Inside Account: How Anti-Israel Resolutions Were Defeated at American Historical Association

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University of Maryland Professor Jeffrey Herf helped lead the battle to defeat anti-Israel resolutions at the American Historical Association, as we wrote about on Sunday. I asked him to submit this Guest Post to recount the events and strategies, in the hope they will inform others facing similar anti-Israel tactics.
William A. Jacobson, Legal Insurrection


By now, readers of this blog probably know that by a vote of 144 to 51, members of the American Historical Association, at the Business Meeting of their annual convention in New York City on January 4, decided not to pursue two resolutions that denounced aspects of the policies of the government of Israel.

For readers of Legal Insurrectionit is important to point out that the defeat of these resolutions was due to procedural issues that were also matters of substance. Details of the events are readily available in the reports by The New York Times, Inside Higher Education, Algemeiner and The Tablet .

It is the most decisive defeat that groups supporting resolutions denouncing Israel have suffered since “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) efforts gathered steam in American universities in recent years.

This is a preliminary anatomy of its defeat.

The case for rejection on procedural grounds was straightforward. Readers of Legal Insurrection will understand that debates about procedure are also debates about substance and the rule of law.

The AHA bylaws require that members wishing to submit resolutions to be considered at the Business Meeting must do so by November lst.

An initial resolution was submitted by the Historians Against the War (HAW). HAW is a group of leftist academics that emerged in opposition to the war in Iraq and that issued a petition alleging Israel had committed “war crimes” during the war with Hamas last summer. I wrote about the emergence of a “pro-Hamas left”.
On December 22, 2014, HAW submitted revised resolutions. The revisions eliminated the boycott and right of return elements but included allegations that Israel threatened an oral history archive when it bombed buildings at the Islamic University in Gaza in August 2014, and that it denied access of foreign scholars and Palestinian students to universities in Gaza and on the West Bank.HAW’s original petition included demands for a boycott of Israel universities and implementation of the Palestinian right of return. That resolution was rejected by the AHA Council because the advocates had not gathered enough signatures and because the content of the resolution was deemed, in the words of AHA executive director James Grossman, “beyond matters of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.”

HAW then requested that the AHA Council decide whether or not to place the resolution on the agenda, even though it was submitted six weeks after the deadline, something that the Council had the right to do, despite the restrictions regarding resolutions in the organization’s bylaws.

At its meeting on January 2, 2014, the Council, led by AHA President Jan Goldstein (University of Chicago), refused to do so for two reasons.

First, the December 22 resolution was submitted six weeks after the November 1 deadline, and therefore, AHA members did not have the opportunity to evaluate them.

Second, because the resolutions were filed so late, many members would not be at the business meeting because they did not know these matters would be discussed there.

A memo by Sonya Michel of the University of Maryland is an important document in this matter. Submitted on December 29th, the Michel memo was circulated to the AHA Council.

Michel urged that the AHA Council not to place the HAW resolutions on the agenda because doing so would “be violating the spirit of that bylaw” requiring a two-thirds majority, which,”was probably inserted to prevent a small group (whether a minority or slim majority) from imposing its will at the last minute on the membership at large, perhaps catching them unawares about an important issue coming up.” Doing so would also not give “members adequate time and opportunity for full consideration of important issues–issues that, in this case, are by all accounts extremely controversial,” she added. “Notifying members that these items are on the agenda of the meeting only at the meeting itself would deny them the kind of information they would need to decide whether or not to attend the Business Meeting in the first place.”

Michel and a number of us elaborated on these points as well at the business meeting. As I pointed out on the floor of that meeting, the issue of time needed for reflection was of central concern to historians.

To ask historians at a business meeting to reach conclusions about assertions of fact regarding events that supposedly occurred during the Gaza War and travel rights of scholars in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank was absurd. This was the case because it was asking historians to act on the basis political opinions rather than as a result of careful examination of evidence. No one, we argued, was able to make such assessments as a result of scholarly research. Doing so without research would be abolishing the distinction between politics and scholarship—doing what no historian should do, namely assume what remained to be proven before examination of evidence had taken place.

If HAW had achieved a two-thirds majority that was needed to “suspend the rules” and proceed to discussion of the resolutions, a number of us were prepared to challenge all of the factual assertions made in the HAW resolutions.

On December 15, 2014, I sent a memo to President Goldstein. Drawing on the reporting of Ehud Yaari, an Israeli journalist who reported on Gaza, I offered the Council and colleagues an account of events by this reliable journalist and by the government of Israel. The presentation of that evidence meant that AHA Members would, in effect, be faced with deciding between the account of events offered by Israel, a liberal democracy with a thriving political opposition and free press, and accounts offered by Hamas, a terrorist organization that suppressed all opposition, intimidated the press and media, and whose charter repeats the falsehoods of classic Jew-hatred.

Again, AHA members could not as historians render judgments about this set of events. Why would the AHA give the benefit of the doubt to Hamas rather than to Israel?

If AHA members had adopted the HAW resolutions, the name of the American Historical Association would have become publicly associated with the version of events peddled by Hamas, an organization justly famous for terrorism and anti-Semitism, and which has not permitted academic freedom to thrive under its rule.

Within the AHA, adoption of such resolution may have led to bitter divisiveness and mass resignations. A cloud of suspicion may have hung over young Jewish historians who could be suspected of guilt by association with Israel, a suspicion that could have had grave consequences on a job market that already is a political minefield.

In the broader public realm, the AHA would be associated in the public sphere with a version of events offered by Historians Against the War, a group of the radical left that had denounced Israel but had no criticisms of Hamas.

The rejection of the resolutions also rested on a reassertion of the principle that the AHA is a scholarly, not a political organization and that there is a difference between scholarship and politics. Historians as citizens have multiple other forums in which to express their views on public matters.

The vote yesterday was, for me, an assertion that many of us oppose efforts to use academic organizations to promote political purposes. It was a vote against the politicization of the AHA.

The fight to oppose the politicization of the universities is not over.

Yet thanks to the efforts of many people, especially in the past year or two, the American Historical Association will not be issuing resolutions denouncing Israel in 2015. In this effort, mid-career historians David Greenberg of Rutgers University and Sharon Musher of Stockton College in New Jersey played an especially important role.

HAW and BDS activists may learn not to repeat their tactical blunders of recent months. They are not going away. But after their defeat at the AHA, their task has become far more difficult.

In the AHA, January 4, 2015 was one case in which good arguments and careful preparation about matters of fact produced a result as welcome as it was unexpected.

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland in College Park and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. His recent works include: Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2009), and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (2006).

Inside Account: How Anti-Israel Resolutions Were Defeated at American Historical Association

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Jeffrey Herf

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland in College Park. He has published extensively on 20th century European and German history. His recent works include: Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009), and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust(Harvard University Press, 2006). He is currently completing a history of the antagonism to Israel on the part of Communist East Germany and the West German radical left from the Six Day War to the collapse of the East German regime in 1989-90.

Read all stories by Jeffrey Herf