On January 5, 2020, an estimated 25,000 people marched from lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge to raise their voices against anti-Semtism and hatred. We did so in the aftermath of the surge of violent attacks on Jews in and near New York City in recent weeks. On the same day, uptown at its annual meetings, members of the American Historical Association gathered, as they had in 2015 and again in 2016, to defeat by decisive margins resolutions denouncing Israel.
The same group that had proposed the previous resolutions in 2015 and 2016 again received enough member signatures to place it on the agenda of the AHA’s Business Meeting. But yet again the members present defeated two resolutions denouncing Israel’s policies regarding travel restrictions and the state of academic freedom. The vote against the resolutions was 81-40 against, with one abstention, on the travel issue, and 61-36 against, with three abstentions, on the academic freedom resolution.
This is the third time that the AHA Business Meeting has voted on resolutions denouncing Israel. In a fourth effort, similar resolutions did not come up for a vote at the Business Meeting. On all four occasions, the resolutions denouncing Israel were introduced by a group calling itself “Historians Against War” (HAW), which in 2014 supported an academic boycott of Israel, and which renamed itself “Historians for Peace and Democracy” (HPAD). This year the opposition to these resolutions was led by a group entitled Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), which defines itself as representing members who are “progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.”
In the discussion of this year’s resolutions, there were no new arguments or assertions of fact that had not been presented in previous discussions. One important difference, however, was that the resolutions denouncing Israel were refuted even more thoroughly than on past occasions. Two members of the AAF, Professor David Greenberg of the history department at Rutgers University and Professor Sharon Musher of Stockton University played a decisive role in distributing carefully prepared factual rebuttals to the accusations made in the resolutions. Professor Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia University, also an AAF member, did so as well. These impressive, well-researched texts included one offering a detailed rebuttal of “Two Flawed Resolutions,” a second on “Academic Freedom Worldwide,” and a third summarizing the arguments why the AHA should not adopt the resolutions. Cary Nelson’s valuable study, Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism and the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State, also contributed to the detailed and careful rebuttal of claims common to such resolutions. Though not a member of AAF, I joined those urging colleagues to attend the meeting and to oppose the resolutions. We were among those who used a two-minute time limit to make the case for or against the resolutions. Two prominent historians spoke in favor of the resolutions denouncing Israel: Professor Joan Scott, now emerita from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; and Professor Barbara Weinstein, member of the New York University department of history, who is a past president of the AHA.
As in 2015 and 2016, AHA members, including a past president and several other former officers of the organization, stressed that, as the AHA is a scholarly, not political, organization, it does not and should not have a foreign policy. These speakers pointed out that there are numerous other organizations in which members of the AHA are free to participate as citizens to express their views about Israel. Several speakers rejected what they saw as an effort to attempt to misuse the professional prestige of this organization for political purposes. As this was the fourth time that the HAW/HPAD had brought up resolutions denouncing Israel, those of us opposed to the resolutions saw their repeated introduction as part of the larger BDS campaign, the goal of which was not only to criticize specific Israeli policies but to do so as part of an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel in order to bring about its demise.
In view of the HAW/HPAD determination to bring these resolutions to a vote despite the compelling evidence brought against them previously, three points concerning historical context, facts and evidence, and the question of anti-Semitism are particularly important.
When one reads BDS material and HAW/HPAD documents, one would have no idea that Israel has any security problems at all. These texts read as if, for reasons having to do presumably with the original sin of its founding, Israel inexplicably violates human rights, arbitrarily restricts student travel in Gaza, and willfully violates the academic freedom of Palestinians. In 2015 and 2016, in both written and oral statements, AHA members offered evidence that educational institutions had dramatically expanded on the West Bank since 1967, that a significant percentage of students at Israeli universities were Arabs, and that travel restrictions affecting students in Hamas-controlled Gaza have to do with security concerns regarding terrorism—concerns that are shared by the government of Egypt. In 2020, “Two Flawed Resolutions” introduced evidence that Hamas itself severely restricted travel by students from Gaza and, for the first time, offered documents examining attacks on academic freedom by Palestinian and Hamas representatives at universities in Gaza and in the West Bank. Whether AHA members had time to read and ponder this evidence before the vote is uncertain.
One of the most peculiar aspects of the BDS phenomenon and the attacks on Israel is that they come overwhelmingly from academics who regard themselves as leftists. This is an irony I pointed out in the pages of this magazine in 2014: the refusal to denounce the fascist and blatantly anti-Semitic essence of Hamas, as contained in its founding and still-relevant Charter of 1988. In the course of AHA debates in 2015 and 2016, I mentioned the nature of Hamas and pointed out that its infamous Charter has been available on the internet for many years, perhaps as long as two decades or more. AHA members with a few mouse clicks could see that the wars that Hamas has started against Israel flow directly from the unambiguous Jew-hatred of its charter. For Hamas there is no distinction at all between hatred of Judaism as a religion, Jews as a people, and the state of Israel—that is, there is no distinction between its anti-Semitism and its anti-Zionism and openly declared intent to destroy the state of Israel by force of arms.
It is a fact, evident both in the resolutions they adopt and their historical scholarship, that the HAW/HPAD members regard themselves as leftists. Yet they are part of a very strange “left,” one that repeats the factual assertions and interpretations of deeply reactionary organizations such as Hamas. While criticizing Israel, the resolutions are silent about the openly racist nature of the Hamas Charter, its repetition of the conspiracy theories of 20th-century European anti-Semitism, its imposition of dictatorship within Gaza, and its rocket attacks on southern Israel. Unbalanced denunciations of Israel that neglect to mention Palestinian terrorism have been common in world politics and at the United Nations. Yet members of the American Historical Association, whether they are experts in the history of the Middle East or not, know that the context of these events includes the agency of Arab states, the government of Iran, and organizations seeking the destruction of Israel such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Clearly, some members of the AHA have also read the Hamas Charter and know that Israel is not the only acting subject in the politics of the Middle East.
Equally bizarre in the HAW/HPAD resolutions and statements is the absence of any agency attributed to Palestinian and Islamist organizations. The texts fail to mention any actions taken by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, not to mention Hezbollah and the government of Iran, that would cause concern for the government of Israel. Theirs is a Middle East conflict in which there is no Arab terrorism, no suicide bombers, no rocket attacks on schools and farms, and no knife attacks in Jerusalem.
The HAW/HPAD resolutions reintroduce factual assertions that were demonstrated in 2015 and 2016 to be false. In 2020, as before, they denounce Israel’s bombing of buildings on the campus of the Islamic University in Gaza. To reintroduce this criticism is to ignore the widely documented fact that Israel launched the attack because Hamas used these buildings to construct, test, and possibly launch weapons aimed at Israel. The AAF submitted documents reminding AHA members of this reality of war and of Hamas’s violation of the rules of war in placing weapons in such places. I cannot speak for others, but I think many of my fellow historians must have found it very irritating that historians would reintroduce assertions that had been so widely discredited. Especially at a time when the phrase “post-truth” has entered into common English usage, the dismissal of facts and evidence by the HAW/HPAD leftists was a regrettable display of the kind of ideological politics we are accustomed to seeing from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
The AAF statements focused on refuting the factual inaccuracies of BDS-type resolutions and demonstrating their inappropriateness for a professional organization. The fact that many of those supporting the resolutions are themselves Jewish, and that the Israeli government’s policies are sources of great contention within Israel itself, has meant that the issue of anti-Semitism has not played a major role in the AHA debates. Yet, as a historian who has written extensively about that subject in the history of both Germany and Germany’s interaction with the Middle East, I have concluded that, given the centrality of Hamas in the events related to these resolutions, it is a subject that should be addressed. Here are notes I prepared before I spoke at the meeting:
“No one who opposes these resolutions has suggested that criticism of various Israeli policies is necessarily an example of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, everyone here knows that, since 2016, the policies of the governments of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary, among others, all raise doubts about the AHA’s concerns about threats to academic freedom. AHA officers have commented on issues of concern in some of these countries, but Israel is the only country that has been the object of efforts to have members vote on resolutions of condemnation. However—especially in view of the approximately 370,000 or more people killed and several million made refugees by the Assad regime in Syria since 2011—the obsession with Israel and the silence about sins of others raises suspicions that something else is at work.
“These resolutions, and their repeated reintroduction, are part of a political campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Their focus on policies concerning access to academia obscures this fundamentally destructive purpose. This political campaign aims not at ending the occupation of the West Bank but, as leaders of the BDS campaign have made clear, at terminating “the occupation” of what is now the state of Israel. To seek the destruction of the state of Israel is an example of anti-Semitism. It could not be brought about without a massive amount of violence inflicted on the citizens of Israel.
“One task that historians have adopted at times is to place the present in historical context. For centuries, first in religious and then in secular language, anti-Semites have imagined Jews as uniquely powerful and evil. The Jew as Christ killer, murderer of the prophets, and then director of an international global conspiracy was central to the view of powerful malevolence of “the Jew.” With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the powerful and evil Jew of the paranoid Western imagination appeared to become reality as the Jews, for the first time in many centuries won the elements of sovereignty and power—arms, control of borders, a judicial system, and diplomatic advocates. This Jewish entry into the normality of the world of nation- states has proven difficult if not impossible for the anti-Semitic imagination to accept, as it appears to be a nightmare that has become reality. It is my view that the remnants of these age-old ideas about Jewish power and evil contribute to these resolutions. They draw energy from animus to the powerful and evil Jew of old and transfer it to the allegedly evil racist and imperialist Zionist.
“That tradition fuels these attacks on the very small and vulnerable Jewish state and the simultaneous silence about the sins of other, far larger, non-Jewish states and the terrorist organizations that reside on Israel’s borders. No matter how indignantly the supporters of these resolutions deny it, the spirit of anti-Semitism present in the vision of the powerful and murderous Jew reappears as the racist and imperialist Zionist. Historians, and not only cultural and intellectual historians, more than any other group of scholars or professionals, understand that especially when we believe we are most free from past traditions, these traditions, to quote Karl Marx, “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” They continue to influence our thinking and our passions in ways that we sometimes only dimly understand.
“If the AHA passes these resolutions, especially on the same day that thousands are marching against anti-Semitism in this city, the damage to this organization will be considerable. The simultaneity of a massive protest of tens of thousands against anti-Semitism with a vote by professional historians denouncing Israel would associate the AHA with anti-Semitism. I would not be surprised if young Jews who are thinking of pursuing careers as historians will now think long and hard about doing so. Young Jews already in the profession, or others who may have a good word to say for Israel, will be likely to suppress their views in order not to offend. The resolutions could reintroduce an era of open discrimination against Jews, made all the more difficult to counter as it would drape itself in the language of human rights, intersectionality, and anti-racism. Conversely, we have the opportunity, as we did in 2015 and 2016, to defeat these resolutions. Doing so will also make a clear statement that the AHA rejects the anti-Semitism that has accompanied recent campaigns to attack the Jewish state. I urge this body to make that statement.”
The resolutions were defeated but by smaller numbers than in 2015 and 2016. Of the 12,000 members of the AHA, about 3,000 to 4,000 attend the annual convention, and even fewer participate in the Business Meeting. Most members come to meet with their fellow historians and discuss historical scholarship, not to debate the politics of Israel and the Palestinians. In this context, the logic of collective action gives an advantage to a determined minority that refuses to be convinced to change its views when faced by compelling facts and evidence. In response, many other AHA members have had to spend a considerable amount of time and money to oppose these flawed resolutions. HAW/HPAD promised that they would “be back” next year to introduce similar resolutions. Their repeated efforts to use a scholarly organization for political purposes reflect a vision of a totally politicized society, one at odds with the principles on which a scholarly and professional organization such as the AHA rests. The historians of HAW/HPAD have ignored evidence, dismissed context, and refused to see how their views echo very old hatreds of the Jews. While these arguments will not likely change the minds of the militant minority that has repeatedly introduced them, I hope that they continue to strike a nerve among most of the members of the AHA. Perhaps in the coming year, irritation with those who continue to take up the organization’s time and energy with this issue will grow. The AHA and other professional and scholarly organizations should consider preventing the reintroduction of political resolutions on the same subject for a period of at least a year if not several years. For now, however, this country’s oldest and most important organization of historians has once more defeated efforts to hijack it for political purposes.