Palestine at the 2016 MLA

W. J. T. Mitchell

One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.

This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.

As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)

More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.

So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.

I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.


Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at:

The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.


Filed under Humanities, Palestinian protest, Uncategorized, WJT Report

8 responses to “Palestine at the 2016 MLA

  1. Gerald Bruns

    I take your point, but my worry is that boycotts of this sort only strengthen the right wing in Israel–as my dwindling number of “Peace Now” friends tell me. Palestinian students are still allowed to enroll in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but a boycott may put an end to that, further isolating the university, one of the last liberal institutions in Israel.

  2. Dear Jerry, it is hard for me to imagine how the Israeli right could get any stronger than it is now. They control the government, the Knesset, the military, the courts, and to an increasing extent, the universities. Progressive and anti-zionist professors are being fired, denied tenure, and forced to go into exile. I suppose things could always get worse, but to lay that at the doorstep of the BDS movement seems bizarre to me. Similar arguments were used against the boycott of South Africa, that it would somehow strengthen the apartheid regime. I think people should go with their conscience on this matter, and not try to calculate imponderable consequences. Thank you for weighing in. Best wishes, Tom

  3. nickmirzoeff

    I’m very happy to see you join the BDS movement, Tom! In terms of your suggestion that you want to be a supportive critic, perhaps you might be interested in a piece on BDS in the art world that I co-wrote, in which we suggest that: “Boycott is less about withdrawing and remaining silent and more about creating a space for another set of social relations to emerge — ones that have justice, freedom and liberation at their heart….BDS is an ethical guideline and something one adheres to in solidarity. It is not a law, which if violated, brings punishment. It is a proposal, an advice, an opportunity to rethink. That is why words like “violation” are misleading. As artists we always have agency. We each act in affinity with the rule and to the best of our understanding.”

  4. zjb

    I’m wondering where you stand not just on tactics and principles, and fear that you misjudge the way the one enters into the other, and the other into the one. As a liberal Zionist with deep personal, professional, and ideological connections to the place, I have no objection to and support boycotting products made in settlements across the Green Line. And I watch with great interest moves made by the EU to sharpen the distinction between the State of Israel and the 1967 occupation. But cultural and academic boycotts are a different matter.

    BDS includes in its formal plank not just an end to the 1967 occupation and equal civil rights for Palestinian Israelis. It’s third plank calls for a blanket right of return which would mean that Israel would lose its character as a “Jewish majority state.” In doing this, BDS flouts the principles of self-determination and mutual recognition that were the foundations of the radical Jewish left going back to the 1970, and then the moderate center represented by Rabin in the 1990s. BDS and support for it only undercuts these voices in both Israel and the United States. For all the energy they bring to the fray, Jewish groups like JVP who support BDS represent at best a marginal position in the Jewish community with zero political power or influence.

    For those of us caught in the middle, who support an end to the Occupation and the creation of a Palestinian State alongside and at peace with a democratic State of Israel, your decision is a cause for sad feelings of total abandonment and isolation. If we press on, it is without the support of friends and colleagues. The only effect of BDS is to harden attitudes on both sides and to perpetuate the conflict. At the very least you should understand and accept that the the decision to boycott the West-East Divan or to shut down an event hosted by an Israeli LGBT community group at a recent conference in the U.S. was not a “mistake” or mistaken tactical application of BDS principles, but reflects the very heart of the movement to which you have now signed on.

  5. Pingback: Palestine at the 2016 MLA | MLA Members for Justice in Palestine

  6. Dear ZJB: I sympathize with the dilemma you describe, but for me the critical moment comes when you raise the possibility that Israel might lose its character as a “Jewish majority state.” This is no longer just a possibility, in my view, but a probability that must be faced squarely. I am not sure what work the word “majority” is doing in your comment. Is this a demographic calculation, a matter of mere numbers? Or is it just another way of saying “Jewish state”? If it is the former, then the demographic time-bomb is already ticking in the one state of Israel/Palestine, and nothing can stop it short of forced migration and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians–a tactic that I think you must deplore. If it is the latter, then I think it is time for Israeli Jews, including Zionists, to face the contradiction between their ethno-nationalism and their commitment to democracy. The best way to do this is to join up with BDS as described above by Nick Mirzoeff–an “ethical guideline” and not a set of hardened dogmas. The “heart of the movement” is not made of stone, but is the site of a struggle for justice, liberation, and peace. And you should be part of it.

  7. Pathetic. BDS is washed up. Israel is an island of stability in the chaos of the Middle East, a place where women’s rights, gay rights and academic freedom are respected. In these days of Trump—boycotter, boycott thyself. Imagine, in other words, if American academics were held to account for everything and anything anyone doesn’t like about the U.S. Yet somehow when it’s the Jewish state you find it easier to acquiesce in this vile game of self-righteous mendacity and discrimination.

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