American Historical Association rejects anti-Israel resolutions vote

Members decline by a vote of 144 to 54 to debate proposals critical of the Jewish state

A panel at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Historical Association (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
A panel at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Historical Association (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Anti-Israel resolutions presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association were not voted on after members rejected a vote to suspend the group’s bylaws.

The resolutions were submitted to the American Historical Association, or AHA, by the independent group Historians Against the War. However, business meeting agenda items were supposed to be submitted by November 1 to allow members time to plan to attend the annual meeting. The anti-Israel resolutions were submitted on December 22, and did not appear on the business meeting agenda.

The three-day annual meeting opened on January 2 in New York City.

In a vote Sunday night, members of the AHA declined by a vote of 144 to 54 to suspend the bylaw on when the resolutions could be submitted, in order to allow the Historians Against the War (HAW) to present the resolutions.

One resolution accused Israel of violating academic freedom, saying Israel “arbitrarily limits the entry of foreign nationals who seek to lecture, teach and attend conferences at Palestinian universities, denying both faculty and students the rich experience enjoyed by their peers at Israeli universities and other universities around the world,” and calls on the US State Department to “honor the academic freedom of US citizens by contesting Israel’s denials of US academics who have been invited to teach, confer or do research at Palestinian universities.”

Another resolution calls on the AHA to condemn the “acts of violence and intimidation by the State of Israel against Palestinian researchers and their archival collections, acts which can destroy the Palestinians’ sense of historical identity as well as the historical record itself,” as well as other alleged violations of academic freedom. It also accuses Israel of bombing the Islamic University in Gaza in August.

A resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel was rejected in November 2014 after it was found to be beyond matters “of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.”

Jan Goldstein, outgoing AHA president and a professor of history at the University of Chicago, told the meeting that several leadership-sponsored sessions for the 2016 annual meeting have already been reserved for discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict and related concerns about academic freedom, according to Inside Higher Education.

The resolutions prepared by HAW reflected a new direction for anti-Israel activism: condemnations of Israel’s policies and behaviors that stop short of calls to boycott, divest from, or sanction the state or Israeli institutions.

This new approach comes after 2014’s high-profile American Studies Association academic boycott vote and the subsequent fizzling of academic and professional organizations’ enforcement of new academic boycott rules — as Israeli academics participated in its conference.

HAW is independent of the AHA, and membership in HAW is determined by signing an online statement declaring that the member is “opposed to wars of aggression, military occupations of foreign lands, and imperial efforts by the United States and other powerful nations to dominate the internal life of other countries.”

As of 2009, the organization claimed almost 3,000 members when it changed its mission statement, calling on members to re-sign. HAW’s membership is not, however, restricted to members in standing of the AHA.

University of Maryland Professor Jeffrey Herf wrote a letter to AHA President Jan Goldstein in which he complained that the resolutions were not backed up by evidence, and that their acceptance would degrade the AHA’s status.

“Whatever one’s opinions about the Middle East conflict, it is vital that historians pay careful attention to the facts and that we not pass resolutions based on assertions whose veracity cannot be evaluated by AHA members,” Herf wrote.

In his letter, which has been distributed to AHA committee members in advance of the anticipated vote, Herf cited responses from Ehud Yaari, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 TV and research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Yaari cited Israeli defense sources who said that the Israel Defense Forces had targeted a research and development facility on the Islamic University campus that was important for designing and producing rocket components, and thus constituted a legitimate military target. Yaari also denied that Israel “arbitrarily” restricts free travel of academics, but rather acts within the parameters of security considerations.

“AHA members should be aware of the limits of our knowledge and expertise about recent events and decline to allow our professional organization to be hijacked for political purposes,” Herf cautioned in the letter.

“The reputation of the AHA as an organization of historians whose expertise lies in the careful assessment of evidence would be severely damaged both among those members who object to these resolutions and in the broader public sphere,” Herf warned.

“It would instead be correctly seen as an organization that places political opinions ahead of assiduous scholarship. It would send a chill especially to young scholars whose careers could be ended or damaged if they were to take a different view of these events,” said Herf.

In early November, a pro-BDS AHA member submitted a set of more explicit boycott resolutions to be considered at the AHA annual conference’s business meeting. AHA leadership rejected those resolutions, with AHA executive director Jim Grossman explaining in a message to members that “the petition failed to meet two of the requirements stated in the bylaws. An insufficient number of AHA members in good standing had signed the petition, and the resolution as written went beyond matters of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.”

HAW then submitted the new set of resolutions weeks after the deadline, but with well over the 50 signatories in good standing necessary for including the resolutions as part of the business meeting. In its blog, HAW noted that “we have met all the criteria for consideration, other than timeliness, since the official deadline was November 1,” but expressed hope that the resolutions would be put on the agenda when the AHA Council meets one day before the business meeting.

“If the Council does not take that action, which is certainly possible, we will move to suspend the rules so that our resolutions can be considered,” the organization promised.

Although Historians Against the War itself already voted to support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, it emphasized through its blog that neither resolution constitutes a call for an academic boycott of Israel. The entry noted that “some historians believe that one of our two resolutions calls for an academic boycott of Israel, and on that basis are calling on colleagues to attend the business meeting to oppose our resolutions, or a suspension of the rules to allow them to be considered.”

Acknowledging that such a call “is certainly their right, and we welcome an open debate,” HAW added that “it would facilitate such a conversation if the substance of our resolutions were addressed, rather than inaccurate reports.”

In his letter to the AHA president, Herf acknowledged that the resolutions “stop short of the now familiar BDS language about boycotting Israeli universities and adopting the PLO’s long standing support for a Palestinian ‘right of return’ that amounts to the destruction of the state of Israel.”

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