US historians set to vote Saturday on anti-Israel resolution

After BDS-inspired activists failed to bring the American Historical Association to condemn Israel in 2015, they are trying again

Students at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah (YouTube screenshot)
Students at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah (YouTube screenshot)

WASHINGTON — For many Americans, the dawn of 2016 is a symbol of renewal and impetus for short-lived New Years resolutions. But for Historians Against the War, it offers a chance to renew its anti-Israel resolution at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting.

This year’s four-day gathering of the AHA — the largest and oldest organization of historians in America — will conclude with the presentation of a HAW-prepared petition calling for the group to “protect the right to education in the occupied Palestinian territories” by “monitoring Israeli actions.”

The resolution, which is similar to what HAW introduced at last year’s meeting, accuses Israel of obstructing the “universal access to higher education,” a principle delineated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Signed by 126 historians, the resolution condemns Israel for restricting freedom of movement for students and faculty in the West Bank and Gaza, restricting foreign academics from lecturing at Palestinian universities, preventing students from Gaza to pursue education abroad, and assaulting institutions of higher learning during the summer of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

Last year, HAW’s resolution failed on account of procedural blunders. The AHA constitution allows any member of the organization to propose a resolution at its annual business meeting, but it requires the resolution to be submitted in proper form by November 1 with 100 signatures — a deadline HAW did not meet.

This year, however, the group has filed its petition properly, and the vote is set to take place on Saturday, a cause for concern for Jeffrey Herf, a member of AHA and professor at the University of Maryland College Park.

“This is a scholarly organization, not a political organization,” he told The Times of Israel. “This resolution essentially wants the AHA to become an NGO.”

Jeffrey Herf (Courtesy)
Jeffrey Herf (Courtesy)

Herf insists that his colleagues, as historians, are not credentialed to make the determinations included in the text of the resolution: “These historians are all the sudden experts on how Israel treats Palestinian universities? Excuse me? You work on the Renaissance? You work on Asian history? Now you know all about Birzeit University and Israel’s security situation? That’s very interesting.”

Preparing for the 130th annual plenum, Herf asked the Israeli Embassy in Washington to address the assertions made in the resolution.

In a memo issued not for public consumption but exclusively for AHA members, the embassy denied that Israel restricts the freedom of movement for faculty, students and visitors in the West Bank as routine policy, denied that Israel restricts foreign academics from visiting Palestinian universities, and asserted that Israeli military forces enter Palestinian universities only when they deem it necessary for the sake of security. It also stated that, in 2014, the IDF bombed the Islamic University in Gaza because it was being used by Hamas to stockpile, test and fire rockets at Israeli population centers.

“As historians we have neither the knowledge nor expertise to evaluate conflicting factual assertions about events in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza,” Herf wrote in a letter to his colleagues opposing the upcoming vote, which included a copy of the embassy’s memo.

Herf’s argument holds little sway with the resolution’s signatories like Geoff Eley, the Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan, who rejects the notion he is unqualified to make authoritative assessments on the situation in the Middle East.

“What qualifies anybody?” he asked The Times of Israel. “You do the research and you make sure that the judgments that you’re formulating are well grounded in the evidence available to you. I am extremely widely read… I have a responsibility as a citizen of the world to keep myself informed, not the least because I have all sorts of connections to Israel personally and professionally.”

A matter of procedure

The substance of the resolution is not the only objection being expressed.

William Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School and author of the blog Legal Insurrection, argues that the nature of the resolution is in violation of the American Historical Association’s constitution.

“The constitution has a statement of purpose, and deciding to get involved in political matters is not one of those stated purposes,” he told The Times of Israel. “That becomes very significant if the matter goes to the Council, because that meets the standards on which the Council can veto it.”

According to the constitution, the statement of purpose is: “the promotion of historical studies through the encouragement of research, teaching and publication; the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts; the dissemination of historical records and information; the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public; and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history.”

“There is an argument that resolutions that go beyond the purpose of an organization can give a member of the organization a corporate law claim for exceeding the authority of the corporation by allowing that resolution to become binding on the organization,” Jacobson said.

Procedurally, if the resolution is passed in the business meeting, it then goes to the AHA Council, which then has three options — they can either veto it, approve it or send it to a full-membership vote, according to the AHA’s executive director James Grossman.

“Given the precedent and the generally democratic inclination of our Council, they are most likely to send any approved resolution to the membership for a vote,” Grossman told The Times of Israel. “That’s just my guess.”

Jacobson, however, contends that the provision requiring that “the AHA commits itself to monitoring Israeli actions restricting the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” is grounds for a veto.

Section Four of Article Seven of the AHA’s constitution states: “The Council may veto any measure adopted at the business meeting that it believes to be in violation of the Association’s constitution, the law, or financially or administratively infeasible.”

“Because the resolution imposes on AHA an obligation to monitor the situation, that’s important as it relates to the association’s Council, because it’s really not administratively feasible,” Jacobson said.

‘What this is attempting to do is take a limited-purpose, historical, academic and scholarly institution and turn it into a political player.’

When asked if the resolution oversteps the boundaries of the AHA’s constitutional framework and purpose, Eley maintained that it didn’t: “Any professional association of scholars has a reasonable responsibility – you can even say obligation – to make statements of principle that concern the integrity of academic institutions and access to them,” he said. “I don’t see that that’s a problem at all.”

“The resolution is above all a statement of principle,” he stressed. “You must surely understand that.”

‘This isn’t a BDS resolution, but it’s part of the BDS movement’

Founded in 2003, Historians Against the War emerged through opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq, when roughly 2,200 historians signed a petition opposing the oncoming military campaign that would oust Saddam Hussein from power. But as the group — which is independent of the AHA — has grown it has increasingly become a vehicle for pushing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) agenda, according to the law professor Jacobson.

“The interesting twist here is that it is technically not a boycott resolution,” he said. “But it is clearly part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”

Citing HAW’s public endorsement of the BDS campaign after the American Studies Association voted to embrace a boycott resolution in 2014 and the US Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s posting HAW’s resolution on its website, Jacobson argues their support for BDS is clear despite its attempts to “thread the needle” with AHA.

Supporters of a boycott against Israel protest in Melbourne, Australia, in 2010. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
File: Illustrative photo of protesters urging a boycott against Israel. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“They are very much a part of BDS movement, and depending on the organization being targeted, BDS tries different tactics,” he said. “Where they think it can pass a full BDS measure — like at the American Studies Association — they do that. They must not have the confidence that they would succeed in that extreme step at AHA, so they are doing what they did at the Modern Language Association: They scaled it back, so they can say they are not really doing anything here.”

In 2014, the MLA’s governing body passed a resolution calling on the US government to condemn Israel for arbitrarily denying US academics entry into Gaza and the West Bank, a proposal that failed when it went in front of the full membership.

If the resolution at AHA passes and goes before its full membership, Herf said he will present more reasoning for why it would be detrimental to the organization, like potentially losing its “tax exempt status” for engaging in political activity.

But now the challenge for him is to fight the resolution from advancing at the business meeting, which he worries will be an uphill climb; both he and Jacobson predict that HAW will be more organized this year and may disproportionately represent the voters at what is typically a “low-turnout” meeting.

“The way these business meetings go is most people don’t show up,” Jacobson said. “Most don’t even go to the annual meeting, and most who do go to the annual meeting don’t go to the business meeting. It comes on the last day, late in the afternoon, when a lot of people have already left town. So if you have an organized group of a couple of hundred people, they may be able to get this through the business meeting because they are the ones most motivated to show up.”

Meanwhile, Herf continues to email his colleagues and raise awareness about the looming vote. He will be flying to Atlanta, the location of this year’s meeting, to be present for what plays out.

Aside from his procedural and technical arguments opposing the resolution, he said the argument he believes to be most powerful has to do with preserving the intellectual integrity of the work of historians.

“Historians spend years in archives or at their desks trying to figure out whether something happened,” he said. “Resolutions like this are asking people to make a decision about whether something is true or false without the same level of scrutiny. As a historian, it’s really not possible to do that and retain your self-respect.”

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