Two resolutions targeting Israel failed to pass at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in New York on Sunday, amid a years-long campaign encouraging the organization to take a stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The measures — which were introduced by academics affiliated with the group Historians for Peace and Democracy (H-PAD), and supported by 104 signatories — were among a total of three items submitted by AHA members that were voted on during the business meeting, and the only ones focused on a foreign country. While their text did not explicitly mention the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, the movement has previously been endorsed by H-PAD.
The first of the two resolutions urged AHA, which counts some 12,000 members in its ranks, to call on Israel to allow Palestinian faculty and students to travel without restriction in pursuit of higher education, and to cease denying entry to any foreigners “seeking to promote educational development in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
The second called on the US State Department to contest “Israel’s denials of entry of U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”
Five supporters and five opponents of the resolutions were each given two minutes to debate their side in front of around 125 meeting attendees before voting commenced. The first resolution was rejected with a tally of 80 against, 41 supporting, and one abstention, while the second failed with 61 against, 36 supporting, and three abstentions, according to several meeting participants.
AHA members previously voted against similar resolutions in 2015 and 2016, while the AHA Council — the association’s governing body — rejected them in 2017.
Opposition to this year’s iterations was spearheaded by the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), a coalition of self-described “progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.” The group distributed informational flyers ahead of the vote, which criticized the resolutions as “part of a larger politically motivated campaign … across the scholarly associations to target Israel alone.”
“Many other organizations exist for activism about the Middle East,” the group wrote in one flyer. “The AHA should not be in the business of developing its own foreign policy.”
David Greenberg — a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a founding member of AAF, who helped lead efforts to confront the resolutions — said the vote made clear that “most practicing historians think this is not what the AHA should be spending its time doing.”
The association, he said in comments to The Algemeiner on Monday, is “about the professional practice of history … it’s not really for contentious political arguing.”
Greenberg took issue with the decision to repeatedly reintroduce the resolutions, despite voters’ rejections. “They’ve lost every time, and it’s really unfair, I think, to impose this on historians who then have to come to a business meeting, argue against it or argue for it. This is not how most people want to be spending their time.”
Jeffrey Herf — a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park who spoke against the resolutions at Sunday’s meeting — told The Algemeiner on Monday that he sensed “a growing irritation with the repeated introduction of these resolutions” year after year. “The strategy of the people who introduced them is to wear down the opposition, just to introduce them again and again in the hopes that someday they’ll pass.”
“The factual assertions that they made about the policies of the Israeli government were mistaken, and some of them were downright false,” he said. “When you read these resolutions, you would have no idea that there’s a war on there, or that Israel faces any threats, or that Hamas is an antisemitic organization, or that Hezbollah is on the border. You would have no idea that there is any reason why … Israel would have any reason whatsoever to admit some people in the country and deny some people entry.”
“I think members of the American Historical Association — in 2015, in 2016, and again yesterday — know that it’s simply not true,” Herf added. “This is about the attempt by a professional organization to sustain its autonomy and its integrity and to not turn itself into a political institution, and we were able to defend that principle.”
Jim Wald, a professor of history at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who attended Sunday’s meeting, said the climate seemed more charged when the discussion turned to the H-PAD resolutions on Israel.
“When the earlier resolution passed, there was some applause, but I think here people were much more demonstrative, signalling publicly which side they were on,” Wald told The Algemeiner on Monday.
“Content aside and politics aside, a lot of people just feel that it’s not our business to be taking a stance on these things, either because it’s outside our professional domain and the traditions of the organization, or people just don’t know enough to make intelligent judgments anyway,” he said. “For the majority of members,” he added, “there is a frustration” with the repeated introduction of the resolutions, which put forward demands that aren’t part of “the professional mission of the organization and what they do as historians, however active they are individually as political human beings.”
There are indications however that similar resolutions will continue being brought forth at the AHA, with one supporter of the H-PAD resolutions saying, according to Wald, “We are not going away.”
AHA is not the only professional academic organization that has faced debates surrounding the BDS campaign in recent years. Members of the American Anthropological Association and the Modern Language Association have voted down BDS resolutions, while the American Studies Association (ASA) passed one in 2013, marking its first-ever — and thus far only — boycott of a nation. Several universities terminated their ASA membership over the vote, which was condemned by more than 200 senior university administrators and multiple academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, American Association of Universities and American Council on Education.
The BDS campaign, whose advocates often spearhead resolutions that are either singularly critical of Israel or explicitly call for an end to ties with the country, proposes a full academic, economic, cultural, and political boycott of Israel until it accepts key Palestinian demands. Opponents, including major Jewish groups, have accused the campaign of seeking to replace Israel with a Palestinian state and trafficking in antisemitic tropes.