I have, until now, avoided writing on the controversy that has raged within my academic professional networks since the American Studies Association voted in December in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I did so because I didn’t feel informed enough on the issue to stake out a position publicly and, truth be told, because I had no desire to insert myself into a debate that seems inevitably to devolve into name-calling and mutual accusations of bad faith. I may live to regret writing and publishing this post, but after attending both the ASA and Modern Language Association conventions, reading a lot, thinking a lot, and tuning in as carefully as I can to the vibe in the aforementioned networks, I feel ready to weigh in. (NB: The MLA’s Delegate Assembly has not endorsed the boycott. It debated and narrowly passed a resolution “urging the U.S. State Department to express concern over what the measure calls restrictions on scholars’ ability to travel to Israel and the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.” The resolution still faces review by the MLA’s Executive Council and has to be ratified by the membership.)
As a member of both the ASA and the MLA, I have deep qualms about these moves for reasons that have nothing to do with how I feel about U.S. aid to Israel or Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. I have come to oppose organizational endorsements of the boycott because I think they are producing dangerous divisions within the memberships of the ASA and the MLA and distracting the organizations from their primary missions at a time when those missions urgently require attention and action. The debates and votes are also dominating media coverage and supplying ample fodder for those who dismiss politically engaged humanistic scholarship as propaganda. (They are also provoking lawmakers to propose stripping funding from institutions whose faculty participate in organizations that support boycotting Israel, but one has to imagine that such hysterical overreaching will not be taken seriously.) I note with chagrin that in the past couple of months both The New York Times and The Washington Post have extensively covered, and, in the case of WaPo, editorialized against, the boycott, while neither has said a word about, for example, adjunctification, the erosion of tenure, or the slow starvation of public higher education that has put our institutions and access to them at risk.
The press attention to the boycott has perhaps contributed modestly to breaking down the reluctance to criticize Israel and begin to hold it accountable for its occupation of the West Bank. That is a laudable achievement, but I can’t help worrying about the cost to the ASA and the MLA of having helped to bring it about. These are membership-based organizations that rely on the good will and support of scholars and teachers whose livelihoods are threatened by the new normal of diminishing support and dwindling opportunities. If members come to feel their professional associations are spending their limited political capital on quixotic missions tangentially related to the organizations’ main goals and functions, they may well abandon them, feeling, not without some justification, that the organizations have in a sense abandoned them. Poor attendance at a conference session on contingent and part-time faculty issues is by no means proof that the MLA and its members are not concerned about such issues. One cannot, as they say, prove a negative, and I went to three sessions at the MLA that featured Famous People Speaking on Big, Hot Topics to surprisingly small audiences. (Two out of the three were, like Lee Skallerup Bessette’s session, held in the 5:15-6:30 slot. I blame cocktail hour for the paltry crowds.) Nonetheless, I understand why some presenters might have felt marginal to the concerns of a convention in which “the talk of boycotts and resolutions . . . threaten[ed] to overshadow the rest of the proceedings,” as Jennifer Howard put it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Judith Butler has commended the ASA for taking a “principled and courageous stand” and “assuming the public responsibility to defend equality, justice and freedom” by supporting the boycott. I have enormous respect for Butler, whose work constantly teaches, thrills, and challenges me. Her characteristically thoughtful comments on the boycott, however, are not sufficient to overcome my doubts about the wisdom of the ASA (and perhaps, ultimately, the MLA) pursuing this particular course. How much courage, I can’t help but ask, have these organizations or their members — myself included — expended in the fight to improve working conditions for contingent academic laborers? Where is our bravery when it comes to demanding resources adequate to preserving quality, affordable higher education? What risks are we willing to take to protect tenure and the academic freedom it affords? If we are going to put ourselves and our organizations’ credibility on the line, I respectfully submit that it should be for causes such as these.
I am not, by the way, suggesting that the ASA or the MLA have been inattentive to the issues and causes noted above. The MLA in particular in recent years has been tireless in its efforts to document and respond to changes in the academic workforce. (See, for example, this collection of surveys and reports.) My point is simply that our efforts so far have been ineffective and the boycott is a distraction that impedes our ability to communicate and educate on matters vital to the professional futures of everyone who belongs to these organizations.
Further, the contentiousness of the Israel/Palestine issue undermines whatever solidarity there is among the diverse members of ASA and MLA, creating or exacerbating tensions and leading to flame wars and the kinds of gratuitous insults one sees in Cary Nelson’s “Playing Heedless Politics at the MLA.” Nelson is strongly opposed to academic boycotts and even the MLA’s much milder resolution of concern. I have some sympathy for the substance of his arguments, but his post attacking the Delegate Assembly as “a circus with a surfeit of clowns, incompetently run by people who had mastered neither Robert’s Rules of Order nor the association’s own procedures” is a dispiriting example of how toxic and destructive these debates tend to become. I’m inclined to agree with a commenter on Nelson’s post, Jonathan, who attended the Delegate Assembly (which I did not) and felt that it “resembled every other Israel/Palestine event I’ve ever attended or participated in — ferocious differences leading to caricaturing of opponents’ positions, angry denunciations of motives, and all-around ill will manifesting itself at the earliest opportunity. So be it — the stakes are high, for both sides. But this very fact is why I think the MLA is ill-suited as a venue for this kind of discussion and potential action.” Amen.
Look, I know that civility is overrated and often used as a way to avoid or shut down conflict. I also appreciate that many people believe that a strong collective stance against the occupation is necessary to force Israel to change course and that the violations of Palestinian academic freedom under occupation are sufficient to justify organizations such as the ASA and the MLA getting involved in the struggle. I hear and respect those arguments, but I also cannot shake the concern that these actions are not without cost or consequence to the organizations taking them. Ill will may weaken them internally and engaging in what many will perceive as feel-good political gestures far afield of the organizations’ zones of expertise and responsibility will likely weaken them externally. Many friends and colleagues have clearly decided those risks are worth taking. For now, I cannot concur in that judgment. The world will always need saving. Right now, so does higher education. I would prefer that my academic professional organizations concentrate their energies on the latter rather than the former.
That’s my two — or twenty — cents. Have at ’em, Madpeople, but be nice. I’ve got that lasso in my hand for a reason. Peace out.