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Historians Against the War (HAW) calls out critics for falsely claiming the group backed a boycott of Israel

For an accurate report on Historians Against the War’s advocacy at the AHA, your readers should peruse the January 8 message below. I will not engage with Professor Herf’s claims other than to note that at key points he has invented a story with no relation to fact, an odd thing for a historian to do. 

He asserts that “An initial resolution was submitted by the Historians Against the War group (HAW),” and “HAW’s original petition included demands for a boycott of Israel universities and implementation of the Palestinian right of return.” Demonstrably false.  The first, pro-BDS resolution came from some other group. Our only connection to it is that some people who had signed HAW’s letter to the President and Congress during the Gaza war were requested to sign it. I was asked on October 31 and politely declined; it is an easy thing to look up academics’ email addresses via Google, and I presume that’s how I was found.  The next thing any of us in HAW heard of it was the December 15 story in insidehighered.com describing its rejection by AHA. We did not “submit revised resolutions” on December 22, as Professor Herf and his allies have repeatedly stated. Our resolutions critical of Israel’s violations of academic freedom were the only ones we ever worked on and submitted. 

To ascertain what HAW did and when, all that Professor Herf or other members of the “Alliance for Academic Freedom” had to do was to ask us. It is unfortunate that instead they decided to make up a narrative that suits their purposes.

HAW's Report on the AHA

We had a very full agenda at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.

We began with a Roundtable sponsored by MARHO: The Radical Historians Organization (an AHA affiliate) on January 3, discussing “What Is the Responsibility of Historians Regarding the Israel-Palestine Conflict.” Speakers included Joel Beinin of Stanford, Barbara Weinstein and Linda Gordon of New York University, and Leena Dallasheh of Rice. The moderator was Steering Committee member Carolyn Eisenberg of Hofstra. HAW members present agreed it was very successful--from the large, engaged audience, which included former AHA President Natalie Zemon Davis, incoming President Vicki L. Ruiz, and other prominent historians, to the quality of the discourse. Carolyn led off by evoking the debates in AHA over Vietnam forty years ago, when she had just joined, followed by analysis of the “silencing” of Palestinian history (Leena), the many ways in which Palestinian scholarship and intellectual life have been attacked and undermined since the founding of Israel (Joel), how in Europe BDS has led to meaningful economic sanctions whereas here it focuses on cultural boycotts (Linda), and how those of us not teaching the Middle East can incorporate its history into our pedagogy (Barbara). Even if you have discussed and read about Israel/Palestine for years, there were new and powerful insights. Following are links to the various presentations:

Carolyn Eisenberg (professor of history, Hofstra University), “Introduction: Historical Context and the Elephants in the Room”

Leena Dallasheh (postdoctoral fellow, Rice University), “Historians Must Start to Recover the Disappeared Past of Palestine”

Joel Beinin (professor of history, Stanford University), “Dialogue Can Only Take Place Between Equals”

Linda Gordon (professor of history, NYU), “Why Should Historians Press the US Government to Lessen Aid to Israel?”

Barbara Weinstein (professor of history, NYU), “How Should Historians Teach the Palestine-Israel Conflict?”

The Roundtable was also attended by a group calling itself “Historians Against Academic Boycotts” (or, sometimes, the Alliance for Academic Freedom), which put flyers on all the chairs objecting to the resolutions HAW had sent in on December 22, asking for consideration at the Business Meeting. The resolutions were:

Resolution on protecting the right to education in Palestine-Israel

Resolution on academic freedom of U.S. citizens visiting Israel and Palestine

More generally, these historians disagreed with the premise of the Roundtable that, as historians, we have a responsibility to discuss and, when necessary, criticize Israel, including its violations of academic freedom. It was clear that they would mobilize heavily for the Business Meeting, to oppose a suspension of the rules allowing our resolutions to be debated. As it turned out, they were successful, and by a vote of 144 to 51 (with 3 voting “present”), the meeting on Sunday voted against permitting debate on our resolutions.

At the meeting itself, it was clear as soon as Executive Director James Grossman read the AHA Council’s rationale for not adding our resolutions to the agenda (that they had arrived too late to permit full discussion, after people had already decided whether or not to attend) that we would lose. A two-thirds vote would have been required, in any case, a very high bar.

Some observers have suggested that we made our resolutions in blithe ignorance of AHA rules. This was hardly the case: the idea of proposing these two resolutions first came up during a Palestine-Israel Working Group phone meeting in late November. A resolution (not ours) in favor of BDS had been circulating among some historians already, and the Working Group members who had seen it thought it was not likely to pass the AHA. The group all, however, agreed that a positive resolution, explaining the actual difficulties faced by Palestinian scholars and West Bank and Gazan universities because of the Israeli occupation, might be more able to open the discussion, and garner support even of AHA members who were wary of BDS. We were well aware that the deadline to guarantee consideration (November 1) was past. Acting on advice from persons familiar with AHA’s past practice, that indeed such a suspension of the Business Meeting agenda was allowed in the rules and has happened before, we decided to go ahead. At the least, we thought, we could guarantee some discussion, and prepare the ground for further action in the future. And that is what has happened. Instead of waiting a full year, we have gained a great deal of publicity, stimulated ample debate, and (not the least) seen in detail the arguments against our work within the profession to criticize Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights. On that front, it is clear that we need to produce detailed, well-sourced reports on how international standards of academic freedom are routinely violated in Israel/Palestine, to answer those colleagues who felt they were being asked to vote on unproven allegations. So, no matter how much crowing there is about the actual vote, that was a temporary victory for the opponents of free discussion. Crucially, AHA President Vicki Ruiz has announced that she will devote half her presidential sessions at next year’s Annual Meeting to historicizing the Israel/Palestine conflict.

In descending order of importance and factual accuracy, here is the press coverage of what happened last weekend. You will note in many cases the false assertion that our resolutions on academic freedom were linked to an earlier resolution proposing that AHA endorse BDS.