Why Historians Should Vote Down the Resolution Critical of Israel

Historians in the News
tags: Israel, BDS, AHA2016

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park.


AHA Business Meeting 2015


            The resolution to be discussed at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Historical Association essentially is an indictment of the policies of the government of Israel towards Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza. Many of us who oppose this and similar resolutions have done so because we believe that the AHA is a scholarly, not a political organization. Last year in New York, we successfully argued that as historians we have neither the knowledge nor expertise to evaluate conflicting factual assertions about events in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. These remain powerful reasons to vote against this resolution.


            Moreover, it is possible that what this resolution asserts about the policies of the government of Israel is not true. The standards of evaluation we use in this case should be comparable to those we demand of ourselves in our work as historians. It is fair to insist that where there is an indictment, we must pay attention to the case for the defense. It was for this reason that I asked Israeli Embassy in Washington to reply to the assertions made in the HAW resolution. On December 18, 2015 the Embassy sent its response.


            The Embassy memo asserts that Israel does not as a matter of routine policy restrict the movement of faculty, staff and visitors in the West Bank. To the extent to which movements are restricted or Israeli military forces enter Palestinian universities (as in Tul-karm), it is because “Palestinian universities periodically serve as sites of violence and incitement.”  “There are no restrictions on foreign academics teaching in the West Bank.” They are “free to enter, unless there are exceptional security concerns.”  Israel does not routinely refuse to allow students from Gaza to travel to pursue education abroad and at West Bank universities but permission may be restricted if members of Hamas seek to continue their activities in the West Bank. In the war of 2014, Israel bombed the Islamic University not because it was a university but because it was used by the terrorist organization Hamas to manufacture and fire rockets at Israeli civilians.


            The Embassy statement points out that the number of undergraduates in the last ten years at Palestinian universities doubled from 129,000 in 2005 to 209,000 in 2015, the number of graduate students in that period tripled from 14,000 to 36,800 and the faculty increased from 3,700 to 6,880. The Israeli government would not support this remarkable expansion if it were adopting the policies alleged in the HAW resolution. It also bears mentioning that almost all of the universities in the West Bank and Gaza were founded after 1967.


            AHA members do not need to accept the, in my view, plausible case that Israel presents in order to vote against this resolution.  All they need to do is acknowledge the limits of our ability as historians to reach a judgment about the facts in dispute.


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