Fighters in MLA oppose Gaza Genocide

03 February 2024 258 hits

Martin Luther King’s call to civil rights action, “the fierce urgency of now,” animated political action on Gaza at the January 2024 convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA). The MLA Radical Caucus—including core organizers from the Progressive Labor Party (PLP)—felt it was absolutely necessary to act in the MLA, the largest professional organization of academics in the humanities. But we could not call for a ceasefire and an end to the Gaza genocide, as comrades and friends had just successfully done at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (Democracy Now, Nov. 20, 2023).   

Why? Because the MLA has made it very difficult to pass any resolution critical of Israel and its U.S. support.  They stifled a 2017 resolution for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel), for instance. This repression of dissent shows how liberal officials, in a pre-fascist period, are preparing the ground for fascism in the universities. Barnard College, for example, has banned ALL political posters on campus (New York Times, 1/24).

Organizing against fascist attacks on students and workers

So we brought an emergency motion for the MLA Executive Council to call on university administrators to defend pro-Palestinian campus organizers from attack by politicians, pro-Israel rightist, and universities themselves.  Recent attacks, including the sacking of the Harvard and Penn presidents for not being sufficiently pro-Israel, made this idea appeal to the vast majority of MLA delegates.
On January 6, by a margin of 12-1, they passed the Radical Caucus motion. The delegates spoke up for international solidarity, against the silence and complicity the ruling class would like to normalize among faculty and students. We will pressure the MLA Executive Council to act on the motion at their February meeting.

Our action unfolded in a somber atmosphere as Gaza was being reduced to rubble with every passing day. We did not know what response we would get; MLA administrators were discouraging from the start; our core group was small. But we had reached out earlier to some of the MLA Forums (sub-fields in which MLA members organize themselves, like Arab and Arab-American Studies, Global Francophone Studies, or Caribbean Studies). Leaders from the  thirteen forums who signed on to the Radical Caucus motion swelled our numbers and joined in planning the campaign. We were gathering momentum! We also picked up support from members of the Marxist Literary Group, where PLP has a presence.

At the Open Hearing on motions, to which our flyers and conversations had drawn a hundred people, our new friends quickly took the lead in speaking for the motion. Palestinian colleagues described death threats they had received for speaking out. Black radical members drew parallels between the colonialist cruelty of the Israeli Defence Forces and the racism of American police. Others pointed to the need for particular defense of pro-Palestinian free speech, the need not to hide behind the slogan of academic freedom for all, which one speaker compared to the slogan “All Lives Matter.” By the end of that meeting we thought we might have the momentum we needed, and it seems the MLA officials realized the same thing. They didn’t block our motion and put it in a good place on the agenda for the Delegate Assembly the next day.

That night 16 people crowded into a hotel room for the Radical Caucus annual meeting. By now, after our success at the Open Hearing, we were getting to know one another and gaining confidence. That afternoon we attended a Palestinian poetry of resistance reading organized by a younger group of organizers, MLA for Palestine, fresh from the street rallies in support of Gaza. The poetry brought the Palestinian resistance right there into our convention hotel, and we took that spirit into the night planning meeting.

Solidarity with workers in Gaza
During the meeting we discussed a PLP flyer, urging the need for the Party so that struggles like this could lead to revolution. One long-time Radical Caucus member said he agreed one hundred percent with that even though he was not a Party member. Someone we’d just met said that our Party had gained legitimacy in this action and we could build on that. We spoke of the imperialist context of Gaza, the communist critique of nationalism in the liberation struggle, the problems of united fronts.

Then we came down to tactics for the next day’s Delegate Assembly. A veteran union leader pulled out Roberts' Rules of Order manual so we would be up to speed about parliamentary procedure, necessary in these fights, and we lined up speakers and talking points. Palestinian, Jewish, Afro-descended, Indo-Caribbean, Euro-descended, in our twenties or in our eighties, mainly women-led: we were ready to stand together for workers in Gaza.

At the Assembly, speaker after speaker for the motion took the floor. Some we knew, like the chair of a union academic freedom committee, but most were new to us, like the speaker from African-American Studies who urged solidarity between freedom struggles in the Middle East and North America. In the back of the room, we had brought fifty supporters who were MLA members but not delegates, and five of us were able to speak before the final vote. Working against the MLA’s repressive limits, we had won a small, significant victory for international solidarity.

How did this help resistance, or even survival, in Gaza? Indirectly, it may give a little more protection here to advocates of an end to genocide, colonial occupation and capitalist exploitation in Palestine. More directly, we learned that press outlets in Gaza itself reported the MLA vote as a welcome sign of solidarity, giving them some moral support. Our solidarity is in line with the Jan. 18 ceasefire demonstration in Tel Aviv by Jewish and Arab Israelis in the Standing Together group (Haaretz, 1/18).  A letter to Jewish ceasefire campaigners around the world from the One Democratic State Initiative signed by 14, 432 Palestinians, responds to this international solidarity:  “Amidst this stillness, your voices, your cries…have moved our hearts.”  Though reform-oriented, actions like these revive the (minority) tradition of Arab-Jewish working-class solidarity in historic Palestine.

Bringing revolutionary politics to MLA caucuses
When “now” is so clearly a becoming-fascist moment in the capitalist state (U.S., Israel, Ukraine, India…), the urgency of global anti-fascist resistance must strike every communist and leftist. Gaza, like Ukraine, is a foretaste of global war and fascism. Workers in Palestine fighting and trying to survive Israeli fascism need to feel that they are not alone. The Radical Caucus is not a single-issue organization like the BDS campaign; we took this on as part of working-class liberation everywhere, as indeed the best forces in the movement have always understood the call for Palestinian liberation: “From Palestine to Mexico—All the walls have got to go!” For communists, there is more: our urgency is to build not just an anti-fascist resistance, but a revolutionary movement to strike at the roots of 21st-century fascism and war, the rule of capital. Let Gaza resistance and our solidarity with it be a beginning!