Historians Again Reject Israel Rebuke at Annual Meeting

Bucking a recent trend among academic organizations, the American Historical Association over the weekend rejected a proposal that would have pushed forward a protest of Israeli academic institutions. Advocates for the measure took a slightly softer approach than they did in 2015, when similar actions were blocked on procedural grounds.

A year after rejecting an effort to vote on measures criticizing Israel, the American Historical Association (AHA) again opposed an effort to formally criticize the nation over the weekend.

The association, which represents more than 14,000 historians, is the largest professional group for historians in the United States. Seeing the potential to leverage that influence, the activist group Historians Against the War (HAW) has attempted to draw attention to the plight of Palestine through the AHA. In this year’s effort, HAW submitted a resolution claiming that Israel was curtailing the academic freedom of Palestinians and requesting that AHA “monitor Israeli actions.” By a significant majority, AHA members voted against the resolution, which would have put the issue up to a vote among the wider association.

With its second straight rebuke, the association has proved less open to taking a stand on Israel than the American Studies Association, which approved an academic boycott in 2013; the American Anthropological Association, which will put the issue up for a vote by its members in the spring; and the National Women’s Studies Association, which in November voted in favor of supporting the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel.

That’s despite differences in approach between the two HAW campaigns.

Last Year: Rejected on Procedural Grounds

The problem that stopped the measure a year ago, a technicality, was different from the reasons that prompted AHA members to reject the resolution at the annual meeting, held over the weekend in Atlanta.

AHA requires that measures to be voted on at its annual meeting be submitted for consideration by a certain deadline. According to The Jerusalem Post, last year, HAW supporters failed to submit its two resolutions by the November deadline and requested a suspension of the rule. By a majority vote, AHA members declined the request, thereby preventing discussion of the measures.

This Year: More Organized, Same Result

In its return to AHA’s annual meeting with another resolution, HAW avoided the procedural controversy from last year and even took a slightly softer approach, rebuking Israel for its treatment of Palestinian educators and students (including by restricting their ability to travel to study and teach), rather than calling for an official boycott.

But the measure still failed resoundingly, on a 111-51 vote. Those who voted against the measure were critical of efforts to use the association’s voice in a global political debate.

“They understood that this was part of a political campaign and an attempt to use the American Historical Association for political purposes, and they rejected that,” Jeffrey Herf, a University of Maryland history professor and AHA member, told The Times of Israel. “The members of the AHA have very high standards. They were not going to vote for a resolution like this that was making factual assertions that they couldn’t verify themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, Jewish cultural groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, were pleased with AHA’s decision to oppose the resolution.

HAW members, meanwhile, appeared to be happy just to get the issue in front of the association. “The American Historical Association has just spent a serious amount of time discussing the Israeli government’s violation of Palestinians’ right to education. This debate is not going away,” Van E. Gosse, HAW member and associate professor at Franklin and Marshall College, told The New York Times.

Boycotts and rebukes of Israel have become prominent tools in the academic world as part of the BDS movement, which advocates for the boycott, divestment, and sanction of Israel.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!