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Pro-Israel campus groups barred from academic confab

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

The pro-Israel campus groups Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) were denied the right to present a discussion at the Jan. 9-12 Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Chicago, an event that is seen as a possible precursor to an MLA academic boycott of Israel that would mirror recent boycotts by the American Studies Association (ASA) and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

MLA’s convention includes a roundtable discussion titled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine,” which will feature supporters but no opponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In a development that was first reported by JNS.org, Hillel and the ICC asked the 30,000-member MLA for the chance to present what they called an “open discussion featuring MLA members regarding academic freedom in Israel, its territories, and Gaza,” but MLA said the deadline to book a meeting at the convention had passed.

The existing MLA session’s speakers will include BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti; University of Texas professor Barbara Jane Harlow, who has stated her support for the ASA boycott of Israel; University of Southern California professor of English David Lloyd, a well-known BDS activist; and Wesleyan University professor Richard Ohmann, who signed a 2009 letter that described Israeli treatment of Palestinians as “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.” University of Texas professor Samer M. Ali, who publicly defended the ASA boycott, organized the roundtable.

“We believe the members of the MLA deserve to hear a far more diverse set of perspectives on the issue of academic freedom in Israel and nearby countries. The MLA members, as academics, certainly can appreciate the value of multiple perspectives on what is a very controversial issue,” ICC’s Jacob Baime said.

“MLA has its policies, as any organization is privileged to do. We are disappointed that they wouldn’t make room for us at the convention,” Noam Neusner, a spokesman for Hillel International, told JNS.org.

As an alternative to the MLA panel, the ICC and Hillel have organized a discussion on academic freedom in Israel titled “Perspectives Against Academic Boycotts” on Jan. 9 in Chicago. The alternative panel features three MLA members – including Russell Berman, a past MLA president, and scholar Ilan Troen, chair of the Brandeis University Israel Studies program and a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Ali told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the roundtable assumes that Israel violates the rights of Palestinians, and that the debate will center on what to do about it.

MLA’s convention will also consider a resolution that condemns Israel for “arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”

Neusner said the MLA resolution overlooks the “simple fact of life” that Gaza is governed by a terrorist group, Hamas. As such, Gaza’s borders are “closed for everyone and everything other than humanitarian purposes,” noted Neusner, meaning that denials of entry into Gaza are not “arbitrary,” as MLA claimed. In its online guidelines for U.S. citizens wishing to enter and exit Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, the Consulate General of the United States in Jerusalem echoes Neusner’s point by reminding that access to Gaza “is controlled by Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

While the MLA resolution accuses Israel of “arbitrary” denials of entry into the West Bank, the Jewish state’s entry policies are “quite consistent with policies here in the United States” and other countries, explained Neusner. “What we don’t understand is why Israel is being held to a higher standard than the U.S is, than the U.K. is, or Australia, or France,” he said. “Hillel is troubled by that double standard, and it reflects poorly on an esteemed academic organization such as MLA that it should allow this resolution to come up for a vote.”

While the MLA resolution does not call for an academic boycott of Israel, Neusner said, “Make no mistake. [MLA] will pursue a full BDS resolution in the future and they will use this resolution [from their Chicago convention], should it pass, as a pretext for that effort.”

Ahead of the consideration of a resolution condemning Israel at the MLA convention, the leaders of Hillel International and the ICC asked nearly 100 American university presidents, provosts, and campus officials who spoke against the ASA endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel to also publicly oppose the MLA measure. In a letter to university officials obtained by JNS.org, Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and ICC Executive Director Jacob Baime note that in MLA’s resolution, Israel is “being singled out for actions other Western nations pursue routinely.”

“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,” they wrote.

Baime stressed the importance of taking pre-emptive action against the potential passage of the resolution. “I don’t think we need to wait for the MLA to take action to speak out,” he told JNS.org. “I think that the MLA should hear from the academic community loud and clear that this is not something that our colleges and universities support.”

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