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Academic group won’t consider Israel boycott, but its mere discussion raises hackles

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Cary Nelson says if the Modern Language Association adopts a measure on academic freedom in Israel, it could pave the way to a wider boycott of Israeli academia.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Cary Nelson says if the Modern Language Association adopts a measure on academic freedom in Israel, it could pave the way to a wider boycott of Israeli academia.

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Until recently, the rule of thumb in the pro-Israel community was that the bigger the academic group, the less likely it was to consider a boycott of Israeli colleagues.

But with the 30,000-member Modern Language Association set to host a panel on BDS at its convention this week in Chicago, the rule may have to be reconsidered.

Supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement have scored some victories in recent months, mostly among smaller groups. The American Studies Association, which endorsed a boycott resolution last month targeting Israeli academic institutions, claims about 4,000 members.

Though the Modern Language Association will not consider an outright boycott of Israeli universities, it will consider a resolution calling on the U.S. State Department to oppose the “arbitrary denials of entry” to American academics seeking to teach or conduct research at universities in the West Bank and Gaza.

“They proposed the travel resolution as a fallback,” said Cary Nelson, an association member and former president of the American Association of University Professors. “They’re trying something else as a step toward a boycott resolution the next time. If they can win this, they will move onto the next one.”

In a conference call Tuesday organized by the Israel Action Network, Nelson argued that the Modern Language Association did not deserve the scorn it has weathered for hosting the panel, which will feature five supporters of BDS and no opponents. The panel is among several hundred to be held at the convention, and Nelson said such panels typically reflect a single point of view and are not debates.

The Modern Language Association also is already on record opposing academic boycotts. In response to the removal of two Israeli scholars from a British journal, the group adopted a resolution in 2002 calling boycotts based on nationality or ethnic origins “unfair, divisive, and inconsistent with academic freedom.”

Still, activists on both sides of the issue say the success of individual boycott efforts is less important than the fact that boycotts are being discussed at all.

“The mere calling for a boycott will impede the free flow of ideas,” Russell Berman, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University and a past Modern Language Association president, said on the conference call. “The calling of a boycott will have a chilling effect on academic life.”

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said what is truly alarming is the notion that just convening a panel implicates the group as anti-Israel.

“It’s chilling, the idea that putting on a session is wrong, that it signifies foregone conclusions,” Feal told JTA.

Samer Ali, the associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas in Austin who convened the panel, said the point is to shed light on Israeli practices.

“I think the only tangible benefit to come out of academic boycotts of Israel (and the ASA vote, the MLA roundtable, etc.) is generating discussion about the daily effects of the occupation,” Ali wrote in an email.

Far from sparking a wave of pro-boycott measures, the vote by the American Studies Association has engendered a broad backlash, with more than 100 university heads speaking out against it.

“Some may argue that BDS is picking up momentum,” said Geri Palast, who directs the Israel Action Network, an initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North America. “The reality is that the broad academic community is rejecting BDS in terms of its singling out one country and saying there is only one narrative. We are winning this debate.”

Nelson said he would attend the BDS panel to offer his opposition before heading to a nearby hotel to speak on a panel organized by the campus group Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition.

Notably, there were signs of disagreement between academics opposed to BDS and pro-Israel groups over how best to counter such resolutions. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for instance, in its appeal to universities to reject the American Studies Association boycott also called on them to cut off the group.

“I can understand that reaction,” Berman told JTA. “But I don’t think I would want to elevate the principle that political statements should be grounds for academic sanctions.”

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