In what the History News Network called a “stunning loss,” the American Historical Association yesterday declined to bring several resolutions sanctioning Israel to a vote at its annual convention. The resolutions, which accused Israel of limiting Palestinian academic freedom, were not submitted by the required Nov. 1 deadline for inclusion on the convention agenda. As such, proponents of the resolutions pushed for the AHA to suspend its regular rules and bring them up for discussion. But they failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority to do so, losing 144-51, with three AHA members voting “present.”
It wasn’t the only defeat for the activists, who were affiliated with the Historians Against the War network. Earlier, the AHA’s executive council had rejected HAW’s proposal for a full-blown boycott of Israel, because the petitioners had failed to gather 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.” Why did these measures, which have met receptive audiences in other academic associations, encounter so much resistance at the AHA?
To begin with, setting aside those who opposed the anti-Israel resolutions on substance, many AHA members objected to them on procedural grounds. The last minute nature of the proceedings meant that many members had not been made aware of the resolutions, the prospective vote, and the arguments on both sides. Some historians, having made their travel plans in advance, had already left the convention, and would have been unable to participate in any ensuing discussion.
In fact, HAW’s eleventh hour tactics troubled not only rank-and-file AHA attendees, but its own members, most of whom were not consulted in the drafting of the resolutions, according to The New School’s Claire Potter. “There had been no discussion among those of us associated with Historians Against the War of these resolutions prior to them being presented,” she said. “A number of us were just saying, ‘where did this discussion happen?’ The group of organizers within HAW seems to have been very active but they did not inform the rest of us. So we didn’t really understand that.” (Potter herself voted in favor of the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel.)
Beyond these process-based objections, some AHA members felt it would be unwise to involve the organization in such a deeply contentious political issue that was seemingly outside its purview. Others feared the external public and legal backlash that greeted the American Studies Association’s boycott.
Finally, among the many academic associations in America, the AHA is perhaps the least temperamentally suited to some of the more strong-arm tactics that Israel critics have used to advance their cause in other academic contexts. At the AHA convention, the resolutions sanctioning Israel were presented as self-evident, Potter said, without an effort to persuade the membership, something many found disconcerting. “There were a great many people in the room who said: ‘We are historians, why would we vote on assertions for which we have been presented no evidence?’” said Potter. “How do you explain to people, ‘I voted on something that I actually don’t know anything about; I took very consequential action as a historian who was completely uninformed about the issues’?” In other words, for many, rubber-stamping the resolutions ran counter to the ethos of the historical enterprise.
Thus, whereas boycott proponents were able to push their measures through the American Studies Association while offering minimal time and space for debate, they were unable to pull off a similar feat at the AHA. If such resolutions are to succeed in the future–and they will doubtless be proposed in upcoming meetings of the association–a greater effort will be needed to convince members to sign on.