The sound of silencing in American academe



I’ve attended more than three dozen conventions of the Modern Language Association, but this year’s was different. And that’s not because I was MLA president, organized a forum, and delivered my presidential address. It was because I became the target of an intimidation campaign that took the form of hate-email blasts, public attacks, personal letters and phone calls, and insistent appeals to stop one of the convention’s 800 sessions before it was held. The session was called \”Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine.\”

Unlike the American Studies Association, which voted in December to \”endorse … the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,\” the MLA was not considering a boycott resolution. Nonetheless, the emails I received were written as if a boycott resolution were not only under consideration but had already passed.

The specific resolution on the agenda of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly concerned restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Those restrictions are documented on the U.S. State Department website, and the resolution asked the MLA to urge the State Department to \”contest\” them.

The messages that poured in from individuals and groups like Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition persisted in mischaracterizing, exaggerating, and distorting both the session and the resolution. \”Shame on MLA for the hate and anti-Semitism,\” one email read. Many demanded \”balance.\” But academic conference sessions are not talk-show debates; speakers explore a topic, raise questions, and advance nuanced conclusions. Disagreement can be voiced during the discussion period. Critics have claimed that academic boycotts violate academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. Yet the vehemence of the opposition, the hyperbolic fliers that were distributed condemning boycotts, and the portrayal of the session as a foregone conclusion, in fact blocked the open conversation that we in the U.S. academy need to nurture and protect.

At the same time, the MLA resolution to \”urge\” the State Department to \”contest\” Israeli travel restrictions was mischaracterized as \”condemning\” Israel. Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel, and Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, wrote a letter to university presidents asking them to take pre-emptive action against the MLA. \”Rather than speaking after the fact, as we were forced to do with the ASA resolution,\” their letter reads, \”we urge you to make clear, in advance of the MLA resolution, your opposition to it and to any other effort to hold Israel to a different standard than any other nation.\”

Some of the emails my colleagues and I received were accompanied by well-known photographs of Nazis with signs calling for boycotts of Jewish stores. One, in particular, was sent by many dozens of people from around the country and abroad:

\”I am writing in protest of the Modern Language Association’s resolution to ‘condemn Israel’s denial of entries to academics invited to Palestinian universities.’ … Boycotts of the Jewish people were commonplace in Europe leading up to the Holocaust, and led to the extermination of 6 million of our people in the Shoah. Less than 80 years ago Jews suffered our biggest losses, but we also made our biggest gain: a homeland for the Jewish people. Finally, after 4,000 years of unwavering persecution, a land to call our own. We will never leave that land, and the MLA can do nothing about it.

\”The Jewish people have faced many enemies over the years. We have defeated all of them, including Nazi Germany. Your resolution is simply another attempt to remove us from our historic claim to the land of Israel. In doing so, you only serve to discredit yourselves.\”

Note what the email conflates: \”contest\” with \”condemn\” and the resolution with a full-fledged boycott and an attempt to remove Jews from Israel. Note, above all, how it distorts history.

As a daughter of Holocaust survivors and as someone who has been doing scholarly work on the cultural memory of the Holocaust for over two decades, I was viscerally upset to read these accusations and to see Nazi propaganda images on my computer screen. But I was more disheartened by how American Jewish organizations and their members insisted on violating the painful history of Jews, including that of my parents, to foreclose discussion of the policies of the state of Israel and their impact on Israeli and Palestinian education.

Hyperbole is not limited to one side where discussions of Israel/Palestine are concerned. For example, a recent article on the Electronic Intifada website pre-empts all opposition to academic boycotts, for whatever reason, stating that \”Academic boycott — along with its partners, divestment and sanctions — serves the greater goal of Palestinian decolonization. No matter the specific nature of the argument, all negative responses to boycott illustrate a profound discomfort with that possibility.\”

When it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, discussion is curtailed before it begins. In a debate that is structured to allow only two clear-cut sides, words lose their meaning. And logic is twisted to stifle expression. Russell Berman, a professor at Stanford, said at an alternative panel, held off-site during the convention: \”Criticism of Israeli policies or Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. But the mere fact that one has anti-Zionist views does not prove that one is not anti-Semitic.\”

Some words have become so inflammatory that their mere mention unleashes the extreme reactions we’ve been witnessing. \”Boycott\” is such a word, and, if we could discuss the constellation of issues to which that term applies, we could also put into historical perspective the call to boycott by Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews. We could sort out how limited the practical effects of a boycott of institutions rather than individuals by scholarly associations like the ASA would be. We could sort out the ethics and politics of boycott as symbolic action. And we could explore alternative means of expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, means that might be less divisive.

Many people have questioned the MLA’s right to intervene in politics. But isn’t it precisely our linguistic expertise that could help sort out the irreconcilable meanings of words, their irresponsible deployment, and the practices of silencing that ensue?

To create the space for the difficult conversations we need to have now and in the future, we must get beyond the silences imposed in the name of academic freedom. We need our academic leaders, our university presidents, not to condemn our scholarly associations, but rather to protect our right to have and to sponsor those important conversations free from harassment campaigns and pre-emptive threats.

Author Bio: Marianne Hirsch is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality there, as well as director of the university’s Center for the Study of Social Difference.