Yet Again: The American Historical Association Rejects a Resolution Denouncing Israel

Historians in the News
tags: Israel, BDS, AHA2016

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland. His book, Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. This article first appeared at his blog on the website of The Times of Israel.

Related Link HNN's Coverage of the AHA Resolution on Israel

On Saturday, January 9th, 2016 members of the American Historical Association meeting in Atlanta at the organization’s Business Meeting voted 111 to 50 to reject a resolution denouncing Israeli policies towards Palestinian universities in Gaza and the West Bank. The resolution was proposed by the “Historians Against the War” (HAW), the same group of leftist historians that had proposed an Israel boycott resolution a year ago. In New York, some grounds for defeat of that resolution lay in HAW’s failure to follow proper procedure.

As other American scholarly associations have passed resolutions calling for a boycott or criticizing Israel, the resounding defeat of such resolutions two years in a row in the AHA is both important and in need of explanation. It is important because it breaks what appeared to be the growing momentum of the BDS campaign. Allegations of Israeli violations of human rights of the Palestinians and rhetoric about Zionism as colonialism and racism that had proven so successful since the 1970s in the United Nations and among NGO’s claiming to stand for human rights met with failure when confronted with the skeptical gaze of historians trained to weigh evidence with care.

This past fall, the HAW group submitted its resolution on time and gathered sufficient member signatures to place it on the agenda. Perhaps in order to gain more votes in its favor, the HAW resolution in 2016 stopped short of a call for a boycott of Israeli universities. Rather it repeated accusations that have become familiar in the international BDS movement about Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinian universities on the West Bank and Gaza. In place of a boycott, it called for the AHA to serve as a monitor to oversee and presumably correct Israeli policies towards Palestinian universities. The resolution alleged that Israel violated the rights of Palestinian faculty and students to “pursue their education and research freely,” restricted “freedom of movement, including denial of entry of foreign nationals,” and engaged in “physical attacks on Palestinian educational institutions.” As a result, it urged that “the AHA commits itself to monitoring Israeli actions restricting the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” The resolution was posted on the website of the AHA in November 2015.

The causes of this second, resounding defeat of the anti-Israeli resolution lay in the shortcomings of the resolution as well as in the effectiveness of the opposition to it.

Part of the reason for their defeat lay in the hubris fostered by decades of easy victories at the UN or in academic associations that had already been taken over by the radical left. The denunciation of Israel as a colonial and racist state had been successful in non-scholarly arenas of Western intellectual and political life since the 1960s. Yet the standards of evaluation of the American Historical Association are those of professional historians, not those of diplomats in the UN General Assembly, partisan NGOs claiming to defend human rights and other academic organizations which the radical left had managed to control.

One reason for opposition to these resolutions lay in a general opposition to the politicization of a scholarly organization. Historians join the AHA for professional, not political reasons. Were the organization to adopt political positions, those who disagree would still be associated with views they reject. Young scholars, in particular, would feel pressured to tailor their views to what appeared to be an organizational stance. In a complex and free society such as the United States, historians as citizens have numerous opportunities to express political views either individually or in organizations outside the academic associations. Opponents argued that as historians, however, we cannot bring to bear the deep research and careful weighing of evidence on political resolutions about contemporary events that as individuals we are expected to offer in our research and writing. To suggest otherwise would also imply an absurdity, namely that the AHA should have a foreign policy. Further, if the AHA as an organization were to be hijacked by a political group or tendency, the credibility of the American historical profession would be shattered in the eyes of many students, faculty, alumni and the general public. Doing so could also lend legitimacy to a slow motion purge of the discipline of those who did not agree. Given the focus on Israel, it could inaugurate an era of renewed discrimination against Jews who did not share these denunciations of Israel.

Yet as an organization of historians, some of us felt compelled to address the factual accuracy of the accusations contained in the resolution. We argued that it was essential that a profession devoted to seeking the truth about the past should devote careful attention to fact and evidence. Historians could not possibly support a resolution based on false, distorted or ahistorical assertions. As HAW had made an indictment, I sought out the views of the defendant, the government of Israel. I asked officials at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC to respond to this and other kinds of resolutions. The Embassy did so in a statement of December 18, 2015, I posted it at the website of the AHA on January 2, 2016, a week before the AHA Business Meeting. The link to my summary and to the entire very important statement is here.

I wrote that “it is fair to insist that where there is an indictment, we must pay attention to the case for the defense.” It too had a right to be heard and to have its arguments and evidence carefully and fairly taken into consideration. The Washington Embassy memo asserted 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 included stunning figures about the remarkable growth of the Palestinian universities on the West Bank and Gaza. “The number of undergraduates in the last ten years at Palestinian universities doubled form 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.” I added that  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.

With the posting of the statement from the Israeli Embassy in Washington and my summary of it on the AHA website, AHA members now had sufficient evidence to establish reasonable doubt about the truth of the accusations being made and repeated by the HAW members. Faced with facts in dispute, the only reason for a historian qua historian to vote for the HAW resolution was to make a political not a scholarly decision in favor of one set of factual assertions as opposed to another. To support the resolution would amount to accepting the case for the prosecution while ignoring the case for the defense, something that would violate the professional standards of historians trained to examine evidence from a variety of sources.

The efforts of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, a group of self-described liberals and progressives opposed to the BDS campaign was of great importance. At the Atlanta meeting itself, the debate about the resolution began with five minute statements in favor and in opposition to the resolution followed by two minute statements for and against. Professor Sharon Musher, of Stockton University in New Jersey made the opening statement in opposition. She had worked with David Greenberg at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick and with other members of the Executive Committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF). On January 7, 2017, two days before the Business Meeting, Musher posted a statement composed by the AAF at the AHA member online site by the AAF group. Here is the link to that statement.

The AAF statement informed AHA members that “HAW’s resolution is driven by its leadership’s commitment to a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel, which HAW endorsed more than a year and a half ago and has been working to promote since …Endorsing this resolution represents a first step toward BDS for the AHA.” It described the HAW resolution as “factually flawed to such an extent that it cannot credibly serve as a basis for the AHA to act.” It includes a document (found here) that described “many of these errors, omissions, and distortions that render the resolution unfit as a basis for action by the AHA.” (emphasis in the original). Musher and her co-author Greenberg also stressed the way Israel was being singled out.

Even though the world’s leading human rights organizations agree that other countries have worse records on issues relating to access to education. The Scholars at Risk Network compiles violations around the world, only a tiny fraction of which concern Israel (The AHA is an institutional member of the Scholars at Risk Network.). This additional document (found here) describes a range of academic freedom violations around the world, calling into question why one country alone should be monitored by the AHA.

In the AAF text “A Flawed Resolution: Errors, Misrepresentations, and Omissions in the Resolution Before the AHA,” the authors included detailed discussions of entry to and from Gaza, and challenged the HAW assertions about Israel’s supposed “routine” invasions of Palestinian university campuses. The wrote that the resolution ignored “evidence that runs contrary to its claims” and pointed to evidence confirming Hamas’ use of Islamic University campus in Gaza in firing rockets at Israel I the war of 2014.

The AAF statement also noted the ahistorical aspect of the HAW resolution. Historians seek to place events in a context in time and place. The AAF authors described part of the obvious historical context of Israeli policies towards Palestinian universities as follows:

After the breakdown of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the rise of suicide bombers and other terrorist threats to civilians led Israel to introduce measures to protect its population. The resolution does not mention this vital historical context. Nor does it mention that Hamas, which has governed Gaza for ten years, has a hostile relationship with not only Israel but also Egypt. Its borders are not the equivalent of those between friendly countries and cannot be viewed as such.

For historians these were crucial arguments. No historian can ignore the call to place an event into a temporal causal sequence. To do otherwise is to think in an ahistorical manner and to take events out of a context of time and place. That, according to the AAF criticism, was exactly what the HAW historians were doing.

In Atlanta, Professor Ilan Troen of Brandeis University, President of the Association of Israel Studies and formerly director of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel at Sde Boker, Israel, stressed the plurality of views within Israeli scholarly life and drew attention the many Arab students who study at Israeli universities.

Others criticized the singling out of Israel, pointed to violations of academic freedom in other countries around the world and among Arab states, and noted that in the Middle East there was more plurality of views than in other countries in the Middle East. Several other opponents asked if this preoccupation with Israel reflected darker sentiments about the Jews yet while the issue of antisemitism lurked in the background, it was not a key theme of the debate in Atlanta. In his statement posted on the AHA members’ online forum on January 4, 2016, Robert Zaller, Distinguished University Professor of Drexel University in Philadelphia wrote “vilifications of Israel or discriminatory actions directed against it in international forums have been a commonplace for half a century. They are well understood as a code word for anti-Semitism, and the present resolution bears the same stamp.”

The response from supporters of the resolution revealed that they were indeed part of a political project that seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel. They admitted to singling out Israel, but denied that this had anything to do with antisemitism. Rather, they did so because they opposed colonialism and racism everywhere, thus indicating that they viewed Israel as a colonial and racist state. They appealed to the “moral responsibility of intellectuals” to “oppose injustice,” thus assuming that Israel perpetrated injustices and deserved moral condemnation. They assumed what remained to be proven. One of the younger faculty members supporting the HAW resolution revealed his limited understanding of the role of professional organizations when he blurted out that he wanted the AHA to be a progressive but not a conservative organization. He dug himself into a deeper hole when he asked why we shouldn’t support a resolution that reflected what he taught in his classes. In short, faced with a combined assault on the factual accuracy of their accusations, the resolution’s advocates made an abysmally poor case for themselves. It was one that could only convince those who agreed with them on political grounds. One interesting aspect of the debate that did not pass unnoticed was that some of the more well-known historians who had signed the HAW resolution declined to speak up in front of their peers at the Business Meeting.

In defeating the HAW resolutions twice, in New York in 2015 and in Atlanta in 2016, the members of the AHA at its Business Meetings have themselves made history. We who take pride in defeating these resolutions view the votes in New York and Atlanta as a defense of the discipline of history, moments when scholars asserted that facts are indeed stubborn things and that the American Historical Association is not the circus that the UN General Assembly has become whenever the issue of Israel comes up. Other academic organizations may refuse to follow our lead and may support the wretched texts filled with distortions about Israel. Yet if they do so, many historians will conclude that their standards of evidence and verification are not as rigorous as ours and that their scholarly claims about other, unrelated matters should therefore be taken with a large grain of salt. But at least for now, at least for this year, the most important organization of historians in the United States has opted to defend the best traditions of our profession and our discipline. The votes in New York and Atlanta were not only votes against the unfairness and biases of the BDS campaign. They were also the voices of historians proud of their craft and determined to defend its finest traditions. I hope our fellow scholars in other disciplines follow our lead and stand up against efforts to misuse and hijack scholarly organizations in order to attack the state of Israel.

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