Jeffrey Herf
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How BDS failed in the American Historical Association

The American Historical Association upheld scholarly integrity and opted not to serve as useful idiots

First, the American Historical Association is not the American Studies Association (ASA). The vote in December 2013, in the ASA to boycott, sanction and divest (BDS) from Israeli academic institutions took place only after BDS activists had seized control of the organization in the previous year and used the levers of power of its national offices. As the ASA member, Sharon Musher put it in an excellent history of the seizure of power and its misuse last year, “support for the boycott (in the ASA) came from the highest level.” For many years, the ASA had become known for equating American studies with a leftist agenda focused on anti-imperialism (as long as the imperialism was that of the United States) and identity politics surrounding race and gender. Yet the seizure of power in a professional academic institution demands a second step which the University of Maryland Nobel Prize winning economist Mancur Olson long ago labeled “the logic of collective action.”

Yes, it is true. In the United States, as in Israel, most professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences are left-of-center. It is also true that most of the time, most professors spend their time teaching, grading papers and exams, doing research, writing articles and books and serving on various academic committees in their institutions. Most of us, most of the time, are not preoccupied with the political stances on public issues of our professional organizations. Yet when an activist minority with seemingly endless amounts of time to spend decides to focus its time and energy on seizing power in the organization, it benefits from the logic of its collective action compared to the relative indifference of the large majority that has other priorities, such as doing their jobs for the benefit of their students and fellow scholars. As Musher explained so well, because the seizure of power by the BDS activists preceded the decisive vote, various rules and procedures that would give alternative points of view an adequate hearing were neglected. That is what happened in the ASA in 2014.

A similar seizure of power had not taken place in 2014 in the AHA. Instead in Professor Jan Goldstein of the University of Chicago, the AHA had as its President a distinguished historian of modern French and European history who insisted on following standard rules of procedure which is another name for the even more fundamental issue at stake, namely, the rule of law. In deciding to do so, Goldstein sought and retained the support of the AHA Council composed of a range of other elected officers. The AHA rules require that resolutions to be debated at the Business Meeting in early January be submitted by November lst, that is, just over eight weeks before the meeting. The rationale for the November lst deadline is that the membership should have time to read and consider the issues and to decide if they will make arrangements (including travel and hotel, etc) to attend the meeting.

The advocates of BDS resolutions within the American Historical Association are gathered in a group called “Historians Against the War” (HAW). During the war in Gaza last August, the group issued a public petition that accused Israel of committing war crimes and wrote to President Obama urging the United States to cut off military assistance to Israel. It claimed to have over 1,000 signatures by historians in support of these views. At the time, I published an essay, “The Pro-Hamas Left Emerges” in the Washington based journal, The American Interest. HAW’s proposed resolution to the AHA accused Israel’s armed forces of threatening an oral history archive at the Islamic University in Gaza during the war and of refusing to allow scholars who wished to teach and do research to enter Gaza and the Palestinian territories. It used these allegations, tailored to the concerns of historians, to justify a call to boycott Israeli universities and to support the Palestinian right of return. The AHA Council refused to place the resolution on the Business Meeting agenda because it said that there were insufficient signatures by AHA members and because an implementation of the right of return was beyond the purview of the AHA.

On December 22, less than two weeks before the meeting, six weeks past the deadline, HAW submitted another resolution which Rebecca Stoil in TOI accurately described as “less than BDS.

That is, they repeated the accusations about events at the Islamic University in Gaza and about Israel’s supposedly “arbitrary” policies regarding travel visas into and out of the Palestinian territories but dropped the support for a boycott and for implementation of the right of return. While the AHA Council could simply have dismissed this resolution because it was submitted six weeks after the deadline, it decided to permit a vote at the Business Meeting on whether to suspend AHA rules and permit a vote on the substance of the resolution. In an important memo to the AHA Council of December 29, Sonya Michel, of the Department of History of the University of Maryland pointed out that placing the resolutions on the agenda would not leave enough time for members to carefully consider their merIts. In New York on January 4th, the vote of 144 to 51 of those in attendance not to consider the resolutions represented, in part, an agreement with the arguments Michel had made and which she made again from the floor.

To view this vote as “merely” procedural is mistaken for two reasons. First, procedure is another word for the rule of law. The purpose of the procedure was to make it possible for historians, functioning as professional historians, to have sufficient time to carefully examine the evidence. It became obvious to the historians in New York that it was absurd to ask professional historians to reach a judgment about what happened in August 2014 at the Islamic University or what the facts were concerning one of hundreds of thousands of visa and entry issues to and from the Palestinian territories. Asking the assembled members to reach conclusions about matters of fact that were in dispute required that they abandon the scholarly standards they apply in their own work and reach a judgment based strictly on political criteria. A number of my colleagues who are very critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank or who even were uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish state told me that as historians they would not and could not agree to resolutions that asserted matters of fact they could not possibly verify.

It is in this sense that the vote on procedure was a vote on substance. I interpret the vote to be a ringing defense of the idea that politics and scholarship are not identical. There is a whiff of totalitarianism in the repeated invocations of “the moral responsibility of historians” as historians to take positions on the issues of the day because it seeks to transfer the prestige accruing to one form of human activity—history, physics, literature, etc.—to political interventions. It is one thing for us to use the multiple avenues available to us to express our views on issues of the day. It is quite another to seek to use professional academic organizations to do so. The vote in New York was a reassertion of the integrity and the autonomy of scholarship and a rejection of its subordination to political purposes.

The vote in New York may also indicate that there is not a radical leftist majority in among the 13,000 members of the American Historical Association. BDS advocates are not liberals. They are radical leftists. This point needs to be made more frequently. All of the associated ideas of the BDS mantra repeat themes that have been part of Palestinian radicalism at least since the PLO’s Charter of 1968. The demand for a right of return is not, as dozens of UN resolutions implied over the years, related to a liberal tradition of human rights. Rather, it should be understood as what it was, a stance of the radical left and then of the Islamists that was intended to destroy the state of Israel by a mixture of force and propaganda.

Thanks to the assistance of the Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari, I was able to inform many colleagues that rockets were being manufactured and fired from the Islamic University in Gaza and that Israel’s strikes accurately struck those manufacturing and launching sites. While members of the American Historical Association may be predominantly liberal, they are not predominantly radical leftists. In this instance, that means that faced with factual claims made by the government of Israel or a highly respected Israeli journalist, on the one hand, and those of Hamas on the other, they were not willing to give Hamas the benefit of the doubt. In August an objectively pro-Hamas left emerged within the American historical profession. In January in New York, it suffered an unexpectedly humiliating defeat. Flushed with optimism in August, it ran into a wall of scholarly integrity in New York.

I cannot prove it but I think there was another factor at work in the victory over BDS in New York, namely Israel’s unity and the nature of the threat from Hamas. The threat from Hamas is too real, its ideology too fanatical and its actions too barbaric for a majority of historians to become useful idiots in its cause. If you ask historians to behave like political hacks, many of them will realize that their self-respect as scholars is at stake and will refuse to do so. That, in my view, is what happened in New York on January 4, 2015. It’s a lesson about self-respect and scholarly integrity that is well worth keeping in mind in months and years to come.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.