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. They asked the American Historical Association (AHA), the “largest organization of professional historians in the world,” to lend its prestige to the proposition that Israel, whose record on academic freedom compares favorably to many, should be condemned, alone among nations, over that record.
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, the organization’s main governing body, 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). Retooled for our time, they vow to “join the organized resistance to Donald Trump’s regime.” Evidently, they also favor recycling. The two anti-Israel resolutions HPAD sponsored for consideration at this year’s business meeting, which took place in New York City on Sunday, don’t much differ from the resolutions of 2015. They lost again, by a vote of 80-41 on one and, as the voting crowd thinned, 61-36 on the other.
Neither of these votes directly related to a boycott of Israel. As Van Gosse, HPAD’s co-chair, said of the 2015 resolutions, “We brought [them] forward because we thought it was politically—tactically—sensible . . . If we bring in a BDS resolution, we’ll get blown out of the water.”
It’s heartening that, almost ten years after the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel began, BDS proponents still believe that a resolution calling for a boycott would stand less of a chance with historians than the milder resolutions they’ve dangled. Despairers take note.
It’s not that these historians are conservatives. Indeed, the organization most responsible for this year’s anti-BDS effort, the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), consists of “progressive scholars and academics” who consider “Israeli occupation of the West Bank . . . corrosive to Israeli society” and “incompatible with the democratic principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.” But the AAF also “reject[s] calls for academic boycotts and blacklists” and affirms that “scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach” than the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict typically allow. When scholars speak as scholars, however deeply attached they may be to one side or the other of a political fight, they have to be rigorous.
Consider the materials prepared by the AAF for the meeting. They don’t urge historians to join hands and sing Hatikvah. They urge historians to abide, even in advocacy, by their own standards: “in all cases,” the AHA Council has said, “the relevant facts should be established before issuing a public statement.”
Since the resolutions singled out Israel as uncommonly hostile to academic freedom, such “relevant facts” include how Israel’s record compares to the records of other nations. Whether the subject is travel restrictions on academics, which are imposed by democracies and non-democracies alike, or broader denials of educational opportunity, the AAF materials give historians ample reason to doubt that Israel should be a special object of the AHA’s righteous attention.
As importantly, the AHA isn’t made for “policing [academic freedom] issues worldwide.” Organizations like Scholars at Risk have the kind of “full-time expert staff” that gives them a fighting chance in that kind of work. The historians of AHA could issue pronouncements, as the resolutions invite them to, on everything from individual military actions to visa policies, only by pretending to know things they don’t know, thereby forfeiting their profession’s claim to respect.
What our academic associations need is less a pro-Israel party to counter an anti-Israel party than a party of the profession to defend the norms of scholarship. Historians in the AAF, including Sharon Musher of Stockton University, and David Greenberg of Rutgers University stand up year after year in defense of such a party.
That it needs defending is suggested by another HPAD-sponsored resolution, which passed at this year’s meeting, “condemning affiliations between ICE and Higher Education and the U.S. Border Patrol.” The resolution will now be considered by AHA’s Council. There will always be academics eager to make symbolic pronouncements about the issues of the day. But even those who might eagerly sign on to such pronouncements as members of political parties or activist organizations do well to think twice about signing onto them as scholars.
An earlier version of this post identified Professor Jeffrey Herf as a member of the Alliance for Academic Freedom.