The American Historical Association Council rejected one petition from a group of historians critical of Israel and reworded another at its recent meeting. After two unsuccessful attempts to get AHA members to approve boycott, divestment and sanctions-related resolutions at the association’s annual gatherings in 2015 and 2016, a group of historians, some of whom are affiliated with Historians Against the War, petitioned the AHA’s governing body directly. The first petition called on the AHA to investigate “credible charges of violations of academic freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” whether by “constituting a fact-finding committee, authorizing a delegation or issuing an investigative report,” similar to efforts undertaken by the American Anthropological Association.
The second petition asked the AHA Council to make a statement upholding “the right of students and faculty to engage in nonviolent political action expressing diverse points of view on Israel/Palestine issues” and condemning “all efforts at intimidation of those expressing such views. Specifically, we condemn the maintenance of blacklists, such as those on the anonymous ‘Canary Mission’ website publicizing names, photographs and contact information for hundreds of supporters of Palestinian rights, predominantly Arab-American students.”
Jim Grossman, executive director of the historical association, said the council “discussed the complicated intellectual and practical issues" raised by the first petition. And while it “benefited from the experience” of the anthropological association, he said, the council “determined that the petition is requesting investigative work that is beyond the scope and mission of the AHA.”
Instead of addressing political speech regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue specifically, as requested in the second petition, the council released a statement upholding “the rights of students, faculty and other historians to speak freely and to engage in nonviolent political action expressing diverse perspectives on historical or contemporary issues.” The statement continues, “We condemn all efforts to intimidate those expressing their views. Specifically, we condemn in the strongest terms the creation, maintenance and dissemination of blacklists and watch lists -- through media (social and otherwise) -- which identify specific individuals in ways that could lead to harassment and intimidation.”
Grossman said the more general statement reflects the AHA's concern “that any such harassment and intimidation is contrary to our values and to the generally accepted principles of academic freedom articulated by the American Association of University Professors.” He added, “We're grateful to the petitioners for raising this issue, and think that what matters is the larger problem of any entity creating what essentially look like blacklists.”
Van Gosse, chair of history at Franklin and Marshall College and a member of Historians Against the War, said AHA has “the right and responsibility” to take political stances on issues under its purview. Regarding the first petition, Gosse said he didn’t understand how the AHA could cite the anthropologists’ action, then state that the requested investigation was outside its own purview. “A small, volunteer committee vetted by council could have done that work; there is vast documentation already available,” he said. Gosse said he was not aware of anyone involved in drafting the petitions who was “disturbed” by the council’s response to the second one, however.