Members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF) were instrumental in defeating two proposed resolutions at the business meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020; they were sponsored by a group called “Historians for Peace and Democracy.” Though these resolutions on alleged infringements of academic freedom by Israel (posted here) fell short of a boycott, they were part of the wider campaign to promote the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) agenda.
The background was summarized in Commentary by Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, as follows:
In 2014, a group of scholar-activists, Historians Against the War (HAW), endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The following year, HAW rolled out two resolutions on Israeli’s alleged crimes against academic freedom. . . .
Because they submitted the resolutions late, HAW needed a two-thirds vote to be considered at AHA’s annual business meeting. They barely cleared one-quarter.
In 2016, the organization mashed the two resolutions into one and, having submitted it in a timely manner, needed to win only a majority of votes. They lost, just clearing 30 percent.
In 2017, they tried a different strategy, petitioning the AHA Council … to “investigate the charges that academic freedom is widely violated in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” The Council declined to get into detective work.
Today, HAW has a new name, Historians for Peace and Democracy (HPAD). . . . [T]wo anti-Israel resolutions HPAD sponsored for consideration at this year’s business meeting . . . . lost again, by a vote of 80-41 on one and, as the voting crowd thinned, 61-36 on the other. . . .
An Algemeiner.com news report cited Prof. David Greenberg of Rutgers, an AAF founder, decrying the repeated efforts of pro-BDS activists to bring up resolutions that castigate Israel, attempting to politicize the organization dedicated to the professional standards of historical scholarship:
. . . the vote made clear that “most practicing historians think this is not what the AHA should be spending its time doing.”
The association . . . is “about the professional practice of history … it’s not really for contentious political arguing.”
. . . “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.”
It also quoted Prof. Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland at College Park:
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.
. . . 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 [other] people entry.
An Inside Higher Ed piece quoted AAF activist Prof. Sharon Musher, associate professor at Stockton University, saying that:
the resolution on protecting the right to education “singles out Israel, neglecting academic freedom violations by worse offenders, including China, Singapore and the Gulf Emirate with whom American universities ally.”
While Israel merits criticism for some of its actions, the resolution would harm the AHA, she also warned. “Endorsing this politicized resolution today will tarnish the professionalism of the association. It will also create needless division within the AHA. The association should remain a welcome home to all historians, whatever their politics.”
The following is a partial list of counterarguments presented by the AAF to defeat the two resolutions (buttressed by a 14-page AAF “White Paper” — “Academic Freedom and Educational Opportunity Worldwide” — documenting numerous instances of threats to, or violations of, academic freedom more serious than those alleged or actually practiced by Israel):
- Complex issues like these are best debated in the political arena, not a scholarly professional organization.
- The resolutions single out Israel, while giving a pass to the worst violators of academic freedom.
- They target Israel for policies similar to those of the U.S. and other democracies, which go unmentioned. The resolutions note Israel’s visa denials. But the U.S. in 2019 controversially denied visas to scores of students from China, Iran, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. The UK, Canada, Australia, and others acted similarly.
- These resolutions should be seen for what they are: a tactic in a concerted campaign across scholarly associations to target Israel alone. To vote for them is not simply to endorse their nominal claims, but to back a wider political agenda.
- The resolutions omit relevant context. The resolutions omit the roles of Egypt, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in restricting movement to and from Gaza; they omit that Hamas used the Islamic University to build, test and possibly launch rockets from campus grounds; they omit the Israeli Supreme Court’s overturning of unfair visa denials; they omit that the harshest restrictions on academic freedom in the West Bank come from the Palestinian Authority, not Israel. (For more, see the AAF’s document, “Errors, Misrepresentations and Omissions in the Resolutions Before the AHA.”)
- The AHA lacks the resources to address these resolutions by investigating their dubious and contested claims. They would require a staff and budget beyond the body’s capacity.
- Taking sides in a notoriously controversial issue will pit colleagues against each other, alienate members who don’t share the thrust of these resolutions, and make some who identify with Israel feel singled out and victimized.
- There are better ways to promote Middle East peace. Scholars can help by promoting mutual understanding, explaining the complexity of the region’s history, and analyzing the work that remains on all sides. AHA members could aid such efforts by creating opportunities for collaboration and exchange. The AHA can also continue to support Scholars at Risk, which defends the rights of scholars worldwide. Targeting one party in a multifaceted conflict does violence to our duty as historians to understand current conflicts in all their complexities.