11 January '16..
Historians this Saturday, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, resoundingly rejected an anti-Israel resolution. The final vote was 111-51 against the resolution which, among other things, would have committed the AHA to “monitoring Israeli actions restricting the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
The proposal that an association of American academics devoted to the study and promotion of history and historical thinking would monitor the actions of a sovereign state in the Middle East gives one an idea of the arrogance of the crafters of the resolution. What next? Shall they constitute themselves as a peacekeeping force? Another piece of the resolution, a call for the “reversal of Israeli policies that restrict the freedom of movement,” without any regard for Israeli security needs, gives one an idea of the moral and intellectual seriousness of the resolution. But I will not dwell on the resolution’s defects because they have been so well covered by the Alliance for Academic Freedom, by the historian Jeffrey Herf and by the blogger William Jacobson.
Instead, let me focus on what can be learned from this important win.
First, there is still an audience for the view that the integrity of scholarly organizations demands that they avoid becoming vehicles for political activism. As Herf put it last year, after a similar resolution failed a crucial procedural vote:
Accustomed as we are to spending hundreds of hours working on thousands of documents to ascertain what actually happened in the past, it was absurd for us to presume that as historians we could determine where a bomb fell in Gaza or what the details of a particular travel entry issue were. Presumably, members realized that they should not be railroaded into reaching decisions about important resolutions on the basis of political opinions rather than the norms of scholarship.
Or as David Hollinger of the University of California, Berkeley, said, “The AHA isn’t a progressive organization or a conservative organization. It’s a professional organization.” This time around, Herf explained to me via email, the majority voted against the resolution largely because it did not come close to meeting the standards of the historical profession: “the resolution made factual errors about Israel’s policies toward Palestinian universities and that its central assertions were not true. It was apparent that the resolution was due to a political, not a scholarly agenda.”
Second, scholars on the left deserve credit for their work against these sorts of resolutions. The Alliance for Academic Freedom is an organization of “liberals and progressives who have been critical, individually and collectively, of Israeli policies toward the Palestinian people and supportive of both Palestinian and Jewish national aspirations.” Conservatives are greatly outnumbered in the humanities and social science fields in which these resolutions have been taken up. Associations like the AHA would long ago have been lost to the determined efforts of anti-Israel activists were it not for the willingness of scholars on the left to engage, year in and year out, in a strenuous and unpleasant fight against the ongoing campaign to use their organizations to delegitimize Israel.
Third, and relatedly, conservatives should not give up on our colleges and universities. It does not typically make headlines when teachers and scholars demonstrate their integrity. But as the vote at AHA suggests, there is more integrity to appeal to than a reader of the headlines might guess.
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