After voting down a resolution to boycott Israeli scholars and institutions, members of the Modern Language Association (MLA)—one of the most prestigious professional organizations in the humanities—overwhelmingly approved a ban last year on future boycott resolutions. But Judith Butler—a highly regarded philosopher and gender theorist who has praised Hamas and Hizballah as natural allies of the “global left”—is still trying to bring the organization around to BDS. Cary Nelson, an English professor and committed opponent of academic boycotts, describes attending a meeting of Butler and her supporters at the recent MLA conference, and their reaction to finding a dissenter in their midst:
Someone said, “You should leave” [after I identified myself], and Butler immediately proposed a vote to make that a group decision. Several others quickly supported her and repeated the demand for me to leave. Butler then asked me, “Will you honor a vote to tell you to leave?” Not answering her directly, I said that this was supposed to be an open public meeting. . . . Butler then concluded I was refusing to honor a vote demanding I leave, so they would just have to proceed as best they could. Honest discussion would be impossible with a Zionist present. . . .
She [then] declared that she had several ideas she had wanted to share about how to move the BDS agenda forward in the MLA, but felt it was not safe to do so with me in the room. . . . She urged people to contact her after the meeting and told them there would likely be funds to bring some of them out to Berkeley to consult with her.
Although half the hour was spent challenging and berating me, the core strategy Butler and the other senior member there, David Palumbo-Liu of Stanford, were using was nonetheless clear. . . . Unwilling to see themselves as a radical fringe group indulging in sour-grapes complaints, they were left with one way to explain their loss: as they asserted repeatedly this evening, they were cheated. . . .
What Butler and Palumbo-Liu managed to do this evening was to convince a group of young university faculty members and students that only a corrupt conspiracy could have defeated them in their effort to demonize the Jewish state. Their opponents were unethical and unscrupulous. At the end, Butler turned and pointed to me to conclude: “We need to overcome those who are dedicated to making the fight unfair.”