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Inside Account: How Anti-Israel Resolutions Were Defeated at American Historical Association

Inside Account: How Anti-Israel Resolutions Were Defeated at American Historical Association

Procedure and the rule of law matter, and so does substance: AHA is a scholarly, not political, organization.

[WAJ Intro: University of Maryland Professor Jeffrey Herf helped lead the battle to defeat anti-Israel resolutions at the American Historical Association, as we wrote about on Sunday.  I asked him to submit this Guest Post to recount the events and strategies, in the hope they will inform others facing similar anti-Israel tactics.]


By now readers of this blog probably know that by a vote of 144 to 51 with three abstentions, members of the American Historical Association, at their Business Meeting of annual meeting in New York City on January 4, 2015, decided not to pursue two resolutions that denounced aspects of the policies of the government of Israel.

For readers of Legal Insurrection it is important to point out that the defeat of these resolutions was due to procedural issues that were also matters of substance. Details of the events are readily available in the reports by The New York Times, Inside Higher Education, Algemeiner and The Tablet .

It is the most decisive defeat that groups supporting resolutions denouncing Israel have suffered since “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) efforts gathered steam in American universities in recent years.

This is a preliminary anatomy of its defeat.

The case for rejection on procedural grounds was straightforward. Readers of Legal Insurrection will understand that debates about procedure are also debates about substance and the rule of law.

The AHA bylaws require that members wishing to submit resolutions to be considered at the Business Meeting must do so by November lst.

An initial resolution was submitted by the Historians Against the War group (HAW). It is a group of leftist academics that emerged in opposition to the war in Iraq and that issued a petition alleging that Israel committed “war crimes” during the war with Hamas this past summer. I wrote about the emergence of a “pro-Hamas left” this summer.

HAW’s original petition included demands for a boycott of Israel universities and implementation of the Palestinian right of return. That resolution was rejected by the AHA Council because the advocates had not gathered enough signatures and because the content of the resolution was deemed, in the words of AHA executive director James Grossman, “beyond matters of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.”

On December 22, 2014, HAW submitted revised resolutions.  The revisions eliminated the boycott and right of return elements but included assertions alleging that Israel threatened an oral history archive when it bombed buildings at the Islamic University in Gaza in August 2014 and that it denied access of foreign scholars and Palestinian students to universities in Gaza and on the West Bank.

HAW then requested that the AHA Council decide whether or not to place the resolution on the agenda, even though it was submitted six weeks after the deadline, something that the Council had the right to do, despite the restrictions regarding resolutions in the organization’s bylaws.

At its meeting on January 2, 2015, the Council, led by AHA President Jan Goldstein, of the University of Chicago Department of History, refused to do so for two reasons.

First, the December 22 resolution was submitted six week after the November 1st deadline, and therefore, AHA members did not have the opportunity to evaluate them.

Second, because they were filed so late, many members would not be at the business meeting because they did not know these matters would be discussed there.

A memo by Sonya Michel of the University of Maryland is an important document in this matter. Submitted on December 29th, the Michel memo was circulated to the AHA Council.

Prof. Michel urged that the AHA Council not place the HAW resolutions on the agenda because doing so would “be violating the spirit of that bylaw” that required a two-thirds majority which, she continued “was probably inserted to prevent a small group (whether a minority or slim majority) from imposing its will at the last minute on the membership at large, perhaps catching them unawares about an important issue coming up.” Doing so would also not give “members adequate time and opportunity for full consideration of important issues–issues that, in this case, are by all accounts extremely controversial. “ Last “notifying members that these items are on the agenda of the meeting only at the meeting itself would deny them the kind of information they would need to decide whether or not to attend the Business Meeting in the first place.” Michel and a number of us elaborated on these points as well at the Business Meeting.

As I pointed out on the floor that the Business Meeting, the issue of time needed for reflection was of central concern to historians.

(American Historical Assoc. Business Mtg, Jan. 4, 2015)(Photo via History News Network, used with permission)

To ask historians at a Business Meeting to reach conclusions about assertions of fact regarding events that supposedly occurred during the Gaza War and travel rights of scholars in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank was absurd. This was the case because it was asking historians to act on the basis political opinions rather than as a result of careful examination of evidence. No one, we argued, was able to make such assessments as a result of scholarly research. Doing so without research would be abolishing the distinction between politics and scholarship—doing what no historian should do, namely assume what remained to be proven before examination of evidence had taken place.

If HAW had achieved a two-thirds majority that was needed to “suspend the rules” and proceed to discussion of the resolutions, a number of us were prepared to challenge all of the factual assertions made in the HAW resolutions.

On December 15, 2014, I sent a memo to President Goldstein. [See letter below] Drawing on the reporting of Ehud Yaari, an Israeli journalist who reported on Gaza, I offered the Council and colleagues an account of events reported by this reliable journalist and by the government of Israel. The presentation of that evidence meant that AHA Members would, in effect, have to decide which was more reliable: the account of events offered by Israel or that of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. The AHA would be faced with deciding between the account of events offered by Israel, a liberal democracy with a thriving political opposition and free press, compared to accounts offered by Hamas, a terrorist organization which suppressed all opposition, intimidated the press and media and whose charter repeats the falsehoods of classic Jew-hatred.

Again, AHA members could not as historians render judgments about this set of events. Why would the AHA give the benefit of the doubt to Hamas rather than to Israel?

If the AHA had adopted the Historians Against the War resolutions, the name of the American Historical Association would be associated in public with the version of events associated with Hamas, an organization justly famous for terrorism and anti-Semitism and which did not permit academic freedom to thrive under its rule.

Within the AHA adoption of such resolution may have led to mass resignations, bitter divisiveness. A cloud of suspicion may have hung over young Jewish historians who could be suspected of guilt by association with Israel, a suspicion that could have had grave consequences on a job market that already is a political minefield.

In the broader public realm, the AHA would be associated in the public sphere with a version of events offered by Historians Against the War, a group of the radical left that had denounced Israel but had no criticisms of Hamas.

The rejection of the resolutions also rested on a reassertion of the principle that the AHA is a scholarly, not a political organization and that there is a difference between scholarship and politics. Historians as citizens have multiple other forum in which to express our views on public matters.

The vote yesterday was, for me, an assertion that many of us oppose efforts to use academic organizations to promote political purposes. It was a vote against the politicization of the AHA.

The fight to oppose the politicization of the universities is not over.

Yet thanks to the efforts of many people, especially in the past year or two, the American Historical Association will not be issuing resolutions denouncing Israel in 2015.

(added) In this effort two mid-career historians, David Greenberg of Rutgers University and Sharon Musher, of Stockton College in New Jersey brought courage and their talents as historians to bear. They played an especially important role.

HAW and BDS activists may learn not to repeat their tactical blunders of recent months. They are not going away. But after their defeat at the AHA, their task has become far more difficult.

In the AHA, January 4, 2015 was one case in which good arguments and careful preparation about matters of fact produced a result as welcome as it was unexpected.


December 14, 2014

Professor Jan Goldstein
President, American Historical Association

Cc: James Grossman
Executive Director, American Historical Association

Dear Professor Goldstein:

I am writing to you in regard to ongoing efforts to place resolutions concerning the Middle East on the agenda of the AHA Business Meeting on January 4th at the Annual AHA Meetings in New York City.

I welcomed the earlier decision of the AHA Council not to place a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution on the agenda. Now, however, I see that there is another effort, on the part of Historians Against War, to introduce resolutions at the meeting itself. Both the earlier resolution and the current ones contain factual assertions concerning Israel’s actions in the Gaza War and its travel and visa policies that I, having examined relevant evidence, regard as false. As the Council may have to address these issues, I am writing to you now to explain how I reached this conclusion.

Whatever one’s opinions about the Middle East conflict, it is vital that historians pay careful attention to the facts and that we not pass resolutions based on assertions whose veracity cannot be evaluated by AHA members. Accordingly, I sought advice from some experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whom I know. I received a very informative response from Ehud Yaari, a Middle East commentator at Israel TV Ch. 2, who is an Overseas Lafer Fellow this year at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Yaari is the author of eight books on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and has published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs and Atlantic Monthly. Here is the link to his website:

In October, he published an essay on “Hamas in Search of a Strategy.” Here is the link:

The first dubious assertion made in the resolutions concerns Israel’s actions in the Gaza War, which allegedly threated the Oral History Center at the Islamic University. Yaari reports the following about this event based on information from “high-ranking Israeli defense sources-both IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] and ISA [Israeli Security Agency also known as Shin Bet].”

“The strike at the Islamic University campus–a rather small compound–was carried out on August 2nd and reported by IDF spokesman on the next day. The target was an R&D facility within the campus serving Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas’s military wing] where different components of rockets were manufactured. In this facility, professors, lecturers and other staff members of the science faculties were working for years on production of rockets–including those with a range to hit deep into Israel–improving the explosive payload and seeking ways to introduce guidance systems. On several occasions rockets were fired from different spots within the campus. The Oral History center was never targeted but there may have been collateral damage. In fact the Islamic University serves Hamas military operations with many chemistry, physics and engineering teachers…acting as members of the Qassam armament department efforts. Apart from rockets, they were–and still are–dealing with mortars, IEDs etc. They provide the military wing with the technical know-how. It should be noted that most of Hamas’s top political and military leaders were either teachers or leaders of [the] Hamas students block there, e.g. Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmud Zahar, Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, Ismail Abu Shanab, Salah Bardawil etc. The Hamas founder, the late Ahmed Yassin, was himself a lecturer on Sharia’a there. Effectively the IU is the academic branch of Hamas, fully involved in military and other activities.”

Yaari’s report makes clear that the target of the Israeli attack was a research and development facility within the Islamic University campus, and that this facility was important for designing and producing components of rockets which were then being fired at Israeli civilian centers. Over 3,000 such rockets were fired, some of them from within the Islamic University campus. The R and D facility was a military target. The oral history archive was not targeted.

One of the resolutions being proposed by Historians Against the War (HAW) asserts that Israel has refused “to allow students from Gaza to travel in order to pursue higher education abroad, and even at West Bank universities.” It also claims that Israel “arbitrarily denies entry to foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, who seek to lecture, teach and attend conferences at Palestinian universities, denying both faculty and students the rich experience enjoyed by their peers at other universities worldwide.”

Today, I again consulted Yaari about the truth content of these assertions, and he reported as follows:

“Israel does not interfere with foreign academics coming to Palestinian area unless they intend to participate in anti-Israeli activities or support terrorist groups like Hamas. Many foreign academics are now teaching in Palestinian universities and some were allowed to cross into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge this past summer. Israelis are not allowed to go to Gaza at all. Restrictions on Gazan students were and are imposed by Egypt’s closure of the Rafah Terminal, the point of entry and exist to and from Egypt and Gaza.

“Since the Hamas military takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel does not allow Gaza students to study in the West Bank for fear that they will operate as Hamas activists there. Gaza students are allowed to go elsewhere via Egypt–and in some cases through Israel–but Egypt is restricting Gazans’ enrollment in its universities and imposes many restrictions on crossing into its territory through Rafah. Usually they allow entry into Egypt to those students who submit documents proving that they intend to study outside Egypt.”

On the basis of Yaari’s clarification, I dispute HAW’s assertion that “Israel violates its obligation to these principles by refusing to allow students from Gaza to travel in order to pursue higher education abroad, and even at West Bank universities.” On the contrary, Israel does allow Gaza students to go abroad via Egypt if permitted, but it generally does not allow them to study at universities on the West Bank. It prevents them from doing so out of the reasonable fear that Hamas activists among those students will seek to expand support for the group through recruitment in West Bank universities.

It is also not true, as the HAW resolution claims, that Israel “arbitrarily denies entry to foreign nationals, including U.S. citizens, who seek to lecture, teach and attend conferences at Palestinian universities, denying both faculty and students the rich experience enjoyed by their peers at other universities worldwide.” This assertion is false because Israel denies entry only to those foreign nationals whom it suspects will engage in anti-Israeli activities or support terrorist organizations such as Hamas. This is not arbitrariness; it is counterterrorism and national self-defense. If the American Historical Association were to adopt the proposed HAW resolution, it would be criticizing Israel for not granting entry to foreign nationals who support terrorist organizations bent on its destruction and for trying to prevent the growth of a terrorist organization, Hamas, on the West Bank.

Were the AHA to adopt these resolutions or some variation thereof, it would then be criticizing Israel for doing things that the United States and the countries of the European Union do all the time when they prevent supporters of terrorism from traveling to their countries. The use of the term “arbitrary” in the proposed resolution could easily be read to imply that its advocates do not view Hamas as a terrorist organization and, in effect, want the American Historical Association to support the right of academics to aid in a terrorist war waged against Israel.

As historians we are continually called upon to assess the validity of contending factual claims by examining them within a broader evidentiary context. Following this accepted practice, my inclination is to lend more credibility to an account offered by the government of Israel, which was engaged in an effort to end rocket attacks on its population, than to one offered by Hamas, which the United States government declares to be a terrorist organization and which has anti-Semitism inscribed in its founding charter of 1988. But for AHA members who may be more skeptical of Israeli government claims, the least they can do, as professional historians, is to reserve judgment until they have command of the facts. In this instance AHA members should be aware of the limits of our knowledge and expertise about recent events and decline to allow the good name of our professional organization to be hijacked for political purposes.

Adoption of this latest resolution would damage the reputation of the AHA as an organization of professionals whose expertise lies in the careful assessment of evidence. That would be the case both among those members who object to these resolutions and in the broader public sphere. In my view, the AHA would correctly be seen as an organization that places political opinions ahead of assiduous scholarship. Adoption of this latest resolution would send a chill especially to young scholars whose careers could be ended or damaged if they were to take a different view of events in the Middle East. HAW may appear to be framing its resolutions within the parameters of the AHA’s stated commitment to protecting academic freedom and the right to education, but the falsehood and tendentiousness of their underlying assumptions reveal that their true intentions lie elsewhere. I urge you to continue to resist pressures to politicize our professional organization.


Jeffrey Herf
Distinguished University Professor
Department of History
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He teaches and does research in Modern European, especially 20th century German history. His publications include The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006) and Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009). He is currently completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989” under contract with Cambridge University Press.”


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I think that historians have a duty, perhaps greater than that of journalists, to preserve factual information and eschew the color of bias. Obviously, historians are human and as biased as anyone. They should relegate their opinions to historical fiction and other non-academic media, while keeping their scholarship pure.