Day 3: Highlights of the Annual Meeting of the American Historical AssociationHistorians in the News
This picture tells the story of what happened today at the AHA. These are the historians who opposed two resolutions critical of Israel that activists wanted to bring up for a vote at the annual Business Meeting. They're smiling because just minutes before they had defeated the attempt in a surprisingly lopsided vote. The decision abruptly ended the activists' campaign to suspend the rules to allow a debate on the resolutions, which had been submitted after the established deadline of November 1. The vote was 51 in favor, 144 opposed, with 3 present but not voting (one of the three was me; to preserve my objectivity I haven't taken a stand on the issue).
In November the AHA rejected consideration of a petition to boycott Israel after it failed to attract a sufficient number of member signatures. And on Friday the AHA Council declined to put the resolutions on the official agenda. But heading into the vote the activists seemed to have the edge and the energy. Recently two other professional associations -- the Modern Language Association and the American Studies Association -- approved resolutions critical of Israel. On Saturday historians who turned out for a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians' Organization (MARHO) overwhelmingly supported the resolutions, putting opponents at the meeting on the defensive. The opponents worried that the activists were so well-organized that they'd pack today's meeting and carry the day. In anticipation of a large turnout the AHA at the last minute sent out a notice that it was moving the Business Meeting to the Hilton's Trianon Ballroom. Add on top of that the activists' shrewd decision not to back a boycott of Israel, which almost certainly would have alienated moderates as has happened at the other scholarly associations and that at least two AHA past presidents openly supported the resolutions, and it seemed self-evident that the activists had the advantage.
Some 200 historians pack the Trianon Ballroom
In the thirty minutes allotted to debate the motion to suspend the rules a along line of opponents lined up to be heard. That was the first indication this wasn't going to be a cakewalk for the activists. Many of the opponents spoke with passion. Rutgers' David Greenberg -- he's the smiling red head in the picture up top -- pleaded for the organization to take its time, saying that a rush to judge Israel guilty was bound to alienate members who had joined the AHA out of a commitment to the profession and not with a desire that it be used as a mouthpiece for other peoples' political agendas.
David Bell, who sits on the AHA Council, took a different tact. The activists claimed that allowing the resolutions to be debated and put up for a vote at the Business Meeting would merely give the membership of the entire organization an opportunity to cast a vote online. But Bell argued there was no guarantee the Council would refer the matter to the entire membership. While that had happened in 2007 when an anti-war resolution was approved that year at the Business Meeting, the Council could choose simply to accept the vote at the Business meeting and that wouldn't be democratic. Furthermore, he added, the attempt to underplay the importance of the Business Meeting vote was disingenuous; it would carry symbolic weight.
With equal fervor the activists insisted that all they wanted was the chance to debate the issue and wasn't that after all what historians do for a living. Sandi Cooper said if we can't as an organization debate this issue it would be a betrayal of everything she taught her students over her 55 year career.
On and on it went, as in rapid succession nineteen historians stepped forward to weigh in on the debate. Then it was time for the vote. Usually at Business Meetings votes are taken by a show of hands. Today it was by secret ballot. As the historians voted Jim Grossman called out, "One more reminder. I spent twenty-six years in Chicago. You can vote only once," which brought the room to laughter. At 6:15pm the vote was announced.
But the news that the activists had lost was immediately followed up with a surprise announcement. Outgoing president Jan Goldstein disclosed that at the Council meeting the other day her successor, Vicki Ruiz, had decided she would devote half of her presidential sessions at the next AHA to the Israel-Palestine controversy. That's three sessions out of six. Ruiz reportedly indicated that she hoped the program committee would decide to devote even more sessions to the conflict. That raised the hackles of several members, one of whom cried out, What about Ukraine and other places? -- reflecting the belief of many Jews that Israel is often unfairly singled out for criticism.
But when Ruiz suddenly appeared on the dais for the previously scheduled hand-off of authority from Jan Goldstein, she got thunderous applause.
In a sign that historians have finally taken to social media the AHA disclosed that some 2,300 people have downloaded its handy convention app.
As we reported the other day, thousands of tweets have been generated over the course of the convention. Many historians who couldn't attend today's Business Meeting followed the tweets of Tenured Radical (aka: Claire Potter) moment by moment to find out what was happening in real time, though she only got her computer connection to the Hilton wifi to work at the last minute, following the tried and true strategy: when your computer doesn't work, shut it down and restart!
By reading her tweets you can feel the energy in the room:
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