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An Open Letter to Kwame Anthony Appiah, President of the Modern Language Association

[Summer art class in an UNRWA school. Image by Kristian Buus.] [Summer art class in an UNRWA school. Image by Kristian Buus.]

The Modern Language Association (MLA) will be voting on a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions at its upcoming convention, to be held 5-8 January 2017 in Philadelphia.

The vote represents the culmination of a three-year process that began in 2014. The organizers describe the process in the following way:

In Fall 2014, David Lloyd and Rebecca Comay submitted to the Organizing Committee of the Delegate Assembly a resolution and supporting documents calling upon the MLA to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The resolution was proposed for discussion at the 2015 meeting of the Delegate Assembly. At that same time, two other members of the MLA submitted a resolution that opposed academic boycott resolutions. The Organizing Committee of the MLA requested that the two groups of proposers postpone the formal submission of their resolutions to the Delegate Assembly until 2017.

At the MLA conventions that followed, panels discussed and debated the boycott. In addition, MLA members organized an extraordinary number of panels on Palestinian literature, the literature of boycotts, settler colonialism, and the question of Palestine, in various perspectives.

The voting process itself is twofold. First, the Delegate Assembly of the MLA will vote on the resolution at the convention. If the resolution passes the Delegate Assembly, it will be put to the full membership for an on-line vote in the spring, and at that time ten percent of the current membership will need to vote for the resolution in order for it to pass.

In anticipation of the upcoming vote, the President of the MLA, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has organized a Town Hall Meeting on the topic: “Should the MLA endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions?” At the same time, he posted a letter on the MLA website, addressing the proposed boycott.

But what is the role of the President of the MLA in framing the terms of the upcoming debate? The President’s letter presents itself as if it were merely reporting conversations he has had with various MLA members, and yet it sets a tone and, through that tone, it frames the debate in advance. The letter suggests that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is an issue of “contention,” but who is to determine what is contentious and what is not? Why should the MLA only respond to issues that have gained a measure of public approval, rather than respond in ways that are informed by its membership’s understanding of what the MLA Constitutions calls their “common interests”?

In an “Open Letter,” appended below, Jeffrey Sacks suggests that Professor Appiah’s blog post undermines those interests by tethering them to a particular understanding of whose freedom, academic and others, has value and whose does not. Perhaps more than anything, MLA members are uniquely positioned to exercise their freedom as they listen to and learn from colleagues who speak at the coming convention, and as they vote on the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions.


January 4, 2017

 Dear Professor Appiah,

I write to you as a member of the Modern Language Association (MLA), to share several thoughts regarding a letter you recently posted on the MLA website, entitled “Taking Issue, Taking Stock,” which has been published in the winter 2016 MLA newsletter, and which addresses the upcoming MLA vote on the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

You open by asking whether the MLA is a political organization: “The Modern Language Association of America is a scholarly organization. Is it also a political one?” The question itself surprises, because it suggests that our scholarship is not political, that politics belongs to one sphere of reflection, behavior, practice, and activity, and scholarship to another. But as I read your letter I realized that you transform your question into what is nothing less than a political intervention. Despite the distance you seem to take, the letter itself actively undermines the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, calling to the attention of members of the MLA numerous questions, which, you say, members have posed to you. You may be opposed to the boycott, but as the President of the MLA you have taken it upon yourself to proliferate your views in a public forum, and you have therefore undermined an open and democratic context of discussion and debate. Your letter recalls Janet Napolitano and the Chancellors of each of the ten campuses of the University of California system, who expressed their opposition to the boycott of Israeli academic institutions just prior to the vote of the American Anthropological Association, even as your letter is somewhat different. While you do not explicitly take a position on the boycott, you nevertheless communicate a position and stake out a frame. And this communication intervenes, in advance, to shape the outcome of a vote that ought to be left to the democratic practice of the MLA membership itself. 

You suggest that the MLA does play a political role, yet “not in a straightforward or partisan way,” and you write that this role is to “make a contribution to the national conversation.” But what does this mean? The first paragraph of your letter reads as follows: 

The Modern Language Association of America is a scholarly organization. Is it also a political one? Not in a straightforwardly partisan way: our legal status prohibits us from endorsing candidates for elected office. But on topics that are central to our mission and that we can address in a clear and unified voice, the MLA can make a contribution to the national conversation. Among the issues that the association has been concerned with are the growth of contingent labor and the decline of tenure in higher education; language study as an educational right; and, very broadly, a diminishment in support for the humanities.

The second article in the Constitution of the MLA explains its purpose: “The object of the association shall be to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects.” This article does not define what those “common interests” are, because, as the remainder of the document makes clear, it is the task of the members of the MLA to determine the content of those interests, through precisely the sort of vote which the upcoming one on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions represents. Yet your letter narrows the terms through which those interests can or should be determined, as it intervenes to decide, in advance, and without conversation or debate, what the form of those interests must be.

You write: “But on topics that are central to our mission and that we can address in a clear and unified voice, the MLA can make a contribution to the national conversation.” The sentence seems to be a pragmatic one; it seems to answer the question, “How can the MLA make a contribution to the national conversation?” But it also installs a series of terms by fiat, suggesting to the membership of the MLA that in order to speak it must do so only “on topics that are central to our mission” and only “in a clear and unified voice.” These terms are yours; they do not belong to the Constitution of the MLA. Your letter narrows the terms for understanding how the MLA may intervene in two ways:

  1. For you, the “common interests” of MLA members pertain only to “topics that are central to our mission”; the shift in emphasis, from the common to the central—from the language of the MLA Constitution to the language of your letteris important, because it suggests to MLA members that a topic that may seem, at first glance, not to be “central” ought not to be addressed by the MLA;
  2. Your sentence tells us that the MLA must speak “in a clear and unified voice” if it is to speak at all; but the metaphor of the voice—let alone one that is “clear” and “unified”—is unrelated to the procedural question which is: How does the MLA function in order to vote on a question, and to express the views of the membership through that vote? There is no requirement for “clarity” or “unity” in the Constitution of the MLA, and so what you ought to have shared with the members of the MLA is merely that a vote will be taking place and that the context and scene of debate should be open, transparent, and democratic. For each of these elements of worthwhile debate you have substituted “a clear and unified voice.

In place of the messy, unsettled, frazzled, and divided, you prefer the clear, unified, and self-same; in place of complexity and dissension, within and without, you prefer simplicity; and in place of open debate you prefer, as President of the MLA, to set the terms in advance.

You frame your letter in relation to academic freedom, and you mention a single instance in which the MLA has spoken out against attacks and assaults on it:

The MLA has spoken out recently about the appalling assaults on the academy in Turkey. Especially when we draw on our distinctive professional knowledge and understanding, we can help sustain cultures around the world where free inquire is respected.

But how does this translate in the context of Palestine and Israel, where the freedom of Palestinians, academic and other, including the freedom to move—is systematically, if differently, in each of these spaces, curtailed? What does academic freedom mean in a context of massive devastation, a destruction of lives, an ongoing colonization and occupation, a persisting practice of settler-colonial violence, the bombing of universities, the killing and imprisonment of students, academics, intellectuals, and poets

You write the following two paragraphs, which I’ll cite in their entirety:

I’ve had many conversations and exchanges with advocates and opponents of the academic boycott, and I have been consistently impressed with their seriousness and good will. All are affected by a continuing sense of the tragedy that has overtaken the Palestinians. There is disagreement about how to apportion blame for this among the many parties involved. There is disagreement as to the special status of this tragedy in a world where billions of people lack the basic resources for a decent human life. The question on which MLA members are most deeply divided, however, pertains not to our roles as individual citizens of a country or of the world but to our collective role, as a scholarly organization.

Some members believe that this is one of the great moral questions of our time and that the MLA should lay down a marker, whether or not it connects directly with our professional activities. Some think that it does relate to the primary purposes of the association, because the practices of the Israeli state curtail the freedom of Palestinian scholars and students. The relationship between the governments of the United States and Israel gives Americans particular responsibility for Israel’s actions, some say, regardless of whether those actions represent a unique enormity.

These paragraphs sanitize a history of colonial violence about which MLA members ought to know more. You write that: “All are affected by a continuing sense of the tragedy that has overtaken the Palestinians. There is disagreement about how to apportion blame for this among the many parties involved.” It may be the case that for you, and perhaps for others, “There is disagreement about how to apportion blame for this among the many parties involved,” but this is not the case for scholars who study the history of the colonization of Palestine. There is a consensus among scholars that during the period 1947 through 1949 between 750,000 and 900,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and lands by the nascent and emerging Israeli state. And there is a consensus among scholars that those expelled were prevented by the Israeli state from returning to their homes and lands in subsequent years. Your framing of these sentences in relation to “blame” diminishes the understanding of MLA members, and it produces several effects:

  1. It suggests that events around which there is a broad consensus among scholars as to their having taken place are, in fact, contested, for example, the events I have mentioned here;
  2. It transforms the context of the conversation about the boycott of Israeli academic institutions from a context of ethical accountability and responsibility to a conversation about historical demonstration;
  3. In doing so, it shields the Israeli state from critique and places the onus on the Palestinians to demonstrate that they have been expelled from their lands and homes, and that they have been subject to a persisting field, scene, and practice of colonial and settler-colonial violence;
  4. Insofar as it does this, it calls upon the Palestinian to testify to his or her own colonization and dispossession, and in doing so it coerces the Palestinian to historicize the violence that has been carried out against her or him, and it therefore participates in and exacerbates that violence; and, finally,
  5. Insofar as you frame the question as one of “blame”—the “many parties” (the natives?), are blaming each other—you stage the MLA as a civil and civilizing entity, which, when it is finally able to properly educate those “parties” so that they act with “seriousness and good will,” will bring about nothing less than peace, understanding, and recognition: so that those parties will speak, to themselves and others, in a “clear and unified voice.”

Your letter rehearses many of the standard arguments against the boycott, as it quickly marginalizes and dismisses, in the paragraph I have cited above, the views of those who favor it. For them, the boycott represents “one of the great moral questions of our time”; for them, it relates to “the primary purposes” of the organization; for them, “The relationship between the governments of the United States and Israel gives Americans particular responsibility for Israel’s actions,” “regardless of whether those actions represent a unique enormity.” It is at this point that you open your list of arguments against the boycott—even as you have already initiated these arguments here: “regardless of whether those actions represent a unique enormity.” For example: (1) there are so many other scenes of state violence that compel our attention, why do we address ourselves to this one?; (2), it’s really the Palestinian Authority who ought to be held accountable for the “tragedy” that has befallen the Palestinians; (3), by supporting a boycott of Israeli academics, MLA members suggest that they “are not opposed to the policies of other regimes that support universities while doing terrible things”; (4), is not the boycott absurd, and should we not also support a boycott of all American universities “which take money from a government that is Israel’s leading supporter,” as Noam Chomsky has argued, you underline; (5), and, finally, what does the MLA have to do with any of this anyway? Should we not all just go back to reading and writing and translating and teaching—all of those things which are, after all, the basic work of our professional lives? And should we not be happy that the president of the MLA is benevolently and wisely creating a “special working group” to answer the question you have posed on our behalf, and to work out its implications and limits? 

Nowhere in your letter is there any sense that you are adjudicating the future of a people that has been colonized and whose lands, until today, continue to be occupied. Nowhere is there any sense that you have an intellectual or academic stake in thinking about colonial violence of any form, this is apparently beyond what you take to be those “topics” that are “central to our mission.” Why is colonial violence, and the United States is a settler-colonial state, after all, outside of the remit of the MLA and the questions it brings to bear regarding literary interpretation and reading? If any act of interpretation requires a sifting of terms and languages, of texts and contexts, how are we to pretend that what we do is outside of the political scene in America, in particular, that political scene which participates in producing the ongoing colonization of Palestine and of the Palestinians? You brush this argument away casually, but there are numerous ways to understand it. For example, insofar as the MLA pretends that it is outside of this political scene, insofar as it tells us that, “All are affected by a continuing sense of the tragedy that has overtaken the Palestinians. There is disagreement about how to apportion blame for this among the many parties involved,” and insofar as, in telling us this, it disavows Israeli’s responsibility for earlier and ongoing acts of violence, insofar as it does these things it affirms the position and practice of the Israeli as colonizer. And so, is it not  time that the MLA reject this understanding, and join a growing number of organizations and individuals, and support the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions? With all of the talk about academic freedom, what is this “freedom” that we are talking about, if it is not a freedom to live, freely, and free from colonial and settler colonial forms of violence? I would be the last one to affirm the simple freedom of the sort of beings that we are—who among us, after all, is simply free, from our relations to others, from the past, and from more than one past, from language, and, indeed, from the sorts of violence I have just mentioned?—and yet the ongoing conditions of destruction, and of lived Apartheid, compel a response. Is it not time that we communicate to Israeli Jews, and, more broadly, to supporters of Israel and of Zionism, even as I would hardly wish to suggest that these terms fully overlap, and that they are not, themselves, cut through with difference, and differences, that a political and social life based upon the suppression and destruction of Palestinian lives is not acceptable? And does not the boycott of Israeli academic institutions communicate that? Does it not communicate that there is, minimally, for Palestinians, a lived reality of unfreedom, and that one dimension of that unfreedom is a massive disruption of the freedom of academic and intellectual life in Palestine? And do we not, in affirming the boycott, also affirm our refusal of the forms of violence that perpetuate this lived reality? Is it not the case that the boycott is not a threat but a gift—a gift to those Israelis, with whom we are enabled to share the thought that their own political and social lives, and the lives of others, are being shaped by an ideology and a practice, Zionism, that transforms them into colonizers, and that affirms, day after day, the killing of Palestinians? Ought we not, then, assume our own freedom and intervene in this way? 

You affirm the MLA’s support of Turkish academics under siege by the Turkish state. But when it comes to the Palestinians, under siege by the Israeli state, you refuse. I doubt many Turkish intellectuals will welcome your support of their rights, as that support is purchased with your indifference to Palestinian academic and intellectual life. 

Your allegiance is clear, and you frame your argument, again, in pragmatic terms. You tell members of the MLA that supporting the rights of Palestinians may harm the ability of the MLA to secure “public and private” funding for its “mission.” Your argument touches on a fundamental principle of shared governance in the university. This is what you wrote:

They ask how pronouncing on this matter will affect issues that are uncontroversially basic to the MLA’s mission. To improve the situation of language study, for example, we must influence public opinion—addressing politicians and university trustees and administrators, parents and students, and the wider citizenry. These members wonder whether adopting a position on a contentious issue about which we are divided could weaken our capacity to accomplish such goals. They wonder about effects on the external funding, public and private, we need to advance our work. 

All of sudden what is at stake is that the MLA may have something to say about a matter of “contention”: “These members wonder whether adopting a position on a contentious issue about which we are divided could weaken our capacity to accomplish such goals.” Any ethical pretense is left to the side, as you publicize, without comment, the desire of some members of the MLA to subordinate intellectual and academic concerns to economic ones. Your framing, again, becomes decisive, as you cede the right of the faculty—the membership of the MLA—to determine its “common interests.” The language is clothed in an appeal to students and their families, and to “the wider citizenry”—and it is, in my view, to them that we should make our arguments for the legitimation of the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and for the study of literature, during a time of when each of these is actively marginalized. But to conflate the urgency of arguing for this legitimation with a call that the faculty of the university, or the membership of MLA, not address issues of “contention,” is to do nothing less than hand to some of the individuals you have listed—politicians, trustees, and administrators—effective control over the terms for the determination of the form and the content of intellectual life in the university. What is at stake is the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, but what is also at stake is the right of the faculty to determine the intellectual course of the university and the professional organizations of those of us who teach in them. In your desire to avoid “contention”—and what a special issue of contention you have chosen at once to avoid and take a position on, and in what a special way!—you withdraw from the faculty, and therefore from the university, its autonomy as a corporate body and as an academic, scholarly, and intellectual institution.

The MLA, if anything, is an institution about reading—and about very slow and close reading. If what we teach has no value in the political and social world—if it does not train students to read slowly, and in ways that allow them to learn that they need not privilege what is “clear” and “unified”—then what is the MLA for? And if we can train our students in this way—and I’ll share that I’m really nothing more than a translator and a student and teacher of poetry—perhaps they, our students, will be able to envision a commons—what the MLA Constitution calls a “common interest”—that no longer ties politics or ethics to the theological and political figures that you, in your letter, have affirmed.

With all best wishes,

Jeffrey Sacks


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