The following post details the essential work of members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), an academic affiliate of The Third Narrative (TTN), in leading the effort to defeat a biased Israel-related resolution at the American Historical Association. TTN commends the energy and determination of the AAF members as they build on their core liberal and progressive values to promote academic freedom and empathy for both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Gideon Aronoff, Director, The Third Narrative
Alliance for Academic Freedom Provides Leadership at Historians’ Conference; A Report from the Field:
On January 9, 2016, at the business meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in Atlanta, members decisively defeated, by a vote of 111-51, a resolution calling on the scholarly organization to condemn Israel’s restrictions on Palestinians’ academic freedom. The resolution also would have mandated that the AHA monitor the Israeli government’s behavior regarding Palestinian access to education. It was the second year in a row that such a resolution failed to pass.
Like last year, decisive leadership in the effort to defeat theses resolutions was provided by members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), an academic group affiliated with The Third Narrative. We in the AAF were gratified that we could provide thought leadership and organizing to protect the AHA’s identity as an academic, not political, organization. For us, this case reconfirms the unique value in the AAF’s liberal and progressive approach to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the threat that this divisive debate poses to our academic associations and our campus communities.
During both debates, the AAF took a principled stand in opposition. An organization of self-identified liberals and progressives, the AAF strives to support academic freedom on issues pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to ensure that faculty and students can discuss the associated issues openly and without intimidation. This includes opposition to academic boycotts, which restrict academic freedom and opportunities for whole classes of people. Further, as its founding documents state, the AAF rejects the all-too-common binary approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that seeks to justify one side or the other as all right or all wrong and sets out to prove complete guilt or total exoneration. AAF members believe that scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach; while recognizing the subjective perspectives of individuals and peoples, the AAF strives to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency. Hence, while AAF members have been critical, individually and collectively, of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians—and supportive of Palestinian as well as Jewish national aspirations—it did not consider this resolution a legitimate route toward enhancing academic freedom, for Palestinians or anyone else.
The reasons that AAF members articulated for opposing this resolution were numerous and mutually reinforcing. They stemmed from a generally liberal or progressive political orientation that is sympathetic to both the Palestinian plight and the Israeli situation and doesn’t seek to demonize either party in the Middle East conflict, reflecting the values of the broader TTN community. This opposition could not be marginalized as simply a form of pro-Israel activism, but instead was rooted in empathy for all parties and firm principles of academic integrity and, we believe, played the essential role in the effort to defeat the resolution.
The post that follows offers a report on the events at the AHA, and outlines the strategy and arguments used to defeat the AHA resolution:
In 2015, when the AHA met in New York, the activist group Historians Against the War (HAW), which has endorsed a full cultural and academic boycott against Israel, tried to place a similar resolution on the business meeting agenda. But HAW had not met the organization’s established rules and deadlines for doing so and needed to win a two-thirds majority of the attendees in order to suspend the rules. That effort, which the AAF took the lead in opposing, failed, 144-51.
In 2016, HAW took care to get enough signatures by the established deadlines to ensure that the resolution would come to a vote. Again, the AAF actively opposed the resolution, marshalling research and arguments and appealing to AHA members to turn out and vote. In the September and December issues of Perspectives, the AHA newsletter that is sent to all its members, the AAF placed ads outlining its objections. To place the ad, members of the AAF collected individual contributions to promote its vision to the AHA membership.
The AAF noted in the first place that the HAW resolution was not, in fact, driven by a genuine concern with academic freedom, but rather by its leadership’s commitment to a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel, which HAW endorsed in the spring of 2014 and has worked to promote ever since. HAW took pains to present the AHA with a resolution that stopped short of a boycott, in order to increase chances of passage, but HAW’s agenda was clear to those who studied its track record. To many, endorsing the 2016 resolution represented a potential first step toward a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) agenda for the AHA. In other scholarly societies, this has been the case.
A second reason that AAF members gave for opposing the resolution is that it was factually flawed to such an extent that it could not credibly serve as a basis for the AHA to act. AAF research showed that the resolution was full of errors, omissions, and distortions. It omitted rudimentary facts such as that Egypt controls the Rafah Crossing, which has been the standard route for Palestinian travel out of Gaza since Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, and that the Islamic University in Gaza manufactured weapons of war to be used against Israel. Those and many other errors, omissions, and distortions were spelled out at length in a document posted before the AHA business meeting on the Third Narrative website, and can be found HERE. The AHA’s own “Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance,” adopted in 2007, call for the facts in any resolution to be “established, to the extent that is possible, before a public statement is drafted—much less circulated.” The HAW resolution failed that test by a wide margin.
Another key argument against the resolution was that it demanded that the AHA focus on Israel alone, even though the world’s leading human rights organizations agree that other countries have worse records on issues relating to access to education. (Even the restrictions on Palestinian travel cannot be attributed to Israel alone, since Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas also play key roles in erecting obstacles to Palestinian education.) The Scholars at Risk Network, an organization hosted by New York University—with which the AHA is affiliated—compiles violations around the world, only a tiny fraction of which concern Israel. Relying on research by the Scholars at Risk Network, as well as human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, AAF members demonstrated the illogic of focusing on Israel exclusively. Contrary to claims that Israel deserves special censure because of the aid it gets from the U.S., or because of the nature of its relationship with the U.S., research showed that academic freedom violations were also committed by other countries that consider themselves U.S. allies and Western democracies (such as Turkey or South Africa); and by countries that receive more aid than Israel does (Afghanistan) or whose trade with the U.S. dwarfs aid to Israel in significance (China, Saudi Arabia). AAF members argued that it would be, at a minimum, arbitrary and tendentious for the AHA to monitor academic freedom violations only by Israel. Such a focus, moreover, would have violated the AHA’s own “Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance” to defend “the rights of American Historians to travel to all foreign countries in order to study, teach, pursue research, or simply carry on discussions with other historians.” Before the business meeting, AAF members circulated a white paper on academic freedom around the globe, which also can be found on the Third Narrative website.
Finally, AAF members argued that the resolution would needlessly plunge the AHA into the highly divisive subject of Middle East politics. Such a reckless move could only damage the organization. The scholarly groups that have gone down that road, such as the American Studies Association, have found only acrimony, headaches, and tarnished reputations. The AAF has long noted that many groups already exist for advocacy on various sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that members of a group like HAW can already use their own organization to agitate, rather than compelling a big-tent scholarly society like the AHA, open to scholars of any political persuasion or views, to do so. AAF members argued that it would be wrong to transform the AHA into another Middle East advocacy organization, diminishing its character as a body devoted to the promotion of historical scholarship and teaching. It suggested that academics who wish to promote educational opportunities or peace in the region consider working with many of the organizations associated with the Alliance for Middle East Peace (www.allmep.org). TTN also has recently published a Progressive Action Guide for Human Rights, Peace and Reconciliation in Israel and Palestine that outlines a menu of constructive actions that can be taken on campus to make a difference in the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Having articulated these arguments in a special online forum that the AHA established to discuss the controversial resolution as well as in a few direct e-mails to a list of historians who oppose academic boycotts, AAF members were pleased to see a strong turnout at the Atlanta meeting. AAF also distributed hard copies of these arguments prior to the business meeting. After other official business, the AHA, following procedure set forth by its executive council, asked a HAW spokesperson to open debate over the resolution by speaking for five minutes in its favor and an AAF member to speak against the resolution for a similar period.
After those introductions, the debate was open to the floor and proceeded for roughly an hour alternating between resolution supporters and opponents, each speaking for a maximum of two minutes. While only a portion of the speakers against the resolution were AAF members, many speakers voiced arguments aligned with the AAF’s positions and publicly available materials. The AAF believes that it both accurately articulated the position of a great many practicing historians on this issue (whatever their specific views on Israel and Middle East policy), and that its own research helped to provide members of the AHA with helpful information and arguments. It was notable that virtually every single speaker for the resolution belonged to HAW. At a certain point, HAW spokesman Van Gosse conceded that his side had used up all its arguments. Soon after, the question was called.
Voting proceeded on paper ballot. As noted, the measure failed by a margin of more than 2-1. AHA Executive Director James Grossman praised the body for a civil and fair debate, and the meeting was adjourned.