Historical Association’s Rejection of Anti-Israel Resolutions is a ‘Significant Day in American Intellectual History,’ Says Top Academic (VIDEO)
by Ben Cohen
A leading American academic opponent of the campaign to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education has hailed last night’s refusal of the American Historical Association (AHA) to consider two anti-Israel resolutions submitted to its annual business meeting in New York.
A motion to suspend the rules of the meeting in order for the resolutions to be discussed was resoundingly defeated, with 144 votes against, 54 in favor, and three abstentions.
“This is a significant day in American intellectual history,” Jeffrey Herf, the Distinguished University Professor in the History Department at the University of Maryland, told The Algemeiner. “Scholars have rejected the idea that there is no distinction between politics and scholarship.”
Herf explained that last night’s debate at the AHA meeting concentrated entirely on procedural issues, and did not address the substantive claims raised in two separate resolutions, one condemning Israel for allegedly limiting “the entry of foreign nationals who seek to lecture, teach and attend conferences at Palestinian universities,” and the other decrying Israel for supposed “acts of violence and intimidation…against Palestinian researchers and their archival collections.”
The procedural focus stemmed, Herf said, from the “incompetent, inept and deceptive” approach of the resolutions’ sponsors, the radical group Historians Against the War (HAW,) which came into being in 2003 in order to oppose the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship in Iraq. According to Herf, HAW’s initial resolution was rejected by the AHA Council for not carrying the requisite number of signatures.
That resolution, which advocated the academic boycott, was in any case quickly withdrawn when its proponents realized they would not be able to muster enough support to secure its passage. Instead, the two separate resolutions, which attacked Israel harshly but did not include a boycott call, were filed on December 22. After a spirited debate last night, AHA members voted against suspending the rules of their meeting in order to discuss the resolutions.
“What happened was the failure of an old tactic – to pack a meeting and hope that you can win the vote,” Herf said. His argument that there simply wasn’t enough time for those present to evaluate the claims of the resolutions from a scholarly standpoint “stuck a chord,” he said, with many of those present. “AHA doesn’t want be led around by the nose by an organized minority that is trying to hijack the organization for political purposes. We are not a political organization and we are not the United Nations General Assembly.”
Similar arguments were offered by Herf’s colleagues, some of whom are involved with the Alliance for Academic Freedom, a liberal group which rejects academic boycotts while urging an end to the “Israeli occupation” of the West Bank. A flier distributed before the meeting noted that the AHA “sets a high bar before allowing eleventh-hour changes in the business meeting’s agenda, because it takes seriously the democratic, scholarly, and educational process.” A separate letter to AHA President Jan Goldstein from Professor Sonya Michel of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars argued that “deciding to place the resolutions on the agenda for the upcoming Business Meeting would contravene bylaws put in place to ensure members adequate time and opportunity for full consideration of important issues – issues that, in this case, are by all accounts extremely controversial.”
In his conversation with The Algemeiner, Herf drew attention to a letter he sent on December 14 to Professor Goldstein in which he warned that the adoption of the resolutions “would send a chill especially to young scholars, whose careers could be ended or damaged if they were to take a different view of events in the Middle East.”
In the same letter, Herf highlighted a number of factual inaccuracies in the texts of the resolutions, such as the claim that Israel “arbitrarily denies” entry to foreign academics seeking to teach at Palestinian universities, and the assertion that Israel deliberately targeted the Oral History Center of the Islamic University in Gaza on August 2, at the height of the summer 2014 war between Israel and Hamas. In response to the first claim, Herf quoted the leading Israeli journalist Ehud Ya’ari, who informed him that “Israel does not interfere with foreign academics coming to Palestinian area unless they intend to participate in anti-Israeli activities or support terrorist groups like Hamas. Many foreign academics are now teaching in Palestinian universities and some were allowed to cross into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge this past summer.”
Answering the second claim, Herf pointed out that the strike on the Islamic University targeted an “R&D facility within the campus serving Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas’s military wing] where different components of rockets were manufactured…The Oral History center was never targeted but there may have been collateral damage.”
Following last night’s vote, Herf said that he was encouraged by the fact that many liberal critics of Israeli policy opted not to vote in favor of discussing the resolutions. “They didn’t like the way procedure was being abused and they don’t want to see their academic discipline politicized,” he said. Herf was additionally heartened that last night’s vote marked “a step away from the destruction of social sciences and humanities in US universities.”
Last night’s vote was the latest in a series of attempts by academic advocates of the boycott to win over academic associations to their campaign. In December 2013, the American Studies Association passed a resolution to boycott Israel, while the Middle East Studies Association may yet do so. However, last year’s meetings of both the Modern Language Association and the American Anthropological Association rejected the boycott proposal.
Watch a video containing highlights of last night’s AHA debate: