BDS, the Modern Language Association and War

Before going on hiatus, I published an extended essay called Like Romans that looks at the fight against BDS (and pro-Israel activism generally) through the lens of warfare.

The starting point for that work was not academic analysis based on abstract principles.  Rather, I tried to connect dots between the results of work done by heroic on-the-ground activists who have been experimenting with different ways to defeat the propaganda campaign traveling under the banner of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.  And few experiments have been as successful (and thus as informative) as the recent defeat of academic boycott resolutions at the Modern Language Association (MLA).

As most readers probably know, academic associations have become a battleground for BDS activity, ever since the American Studies Association (ASA) became the largest academic group to pass a resolution calling for a boycott of their Israeli counterparts.  Some very tiny associations (including those representing Asian-American, Women’s and Native American studies) have passed similar resolutions before and since.  But their victory with ASA gave BDS activists the belief that it was just a matter of time before their program swept through large swaths of the academy.

Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us – as well as for academia in general) all efforts to drag fields like history, anthropology, and even Middle East studies into the BDS swamp have failed.  But the large (25,000-member) Modern Language Association, professional home to professors of language and literature, has been the boycotter’s coveted prize for years.

The strategy the BDSers pursue within academic associations is a variation on what they do everywhere else (a playbook outlined in Chapter 9 of Like Romans): take over the decision-making machinery of an association, propose anti-Israel resolutions before the wider membership knows what’s going on, restrict communication so that only supporters of a boycott get access to members, and do everything possible to rig a vote so that the barest majority of a minority can pass something that can then be passed off as the will of the organization (if not the entire discipline).

And if the boycotters fail, then it’s try try again as the same resolutions (possibly with superficial variations) are proposed year after year until members finally do what they’re told.

While there are a number of strategies and tactics one can choose when dealing with an enemy that outnumbers your own forces (as was the case at MLA), it is generally impossible to defeat a foe if you’ve got nothing on the ground.  Fortunately, years of battling BDS within MLA (and academic associations generally) led to the creation of a small but highly skilled force under the name of MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights which managed to not just defeat this year’s proto-boycott resolutions, but get an anti-boycott resolution passed in its place.

The number of things this group did right began with the nature of the group itself.  Members were internal to the organization (which gave them credibility and deep understanding of MLA’s culture), and having battled the BDS plague within academia for many years, they were skilled veterans able to leverage previous experience and contacts.

Their background knowledge included understanding their own strengths (the aforementioned credibility and experience) and weaknesses (like limited influence over the administrative machinery of MLA), as well as those of their enemies (such as fanaticism, predictability and a tendency towards overreach).   Most importantly, they understood the field of battle: an academic association where the majority of members don’t have strong opinions about the Middle East (even if the general zeitgeist of the academy might go against Israel), but who do care about scholarship and the reputation of the humanities in the wider culture.

With this understanding in place, their communication strategy focused on the appalling lack of scholarship represented by pro-BDS “research,” and the impact an academic boycott vote would have not on Israel, but on MLA, the fields of humanities, and the academy as a whole.  Thus they were able to avoid getting dragged into a debate on the Middle East (the BDSers preferred terrain), and make the vote a referendum on MLA’s own scholarly reputation.

Clever tactics also allowed the group to use their minority position to advantage, finding alternative mechanisms to communicate with MLA members that avoided going through leaders who had already proven themselves to be dishonest brokers.  They were then able to use their need to find these alternative communication channels to illustrate those leaders’ lack of integrity, while fitting themselves into a storyline of rebels speaking truth to power.

Finally, the choice to propose both an anti-boycott resolution and a second resolution condemning Palestinians for violating academic rights meant that voting against boycotts generally became the middle-of-the-road (usually preferred) position.  While there were some complaints when the proposal condemning the Palestinian Authority and Hamas was withdrawn after the anti-boycott measure won, in terms of tactics that second proposal was serving as a feint, withdrawal of which positioned anti-boycott activists as both moderate and magnanimous.

Not every anti-BDS effort has the fortune (and misfortune) of fighting a fight you know is coming years in advance against a foe whose tactics (and personnel) are well known and understood.  But any individual or group can learn lessons from the experience of other civic organizations fighting the same fight against the BDS propaganda war against Israel.  Like names, faces and personalities; strategies and tactics will be different from situation to situation.  But there are common elements to fighting a war, the first of which is to recognize you are in one.

Modern Language Association Israel Vote – No, Non, Nyet

First off, apologies for yesterday’s outage.  Apparently, an over-eager shoe and pants salesman tried to sell their wares in the site’s comment section to the tune of tens of thousands of messages, all of which were snagged by an alert spam blocker.  But an equally alert web host decided to shut things down to give me time to see what the hell was going on.

Anyway, all is well although I added a new Captcha facility to the commenting section that should prevent non-humans from spamming the site again.  And, in hope that this will be enough to keep away the robots, I also put the name and e-mail requirement for commenters on hold in hope we can attract a few of those Anonymous critics who have kind of made themselves scarce since Divest This was updated a while back.  We’ll see how it goes and I’ll keep you posted on any other comment-related policy changes.

Back to business, during last week’s Alinsky-fest, I wasn’t able to keep up with some of the latest BDS news which I’d like to cover between now and when the Presbyterians gather in Detroit at the end of the week.

Topping off the list was the failure of BDS advocates to get the Modern Language Association (MLA) to condemn the Jewish state over Israel’s “crime” of failing to get BDS advocates to stop spamming civic organizations in order to try to speak in other people’s names.

Even if you’re not familiar with how things worked out at the Modern Language Association Israel debate this year, the details will sound all-to-familiar to long-time BDSwatchers.

As usual, the 30,000 person academic organization took up the issue because a noisy minority within their ranks insisted that they do so back in January.  And, following a playbook written by other BDSers posing as academics who lead the American Studies Association, the boycotters within MLA ranks decided to hold a panel discussion on a resolution to criticize Israel for this or that imagined crime that consisted solely of proponents for the measure.

While Israel-dislikers (including the decidedly non-MLA members like Omar Barghouti) were given all the seats on this panel, critics of the proposal – deciding to do more than accept scraps from the table (i.e., sitting in the audience while their opponents controlled all the microphones) – held their own “unofficial” panel after MLA leaders refused to allow their voices to be included in any official program.  And once a watered-down version of the measure was sent to members (after a disgraceful and embarrassing committee vote described here), critics of the vote organized their own communication system to provide members factual rebuttals after those same MLA leaders refused to allow any official communication on the matter that didn’t measure up to the “scholarly” standards of Electronic Intifada.

Now the rules for the organization required 10% of the membership to vote “Yes” in order for the condemnation of Israel to become official policy  And when all the votes were tallied, the total  number of “Yes” and “No” votes did not meet this threshold and so the attempted hijacking of MLA failed due to lack of interest.

Needless to say, spin has been in the air since the vote with pro-BDS voices declaring victory since about 500 more people voted “Yes” than “No,” with anti-boycott proponents highlighting the fact that 94% of the organization either said “No” or expressed indifference or hostility to the whole sordid affair by avoiding the vote altogether.

Generally, I’m of a mind to say that a win is a win and a loss is a loss based on the reigning rules of an organization.  So while I might be appalled that only 16% of the membership of ASA can implement a boycott policy for the entire association, I would not claim that such a vote was inherently illegitimate since rules are rules.  Thus, given the 10% threshold MLA required for victory, categorizing last week’s vote as a #BDSFail is equally legitimate.

That said, I’ve always been troubled by votes made up of a majority of a minority on measures that claim to speak on behalf of an organization as a whole.

For example, the ASA boycott was presented to the world as not just the policy of an academic organization voted in by 16% of the membership, but as the “landslide” official position of the American Studies Association taken up in the name of the every ASA member (if not the entire field of American Studies).  But, as we’ve seen since that vote was taken (with not one American Studies department in the country signing on to the policy and many departments – as well as ASA’s largest chapter organizations – vocally opposing it), the policy does not represent the view of a most of the members in whose name the boycott was instituted.

Now we live in an age of representative (vs. Athenian) democracy, so I understand that decisions will invariably be made by less than 100% of citizens/members/participants/voters in most institutions.

I suppose that fail-safes (like the 10% threshold used for the Modern Language Association Israel vote) can prevent minorities from hijacking an organization and forcing it to say things that either a large minority or even a majority find offensive.  But I think the reason we don’t run into ASA/MLA-style problems on each and every controversial issue of the day is that partisan who believe strongly in most political causes understand that they have outlets for their political activism that do not require dragging their professional colleagues (or fellow members of another civic organization such as a food co-op) into a fight that will undoubtedly cause harm to innocents.

But as has been made all too clear over the last decade, the BDSers have no such respect for others, and no concern for groups like MLA and ASA beyond their usefulness (i.e., their serving as mere means to an end) in a propaganda war most people want no part of.