Historians Skirt Anti-Israel Votes

At business meeting of American Historical Association, members refuse to consider last-minute proposals to condemn Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

January 5, 2015

NEW YORK – At their annual meeting here, members of the American Historical Association rejected -- by a vote of 144 to 51 -- an opportunity to vote on a set of resolutions critical of Israel.

The resolutions, proposed by the independent group Historians Against the War, which has been active more recently opposing the war in Iraq, fell short of endorsing an academic boycott of Israel, unlike successful boycott resolutions adopted by the American Studies and Asian American Studies Associations in the last two years. A more explicit boycott proposal was rejected for consideration by leaders of the the American Historical Association in November as having been signed by too few members in good standing and for going beyond matters “of concern to the association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.” (The American Anthropological Association fell somewhere in between, rejecting a proposal opposing a boycott with many members saying that they anticipated the association next year endorsing the boycott.)

The proposals potentially up for a vote Sunday accused Israel of violating academic freedom by “arbitrarily” denying entry to foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, to visit Palestinian universities, and of bombing the Islamic University in Gaza in August.

One resolution called on the association to “condemn” the “acts of violence and intimidation by the State of Israel against Palestinian researchers and their archival collections,” among other alleged violations of academic freedom. The other resolved that the association demand that the State Department “honor the academic freedom of U.S. citizens by contesting Israel’s denials of U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer or do research at Palestinian universities.”

While many historians supported the resolutions in the days leading up to the annual meeting, many others objected to their content, saying, for example, that historians were unequipped to determine where bombs fell during the summer fighting in Israel and Gaza, and whether they were legitimate targets. Others said that the resolutions mischaracterized the nature of travel restrictions to Palestinian territories, such as not including the fact that foreign nationals may travel to the West Bank after obtaining a visa or permit.

Others still objected to the proposals in principle, saying that the topic was a political matter beyond the purview of academic association, and that similar votes had been divisive within other professional organizations.

But Sunday’s vote focused on a single issue: whether or not the association would suspend a bylaw requiring that all business meeting agenda items be submitted by Nov. 1, to give members traveling to the annual January conference time to plan accordingly. The Israel resolutions were submitted on Dec. 22. On Friday, the first day of the conference, the association’s council declined to put the resolutions on the business meeting agenda directly, citing concerns about fairness and members’ ability to attend the meeting based on existing travel plans.

Absent the direct option, resolution supporters sought another way for them to reach the floor on Sunday: association bylaws say that a two-thirds majority of at least 100 members present may vote for the submission date bylaw to be suspended, and for agenda items to be added on site.

The association allowed a 30-minute discussion on the motion to suspend the bylaws. Those in favor, including Melanie Newton, associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, said that the issue at hand appeared important enough to colleagues to at least be considered.

“I’d like a chance to see what it is,” Newton said of the set of resolutions. “I do not believe it is the place of [the association] to shut down debate, especially if it doesn’t happen that often.”

Indeed, association-wide debates over proposed votes on political matters are rare; the last was in 2007, when Historians Against the War proposed a resolution condemning the Iraq War. Rather than accept the resolution as it was, the association council put it to an all-member email vote.

But the ultimately persuasive argument Sunday came from those opposed to suspending the bylaws. It’s impossible to know how many members voted the way they did because they rejected the content of the resolutions themselves, but public comments focused on the idea that the last-minute submissions disenfranchised some members who otherwise would have been able to attend a meeting on so important an issue. Adding insult to injury, they said, the evening meeting began late and any discussion on the resolutions themselves would have run far over the advertised end of the meeting.

Eric Arneson, professor of history at the George Washington University, said he approved of the association council’s reasons for declining to put the resolutions on the agenda. He said that while there were well over 100 people in attendance – technically a quorum – “what strikes me is how many people aren’t here.”

“This is not a small issue,” Arneson added, arguing that the topic merited more discussion than could happen so quickly.

Barbara Weinstein, a professor of history at New York University and member of Historians Against the War who moved to add the resolutions to the agenda, said after the vote that she believed there was more “sympathy” for the content of the proposals than was reflected in the tally: 144 to 51, with three members abstaining. She said members who might otherwise support them appeared to be concerned about procedural issues. She also said there appeared to be a lack of attendance by younger scholars who have been active in other, more successful activism about Israel.

Weinstein said she couldn’t speak precisely to why the proposals had been submitted so late, but said that Historians Against the War was careful about drafting resolutions that reflected the concerns of its members. She said it was “almost certain” that the proposal will come up again next year ahead of – but on time for – the association’s 2016 meeting in Atlanta.

Jan Goldstein, outgoing historical association president and a professor of history at the University of Chicago, said that several leadership-sponsored 2016 sessions have already been reserved for discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict and related concerns about academic freedom. That prompted a few groans from the audience, with two members shouting, “What about Ukraine?” and “What about Russia?,” presumably meaning that there should be sessions on other countries accused of human rights violations.

In response, James Grossman, executive director of the association, repeated his earlier remark that “everything has a history,” and said that “whether it’s Ukraine or Israel-Palestine, what [the association] is committed to is opening up the program to historical context of whatever you think is important.”



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