Day 2: Highlights of the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association

Historians in the News
tags: AHA2015

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. 

Related Link:  HNN's coverage of the AHA convention:  Videos, News, Everything

Should historians take a stand on controversial issues in the news? That was the question taken up on Saturday afternoon at a packed room of more than a hundred historians who turned out for a roundtable discussion convened to discuss this question:  "What is the Responsibility of Historians Regarding the Israel/Palestine Conflict?"  The roundtable was hastily assembled in recent months after activists decided to petition the AHA to approve two anti-Israel resolutions. 

The panel, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians' Organization (MARHO), an affiliate of the AHA, was composed of scholars who favor the resolutions.  But while the panel was one-sided the audience wasn't. As the afternoon proceeded several historians, including Rutgers' David Greenberg, stood up to object.  They argued that it would be imprudent and provocative for the AHA to approve resolutions critical of Israel.  A flier passed out by a group calling itself, "Historians Against Academic Boycotts," made the case that "academic boycotts that target particular groups of scholars on the grounds that they may be implicated in the actions of their governments nevertheless restrict all of us." Another group opposing the resolutions, the Alliance for Academic Freedom, issued a statement posted on HNN

Supporters of the resolutions, sponsored by Historians Against War (HAW), admitted that many of their members wanted to support a boycott but the group as a whole decided against it for tactical reasons, according to HAW's Van Gosse.  The two resolutions HAW wants the AHA to approve specifically do not mention boycotts.  (A petition expressly backing a boycott was proposed by Elizabeth Bishop in the Fall; it was rejected for consideration by the AHA in November after officials discovered it lacked the requisite support of at least fifty members.)

Two past presidents of the AHA -- Barbara Weinstein, a member of the panel, and Natalie Davis, who was in the audience  -- said they support the resolutions.  The other members of the panel included Hofstra's Carolyn "Rusty" Eisenberg, NYU's Linda Gordon, Stanford's Joel Beinin, and Rice University postdoctorate fellow, Leena Dallasheh. Both Beinin and Dallasheh said the issue's personal for them.  (Remember the feminist cry that the personal is political?) Beinin disclosed that close family members have lived in Israel for forty years.  Dallasheh is Palestinian.

As you can see for yourself, things became heated the longer the meeting went on.  It lasted over two hours.

As if it wasn't controversial enough to take on an issue like Israel, the Radical Historians took a few minutes to blast the Pentagon for its multi-million dollar commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War.  But this issue, which once seriously divided the AHA, no longer does. 

Across the hall from the Radical Historians' meeting there was another featuring Eric Foner, Michael Kazin, Julian Zelizer, Joseph Peniel, and Claire Potter.  Guess what they talked about?  "Being a Public Intellectual:  Historians and the Public."  (CSPAN filmed it so you can see what they had to say.)

Are you beginning to see a theme?  But wait, there's more!  Earlier in the day there was the panel chaired by Thomas Bender, "Historians as Public Intellectuals in Comparative National Context."  HNN's got clips from that panel.  Click here to watch Bender and here to watch the University' of New Hampshire's Ellen Fitzpatrick.  Below is the video of Columbia's fascinating polymath, Partha Chatterjee, who, we were informed, began as a political scientist, currently does anthropology, frequently writes on historical subjects, and in his spare time writes novels.  

In the evening more than 400 historians turned out to hear the presidential address of Jan Goldstein.  It will appear in the American Historical Review in February and will be available for viewing on the website of the AHA.  It's too nuanced a piece to summarize in a few sentences.  The subject was 19th century racism and how it was framed by leading French intellectuals such as Tocqueville, Gobineau and Raynal.  If you've read David Brion Davis's monumental history of slavery,  you'll know Gobineau and Raynal.  If you haven't heard of Tocqueville you should turn in your membership card.

Earlier in the day we caught up with George Mason University's Jack Censer, who is known around HNN as the website's godfather.  He and the late Roy Rosenzweig are responsible for HNN's establishment at Mason some fourteen years ago. 

This morning Jack, a former dean, was on a panel of historians who have served as college and university administrators.  Did you know that historians are far over-represented?  No one's sure why, but the panel members hazarded a guess that it was because historians are comfortable dealing with ambiguity.  Or, as someone in the audience commented, it might simply be that you're far likelier to make a better salary as an administrator than as a historian.

The panel grappled with the question on the minds of many at the convention:  the dramatic decline in the number of students majoring in history.  Most members on the panel weren't worried.  Jack is, as you can hear here:

Good night.

comments powered by Disqus