On January 4, 2015, at the Business Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York, the members in attendance voted 144 to 51 against further consideration of resolutions denouncing Israel. The resolutions had been introduced by the Historians Against the War (HAW), the same group I discussed for TAI Online here.
In an essay for Legal Insurrection, I offered an account of the events leading up to the meeting of January 4 and an explanation of why the HAW group endured the most decisive defeat experienced to this point by a group of activists seeking to use academic institutions to pass anti-Israeli resolutions. (Conversely, it has been the most striking victory of those of us seeking to push back against these efforts.) What should be learned from the events at the AHA?
The first, and in my view the most important, takeaway is that the majority of historians gathered in New York appeared to grasp the absurdity of reaching conclusions “as historians” about facts in dispute about the Gaza War. The HAW resolutions claimed that Israel had intentionally attacked an oral history archive at the Islamic University in Gaza and “arbitrarily” blocked foreign scholars from entering Gaza and the West Bank and Palestinians from leaving for educational purposes. With assistance from the Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari and information from the Israeli Embassy in Washington, I reported to colleagues that the reason Israel targeted Islamic University was that rockets were being built and fired from its campus, and that the charges about travel restrictions were baseless. (For details see my essay for Legal Insurrection.) If the substance of the resolutions themselves had come up for discussion, the historians in New York would have had to choose between claims made by the government of Israel and those made by Hamas, which had been repeated by the HAW group. We don’t know if they would have placed more confidence in the assertions of an anti-Semitic, Islamist terrorist organization than in the statements of the government of Israel.
In the event, they did not have to make this choice, as the membership voted against considering the resolutions. The connection between procedural issues and historical scholarship was crucial to the outcome. The AHA Council had rejected an earlier resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli universities and, as punishment for Israel’s alleged destruction of the archives at Islamic University and impediments to Palestinians seeking education, granting Palestinians the right of return. Both of these measures, the Council argued, were beyond the purview of the American Historical Association. The resolutions at stake at the January 4 meeting repeated the accusations about a supposed Israeli attack on the archives at the Islamic University and about travel restrictions, but they eliminated the demand for a right of return and a boycott.
The deadline for submitting resolutions for the Business Meeting was November 1, but HAW did not submit the second set until December 22—nearly two months after the deadline. In order to discuss these, either the Council would have had to bypass its own bylaws or two-thirds of the members at the Business Meeting would have had to vote to suspend the rules. As Professor Sonya Michel of the University of Maryland, College Park, pointed out to the AHA Council before the meeting and again in New York, the purpose of the deadline for submitting resolutions was to give members sufficient time to consider them. HAW was, in effect, asking an organization of historians to reach conclusions about events surrounded in controversy without adequate time for study and discussion. The historians in New York refused to rush to judgment. Without time for careful evaluation of evidence, the only criteria for assessing such resolutions would have been political, not scholarly ones.
In a secret ballot one cannot know why such an overwhelming majority of the historians present voted as they did. Several colleagues wrote to me expressing their opposition to various Israeli policies; some went so far as to call Israel a nationalist anachronism. Yet they voted against the HAW resolutions. They can speak for themselves, but my hunch is that the decisive factor was their self-respect as scholars. I told my colleagues in New York that these resolutions were asking historians to act like non-historians. Accustomed as we are to spending hundreds of hours working on thousands of documents to ascertain what actually happened in the past, it was absurd for us to presume that as historians we could determine where a bomb fell in Gaza or what the details of a particular travel entry issue were. Presumably, members realized that they should not be railroaded into reaching decisions about important resolutions on the basis of political opinions rather than the norms of scholarship. As one colleague put it succinctly, the American Historical Association does not and should not have a foreign policy. It is, in other words, a scholarly not a political organization. The HAW resolutions were an effort to collapse the distinction between scholarship and politics.
The humanities and social sciences in American universities lean overwhelmingly toward liberalism; conservatives are few and far between. HAW, however, is not a group of liberals but of radical leftists. It radicalism and the identity of its members are apparent from its website. The radical left has enjoyed, to use one of its own favorite terms, hegemony in certain quarters of the universities since the 1960s. It is a hegemony that has benefitted from the reluctance of liberals to criticize the radical left and to direct all criticism instead at conservatives. HAW’s train wreck in New York came as a shock because this standard formula for success for many decades came unraveled. Famous historians who had denounced American imperialism and the sins of Israel even the day before at a panel organized by the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization sat mute as historians of several generations insisted on following proper procedures. Perhaps decades of winning easily had dulled their ability to confront inconvenient arguments and factual assertions. Meanwhile mid-career historians risked their own futures by speaking eloquently about the divisiveness and fear these resolutions would send throughout the profession.
HAW will no doubt figure out how to correct its tactical blunders of fall 2014. Willing to devote seemingly endless amounts of time, its activists may continue trying to hijack the AHA and other academic organizations for their own ends. Yet, as was the case last year in the Modern Language Association, there is opposition to these efforts. It is not politically uniform but it is united in making a distinction between politics and scholarship, in opposing the use of academic organizations for political purposes and thus also against the effort to use academic credentials to attack Israel. It now has its own email lists and well-developed arguments. It spans the spectrum from center right to center left. Two mid-career historians, David Greenberg of Rutgers University and Sharon Musher, of Stockton College in New Jersey showed particular courage and energy in convincing historians, particularly those with criticisms of Israeli policies, to oppose these resolution. An Alliance for Academic Freedom of scholars with generally left of center views on the Middle East conflict has emerged to oppose boycotts and anti-Israeli resolutions in several academic disciplines. The opposition to BDS and to the attacks on Israel in universities has learned how to appeal to scholars’ professional self-respect. In the American Historical Association, the days are past in which the logic of collective action makes it possible for an organized minority to defeat an unorganized or silent majority.
Policymakers in Washington should take note: those who shout the loudest about the alleged sins of the state of Israel were unable to convince their fellow scholars to abandon the rigorous demands of scholarship in the face of appeals to political passions. The objectively pro-Hamas left that emerged this past August failed to achieve its goals in New York in January. The radical left in the academy is not invincible. Indeed, its size and power may be exaggerated both by its advocates and critics. The outcome in New York had everything to do with upholding the difference between political and scholarly organizations. We can put it another way that readers of this magazine will understand: the American Historical Association in 2015 did not behave as the steamroller anti-Israeli majority did in the United Nations General Assembly in the 1970s and 1980s, passing one biased denunciation of Israel after another. In New York on January 4, those kinds of gestures ran up against a wall of scholarly integrity.