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The Palestinian Litmus Test

After three years of unprecedentedly open debate, the membership of the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) membership is finally voting on the Palestinian call to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Voting continues through May. Unlike other organizations that have considered the issue, however, the MLA is not voting on whether or not to boycott. Instead, we are voting on a resolution (2017-1) that would commit the association not to endorse the boycott, even though a pro- boycott resolution—having been rejected by the Delegate Assembly in January—is no longer even on the table. To resolve not to endorse a non-existent resolution may seem a somewhat redundant exercise. But proponents of 2017-1 hope that passing their resolution will be the final nail in the coffin of a national movement for academic boycott—a movement whose capacity to rise from setbacks stronger than before has proven quite remarkable. They seek to close off debate on the issue within the MLA permanently, and by doing so, to send a signal to other associations that the matter is settled.

Critics of Resolution 2017-1, including ten past presidents of the MLA, have noted that its aim is to limit the freedom of speech of MLA members, paradoxically in the name of dialogue and academic freedom. No less ironically, the resolution seeks to deny to our Palestinian colleagues the means to secure the freedoms and rights that a second resolution, 2017-4, on which MLA members are also currently voting, ardently defends—for US scholars. For example, this second resolution claims to defend “the ideal of free and unfettered scholarly exchange, including the right of scholars to travel across international borders” from threats by the Trump administration. It does not seem to have occurred to the resolution’s framers that the Trump administration’s proposed restrictions on freedom of movement that so appall them are explicitly modeled on Israel’s practices against Palestinians.

So much is evident. But another implication of the resolution and its proponents’ arguments promises to have more lasting effects. MLA members are voting not only on the question of Palestine and the time-honored right to resort to the tactic of boycotting to achieve justice against racism and occupation. Their vote will effectively define what the association is and does, and who belongs in it, in a broad and lasting way.

It has been noted often enough that the associations that have to date endorsed the boycott resolution are, almost without exception, scholarly bodies that regard the issues of race, colonialism, and social justice as central to their intellectual mission. The American Studies Association is perhaps the test case here. Over the last few decades, that association, like the discipline itself, underwent a process of transformation, its center of gravity gradually shifting from traditional literary and historical study towards interdisciplinary modes of scholarship developed to address US racism, settler colonialism, and imperialism. This transition was not the consequence of arbitrary changes in academic fashion. It marked a major paradigm shift, driven in part by the changing demographics of the academy—of both faculties and student bodies—that has been a permanent legacy of the civil rights movement. Scholars in American Studies assume the intimate relation between social movements and scholarly analysis, just as they recognize the powerful connections between academic disciplines and the practical exercise of political power. For some, however, that shift was hard to accept, and the endorsement of the academic boycott in 2013 seemed to them the last straw of academic politicization. It was no accident that some of those who would later unsuccessfully sue the ASA for acting beyond its mission had publicly declared that “this is not the association I joined” or that they “wanted their association back.”

Corresponding disciplinary shifts have affected literary studies over the same period, even if their impact has arguably not been quite so deep or influential on the MLA. The emergence of postcolonial studies and race critical theory have reshaped literary studies, as have critiques of normative forms of gender and sexuality. This phenomenon is not confined to modern or formerly marginalized literatures but is apparent across the board of literary studies. As with the ASA, everything suggests that this transformation of literary methods and objects is in part driven by the changing demographics of the profession. Unlike the ASA, however, the MLA has remained institutionally conservative, dominated by scholars who promote the divorce of scholarship from politics, and therefore from the very conditions of justice and respect for difference that lie at the heart of even the most limited definition of the humanities.

This somewhat quixotic desire to fence intellectual work off from engaging with the conditions that make it possible, or to enforce a boundary between “disinterested” scholarship—that eternal chimera—and the world in which it takes place, has been at the core of opposition to the boycott movement. To cite one strong advocate of Resolution 2017-1, writing on the MLA’s open comments page, proponents of the boycott were “allowing the MLA to be hijacked for ulterior political purposes.” In a more triumphalist vein, Gabriel Noah Brahm wrote on the Critical Inquiry blog that the Delegate Assembly’s anti-boycott vote “signaled the waning of ‘identity liberalism’ in American life more broadly—as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold, both in the academy and at large.”

This eager desire to put the lid on political discussion at the MLA, to “return” the association to its supposedly proper mission of promoting scholarship in the humanities—an expression that always assumed the apolitical nature of real humanities scholarship—was manifest at every debate. Theirs was an unabashed call for a reactionary restoration of a long discredited status quo. It relied on invoking the tired image of a little cabal of radical scholars infiltrating the association, despite the fact that the boycott resolution gained forty percent of the Delegate Assembly’s vote and was endorsed by scholars in Renaissance Studies, Romanticism, literary theory, Hispanic Studies, Jewish Studies—the list could go on. It was, to be sure, also supported—as Brahm backhandedly acknowledges—by scholars whose work engages with “abstractions like white privilege, Western colonialism, neoliberalism, or global capitalism.” Only, to those scholars for whom Brahm and his like have such disdain, these are not mere abstractions, but the concrete conditions that their work, their communities, their students, and their colleagues have to confront and negotiate on a daily basis. Those conditions are the foundation of their sense of solidarity with Palestinian scholars.

Opponents of the Palestinians’ effort to realize basic rights that are the elementary conditions of justice pretend to be defending the universal values of Western liberalism, like academic freedom and judicious scholarly disinterest. But this is what Frantz Fanon once telling termed “a unilateral declaration of universality”—unilateral in its definition and unilateral in its exclusions. Certainly their conception of academic freedom all too pointedly excludes from its purview our Palestinian colleagues and their students, to whose discriminatory abuse Israeli universities daily contribute. But their understanding of legitimate scholarship also excludes a significant number of other MLA members for whom race critical, postcolonial, or queer issues are central. Accusations that the advocacy of Palestinian rights and of the means to realize them were merely manifestations of “political correctness” actually promotes a corresponding agenda, which is to commit the MLA to a “non-political” conception of humanities scholarship that barely conceals its fundamentally political ends.

For a long time, culminating in the Trump presidential campaign, “political correctness” and “identity politics” have been threadbare codes in media and academia alike for a racial backlash against the gains of the civil rights and other anti-racist movements. The invocation of such terms has lately aimed in particular at colleges and universities, where faculty and students have struggled to resist the programmatic roll-back of desegregation and affirmative action through economic cut-backs, soaring student debt, legal cases, and political initiatives that have manipulated white resentment. Against such a profoundly politicized assault on education, the depoliticization of the humanities has nothing to offer except a capitulation to the right’s desire to silence critical thought and the genuinely humane scholarship that continues to sustain it.

The professoriate is not immune from its own forms of white resentment. Persistent attacks on the politicization of the profession and on the “balkanization” of the academy by the claims of so-called identity politics belie the real fear, which is the intersectional solidarity among diverse groups that share a common will to resist the erosion of every advance that social movements have made in desegregating US education. In their very distortion of the intellectual energy and inclusive embrace of the new modes of critical scholarship, they betray the palpable anxiety of the traditional professoriate at the real, ongoing, and necessary transformation of the cultural and intellectual agenda of the university. The plangent cry, “I want my association back,” echoes in a minor key a widespread desire to take back the university—and the nation—from the uncivil hordes that have invaded it.

There is, accordingly, a more aggressive dimension to the resentful jeremiads against “political correctness.” For several decades, the campus war against “identity politics” has been posed as a kind of clash of civilizations, as the defense of Western culture and liberal values against illiberal racial others whose right to enter the university has consistently been called into question along with their right to set its intellectual and pedagogical agendas. As long ago as 1991, conservative commentator George Will made the connection between the first Iraq war and the domestic “culture wars”: “In this low-visibility, high-intensity war, Lynne Cheney [then head of the NEH] is secretary of domestic defense. The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick [Cheney], must keep at bay are less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal....Those forces are fighting against the conservation of the common culture that is the nation's social cement.” Will was correct: it is indeed difficult to separate the ongoing campaign to discipline the academy from the global effort since the end of the Cold War to shore up US domination in the Middle East and beyond—an effort in which Israel has proven an indispensable collaborator.

That the question of Palestine has become in this context a peculiarly fraught issue is no accident. On the one hand, activists for the Movement for Black Lives or for immigrant rights have proclaimed their solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice on the well-documented grounds of Israel’s deep involvement in shaping the repressive techniques and technologies used against them, in its models of militarism, policing, racial profiling, and wall-building. Palestine is the laboratory in which Israel develops the global arsenal of repression. These activists hear a little better, it seems, than the MLA’s Delegate Assembly that could pass a resolution condemning Trump’s policies while remaining deaf to his loud praise for Israel’s exemplary apparatus of repression.

On the other hand, as the Delegate Assembly debate made clear, Palestine remains beyond the pale of the liberal academy. They ardently defended the academic freedoms of their Israeli colleagues that this institutional boycott respects, while utterly ignoring the daily violations of Palestinians’ right to education that Israel perpetrates. Indeed, to anyone who does study settler colonialism and white supremacy, the lines of identification—and the affect behind it—were all too familiar: “they” are like us, “they” share our values; the Palestinians are not, do not. The shadow of racial solidarity fell dismally across the whole debate. The baseless but enduring fantasy that the Israeli academy is a hotbed of liberals who resist the policies of dispossession and discrimination that have been espoused by every Israeli government of whatever political stripe perhaps made this racial identification more palatable. So too did the persistent and no less fantastical myth of Israel’s liberal democracy, whose advocates admit with increasing readiness that in order to survive as—in their words—“a Jewish state,” it needs not only the self-evident apartheid of the occupation and its settlements, but also the tissue of discriminatory laws and practices that transform Palestinian Israelis into second-class citizens within their own land. One should not be astonished. Similar intellectual contortions had to be practiced in order to assert that apartheid South Africa was the only democracy in sub-Saharan Africa or that South Africa was “freer than most African countries."

But the proponents of 2017-1 are right. In order to maintain these fantasies, in order to turn a blind eye to the manifest and ongoing injustices that our Palestinian colleagues have called on us to help them remedy, the MLA would have to be “depoliticized.” It would have to withdraw from the engagement with the world that gives our scholarship some claim to relevance and to the humanities some semblance of concern for human dignity and for the basic conditions within which humanity can possibly flourish. It would have to ignore and banish from the association several decades of race critical and postcolonial scholarship that has taught us that there can be no effective separation of our research, writing, or teaching from their implication in the formations of knowledge and power. That was, indeed, the consistent lesson of one seminal postcolonial scholar and past president of the MLA, the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said.

For years, the MLA has suffered crises of relevance that have not been resolved by seeking to divorce the defense of the humanities from the defense of human rights and justice. It has recently suffered likewise from a marked decline in its membership that is certainly in good part due to the perception of its reluctance to translate the scholarly commitment of so many of its actual and potential members into its public statements and its advocacy. As the membership votes this month on 2017-1, it will also be deciding on the future of the MLA. Will the association declare itself a bulwark separating those who belong within the purview of civilization and humanity from the barbarians beyond, or will it take the side of those who have been denied the basic rights that the association happily seeks to defend for its most privileged members? How it decides will inform many of its members how welcome their scholarship, their participation, their concerns and their identities are within the association. For many, the vote will determine how relevant the MLA can be to an era of continuing “white privilege, Western colonialism, neoliberalism, and global capitalism.” These are the material realities for us and for our students now. The question of Palestine is inseparable from them: it is the litmus test of whether the association matters any more.  

Quick Thoughts

Quick Thoughts is designed to provide our readers with background and analysis on topics in the news. We take our cue from current events, and ask informed observers to provide short-form commentary and context. The focus of Quick Thoughts is on the Middle East, but the column is intended to be global in reach. Send your commentary to info@Jadaliyya.com