It wasn’t even close. At Sunday’s business meeting of the American Historical Association’s annual conference, AHA members present voted overwhelmingly against considering two resolutions sponsored by Historians Against the War, both attempting to draw AHA into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The resolutions accuse Israel of the usual crimes against the right to education and academic freedom. But the content of the resolutions, though objectionable, as usual disguised the actual goal of those proposing them. As Van Goss, a historian at Franklin and Marshall and a member of HAW’s steering committee, explained at a roundtable on the resolutions, “I know the AHA. If we bring in a BDS resolution, we’ll get blown out of the water. That’s not a tactically smart thing to do.” Having conceded that the resolution is a “politically and tactically sensible move” on the part of people whose purpose is to get the AHA to boycott Israel, Van Goss goes on to deny that the resolution is an “in any shape or form” an “entering wedge” for the boycott movement. Sure.
Van Goss may have been right about the likely fate of an actual BDS resolution. Such a resolution was submitted for consideration at the meeting but rejected in part because it did not have the required 50 signatures. As AHA executive director James Grossman said in explaining the decision, this “bar is quite low,” since AHA has more than 13,000 members. Of course, a more competent effort would have netted more than the required 50 signatures, but the incompetence of this year’s effort is itself heartening.
Indeed, HAW submitted its own two resolutions late, which is why the vote was about whether to suspend the rules so that the resolutions could be considered rather than about the resolutions themselves. Claire Potter, via Twitter, reported on the debate. Opponents of suspension for the most part agreed with the AHA Council, which could have put the resolution on the agenda but declined to do so for two reasons. First, timing: “A complex issue should not arise [without] time for research and reflection.” Second, fairness: putting the item on the agenda late would be unfair to those not in attendance who “might have attended had they known the resolutions [would be] on the agenda.”
Those in favor of suspension argued, strangely, that abiding by the rules was undemocratic since the rules were made to “suppress and curtail debate.” They also argued that even if the procedure were unfair, that unfairness could somehow be wiped out by a full membership vote, though such a vote was not guaranteed to occur and, if it did occur, would do so in a context of an unfairly secured endorsement. No one explained why there was such a hurry to pass a resolution, perhaps because it is “not a tactically smart thing to do” to say out loud that the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement needs every anti-Israel statement it can get, whether it directly calls for a boycott or not, to create the appearance of momentum. That propaganda beast needs feeding.
The members present weren’t buying it. The resolutions’ supporters needed two-thirds of the votes. They got not even one-third. In a defeat the History News Network called stunning, the activists won just 51 votes. 144 voted against suspending the rules, and 3 abstained.
The History News Network is right to call the magnitude of defeat stunning. Proponents of the resolutions had more time to organize than did their opponents, and the AHA has not been shy about taking political stands before. Historians like David Greenberg of Rutgers University, Sharon Musher of Richard Stockton College, and Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland, who have defended the integrity of AHA against attempts to use it as a political weapon, deserve a lot of credit. But they and their allies will soon enough have to be at it again. Incoming AHA president Vicki Ruiz has decided to devote three of six presidential sessions at next year’s conference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is disappointing that Ruiz thinks that the AHA staking out its foreign policy is worth half of the time she controls at the conference. But Ruiz has once before stood against the anti-Israel boycott movement, and it is to be hoped that the discussions she organizes will be fairer than has been the norm. Certainly, BDS opponents are not afraid of such discussions. Alice Kessler Harris of Columbia University, a boycott opponent, rose to urge the AHA Council to design a program of education so that if it should come to a vote next year, the vote might actually be informed by knowledge of the issues at stake.
The activists of Historians Against the War tried to interrupt her. I guess they think ignorance is good for their cause.