Monday, February 10, 2014

The MLA: Singled-Out For A Double Standard?

Prof. Marianne Hirsch
In early January, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association Convention--perhaps the largest and most influential academic gathering in the humanities--passed, 60-53, a resolution urging its members to "contest" restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Another resolution, urging solidarity with scholars supporting boycott, divestment, and sanctions, against Israel, was not brought to the floor, but referred to Executive Committee for discussion. The issues were aired at a tense session entitled, with cheerful understatement, "Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine."

Much had been made of the title of the session. In an age of shrinking attention spans, and in the wake of the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association, the appearance of the word "boycott" and "Israel" in the same title triggered cries of foul before any "conversation" could begin. Critics raged against the panel's composition, since all panelists had previously voiced varying degrees of support for boycotting Israeli universities or enterprises.

“The United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia, not to mention Western-leaning nations in the Middle East, such as UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (which regularly partner with Western universities), all deny entry to individuals, for any number of reasons”--so wrote the leaders of Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), Eric Fingerhut and Jacob Baime. "It’s a savvy and deeply hypocritical opening gambit," wrote Max Eden in the Weekly Standard. "Never mind that visa screening is routine in every nation, Western or otherwise, or that every Middle Eastern country except Egypt and Jordan refuse to admit anyone carrying an Israeli passport." At the session itself, one woman asked: "Why aren't we boycotting China?"

Now, MLA panels, like those at all academic conferences, are typically initiated by groups of scholars who have a compelling interest (or ax to grind). Every once and while, political subjects of interest to the academic community per se may be included. Conference organizers tend to give members a good deal of latitude here, since panelists have their say and then submit to the wisdom of the crowd. Nevertheless, the outgoing president of the MLA, Professor Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University, was inundated with complaints and attacks. She and the conference organizers were accused of taking an anti-Semitic turn. As with much in the Middle East conflict, preemptive strikes were thought merely defensive.

Last week, Professor Hirsch responded in an eloquent "Viewpoint" article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviewing the affair and pleading for simple fairness:

The MLA was not considering a boycott resolution. Nonetheless, the emails I received were written as if a boycott resolution were not only under consideration but had already passed... The messages that poured in from individuals and groups like Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition persisted in mischaracterizing, exaggerating, and distorting both the session and the resolution. 'Shame on MLA for the hate and anti-Semitism,' one email read. 

Hirsch goes on:

Many demanded 'balance.' But academic conference sessions are not talk-show debates; speakers explore a topic, raise questions, and advance nuanced conclusions. Disagreement can be voiced during the discussion period. Critics have claimed that academic boycotts violate academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. Yet the vehemence of the opposition, the hyperbolic fliers that were distributed condemning boycotts, and the portrayal of the session as a foregone conclusion, in fact blocked the open conversation that we in the U.S. academy need to nurture and protect...

If we could discuss the constellation of issues to which that term applies, we could also put into historical perspective the call to boycott by Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews. We could sort out how limited the practical effects of a boycott of institutions rather than individuals by scholarly associations like the ASA would be. We could sort out the ethics and politics of boycott as symbolic action. And we could explore alternative means of expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, means that might be less divisive.

Marianne Hirsch is a close friend of Sidra's and mine. Hirsch is the daughter of holocaust survivors, and a prolific writer (at times, with her husband, the historian Leo Spitzer) about, among other things, what can be salvaged from the culture of the holocaust's ghosts. That she, of all people, has had to endure charges of anti-Jewish sentiment for presiding over a conference in which the morality (efficacy, etc.) of academic boycotts are debated--indeed, where the only resolution passed condemned restrictions on the movement of scholars--seems a little surreal.

But the real issue here is whether MLA critics are right to complain that, simply because the session took place, the MLA was singling-out Israel for actions other countries take as well. Is it right to have a session on Israel and Palestine and not, say, China? The implication is clear, and we hear it routinely. Why focus on Israel when other countries are so much worse? Isn't this a double standard?

And the answer (which we need to hear more often) is: No--this is a single standard; the question is whether Israelis really wish to be judged by it. When Chris Christie is caught using the powers of the state to muscle political opponents, you don't expect him to say, My God, why pick on me when Egypt's General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is so much worse? You expect him to know he belongs to a world-historical club. You expect him to feel the shame.

The standard is usually called "Western" (as Fingerhut, Baime and Eden suggest) but given where Athens sits in relation to Jerusalem, Israelis might think of it as Northwestern. For we are speaking about affiliation to a world of liberal-democratic states, what the Israeli orthodox-right rightly calls Hellenism. Most Israelis want to be thought a part of this world: democratic individualism, free enterprise, equality before the law, protected religious and sexual liberty, racial and ethnic tolerance. (Israeli universities are bastions of its Hebrew version.)

Israelis expect to mingle and compete in the West like citizens of the world. They expect to be visited and invested in like Western states. They expect to be integrated into global markets with free trade agreements. They expect to be defended by NATO states and peace-keepers as custodians of democratic values. They cannot violate their terms and then plead that tyrannies--typically shunned or merely tolerated for tactical reasons--are worse.

No other Western state is conducting an occupation, nor is Israel's occupation of Palestine modeled on, say, the US occupation of Germany after WWII. Clearly, the reason why members of the MLA question whether Israel grants appropriate entry to the West Bank of American-Palestinians is two-fold. First, they question whether Israel is permitting the cultural and economic development of Palestine, which depends on the freedom of movement Palestinians lack. But, second, they are probing to see whether Israelis are really committed to liberal-democratic standards.

Professor Hirsch knows where she and the MLA stand. Israeli leaders, too, must choose. There is room in the world for non-democratic states. But membership has it privileges.


Y. Ben-David said...

No other state is threatened with annihilation by its neighbors. No other state has its very legitimacy questioned by organs like the New York Times. No other state faces demands that it hand over strategic and historic territories to an entity that refuses to make peace with it. No other state has its own citizens writing blogs demanding it be boycotted and delegitimized.
Shall I go on?

Anonymous said...

In keeping with your 'no other state' theme, in no other state are the citizens held responsible for the policies of their government.

Potter said...

Ben-David--No other state aiming to belong to club described by BA the has carried on an occupation for over 47 years and been in violation of so many UN Resolutions and international law, including settling captured lands even Israel ( leaders), in more sober moments have agreed should be a Palestinian State. No other nation has turned it's back when the other side seems most open to resolving this conflict (as now). By the way, no other nation in this club has well known but undeclared nuclear weapons. No other nation has had the unfailing support of the United States, including monetary aid for decades. No other nation has been allowed, as a result of war (1948) been allowed to hold on to captured territory and have it accepted as it's borders ratified by the UN in contradiction to the Charter which states that it is not permissible to gain territory through war.

The double standard exists when Israeli's deny/resist Palestinians the right to a state, a MUslim state if they choose, but demands to be recognized as a Jewish state. The double standard exists when Israel claims that Palestinians are no longer refugees after so many years and generations but ALL Jews are (and they are to eternity). Jews have the right of return but Palestinians don't.

In this day of terrorism, terrorist acts, spectacular ones, ALL citizens are vulnerable because of their government's actions. In a democracy this is or should be so. People are responsible for the governments they elect in a democracy. Crowds should be in the streets in Israel demanding a settlement to this conflict.

Y. Ben-David said...

India has carried out an occupation of Kashmir for 67 years. Turkey has carried out an occupation of northern Cyprus for 40 years. Many Kashmiris have been killed in that period and something like 300,000 Greek Cypriots were expelled from the Turkish zone in Cyprus. We can also mention the Chinese occupatoin of Tibet that has been going on 55 years as well. I don't hear sensitive "progressives" like Dr Avishai and the MLA worrying about these things, because I have learned one thing...."progressives" don't give a hoot about "human rights". They simply want to bash Israel. That's what all these things boil down to. What finally proved it was when all the "progressives" breathed a sigh of relief when Britain and the US announced they weren't going to intervene in the Syrian slaughter. Thus, all this moralizing about the Palestinians is just hypocrisy.
Also please don't give me any nonsense about the world being "tired" of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The world has no problem getting used to these other conflicts, including reallyl bloody ones like Syria and IRaq, so they can get used to ours as well.

Potter said...

The dispute from India's viewpoint is that Kashmir acceded to India's rule and has autonomy. Pakistan considers this an occupation. The UN wants Kashmiri's to vote on it whether they want to be independent or part of India or Pakistan. And so it's stuck. No borders have changed and as far as I know there is no land theft. This is nothing like what Israeli occupation and it's a question whether it is. But they should vote on it.

There is no dispute about the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan being occupied by Israel. Those days of denial are over. But Israel has illegally annexed some of this territory.

There are many disputed territories in the world to cite. But what members of the UN have changed their borders through aggressive war? Remember the Gulf War? Saddam's attempt at Kuwait? it could not stand.

You ignore BA's article that talks about Israel's desire to belong to the club of western powers, None of countries in your examples are in this club.

BA above:

Israelis expect to mingle and compete in the West like citizens of the world. They expect to be visited and invested in like Western states. They expect to be integrated into global markets with free trade agreements. They expect to be defended by NATO states and peace-keepers as custodians of democratic values. They cannot violate their terms and then plead that tyrannies--typically shunned or merely tolerated for tactical reasons--are worse......No other Western state is conducting an occupation,.....

Read the last two paragraphs and don't mess the argument with Syria and morality unless you can answer why Israel does not help stop the Syrian slaughter on it's border or take any refugees in?

Speaking of double standard-the double standard also is about Israel's need for security, arms, while somehow the Palestinians don't have a need to defend themselves from Israeli incursions.