COHEN: Salovey, confront the MLA

A new kind of White Man’s Burden is back in vogue for the intellectual elite: anti-Israel professional activism. Despite Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ explicitly stated desire not to have boycotts of Israel (just of the illegal settlements — and, yes, they are illegal), the privileged, cloistered, Western professors of American academia are taking it upon themselves to save the Palestinians and show them the guiding light that they are too blind to see. The Privileged Professor’s Burden — how noble!

In December, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, meaning that the ASA and its membership would refuse to sponsor, work with, visit, learn from, or teach Israeli universities. This is a counterproductive and ineffective boycott. One of the board members even actively advocates the release of a terrorist convicted for blowing up an Israeli supermarket. But the ASA is as meaningless as it is foolish; that is to say, it is a dying association making a final attempt at relevance that would do well to focus on internal issues rather than geopolitics.

Any group that is dumb enough to defend its choice of singling out Israel by saying “one has to start somewhere” — when states like North Korea, Russia, China, Egypt, Syria and Iran routinely imprison, beat and kill their professors — deserves to be ignored. To be honest, with that kind of stellar logic, I would hesitate before I took any classes offered by defenders of the ASA here at Yale. I would worry that their emotional dislike of Israel might get in the way of the truth.

More recently, the Modern Language Association’s delegate assembly (MLA — yes, the bibliography people) adopted a resolution that, if its 28,000 members approve it, would call on the U.S. State Department to “contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Of course, if the MLA cared about facts,  ”it would see that in 2012, 142 Americans were refused entry intIsraeli territory out of 626,000 (that’s 0.023%) — hardly widespread and arbitrary”. Furthermore, Israeli, American and Palestinian universities partner frequently on research ranging from environmental issues to international relations. The MLA is creating a problem where none exists.

When did modern language scholars become foreign policy experts? This resolution is a grandiose pronouncement on matters that are entirely unrelated to the purpose and expertise of the MLA. If individual members want to organize, protest or donate against the Israeli government’s policies, they should do so — that is their right and, if their conscience dictates, their responsibility. But to hide behind a professional organization is not a moment of conscience, it is a moment of cowardice.

There is an even more pernicious element to this resolution. Unlike the ASA, the MLA is the only organization around for modern language scholars. Anyone who is offended or disgusted by the resolution, as many are, has no other organization to join. And this matters because the MLA is instrumental in facilitating the hiring of modern language professors. In other words, the choice that any nontenured faculty members of the MLA face is either exile from academia or professional association with a resolution that is morally and factually abhorrent and unrelated to their professional work. This is a severe consequence for a resolution that is meaningless in its practical effect.

The ASA and MLA leadership should be ashamed. The MLA membership has a chance to correct the mistakes of their presumptuous governing body. No blow has been struck for academic freedom, no peace in the Middle East has been hastened, and no government policies — American or Israeli — have changed or will change because of these academic societies. I would prefer that the MLA get back to its core mission — making bibliography formats so complicated I need online generators to get it right. And perhaps the American Studies Association could avoid searching for nonexistent problems around the world and focus on Americans’ declining interest in humanities subjects like, say, American Studies.

President Salovey has, more mildly than his some of his counterparts, expressed disapproval of the ASA boycott, but he has not yet spoken out about the MLA resolution. Yale should be a leader in opposing academic boycotts. President Salovey should come out strongly against the MLA’s proposed resolution and be a leader in fighting for academic freedom in countries where freedom of speech, thought and expression are truly threatened.

Sam Cohen is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at samson.cohen@yale.edu. 

A previous version of this article misreported the total number of Americans who entered Israeli territory in 2012. 

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