Op-Ed: Moral Narcissism and the MLA’s Obsession with Israel
The moral narcissist’s reasoning may defective, ahistorical, counter-intuitive, or just wrong, but he still feels good about himself.
Characterized by the same paroxysms of self-righteousness as were evident in the much-maligned and tendentious academic boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA) last month, members of the Modern Language Association (MLA) head to Chicago during the first week of January for the organization’s 129th convention.
This year’s conference promises more intellectual acting out, given that the MLA’s Radical Caucus has proposed a resolution that will call on the U.S. State Department “to contest Israel's 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.”
Why the focus on Israel by these scholars of the English language and humanities? Because, as presiding officer Samer M. Ali smugly put it, the “question that [attendees] will be debating is not whether Israel is violating the rights of Palestinians, but what to do about it.”
As a result of an obsessive reverence for the purported victims of Israeli policies, one panel planned for the MLA meeting has drawn considerable attention, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine,” which, as the MLA website put it, “addresses the political movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, seen by its defenders as a viable means to end the Palestinian occupation.”
The fulminations against Israel expected from this panel are not surprising given the MLA’s ideological history, nor is the fact that its members have collectively already determined that this panel will be a monologue of vitriol aimed at the Jewish state, not an academic debate, and that there is one oppressor, Israel, and one victim, the Palestinian Arabs.
When it comes to Israel, even academics, people who have chosen as their life’s work scholarly discussion and open inquiry, are perfectly willing to vitiate what the academy is supposed to represent and abandon even the pretense of honest debate.
The rectitude of the MLA academics pushing for condemnations of Israel manifests itself as what Boston University professor Richard Landes has termed “moral narcissism,” the tendency of members of the well-meaning, intellectual elite to align with causes and ideological positions which are based, not on the actual viability or justice of a cause, but on how the moral narcissist feels about him- or herself by committing to a particular cause or movement.
“A moral narcissist,” observed legal commentator Jay B. Gaskill, “lives in a self-approval bubble shared by other moral narcissists who collectively have agreed that their cocoon of mutually agreed moral gestures and self congratulations [sic] will constitute a perfect and sufficient engagement with an imperfect world.”
The moral narcissist’s reasoning may defective, ahistorical, counter-intuitive, or just wrong, but he still feels good about himself. But in this worldview there can be only one enemy of justice, and Israel is that enemy.
One wonders why, in asking the U.S. State Department to monitor and report on instances in which U.S. scholars are denied access to Palestinian Authority schools in the 'West Bank' and Gaza by Israel, the MLA’s resolution limited the request only to instances in which students and faculty are denied access to educational institutions as a result of Israeli policy?
Would not the self-anointed guardians of academic freedom and unrestrained academic debate be concerned with similar injustices plaguing other nations surrounding the one country, Israel, where they have now focused their moral opprobrium?
The MLA is silent, for example, about the situation in Egypt where universities in November reversed their policy of preventing police from entering campuses to suppress student protests. A Cairo University student was shot in the head and killed by police one week later; at Al-Azhar University twelve students were sentenced to 17-year terms for a campus takeover, thirty-eight students were sentenced to jail terms for protests, and another student was killed in his dorm by police.
No MLA resolutions were forthcoming when bomb blasts decimated the campus of Aleppo University in Syria during exam week, killing 82 and wounding 192 in the explosions.
The MLA resolution also apparently does not request that the State Department monitor other instances where students are denied access to their schools, such as the September 2013 incident when security forces of the genocidal thugocracy of Hamas beat up and dispersed some 200 Palestinian students attempting to enter Egypt and travel to their universities through the Rafah crossing.
One might expect that the MLA would also be concerned with women’s rights in the Middle East, given members like Berkeley’s feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, who notoriously delivered a paper at a past MLA conference entitled, “The Lesbian Phallus: Or, Does Heterosexuality Exist?,” and who more recently, and almost surreally, commented that it is important to view “Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.”
And, finally, if MLA members are so concerned with education and Israel, and the side effects of social strife, perhaps they should also ask for State Department reports on the unrelenting rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza into southern Israeli towns, such as Sderot, where over 43 percent of middle school students suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of prolonged shelling of civilian neighborhoods and schools since the 2005 disengagement.
Of course, the MLA’s Radical Caucus is silent on all of these obstacles to education and the free exchange of ideas, both in Israel, the 'West Bank' and Gaza, and the wider world of Israel’s neighbors.
It is easy to demonize Israel, and certainly it requires no bravery in academia, where moral narcissists console each other in an echo chamber of good intentions, willing to sacrifice academic integrity, true scholarship, and vigorous, honest debate in the process.
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, author of Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews, is President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.