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Modern Language Association Moves to Reject Academic Boycott of Israel

PHILADELPHIA — A movement to pressure and isolate Israel was dealt a major setback on Saturday when the Modern Language Association, the United States’ largest scholarly group, took a step toward rejecting an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

After two hours of contentious debate and procedural jockeying at its annual meeting here, the group’s delegate assembly voted 113 to 79 against a resolution endorsing a boycott, which had cited what it called Israel’s “systematic denial” of the academic freedom and educational rights of Palestinians.

Instead, the delegate council voted 101 to 93 to support a parallel measure urging the association to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” on the grounds that it runs counter to the group’s mission of promoting teaching, research and scholarly exchange.

The anti-boycott measure will be submitted to the group’s nearly 24,000 members after review by its executive council. In 2014, a more limited censure of Israel lost among the broader membership, which failed to reach a quorum.

The vote was the latest skirmish in the continuing battle over the international movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or B.D.S. Since 2013, about a half-dozen American scholarly organizations have endorsed a boycott, including the American Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies. In June, the membership of the American Anthropological Association narrowly rejected a boycott.

The issue has prompted two years of debate within the Modern Language Association, pitting those who see it as an effort to hijack the group in service of an outside political agenda against those who see the defense of the vulnerable as integral to its mission.

The fairly close margin in the boycott vote was in sharp contrast to that of another resolution approved at the meeting — expressing alarm at what it called threats by President-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration to violate “core principles of democracy and academic freedom” and endorsing a postelection defense of academic freedom issued by the American Association of University Professors. That measure passed 104 to 8.

During the debate, Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University who proposed the measure, called it the liberal-leaning organization’s “least controversial resolution since 1995, when we voted to encourage people to floss daily.”

Despite the closeness of the vote on the boycott issue, Russell Berman, a professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University and one of the sponsors of the opposing measure, said the result was “definitive.”

“We now have a resolution that the M.L.A. shall not endorse the boycott,” said Mr. Berman, who was among 12 past presidents of the group who signed a letter opposing the boycott.

But David C. Lloyd, a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the sponsors of the pro-boycott resolution, said the effort had been productive, despite the defeat.

“Our goal isn’t just to pass resolutions, but to reach the public and move the public toward understanding the conditions under which Palestinians live,” he said. “I think we’ve succeeded in that.”

The M.L.A.’s departing president, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, has remained neutral during his term, but he said after the vote that he was “strongly opposed to all cultural boycotts.”

“Governments do terrible things all the time,” he said. “Our own government does terrible things. But that’s not a reason for people not to visit American institutions and talk to American scholars.”

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