Historians Reject Measure Criticizing Israel

Scholars question idea that one country should be "singled out."

January 11, 2016

ATLANTA -- Members of the American Historical Association on Saturday voted down, 111 to 51, a resolution “upholding the rights of Palestinian faculty and students to pursue their education and research freely” and committing the AHA to “monitoring Israeli actions restricting the right to education in the occupied Palestinian territories,” among other points. The vote came at the association's annual meeting here.

The association avoided voting on two similar anti-Israel resolutions last year because they were submitted after a key deadline.

This year’s resolution was submitted on time, and Saturday’s vote followed an increasingly heated but civil debate over several alleged factual errors and omissions within the resolution itself, such as the assertion that the Israeli military "routinely invades campuses" in the Palestinian territories, and the resolution's failure to mention unreliable exit and entry points, such as Egypt's Rafah Gate, for Palestinian students and scholars that are controlled by countries other than Israel.

Roger Horowitz, director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library, said he felt “anger” at Historians Against the War, the group pushing the resolution, for the way it framed the issue. He said he is a Jewish person who has long been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but that the resolution amounted to geographical and intellectual “fiction.”

“You presented a terrible resolution, a resolution which does not provide an opportunity for critics of Zionism and critics of the treatment of Palestinians to register a fair vote,” he said. “And you’ve done this by singling out Israel and not providing a proper frame for understanding the crisis in the Middle East and the crisis of opportunity for people in these countries. … It’s just intellectually bankrupt to say that this will be solved by a resolution criticizing Israel.”

Other points of debate included whether the association was equipped to carry out the kind of “monitoring” suggested (one member called it “absurd”), and several others beyond Horowitz asked why Israel was being “singled out” among numerous other countries accused of violating academic freedom.

David Greenberg, associate professor of history at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, said Afghanistan receives more U.S. aid than does Israel and has major educational access problems concerning girls and women. And China, which is regularly accused of academic freedom violations, benefits greatly as a primary U.S. trading partner, he said. Egypt, Venezuela and other countries also have questionable records, he said.

“We should not turn the AHA into a vehicle for a specific Middle East agenda,” Greenberg said.

He and other speakers said they worried that the resolution also would prove divisive within the AHA and tarnish its reputation.

Richard Golden, a professor of history at the University of North Texas, asked, “Why are we considering a resolution that has nothing to do with the great aims of this organization?” He also called the resolution condescending toward Palestinians in that it undermined their own role in their problems, as well as oversimplified the issues. If Canada was sending missiles over the U.S. border, he said, students at the University of Toronto might have issues entering the United States.

Many of these concerns were articulated prior to the vote in a letter to the association’s leaders by the Alliance for Academic Freedom. The alliance describes itself as “self-identified liberals and progressives who have been critical, individually and collectively, of Israeli policies toward the Palestinian people and supportive of national aspirations of both Palestinians and Jews.”

Members of the alliance say they share concerns about obstacles to education for students in the West Bank and Gaza but “reject 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 marshal evidence to prove a case of complete guilt or total exoneration.”

Alliance members also point out that the historical association is already affiliated with Scholars at Risk, a network of institutions that promotes academic freedom and defends the human rights of scholars worldwide.

One association member, William James H. Hoffer, a professor of history at Seton Hall University, said after some 40 minutes of debate that he still wanted to know why Israel alone was in the hot seat. He said he could be wrong but that he suspected -- despite his own serious misgivings about Israel’s actions regarding Palestinians -- “that it’s because it’s a Jewish state.”

Supporters of the resolution rejected the claim of anti-Semitism and said they advocate access to education everywhere. Moreover, some proponents said, they’d likely support resolutions condemning other countries found to have violated academic freedom, if put forward in the future.

In the meantime, some said they held Israel to a high standard due its special relationship with and high levels of aid from the U.S.

“If the U.S. pays for continuing injustice, the U.S. has a responsibility,” said Leena Dallasheh, an assistant professor of history at Humboldt State University and a Palestinian citizen of Israel. “Very, very simply, no other country receives as much consistent support from the U.S.”

She called the resolution a simple one, noting above all that U.S. educators believe Palestinian students and scholars in Palestine should enjoy the freedoms they do.

Andrew Zimmerman, a professor of history at George Washington University, turned the “singling out” argument on its head, calling it “specious.” Whereas it’s hard to disagree with a resolution affirming the right to education for any group of people, he said, opponents criticized it merely because it pertained to Israel.

“If you oppose this, give us a logical reason to oppose it,” he said.

Carolyn Eisenberg, a professor of history at Hofstra University, said she was old enough to remember when the association debated taking a stand against the Vietnam War. There were similar concerns then about the move being too divisive, she said, but the organization did eventually come out against the war -- and survived.

Listening to the debate, Eisenberg said she also was struck by the fact that no one arguing against the resolution disputed the idea that Israel interferes in the academic freedom and access of Palestinians.

“This is a moral issue and this organization should be proud to take a stand in defense of academic freedom,” she said.

In the end, though, members voted against the resolution by a significant margin. That’s in contrast to attendees at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, who in November voted overwhelmingly to support the boycott movement against Israel. That vote is being submitted to the full membership for review. Other groups that have backed the boycott include the American Studies Association and the National Women's Studies Association.

It’s important to note that the proposal rejected historians Saturday was not a call for an academic boycott of Israel, but rather a condemnation of sorts. But they’re one and the same to Danny Orbach, a postdoctoral fellow in history at Harvard University who said after the vote that the failed resolution was merely a “watered down” version of other boycott, divestment and sanctions proposals.

“This is a victory for us, not only Israelis and pro-Israelis but everyone who values academic decency and academic freedom,” he said. “My personal view, going back to the idea that the AHA should support a particular political agenda, is that that’s the most dangerous thing for scholarship.”

Orbach added, “I see this organization as a platform for everyone. People with different political views or opinions will debate history using reasoned arguments. And they can come from all over the spectrum.”

Marc Becker, associate professor of history at Truman State University and co-chair of Historians Against the War, said he was disappointed at the evening’s outcome, but that it was nonetheless a “victory that it came up, that it was discussed, because it’s an important issue that doesn’t go away.”

Becker said he thought the debate -- except for what he called the “unjustifiable” claim of anti-Semitism -- was civil and “healthy.”

Still, he said, echoing Eisenberg, critics of the resolution seemed to be “dodging” its merits. Becker said the issue for him came down to Israel’s “disproportionate” use of force against Palestinians, who are living in what he and others called the world’s largest open-air prison.

Going forward, he said, Historians Against the War will regroup and talk about how best to convey its message. No word yet on whether the group will submit another resolution next year in Denver.

James Grossman, executive director of the historical association, said following the vote that he was impressed with his colleagues and the level of debate. “We’re all here to accomplish the same things, and we may see the organization different ways at different times, but we’re all here because we think historians do things that are worth doing.”


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