WASHINGTON — As yet another American academic organization brings anti-Israel resolutions before its annual plenum, those monitoring the boycott, divest and sanctions movement against Israel eagerly wait to hear if the new year will start with a bang or a whimper.
The resolutions prepared by Historians Against the War (HAW) to be presented at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting January 2-5 in New York reflect a new direction for anti-Israel activism: condemnations of Israel’s policies and behaviors that stop short of calls to boycott, divest from, or sanction the state or Israeli institutions.
This new approach comes after 2014’s high-profile American Studies Association academic boycott vote and the subsequent fizzling of academic and professional organizations’ enforcement of new academic boycott rules — as Israeli academics participated in its conference.
The first of the two resolutions the group of historians plan to present next weekend is framed as “protecting the right to education in Palestine-Israel.” It accuses Israel of violating the principle of universal access to higher education (as delineated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) by refusing Gazan students the ability to travel to universities outside Gaza and restricting travel of foreign academics into Palestinian areas.
The first resolution also notes that “the Israeli Defense Forces bombed the Islamic University in Gaza which houses the Oral History Center,” alleging that this action is condemnable for violating historians’ traditional concern with the preservation of historical material.
If AHA, the largest association of historians in America, adopts the resolution, it would condemn “the acts of violence and intimidation by the State of Israel against Palestinian researchers and their archival collections, acts which can destroy Palestinians’ sense of historical identity as well as the historical record itself.”
The resolution calls for “an immediate halt to Israel’s policy of denying entry to foreign nationals seeking to promote educational development in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” and calls on Israel “to provide free access for Palestinian faculty and students alike to pursue their education wherever they choose.”
The second resolution, also sponsored by HAW, criticizes Israel for “arbitrarily” limiting the entry of foreign lecturers at Palestinian universities, which denies “faculty and students the rich experience enjoyed by their peers at Israeli universities and other universities around the world.”
This second resolution contains wording nearly identical to the first resolution, but also includes a demand that the “US Department of State honor the academic freedom of US citizens by contesting Israel’s denials of entry of US academics who have been invited to teach, confer or do research at Palestinian universities.”
Israel supporters need not apply
HAW is independent of the AHA, and membership in HAW is determined by signing an online statement declaring that the member is “opposed to wars of aggression, military occupations of foreign lands, and imperial efforts by the United States and other powerful nations to dominate the internal life of other countries.”
As of 2009, the organization claimed almost 3,000 members when it changed its mission statement, calling members to re-sign. HAW’s membership is not, however, restricted to members in standing of the AHA.
University of Maryland Professor Jeffrey Herf wrote a letter to AHA President Jan Goldstein in which he complained that the resolutions were not backed up by evidence, and that their acceptance would degrade the AHA’s status.
“Whatever one’s opinions about the Middle East conflict, it is vital that historians pay careful attention to the facts and that we not pass resolutions based on assertions whose veracity cannot be evaluated by AHA members,” Herf wrote.
In his letter, which has been distributed to AHA Committee members in advance of the anticipated vote, Herf cited responses from Ehud Yaari, a commentator on Channel 2 and research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Yaari cited Israeli defense sources who said that the IDF had targeted a research and development facility the Islamic University campus that was important for designing and producing rocket components, and thus constituted a legitimate military target. Yaari also denied that Israel “arbitrarily” restricts free travel of academics, but rather acts within the parameters of security considerations.
“AHA members should be aware of the limits of our knowledge and expertise about recent events and decline to allow our professional organization to be hijacked for political purposes,” Herf cautioned in the letter.
“The reputation of the AHA as an organization of historians whose expertise lies in the careful assessment of evidence would be severely damaged both among those members who object to these resolutions and in the broader public sphere,” Herf warned.
“It would instead be correctly seen as an organization that places political opinions ahead of assiduous scholarship. It would send a chill especially to young scholars whose careers could be ended or damaged if they were to take a different view of these events,” said Herf.
A second attempt at anti-Israel sanctions
In early November, a pro-BDS AHA member submitted a set of more explicit boycott resolutions to be considered at the AHA annual conference’s business meeting. AHA leadership rejected those resolutions, with AHA executive director Jim Grossman explaining in a message to members that “the petition failed to meet two of the requirements stated in the bylaws. An insufficient number of AHA members in good standing had signed the petition, and the resolution as written went beyond matters of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.”
HAW then submitted the new set of resolutions weeks after the deadline, but with well over the 50 signators in good standing necessary for including the resolutions as part of the business meeting. In its blog, HAW noted that “we have met all the criteria for consideration, other than timeliness, since the official deadline was November 1,” but expressed hope that the resolutions would be put on the agenda when the AHA Council meets one day before the business meeting.
“If the Council does not take that action, which is certainly possible, we will move to suspend the rules so that our resolutions can be considered,” the organization promised.
Although Historians Against the War itself already voted to support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, it emphasized through its blog that neither resolution constitutes a call for an academic boycott of Israel. The entry noted that “some historians believe that one of our two resolutions calls for an academic boycott of Israel, and on that basis are calling on colleagues to attend the business meeting to oppose our resolutions, or a suspension of the rules to allow them to be considered.”
Acknowledging that such a call “is certainly their right, and we welcome an open debate,” HAW added that “it would facilitate such a conversation if the substance of our resolutions were addressed, rather than inaccurate reports.”
In his letter to the AHA president, Herf acknowledged that the resolutions “stop short of the now familiar BDS language about boycotting Israeli universities and adopting the PLO’s long standing support for a Palestinian ‘right of return’ that amounts to the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Not a call for boycott, but perhaps something worse
The HAW resolutions are not a call for a boycott. But that might make them all the more “dangerous.”
“These resolutions are just as bad, but many, many people will say ‘oh, its not a boycott resolution so I can vote for it,’” Herf warned. “I think that a boycott resolution doesn’t stand a chance of passing, but these less-than-boycott resolutions might.”
“They’re trying to steer clear of BDS which fortunately is getting a bad name — as it well deserves — so they’re just calling to censor Israel,” commented Dr. Roberta Seid, an AHA member and the education and research director of pro-Israel group StandWithUs.
“The resolutions are absurd. They try to come up with a pretense to make it relevant to academia, so they’ve dreamed up this thing that Palestinians are deprived of education. It’s the same pretense that the MLA and ASA used, and the information is wrong,” said Seid.
Seid believes that in light of the fallout from the American Studies Association’s adoption of resolutions supporting an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, “people are a little skittish” about adopting more traditional boycott resolutions.
The Modern Language Association’s anti-Israel resolution failed in an all-members vote, and the Royal Institute of British Architects walked back a BDS resolution that it had already passed. Although the American Anthropological Association resoundingly defeated an anti-boycott resolution during the organization’s annual meeting in December, it also did not vote on any resolutions supporting boycott. Instead, the organization formed a task force delegated to “numerate the issues embedded in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine that directly concern the association; develop principles to be used to assess whether the AAA has an interest in taking a stand on these issues; provide such an assessment; [and] on the basis of that assessment, make recommendations to the Executive Board about actions the AAA could undertake.”The American Studies Association’s resolution was repeatedly challenged by critics, and the organization ultimately acknowledged that it did not apply to any individual academics at all, but rather only to institutions themselves.
Still, Seid believes that even condemnation resolutions are “still taking bites out of Israel’s reputation, spreading false information using an artificial pretense in order to get a consensus that Israel is somehow bad.”
A new era of do-it-yourself academic boycotts?
Cary Nelson, a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an outspoken opponent of BDS resolutions agreed that “the ASA debacle has produced such embarrassment that people are not eager to repeat it,” but said that he “doesn’t think we’ve seen the end of academic boycotts.”
Nelson said that even devoid of successful resolutions, “BDS publicity has created an atmosphere in which people feel empowered to do their own boycotts.”
Nelson said that administrators in Israel told him that they are “seeing increased numbers of Americans refusing to do tenure evaluations or write letters of recommendation” for people affiliated with Israeli institutions.
“Resolutions are instilling in people a fear of making any commitment to Israel or the Israeli state,” he warned. “It is producing a form of self-censorship. It is painful and very destructive and has an impact on Israel itself. It means that a person who would have come there and worked with you doesn’t, and that is increasingly happening. This process has succeeded and will be getting worse. Even if this resolution gets defeated it contributes to that climate.”
Unlike critiques aired regarding the role of association leadership during the BDS votes at both the American Studies Association and Modern Language Association, Herf does not feel that the AHA leadership demonstrated any bias against his arguments. He noted instead that the AHA president agreed to place Herf’s letter in the agenda book of documents for review by the organization’s council.
“This is not a free-for-all like the ASA,” Herf said.
AHA executive director Grossman emphasized that the AHA “is committed to an open and fair process at its business meeting.“ He added that “the role of the staff and officers has been to follow the processes established in our constitution and bylaws and to facilitate the broadest possible participation by our membership.”
Still, Herf said that he is “very worried” about the outcome of the coming weekend’s proceedings.
“A bunch of us are doing our best to try to mobilize against it. The argument that the AHA is a professional organization and that historians have no expertise to decide where a bomb fell on the Islamic University is just not exciting,” Herf bemoaned. “Many fine historians agree with me, but I don’t know if those arguments will be successful. I’m very concerned.”