MLA Members Petition Executive Committee

After approximately four hours of debate during their annual convention this month in Chicago, members of the Modern Language Association’s delegate assembly completed the first stage in enacting a resolution calling on the State Department to chastise Israel for denying entry permits to U.S. academics invited to Palestinian universities in the West Bank.

The resolution now goes to the academic association’s executive committee for review before a full vote by the MLA membership.

The MLA resolution is rooted in, but not directly connected to, language in last month’s American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel that prompted the presidents of more than 100 academic institutions to publish public statements rejecting the boycott and hundreds of individual academics to come out in favor of it.

Sangeeta Ray, professor of English and comparative literature at University of Maryland, College Park and an MLA member since 1987, attended part of the debate that was held the Saturday afternoon of the conference.

“I’ve seen secondhand the harassment my colleagues have been receiving, like hate mail for supporting the boycott,” said Ray. “And the president of Indiana University revoked ASA membership without even talking to the faculty.”

As a result of the alleged harassment claims, a petition urges the MLA executive committee “to issue a statement against acts of retaliation, intimidation [and] coercion aimed at students, faculty [and] academic organizations because of their political opinions and/
or activism.”

Slightly more than 400 MLA members have signed the petition; it requires 500 signatures before the executive committee can consider the motion. David Palumbo-Liu, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University, authored the petition through the online site change.org. An active proponent of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, he blogs for The Boston Review, The Huffington Post and Al Jazeera America.

Green Loan Project Makes Sustainability Attainable For Jewish Nonprofits

012414_briefsLocal organizations have benefited substantially from a part of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Sustainability Initiative, reaping thousands of dollars in interest-free loans for greening their facilities.

Administered since 2011 by The Associated and sponsor FJC Security Services, a donor-advised fund in New York, the Green Loan Project is designed to help organizations save energy and reduce their operational costs. To date, Beth Israel Congregation, Talmudical Academy, Torah Institute, the JCC and CHANA have taken advantage of the loans. Originally capped at $100,000, in recent months The Associated was able to secure additional funding to increase the amount available for loans to $300,000.

“The Green Loan Project was an opportunity to take financing off the table for organizations that want to do the right thing for sustainability,” said Mark Smolarz, chief operating and financial officer for The Associated. “It used to be that CFOs didn’t want to be green because of concerns about the other kind of green. But now CFOs want to be green because it is good for the environment and for the bottom line. With financing available at zero percent, it’s really a no-brainer.”

Smolarz reported that most of the organizations that have received loans from the project have used the money to update their lighting systems. Now that more funding is available, Smolarz said that organizations will be able to use the loans to complete more ambitious projects such as updating HVAC systems. “The return on investments from these projects has been less than two years,” said Smolarz. “It’s a super program, and a lot of people are benefiting from it.”

Organizations interested in learning more about the Green Loan Project should contact Aleeza Oshry, manager of the sustainability initiative at 410-843-7423 or aoshry@associated.org.

O’Malley Proposes FY 2015 Budget

Gov. O’Malley (Kirsten Beckerman)

Gov. O’Malley (Kirsten Beckerman)

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced his 2015 budget last week, promising not to raise taxes while trying to close the structural deficit that has plagued the state for almost a decade.

“This fiscally responsible budget builds on the tremendous progress we’ve made as a state, strengthening our economy by supporting 48,000 jobs, protecting our No. 1-in-the-nation schools with record investments in education and upgrading our transportation infrastructure with modern investments,” O’Malley said in a statement.

The 2015 budget also would provide for $4.3 million in new funding to expand pre-kindergarten programs in the state, an initiative the administration has identified as a priority in the 2014 legislative session.

The budget includes $20.3 million earmarked for the state’s correctional facilities, the focus of negative attention after scandal rocked the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013. Some of that money will go toward 100 additional correctional officers.

Another budget beneficiary is cybersecurity and other tech businesses. If adopted, the Cyber Tax Credit would increase by 33 percent to $4 million. A 12.5 percent increase to the Research and Development Tax Credit brings it to $9 million, and the Biotech Tax Credit will increase by 20 percent to $12 million.

Health continues to be the largest state expenditure, accounting for 28 percent of the state’s spending. Elementary and secondary education receive the second-most assistance, taking up 20 percent of the state’s total expenditures.

At 9 percent and 10 percent respectively, health and transportation expenditures increased the most dramatically between the 2014 and 2015 budgets. The building of the Red and Purple transit lines will demand a $4.4 billion increase in transportation funding over the course of the next six years.

“It’s a continuing socially progressive budget,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, adding that he supports the proposal.

In addition to supporting issues the council backs, such as raising the minimum wage and cracking down on domestic violence and elder abuse, the governor has proposed a budget that also promotes programs important to the Jewish community, such as $1 million in funds for the expansion and renovation of UMD’s Hillel building and $2.5 headed to Sinai Hospital.

“He’s supported our interest in the University of Maryland Hillel, and he’s supporting Sinai Hospital, the first line of defense for certain emergencies,” said Abramson.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

The Health Exchange Problem

012414_Brown_gansler_brownIn addition to fueling Republican fire, the problems with the launch of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, Maryland’s Affordable Care Act portal, have also provided ammunition for fellow Democrats looking to defeat Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in June’s gubernatorial primary.

“At this point he’s got to take responsibility,” said Jolene Ivey (D-47), who is running for lieutenant governor on Attorney General Doug Gansler’s 2014 ticket, at a Jan. 13 news conference held at the Gansler-Ivey campaign headquarters in Silver Spring.

Gansler has been at the forefront of the attacks, most recently holding a news conference last week where he and Ivey called on Brown to shoulder the brunt of the blame for the glitch-plagued launch.

Citing a recent Washington Post article that revealed many officials behind the launch were aware that the site might not be capable of handling the opening, Gansler and Ivey criticized the state’s choice of an out-of-state contractor to work on the site. They also called for an account of how the $170 million in additional federal funds were spent, funds that were provided for the state tobecome an early example of success.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler, among other candidates, in a June Democratic primary. (Provided)

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler, among other candidates, in a June Democratic primary. (Provided)

“In order to fix the problem, we have to know how this happened,” said Gansler.

Later in the week, Brown testified before the Senate Finance Committee in support of emergency legislation that would provide retroactive coverage to Marylanders who tried but were unable to register for a plan in time to be covered by Jan. 1.

Facing intense questioning from both sides of the aisle, Brown reiterated his statement that he was not aware of any real signs of trouble that would indicate the site was not ready to launch before the Oct. 1 deadline.

“In retrospect, if I knew nine months ago what I’ve learned since the launch, I would have insisted on receiving the underlying documentation that should have [supported] but didn’t support those reports,” he told the committee.

Brown and others involved in the exchange heard from many senators who expressed their disappointment in the Maryland site. From accusations of “malpractice” to labeling the launch a “colossal failure,” the four-hour meet-ing was only the beginning of the legislature’s look into the handling of the launch.

Despite the criticism, Brown has kept health care listed on his campaign website under his “Real Results” tab, where the page says he, along with Gov. Martin O’Malley, “led the nation in implementing the Affordable Care Act.”

Irwin Morris, professor of American politics and chair of the government and politics department at the University of Maryland, said odds are the issue won’t likely dog Brown into June.

“The primary’s a good ways away,” said Morris. “Maintaining an issue like that for that sort of time period is pretty difficult if, as I would expect, the issues related to the rollout and the website become less significant and more people are able to sign up.”

While criticizing the rollout’s technical glitches is fair game for a Democrat in a state as blue as Maryland, putting a lot of effort into using the problems with the launch against Brown probably won’t pay off for any Democratic challengers, he predicted.

“Everyone admits there were issues,” he said. “If you invest a lot in [the Maryland Health Exchange launch] issue, what do you do when, as time goes on, it’s not a significant issue for the public? Do you want to base your campaign on an issue that may be a nonissue when the primaries are actually held?”

Despite the recent criticism, Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, said Brown remains the frontrunner.

“He has all the assets,” said Crenson, noting that in addition to the major endorsements Brown and runningmate Ken Ulman have collected over the past months, the campaign also surpassed the Gansler-Ivey campaign in funding in 2013, with more than $7 million on-hand as of Jan. 8.

Fellow democratic candidate Heather Mizeur, who has been at the center of a lot of health-care reform efforts, is in a good position to criticize Brown and the rollout, said Crenson. However, statements released by her campaign have not directly targeted Brown or anyone else by name but rather focused on the broader issues and fixes.

But regardless of how any contenders use the situation, said Crenson, “if the problems are fixed soon, people will forget.”

Brown will face Gansler, Mizeur, Charles U. Smith and Ralph Jaffe in the June 24 Democratic primary. The general election will take place Nov. 4.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Under The Radar In Jewish Baltimore

[slideshow id=”FEINSTEIN”]

“Under The Radar” is an occasional feature that highlights the diverse cross section of Jewish Baltimore.

Dr. Stacey Feinstein says working in an emergency department is fast-paced but requires a “cool head.” (Melissa Gerr)

Dr. Stacey Feinstein says working in an emergency department is fast-paced but requires a “cool head.” (Melissa Gerr)

Less than an hour into her 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at Medstar Union Memorial Hospital’s emergency department, Dr. Stacey Feinstein saw a young man complaining of chest pains, a middle-aged woman known for continuous drinking and repeated trips to ERs with ensuing health issues and a man suffering from post-surgery complications with a large open chest wound. A Jehovah’s Witness, the patient’s religion does not allow acceptance of blood products, thus preventing him from receiving a needed transfusion when his blood count dropped too low.

A wound VAC, or vacuum-assisted closure, had been installed to aid healing; when his blood count reached an acceptable level, the wound could be closed.

“Taking the gauze away, you could see his heart beating under the muscle,” said Feinstein upon returning from the patient’s room to an area that appeared to be the department’s central nervous system. The large common area, accessible from all directions, was filled with the sounds and activity generated by many computers, phones, doctors, nurses and administrative staff. Clearly a communication hub, doctors there continually input information about patients and discuss situations with other staff.

Typically three doctors treat patients during a shift, along with many nurses and support staff. On this particular day, a red alert signaled there were no available critical care beds or cardiac monitoring devices; patients needing those services were redirected to other facilities.

Even with the incessant sounds of monitors beeping, phones ringing and intercom calls overhead, a sense of calm pervaded the department.

“People have this image that everyone’s running around, people are throwing things, everybody’s sweating and cutting people open,” said Feinstein. “You need cool heads to prevail in the emergency department, because you have to think through things, you have to say, ‘What am I going to do next? What just happened and what do I need to do to fix it? Or, what did I do to change what was going on?’ And so you need to be a more laid-back, calm, cool, collected sort of person.”

Feinstein knew her whole life that she wanted to be a doctor.

“And then as a sophomore in high school I took chemistry and hated it, so at the ripe old age of 15, I decided that I couldn’t be a doctor because I hated chemistry,” she said with a laugh.

Fast forward several years and a string of accomplishments: Feinstein completed an M.B.A. and was in a good sales job. Still, she knew her heart wasn’t in it. Her desire to become a doctor resurfaced. She wasn’t tied down to anyone or anything, so she consulted her sister and her parents and received their support.

“I figured rather than 20 years down the road thinking what if, I’m just going to go ahead and do it,” she said.

She completed the post-baccalaureate chemistry and science courses she skipped the first time around and at age 30 entered medical school in New York; she completed residency and rotations in her native New Jersey. She knew early that she was interested in emergency department work and was drawn to Baltimore to be closer to her sister and other family members. At 39, she got her first job out of medical school at Union Memorial, where she’s been since 2009.

“I just like the pace of it, you’re not treating the same thing day in and day out,” said Feinstein.  “You have to know a little bit about a lot of things. You’re not just treating diabetes, you’re not just treating high blood pressure — you’re not just treating someone’s cardiac problems (for example). When they come into your office you have to treat everything.  I just like the pace of that.”

Dr. Masha Rand has worked with Feinstein for just over two years. She noted it’s not that common to find an atmosphere in medicine that allows the combination of personal female friendship as well as professional collegiality.

“But there are a lot of female physicians here in the ER, so the atmosphere is professional and very female friendly,” said Rand. Regarding working with Feinstein, she said, “I feel comfortable talking to her about my patients and bouncing off those ideas, but we can also talk about babies and hair salons, and it feels really comfortable.”

For Feinstein, difficulty comes in other facets of her job; she’s not only a doctor, but for any given patient she also serves as a kind of investigator/ social worker/secretary. When patients don’t know their medical or surgical history or the medications they’re taking, Feinstein’s job is to find out. The hardest part, though, comes in telling family members that a loved one has died.

Through it all, Feinstein feels she made the right choice in becoming a doctor.

“I love what I do,” she affirmed. “I never wake up and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work today.’ I’m so glad I did it, that I changed careers, because I did wake up mornings in business saying, ‘Oh, I have to go to work!’”

Feinstein and her husband, Bob Vogelsang, a veterinarian for the military, live in Reisterstown. Their daughter, Hazel Rose, was born in April 2013.

“I think it’s a good role model for her too,” Feinstein said of her daughter, “to see someone who loves their job and doesn’t just do it because they have to.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Bevins To Lead County Council

011714_bevins_cathyBaltimore County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins (D-6) will be the 2014 council chairperson, making her the third female to lead the council.

The council voted unanimously on Monday, Jan. 6 to confirm Bevins as the chair.

“I am humbled by the trust and confidence that my fellow council members have expressed by selecting me to serve as chair,” Bevins said in a statement. “I am honored to serve the wonderful citizens of Baltimore County, and I will do my best to provide meaningful representation and continue the tradition of fiscally responsible oversight in my role as council chair.”

Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-2) served as chair of the council this term in 2012. The first female chair was former Councilwoman Barbara Bachur in 1983.

Bevins, a Democrat who lives in Oliver Beach, previously worked as former County Executive Jim Smith’s constituent services coordinator for the county’s East side. She represents the county on the legislative committee of the Maryland Association of Counties.

She replaces Councilman Tom Quirk (D-1), the council’s 2013 chair.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Opposition Leader Offers Safety Net

011714_herzog_isaac

Isaac Herzog
(Issam Rimawi/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Since he became head of Israel’s Labor Party in November, Isaac Herzog has positioned himself as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s safety net. If Netanyahu comes home with a peace deal with the Palestinians and his right wing bolts, Herzog likely will come to the prime minister’s aid.

And as the leader of Israel’s opposition, Herzog is in the wings to replace Netanyahu if the prime minister’s government falls.

Speaking from Israel during a Jan. 9 conference call sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, Herzog, 53, said he met with Secretary of State John Kerry during Kerry’s recent Mideast swing.

“He [Kerry] is finding ways of getting the parties closer,” Herzog said, adding in the vague terms that have surrounded exactly what the secretary is trying to achieve, “there will be an agreement or understanding in the next few weeks.”

Herzog said he wants to restore political balance that was lost by the decline of the Labor Party and the growth of the Israeli right.

“My goal is to lead a major center-left bloc,” Herzog said, “a bloc that will be an alternative to the right.” He said his bloc would include the following: Tzipi Livni, whose party has six Knesset seats and is in Net-anyahu’s coalition; the small Kadima faction; and the disaffected voters who flocked to Yair Lapid’s insurgent Yesh Atid Party in the last election.

Herzog’s predecessor, Shelly Yachimovich, had run on a platform stressing social justice, but she de-emphasized the peace process as an issue. Herzog said that both are not only part of his agenda, but also intertwined.

“We are a social democratic party,” he said. “Social and economic issues cannot be separated from reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Social justice should not end at the roadblocks” on the West Bank.

Several times during the conference call he rejected any speculation about a Plan B should Kerry’s diplomatic effort fail to produce an agreement that Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will sign.

“You have to be locked into a process with no alternatives,” he said. “Not only does Netanyahu need to understand, but Abbas also has to understand that he can’t play around on an alternative route if he doesn’t accept the deal that’s on the table. If there’s a vacuum, there’s violence.”

On opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, he said “there’s no light between me and the prime minister. We all identify the danger of Iran.”

He noted that “almost two months have gone by” since the West and Iran signed an interim agreement on the nuclear program. The agreement, set to last six months, has yet to be implemented. “I am bothered by the procrastination of the agreement,” he said.

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com

A Changing Commute

011714_changing_commuteIt pays to drive. At least it pays more than taking public transit.

With the start of 2014 came the expiration of the credit allowing public transit commuters to claim up to $245 a month as tax exempt. While public transportation users were watching their maximum credit fall to just $130 per month, the credit for those who drive to work rose an additional $5, to a maximum $250 exemption for parking each month.

The credit for drivers is a permanent part of the tax code, but the benefit for public transit commuters is renewed on a year-to-year basis.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Suzanne Cowperthwaite, who has been commuting to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital on the Baltimore Metro Subway since August.

Cowperthwaite said she enjoys the Metro commute more than driving a personal car into the city every day. “It’s just much more convenient,” she said, adding that she spends the 30-minute trip reading — something out of the question for commuters who choose to drive.

Frustration is widespread among many public transit advocacy groups, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based community advocacy organization.

“It’s an extremely misguided budgetary and policy decision by Congress,” said Schwartz, adding that the credit for those who drive to work only adds insult to injury. “The obvious result is that you will end up with a lot more driving and traffic and pollution.”

In addition to the potential environmental costs of providing more incentive for commuters to drive rather than ride mass transit to work, Schwartz also said allowing the credit to expire sends a negative message to the people and urban centers that rely on mass transit.

“It certainly sends the message that [those who commute via public transportation] are not considered equal to those who drive to work,” he said. “It may reflect a misunderstanding of the needs of the metropolitan and urban areas of the country by many members of Congress.”

In the D.C.-Baltimore area, where a weekday average of more than 1.5 million people ride mass transit, buses cover more than 400 routes, and trains cover another 10, in addition to Amtrak lines that extend into other regions of the country.

“The two regions couldn’t function without their robust transit systems,” said Schwartz. “Having the alternative of transit is what keeps this economic region viable and competitive, so it is particularly harmful to the economic competitiveness of this unified region.”

For commuters in the D.C.-Baltimore area, monthly passes can cost anywhere from $64 (Baltimore Metro Subway, Light Rail and local buses) to $250 (MARC pass from Aberdeen to Washington).

“Commuters who use public transportation, and especially those with the longer commutes by rail, bus or van pools, may see their annual commuting cost increase to $1,380 a year based on a bias in the tax code that eliminates the parity between public transportation and auto users,” said American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy in a statement released by the organization.

Monsey Trails operates buses in the New York City area and specializes in commuter bus services that transport passengers to and from New York City, Rockland County and Brooklyn for work.

“We’re not concerned about it,” said Monsey Trails’ David Stern of the expiration of the tax credit.

Stern said that the high cost of tolls around the New York area keeps public transit viable: “People need to get to work. They will take public transit.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Israeli Bureaucrat Decides Who Can Marry in the Jewish State

Itamar Tubul, head of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s personal status  division, decides which American  rabbis are qualified to vouch for the Jewishness of Israeli immigrants.

Itamar Tubul, head of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division, decides which American rabbis are qualified to vouch for the Jewishness of Israeli immigrants.

To be married in Israel, immigrants must prove their Jewish ancestry to the country’s Chief Rabbinate.

Couples can solicit a letter from their hometown rabbis or present their parents’ Jewish marriage contracts. Sometimes they even bring a Yiddish-speaking grandmother before a rabbinical court.

In the end, every claim has to pass through one man: a mid-level bureaucrat named Itamar Tubul.

Tubul, 35, is the soft-spoken rabbi who heads the Chief Rabbinate’s personal status division — a job that places him at the center of a brewing crisis between the Chief Rabbinate and the American modern Orthodox community.

American Rabbi Avi Weiss had a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an Israeli immigrant couple rejected by the country’s Chief Rabbinate. (Photos from JTA)

American Rabbi Avi Weiss had a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an Israeli immigrant couple rejected by the country’s Chief Rabbinate.
(Photos from JTA)

In October, Tubul rejected a proof-of-Judaism letter from Avi Weiss, a liberal Orthodox rabbi. The move sparked widespread outrage that Weiss, a longtime synagogue leader in New York who had vouched for the Jewishness of many Israeli immigrants in the past, was suddenly having his reliability called into question.

Tubul rejected the letter from Weiss after two members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the modern Orthodox rabbinic organization of which Weiss is a longstanding member, questioned Weiss’ commitment to Jewish law.

“They said there were problems with his worldview,” said Tubul. “His system raised doubts regarding his non-deviation from what is accepted in matters of proof of Judaism and personal status.”

The Chief Rabbinate said it is considering whether it can trust Weiss, who has pioneered a number of controversial innovations in the Orthodox world, most recently with his decision to “ordain” women as spiritual leaders through a new religious seminary called Yeshivat Maharat. Critics contend the process for evaluating American rabbis lacks transparency and objective standards.

To make his recommendations, Tubul relies on a network of personal contacts. His first step is to confer with judges on nine U.S. rabbinical courts approved by the Chief Rabbinate. If the judges don’t know the rabbi in question or doubt his credentials, they refer Tubul to local colleagues.

After soliciting their recommendations, Tubul accepts or rejects the letter.

“There aren’t enough checks and balances in the system,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an Israeli organization that guides couples through the Chief Rabbinate’s bureaucracy. “This is all capricious. It’s all who they happen to know. That’s not a way to run a state.”

Tubul, however, said that he corresponds with at least three rabbis regarding every American letter he investigates and never rejects a letter based solely on an initial negative recommendation.

“We check every possibility to complete the puzzle,” he stated. “If someone says you can’t trust [a letter], we don’t reject it. Sometimes there are interested parties that we don’t want to deal with, so we investigate further.”

In the wake of the Weiss decision, the Chief Rabbinate entered negotiations to give the RCA more say in the evaluation process. According to a draft agreement obtained by JTA, the rabbinate will consult with the RCA on every questionable letter before making a decision.

In addition, the RCA would provide the rabbinate with a list of rabbis accredited to give proofs of Judaism, marriage and divorce.

“For the Chief Rabbinate to rely more formally on the RCA for approval of these letters is a question of helping the process along,” said Rabbi Marc Dratch, the council’s executive vice president. “Cooperation will help both sides be able to serve more appropriately and prevent the kind of embarrassment that exists from time to time.”

The RCA does not have the power to override Tubul’s decisions. Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Maor said that the RCA will be a partner in the process, but final authority will still rest with Tubul.

Nothing in the draft precludes individuals within the RCA from conveying their concerns about particular rabbis directly to the Chief Rabbinate. And while Dratch said that the organization stands by Weiss’ authority to vouch for Jewishness, he acknowledged that most of the group’s members do not support the various innovations by Weiss.

“A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that,” said Dratch. “Our goal is to be able to support the rabbis of the RCA, to be able to make sure that their letters are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate’s office.”

It’s unclear whether the reforms being developed will satisfy the Chief Rabbinate’s critics, Weiss included. His lawyer in Israel, Assaf Ben-melech, said that further formalizing the process could end up creating unnecessary bureaucracy.

Better, Benmelech said, for the Chief Rabbinate to simply take a wider view of who counts as Orthodox.

“When you have a known rabbi who knows Jewish law, he should be trustworthy,” he said. “To place formal boundaries is stupid. It’s all about personal trust.”

MLA Delegates Condemn Israel

011714_mla

Cary Nelson, a Modern Language Association (MLA) member and University of Illinois professor, spoke on a panel across the street from the MLA convention on academic freedom in Israel. The panel was arranged as an alternative to an MLA convention session that included supporters but no opponents of the BDS movement against Israel.
(Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons)

CHICAGO — The Modern Language Association (MLA) delegate committee on Saturday passed Resolution 2014-1, which condemns Israel for denying entry to U.S. academics into the West Bank, in a 60-53 vote. The MLA executive committee will now need to approve the resolution before it goes to a vote among MLA members.

The original text of the resolution condemned Israel for “arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer or do research at Palestinian universities,” but the words “Gaza” and “arbitrary” were removed before the vote.

A day earlier, an MLA caucus introduced an Emergency Resolution in Support of the American Studies Association, which had already voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. The MLA delegate assembly declined to consider that resolution Saturday. Three-quarters of MLA convention delegates needed to approve the resolution before it could be debated and voted on, and only 41 percent did. The issue, however, may be referred to the executive committee for consideration.

Both votes come in the wake of the MLA’s much-anticipated “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” round table on Jan. 9 as part of its 2014 convention in Chicago. MLA members expressed their opposition to academic boycotts of Israel during an alternative session offsite the same day.

“The MLA supports the right of its members to organize sessions on topics of interest to the profession and to propose resolutions addressing issues of professional concern,” Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA said in an email.

The official convention panel on Jan. 9, which JNS.org could not attend after being denied a press credential by MLA to cover the convention, featured supporters but no opponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

“In our view the BDS panel should never have been accepted in the first place. It was accepted under the pretext of opening up discussion when it, in fact, doesn’t do that,” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. After being denied an MLA convention meeting room to present an alternative session to the BDS round table, Hillel International and ICC organized a panel on academic freedom in Israel across the street from the convention.

Supporting materials to the MLA resolution from the Campaign for the Right to Enter Occupied Palestinian Territory allege that Palestinian universities and departments are unable to engage quality staff due to entry restrictions by Israel. In 2009, Rima Merriman, an American citizen of Palestinian descent, reported being denied re-entry to Palestinian-controlled territory and was unable to resume her post at the Arab American University-Jenin. She said that through the help of an attorney, the U.S. Consulate and several independent organizations, she was eventually able to re-enter. Several similar cases were cited in the resolution’s supporting materials.

But a report issued by MLA members opposing the convention’s Resolution 2014-1 states that in 2012, only 142 Americans were denied entry to Israel and the disputed territories out of 626,000 who wanted to enter, a refusal rate of about 0.023 percent. The U.S. restricts entry to its own borders at a much higher rate — 5.4 percent in 2012 for Israeli applications for “B” visas, as reported by both the Israeli embassy in the U.S. and the U.S. State Department.

“The chance of an Israeli wanting to come to America and being refused by the American authorities for getting a visa is 200 times greater than that of an American trying to enter Israel,” said Ilan Troen, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. Troen was a panelist on the alternative session organized by Hillel and ICC.

The opposing report also notes that for approval, MLA resolutions must be accompanied by “material that provides evidence in support of the [resolution’s] claims,” according to the MLA constitution. In fact, before the language on Gaza was removed, Resolution 2014-1’s supporting documents and the cases mentioned by the documents did not include any examples of a failed re-entry to Gaza but rather only of failed re-entries to the West Bank. The resolution also did not mention that Gaza since 2006 has been under the control of Hamas, not under Israeli control.

The official MLA session’s panel on Jan. 9 included BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti and University of Texas professor Barbara Jane Harlow, who has stated her support for the ASA boycott of Israel. The panel also included University of Southern California professor David Lloyd, a well-known BDS activist, and Wesleyan University professor Richard Ohmann, who signed a 2009 letter that described Israeli treatment of Palestinians as “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.”