06/11/2014 09:09 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2014

Criticism of Israeli Policies Toward Palestinians Grows

When one of the richest men in the world moves to dissociate himself from a company facing vocal public criticism for its support of Israeli state practices, it's a big deal. After a massive effort to get Bill Gates to account for his investments in G4S, a firm that has engaged in horrendous "security" activities in the Occupied Territories, and various announcements of Gates selling off bits and pieces of his G4S stock, Gates finally told the world he has sold the entirety of his holdings in that company.

This action can be credited to the work of countless groups and individuals who urged Gates to make this important gesture; hopefully other investors will follow suit. Kristian Davis Bailey and Josh Schott, two Stanford students who have been energetically involved in this and other efforts for justice in Israel-Palestine, received this communication from the Gates Foundation:

"Like other large foundations, the foundation trust evaluates its holdings regularly, both for performance and fit. As a result of this, the foundation trust no longer holds an investment in G4S. Best of luck in finals - and congratulations on your graduation."

This announcement is just the latest in a number of important victories for those critical of Israeli state practices.

The first half of 2014 has seen the Luxembourg State pension fund divest from companies doing business in the Occupied Territories; the city of Lisbon suspended its contract with Mekorot; the Wesleyan student fund barred investment in Israeli-occupation profiteers; Europe's largest teachers union endorsed the academic boycott of Israel; more than ten thousand students at the University of Florida-Tampa petitioned for divestment; students at both the University of California, Riverside and UC Santa Cruz voted for divestment, and students at Ireland's National University, Galway passed a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) resolution. Many other such resolutions and votes are in process around the world.

Activities in professional academic organizations in the United States continue to be strong. Following the decision in 2013 by the Association for Asian American Studies to support the BDS call for an academic boycott of Israel, and similar votes of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in 2013 and the American Studies Association in early 2014, the next academic association to consider censure of Israel was by far the largest group to have done so -- the Modern Language Association. The MLA boasts a membership that dwarfs all others -- it has about 30,000 members worldwide. Founded in 1883, the MLA is an international group of scholars, teachers, and students of literature.

At its January meeting in Chicago, two scholars, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University and Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan, presented a resolution to the MLA's Delegate Assembly. Resolution 2014-1 called on the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel's denials of entry to the Palestinian West Bank to United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities. As per MLA procedure, the resolution first had to pass the Delegate Assembly, which it did by a narrow margin. This made it possible for the resolution to be put before the entire membership.

Voting closed on June 2, after a long period of sometimes acrimonious discussion in public and on the website that served as a community bulletin board. Most of the criticism of the resolution was based on the charge that it was anti-Semitic (a common charge leveled at those critical of Israel state practices), that there was not enough evidence of such denials of entry, and that in any case the MLA as an academic organization had no business meddling in politics (which was countered by the fact that it has previously passed a number of "political" resolutions aimed at other states).

In terms of the argument that there was not enough evidence of denials, not only did the Resolution itself point to the U.S. State Department's website, which noted those denials, but also, at the State Department daily press briefing of April 18, spokesperson Jen Psaki stated flatly:

"The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State both remain concerned with reciprocal visa free - travel privileges for U.S. citizens due to the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans receive at Israel's borders and checkpoints. And reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program. That hasn't changed."

In the end, although the resolution gained the support of an overwhelming majority, 1500 of the 2500 votes cast, a recent constitutional amendment requires that any MLA resolution receive the endorsement of no less than 10 percent of the Association's members, which would have required around 2500 positive votes. As a result, the resolution did not pass.

While those against the resolution were quick to claim victory, knowing more about the aims and expectations of the sponsors helps cast the vote in a fuller light, and also indicates how the MLA members who are concerned about this issue might regroup.

Richard Ohmann noted:

I had co-sponsored two resolutions earlier on Palestine/Israel--one asking support for those teaching about Palestinian literature and culture (it passed) and one condemning Israel's destruction of educational facilities and damage to education at all levels in the Gaza massacre (it never got to the floor of the Delegate Assembly). I wanted this one to be directed at the U.S. government, since one of my arguments against an academic boycott had been that the U.S. was co-responsible with Israel for the occupation and much else, and that U.S. intellectuals had an obligation to protest our own government's acts. Several friends who have been to the West Bank confirmed my belief that denials of entry were a serious barrier to people (including U.S. citizens) traveling to Palestinian universities to teach, confer, etc.

Looking back at the final result of the voting, he added,

I thought the MLA vote was encouraging as to the views of MLA members. I did not expect the resolution to pass in the Delegate Assembly, nor to get a majority of voters in the ratification process, and certainly not to get "yeses" from 10% of the members. Given my low expectations, I was satisfied with the outcome; having the resolution become an official MLA position would in my view not have achieved much more.

Ohmann's co-sponsor, Bruce Robbins, had this to say:

The Right to Enter resolution was intended to address the systematic harassment that American academics encounter when they try to teach, lecture, or attend conferences in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. Each of us had heard many anecdotes of such harassment, especially from colleagues of Palestinian background and/or with Arab-sounding names, but when we did some research we found that this was happening on a large and easily verifiable scale. The fact that the US State Department has a warning on its website is one piece of evidence that the other side, which sunk to new lows in its attempts to discredit the many individual stories from administrators in Palestinian universities, never even tried to refute. Equally piquant is the fact that the Israeli government has recently offered to stop the harassment in return for preferential visa treatment for Israeli citizens--in effect, admitting to that which Israel's defenders claim does not happen.

The 60% of the vote that the resolution received has to count as a victory even though the resolution was not officially adopted. This is a higher percentage than any presidential candidate has gotten in recent memory. It's well known that most MLA members don't vote. In the previous year, a gun control resolution suffered the same fate--a majority of the votes cast, but not a high enough proportion of the total membership. I would guess that the proportion of MLA members outraged by shootings on American campuses and favoring gun control is quite high. It's interesting to think that the percentage that is similarly outraged by Israel's behavior is in the same range. In any case, the debate around the resolution clearly informed a great number of people who had not been following events in the Middle East closely, and many of those who are now better informed have also been inspired. There will be more resolutions like this one and more efforts to help American teachers spend time teaching, lecturing, and doing research in the Occupied Territories.