Friday, January 10, 2014

BDS Boycott and the MLA Convention, January 9-12, 2014

Last updated: January 12, 2014
Last month, two American academic organizations decided to boycott Israel. At first, there appeared to be little surprise that US academicians would do that. After all, US campuses have become anti-Israel hot-houses. But it turns out there could be a very big surprise here—for the boycotters.

This is a long story with a short--but potentially expensive--ending. 

The smaller of the two organizations that turned against Israel--the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA)--acted on December 15, 2013. On that date, the President of the NAISA posted a letter on the organization website to declare support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. This support was not the result of a membership vote. It came from  ‘a member-generated petition asking that NAISA formally support the Boycott of Israeli Academic and Cultural Institutions that was initiated by [emphasis mine] the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’.  

Remember the name, ‘The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’. We’ll come back to it.

 The NAISA governing Council reached a consensus about the petition. It would support the boycott. But the President was careful. He added that if NAISA members wished to discuss the Boycott during the upcoming NAISA convention, they could do so.

As you’ll see in moment, the NAISA might be wise to have that discussion. It might want to change its mind.

At the same time the NAISA announced its pro-boycott support, the American Studies Association (ASA) was busy with its own boycott endorsement. But instead of declaring its support through a governing Council consensus that is open for discussion, the ASA had a more binding proposal.

It called for a membership vote.

According to Inside Higher education (““Not Just a Family Feud”, Elizabeth Redden, December 19, 2013), the ASA has 3,853 eligible voting members.  But over a ten-day on-line boycott referendum in December, 2013, only 1,252 of those members voted. Nevertheless, sixty-six per cent of those 1,252 voters voted for the boycott.

Remember this vote. The ASA has 3,853 total voter-eligible members. 1,252 of them voted. Sixty-six per cent of that 1,252 votes is 826 pro-boycott votes. 826 votes for a boycott means that 21 per cent (a minority) of the ASA won the boycott endorsement.   

When the NAISA and the ASA turned against Israel, nobody seemed to notice the NAISA. They’re probably too small to be noticed. But two essays appeared to react to the ASA vote.

In the first of these essays, Cornell University Law School professor William Jacobson declared on his blog (Legal Insurrection) that if the ASA voted to support an anti-Israel academic boycott, he (Jacobson) would file a complaint with the US Internal Revenue Service to challenge the ASA’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status (see “Tax-Exempt Status of American Studies Association to be challenged if Israel boycott resolution passes”, December 16, 2013). He would do this, he said, because engaging in an academic boycott does not satisfy the requirements of 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It violates those requirements.

On January 8, 2014, the Jerusalem Post reported that Jacobson had indeed filed that challenge (“American Studies Association’s tax-exempt status challenged,” Maya Shwayder). The ASA will now have to hire lawyers to defend itself.

Lawyers are expensive.

Also in mid-December 2013, on the last day of the on-line ASA vote, the Times of Israel published an essay by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner (“Schooling the ASA on boycotting Israel”, December 15, 2013).  Darshan-Leitner is founder of an Israeli NGO, Shurat HaDin, also called, Israel Law Center. The purpose of this NGO is to sue terror organizations and those who promote anti-Israel discrimination. In her essay, Darshan-Leitner suggested that if the ASA voted to boycott Israel, she would sue them in US Federal and State courts for illegally promoting what both the US government and (at the very least) the State of New York had already termed, ‘illegal’.  

On January 10, 2014, Israel news outlets reported that Shurat HaDin had sent a letter to ASA president-elect Elizabeth Duggan, notifying her it represents several Israeli professors. The letter warned Duggan of Shurat HaDin’s intent to file suit against the ASA in United States courts, should the ASA not take all immediate steps to cancel the boycott of Israeli institutions and academics (see “Shurat HaDin Threatens Action Over ASA Boycott”, Eldad Benari, Arutz Sheva).

The ASA may now have to hire lawyers to defend itself—if they have the money to do so.

Leaving the smaller NAISA aside for the moment, these two legal actions against the ASA are important for several reasons. First, they send a signal to all academics (who appear eager to bash Israel) that boycott calls—and, perhaps, other anti-Israel activities--will now be met with stiff opposition. These two legal filings suggest that, if you act out against Israel, you better be rich enough to hire a lawyer—or have lawyer friends who will be willing to work pro bono; hate and discrimination, in other words, have just gotten expensive.

Second, it sends a message to academic organizations that, while a vocal minority (for example, 21% of the ASA) may indeed have the power to ram through morally repugnant (and potentially illegal) votes, it may not be wise to empower such repugnancy. You could lose your tax-exempt status. You could get sued in Federal court. Legal fees could drive you to bankruptcy.

Third, it sends a message to organizations like the NAISA—which did not vote on the boycott—that support for (potentially) illegal boycotts may not be in its best interest. It might be wise for them to re-evaluate that support.

But there is a far more important reason for these legal actions. That reason is, to use an acronym, the MLA.

The MLA (Modern language Association) is like the NAISA and the ASA. It’s an academic organization. But it doesn’t have 1,000-4,000 members. It’s got 30,000 members.

In the academic world, the MLA is an 800-pound gorilla.

That’s important right now because, at this very moment that 800-pound gorilla is meeting in Chicago, Illinois for its 2014 national convention. The convention runs from January 9 -12, 2014.

According to the Chicago Tribune (“An academic scandal headed for Chicago”, Amy Stoken and Jack S. Levin, January 1, 2014), the MLA Convention offers opportunities for teachers of English and foreign languages "to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to discuss trends in the academy." To facilitate such opportunities, this year’s Convention is running 810 sessions (according to the Trib) so that members can learn, discuss and share. All but one of those 810 sessions covers topics in language and literature. The singular exception is a roundtable discussion entitled, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine."

It is the only political session of the Convention.

Can you guess where this is going?

Curiously, all the announced speakers at this roundtable are on record favouring a boycott. Apparently, only one side of the boycott question is to be represented. One participant is Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel—the driving force (according to some) of the world-wide boycott-Israel campaign.

You may remember The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It’s what the President of the NAISA referred to (above) when he posted his support for an anti-Israel boycott on the NAISA website.

Apparently, Mr Barghouti has been busy courting American academic organizations to support his attacks against Israel. He has now hit the big-time—speaker at a session of the MLA national convention.

Mr Barghouti is listed on the MLA Convention website as an ‘independent scholar’. He appears to have no academic credentials. Since a non-member of MLA is blocked from looking at speaker biographies, one must do an on-line search to discover what is the nature of Mr Batrghouti’s  ‘independent scholarship’; but a quick google-search yields nothing.

But what one does discover is that the Homepage for Mr Barghouti’s organization does not maintain a very scholarly commitment to accuracy: in a post entitled, “Academic Boycott of Israel in 2013: A Tipping Point”, we read that “In mid- December 2013, the American Studies Association endorsed an academic boycott of Israel where 66 percent of the ASA membership [emphasis mine] voted” to support a boycott of Israel.

But if you remember the arithmetic of that ASA vote (above), you’ll remember that it wasn’t 66% of the ASA membership that voted for the boycott. It was 66% of the 1,252 members who voted in the on-line referendum.  The number of ASA members who voted for the boycott did not represent 66% of the membership—they represented only 21% of the  membership.

That’s a rather unscholarly error. It’s a difference between a minority wanting a boycott and an overwhelming majority wanting it. In fact, given the nature of his Homepage, Barghouti appears more propagandist than scholar. What’s he doing at a scholar’s convention?

The MLA is a venerable academic organization which has for decades promoted professionalism and quality in education and scholarship.  Where are Barghouti’s professional credentials? Where is his scholarship?

The MLA is treading on thin ice. Judging from the public record, Barghouti may not belong at the MLA. He appears to have no academic appointment worth mentioning on the MLA convention public website. His public work seems unscholarly. His organization appears to promote what is illegal.

It’s one thing for small organizations like the NAISA or the ASA to be hijacked by those who would push what is unseemly and potentially illegal. But the 30,000-member MLA?

Shurat HaDin and William Jacobson (above) might want to look up the MLA’s mailing address.


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