How The MLA Could Ensure Academic Freedom


The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement dominated the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) recently concluded annual convention. A resolution was narrowly passed calling on the U.S. State Department to hold Israel accountable for allegedly restricting American scholars, especially those of Palestinian descent, from traveling to or teaching at Palestinian universities. Although the boycott of Israel’s institutions of higher education, promulgated by the American Studies Association (ASA), was not up for discussion, the hot-button issue loomed over the conference and drove the MLA resolution.

Any threats to academic freedom must be taken seriously. Attempts to limit access to education devalue our ideas and bring our integrity into question. But this resolution is not about academic freedom. It is about arriving at a destination without giving any thought to how you got there in the first place.

As others have suggested, there are egregious cases of academic and personal infringement around the world, far more egregious than any travel restrictions placed by Israel that did not raise the ire of the MLA. More disturbing, however, is that not only was the resolution one-sided, it failed to honestly confront the fundamental issue at stake: All democratic societies must balance personal freedom and measures put in place for their own protection.

The NSA surveillance program could be an infringement on personal privacy but also root out terrorist sleeper cells at home and abroad. Edward Snowden’s divulging of classified information and exposing government malfeasance might be heroic, and still his actions could hamper U.S. intelligence efforts for years to come. The inconvenient and unsettling pat downs of TSA agents are an invasion of personal liberties, and yet it helps ensure passenger safety.

Such a balance of concerns was absent from the MLA’s decision-making process. It condemned the alleged travel restrictions as unreasonable without concern for the security risks that Israel believes—based on hard-earned experience—open travel could pose. The tension between freedom and security, for Israel or any democracy, is complicated. However, an honest and unbiased approach requires, at the very least, an acknowledgment that there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides. The MLA did not meet that test.

If the MLA is truly interested in ensuring academic freedom in Palestinian universities, it should condemn the acts of terror against civilians that force Israel to institute such security procedures. At the end of the day, the MLA resolution and the ASA boycott only serve to penalize Palestinian academics who enjoy productive joint-research projects with Israeli universities.

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, opposes the boycott and works openly with Israeli colleagues while urging his students to follow suit. In the same vein, American universities operate in the United Arab Emirates and China, countries with repressive regimes. The American presence provides local citizens with extraordinary opportunities that would never be available to them otherwise.

Instead of succumbing to political pressures and gut reactions, the MLA should take a step back and examine this complex issue from all perspectives.

Dr. Alan Kadish is CEO of Touro College.