolution in an open vote in the spring.

Celebration by opponents of the boycott resolution has been notably muted. That may not be surprising, as the possibility that 40% of the MLA’s delegates would have considered such a boycott was unthinkable only three years ago, when the process started. Proponents of the boycott have faced an intense campaign, ranging from a threatened lawsuit against the Association to vilification by extreme Zionist outfits like the anonymous website Canary Mission. The Israeli Council of University Presidents claims to have orchestrated the counter campaign, doubtless in co-ordination with the Israeli Ministry of Security Affairs whose head, Gilad Erdan, boasted that their efforts had derailed the American Anthropological Association’s vote on a similar issue last spring. Certainly Israel and its supporters have upped their defensive game.

Nonetheless, their cautious celebrations testify to the fact that they have reason still to be anxious. Globally, the grassroots movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions has steadily opened the space for spotlighting Israel’s apartheid regime and violations of international law. John Kerry’s recent speech, in which he made a desperate plea to resuscitate the long comatose two-state solution, was a recent case in point, acknowledging that under current conditions a single state would be an apartheid state. He only got the tense wrong: by the standards of international law, historic Palestine is already an apartheid regime, compounded by illegal occupation and settlement and by the medieval siege of Gaza.

It is doubtful that Kerry could have made a speech so critical of Israel without the political space that BDS has been clearing over the past few years. And throughout the MLA’s debates, speaker after speaker who opposed the boycott resolution felt obliged to preface their remarks with a passionate statement of their opposition to the occupation, to Israeli discrimination, to its violations of academic freedom. The bad conscience of liberal Zionism, forced to defend the indefensible, was on full display. Echoes could be heard of the old special pleading, that Israel is an exception among nations and an exceptional democracy in the Middle East, but the best that could now be claimed was that Israeli universities are an exception to the rule of Israeli injustice.

Debates at the MLA, as at the AAA, have thus brought to the fore a new actor: the self-proclaimed progressive who in the event chooses to side with the racist state rather than with its victims. Albert Memmi once skewered this settler colonial mentality in his prescient portrait of this “colonizer who refuses” in The Colonizer and the Colonized. Faced with the political demands and program of the colonized Palestinians, they urge more dialogue, more understanding, more patronization, none of which have achieved anything since Oslo and none of which are of any relevance to the actual Palestinian struggle for justice. Few of those who spoke in defense of Israeli academic freedom failed to invoke their liberal or progressive credentials; even fewer could be bothered even to acknowledge the routine and systemic violations of every Palestinian academic freedom that are the corollary of decades of occupation, siege, discrimination and dispossession by a state that now makes no secret of its intent to deny any semblance of self-determination to Palestine.

Erasure of Palestinian reality was a constant of debates at the MLA, drowned out by laments for the hypothetical inconvenience that might be felt by Israeli academics from a purely symbolic and non-binding boycott resolution. It was as if a dense veil marked the boundary between Israel, outer limit of the acknowledged world, and Palestine, which lay beyond its pale. Israel’s success in normalizing itself as an intrinsic part of the West, an outpost of democracy in a wilderness of fanatics and despots, clearly has staying power. By and large, Palestinians were erased as scholars and potential colleagues and only invoked patronizingly as the grateful recipients of Israeli largesse. We even found ourselves, as one speaker observed, back in the heyday of colonial discourse where Israel was “saving brown women from brown men”. He went on to note, with some dismay, that this was the “whitest” gathering he had attended in a very long time.

What was all too clear was that the right to academic freedom does not really extend beyond the boundaries of a quite narrowly defined Western academy, of which Israel’s academy is an honorary member. As a legacy of efforts to contain academic radicals in the twentieth century, academic freedom in the US is already very narrowly defined to include only the rights to research, teach and publish without interference. Those rights the Palestinian boycott guidelines, which exempt individuals and target only institutions, would leave untouched. What Israel’s advocates were defending, then, was not so much academic freedom as academic privilege, a privilege that has always gone hand in hand with the rewards of colonial domination and racial supremacy. When opponents of the boycott complain that they experience the arguments of their opponents as a kind of ethical tainting, this is what they mean: it is an unenviable dilemma to try to square the defense of privileges founded in settler colonialism and the spoils of apartheid with a claim to the sacrosanct universality of academic freedom.

This became quite manifest after the vote on the boycott resolutions had already taken place and the assembly was considering another resolution, which, ironically, concerned the potential threat to the academic freedoms of US scholars that the incoming Trump administration poses.

It is hard to be opposed to this resolution, which affirmed the MLA’s commitment to non-discrimination and the freedom to travel. But it was impossible to miss the irony that MLA members were now voting to secure for themselves freedoms that they had just voted to deny to Palestinians. Their vote against a non-violent strategy of boycott refused to support the Palestinian effort to secure the means, the only means that remain to them, to defend or achieve freedoms that have been systematically denied to them by Israeli occupation, blockade, dispossession and discrimination.

The resolution being discussed affirmed the fundamental right of freedom to travel, a right denied to Palestinians on a daily basis, whether within the West Bank or in and out of the occupied territories, including Gaza, and in particular to Israel. It affirmed the association’s opposition to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin and political beliefs. All these forms of discrimination our Palestinian colleagues suffer as an intrinsic part of Israel’s apartheid regime that successive US administrations have supported with ever-increasing funding that dwarfs all other foreign aid.

The resolution expressed concern that the incoming Trump administration will threaten these freedoms that we cherish. But we should recall that during his campaign, it was Israel that Trump invoked as his model for successful racial profiling. It was Israel that he praised for having built a wall that denies freedom of movement on the basis of national origin, race and ethnic identity. Trump praised Israel’s discriminatory immigration policies that arbitrarily deny entry to Muslims and people of Arab origin. And under the Trump administration, there is no doubt that conditions for Palestinians will deteriorate with unprecedented rapidity. Hope deferred will become hope destroyed.

It is hard not to feel the hypocrisy of passing a resolution like this while denying support to Palestinians who do not merely face a potential threat, but actually suffer the denial of academic and every other freedom that US and Israeli scholars are privileged to enjoy. But we should realize that such hypocrisy is first of all an effect of a certain kind of racial solidarity—here the almost unwitting solidarity between the beneficiaries of two legacies of settler colonialism, which has always erased, because it must erase, the presence, the rights and the humanity of the indigenous. It is a kind of visceral axiom that dictates who must be defended and who can be dismissed. Significantly, the academic associations that have succeeded in or even come close to passing boycott resolutions to date have all been ones whose members embrace as part of their disciplinary commitment the analysis of forms of discrimination, whether based on race, colonialism, sexuality or gender: the Association for Asian American Studies, American Studies, the National Women’s Studies Association, Native and Indigenous Studies, to name but a few of the still growing number. As the boycott campaign proceeds, its activists will have to take on the sober lesson of how much harder it will be to move mainstream associations and fields that are far more shaped and far less concerned by this country’s history of colonialism and racial discrimination. But the natural and growing solidarity between the movement for justice in Palestine and other movements for social, racial and sexual justice, which can only strengthen under the Trump administration that has already brought together those equally natural allies, Zionists and White Nationalists, gives reason to predict that the boycott movement has yet to reach its limit.