Over the weekend, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel suffered its second consecutive defeat at the American Historical Association’s annual conference. By a vote of 111-51, the largest professional body of American historians rejected a resolution to sanction Israel over alleged violations of Palestinian academic freedom. (No other country’s practices—including Palestine’s—were on the agenda.)
Though the resolution did not itself call for boycotting the Jewish state, it was backed by the same organization—Historians Against the War—that had attempted and failed to pass such a boycott last year. At that conference in 2015, two anti-Israel resolutions were shelved by a similarly lopsided margin. Having failed to enact more ambitious anti-Israel measures, HAW’s members—many of them noted BDS supporters—sought instead to incrementally push the AHA towards a boycott by condemning Israel for violating academic freedom. Though HAW disclaimed any association with the BDS movement, they still did not sway their colleagues.
While some smaller, more radical academic associations—like the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association—have adopted an Israel boycott, larger ones have proven more resistant. In part, this is because organizations like the AHA are bigger, more ideologically diverse, and less politicized. They have also doubtless been influenced by the harsh public and scholarly backlash to prior boycotts. The American Studies Association, for instance, lost nearly 20% of its affiliated universities in the wake of their boycott, and were condemned by the American Association of University Professors, and by 250 schools, including most of the Ivy League. (The ASA was eventually reduced to citing an anti-Semitic 9/11 truther in their defense.) Singling out the world’s only Jewish state for unique opprobrium, it turned out, did not play well both inside and outside academia.
At the AHA conference, however, there was more at stake than a dispute over Israel. There was also a professional—and, according to some attendees, generational—split between historians over how political the AHA ought to be on contentious topics outside its general purview. As the New York Times reported,
David Hollinger, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, said he wished less attention had been paid to “the goodness or badness of Israel” than to defining what he called “the very high threshold” for the association taking a stand on contentious political matters.
One young scholar in support of the resolution, Mr. Hollinger noted, had said he wanted the association to stand up and say what kind of group it was, “progressive or conservative.”
“I’m glad this is an organization that does not define itself by how progressive it is,” Mr. Hollinger said. “The A.H.A. isn’t a progressive organization or a conservative organization. It’s a professional organization.”
The AHA’s vote is thus a reminder that debates over BDS across academia are as much a debate about the role of the academy itself as they are about Israel.