The MLA Vs. Israel

REUTERS/Ammar Awad

A.J. Caschetta Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow, Middle East Forum
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A Middle East studies scholar once told me that only those trained in the history of the Middle East or in religious studies (like himself) are qualified to speak, write and teach about Islamist terrorism.  His point was that too many non-specialists were “muddying up the discourse.”  I reminded him that the patron saint of Middle East studies is Edward Said, and his Ph.D. was in English Literature.  I might have also mentioned that the Middle East studies professors have done a fine job of muddying up the discourse without any help from others.

Since Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978, professors of English, comparative literature, and other language-centric fields have played an increasingly significant role in politicizing Middle East studies in their writing, teaching, and anti-Israel advocacy.  Those trained in Middle East studies were already waging what Martin Kramer called “a take-no-prisoners assault, which rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology.”  Literary scholars injected new forms of Marxism, post-modernism, and cultural relativism into the mix.

Blaming the West, especially the U.S. and Israel, for all the problems of the Middle East is the end product of this influence, and its latest expression is something Said would be proud of: a concerted effort to delegitimize the state of Israel through the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement.

Many academic associations support BDS: The National Women’s Studies Association,  The Association for Asian American StudiesThe Native American and Indigenous Studies Association Council, and The American Studies Association, to name a few.  Scholars from these fields have been busy devising new ways to extend onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the narratives of oppression in which they specialize.  But few of them have achieved the kind of fame (or notoriety) of the language people.  English and comparative literature professors often produce unique and eclectic blends of philosophy, social science, language theory, and identity politics.  When applied to foreign policy, terrorism studies, and the Middle East, the result is often a sophistry like Edward Said’s: shallow but seductive—perhaps especially so—to eager, naturally rebellious, undergraduate minds.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) historically is no friend of Israel.  It has flirted with the BDS movement but postponed an official BDS vote until 2017.  Some MLA members can’t wait.  Taking seriously the cliché of professors learning from their students, in 2014 an unknown number of MLA members formed their own faculty-version of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the leading student BDS advocate.  They call themselves the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine and use the awkward initials “MLAMJP” – apparently unable to produce a clever acronym.

The MLAMJP devotes itself to advocating BDS, depicting Israel as an Apartheid state, defending its positions against charges of anti-Semitism, promoting Al Jazeera documentaries, and writing lots of open letters.

As of this writing the MLAMJP’s Open Letter to the rest of the MLA “urging the association to pass a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions” has 429 signatures ranging from the obscure to the very well-known to the clearly fake (“Grabir Boobi” of Oberlin, who doesn’t exist).  While this number represents a very small percentage of the entire membership, the number is likely to grow after the 2017 vote.

The list also reveals a significant coastal phenomenon: MLA members teaching in colleges on the East and the West coasts account for more than a quarter of the signatures, with fifty-five indicating faculty teaching in New York State and sixty-eight in California (a staggering fifty-two of them at University of California alone).

I left the MLA, or rather the MLA left me, in the 1990s when I believed it had ceased to be about the study of language and literature and became instead devoted to imposing the politics of the late twentieth century onto the past.  I watched Shakespeare transformed into a colonial oppressor and Wordsworth into an unfeeling man who ignored the homeless problem of his day.

The question today is not whether English professors can contribute positively to Middle East studies, but rather whether they are in the process of out-politicizing their colleagues trained in Middle East history and religious studies.  Having ruined their own field, many seem bent on ruining another.

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  This essay was written for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.