American Historical Society and BDS – Strike Two!

By now, most of you have probably heard the good news that the American Historical Association (AHA) has voted down a motion “critical of Israel” (i.e., the best the BDSers could do in an environment where their squalid little boycotts are treated with understandable suspicion) by a 2:1 margin.

The group responsible for forcing this year’s vote (called “Historians Against the War” – which seems to have moved from fighting against the war in Iraq to supporting the war against Israel) learned enough from their experience last year to get their resolution submitted in time to be taken up during the organization’s business meeting when official policy is decided.

Momentum the BDSers received from recent pro-boycott votes in other, smaller academic groups no doubt had them licking their chops in hopes of official support from this larger, more prestigious one. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for AHA), their motion ran into a couple of problems.

First, there was organized opposition to AHA taking an official anti-Israel stance, one which concentrated on successfully debunking the many accusations in the original “criticism” motion that had no basis in fact.

Second, historians are a bit more inclined to take seriously claims that important historic details have been left out of documents (especially those being used as the basis for important decision-making).  And while ambiguity is something historians (like all rigorous academics) understand and appreciate, they are not willing to substitute unsubstantiated (even if passionately held) opinions for truth when facts are unclear.

Finally, the backlash against those few groups that have embraced BDS positions has given the people making up more responsible academic associations pause, especially if they have not suffered from having leadership positions seized by people who are BDSers first, academics second.

And this is where the AHA story is the most telling.  For, as tempting as it might be to condemn anthropology, women’s and American studies as disciplines inclined towards whatever slipshod thinking allows them to accept anti-Israel invective as unassailable truth, the professional associations representing these disciplines became obsessed with condemning the Jewish state because partisans decided to make their political agenda each organization’s top priority.

As with all professional groups, only a percentage of those in the profession take an interest in anything the group does or says.  And only a tiny percentage of those care enough to take leadership roles in the group, rather than focus on their primary work (which, in the case of academics, is teaching and research).

In most cases, the people who volunteer to lead such a group are dedicated to the field as a whole, at least to the point of volunteering (usually for a finite amount of time) to sacrifice for the good of a particular academic community.  In fact, the reason most civil society groups work is that the majority is ready to trust a small number of (usually unknown) willing volunteers to represent their interests, rather than take advantage of that trust to pursue their own interest at everyone else’s expense.

Now it may turn out that some fields (like Middle East Studies) have become so polluted that hatred of Israel overwhelms everything else the field and its members care about.  But given that the “landslide” victory leaders of the American Studies Association still brag about (the biggest BDS academic win to date) came from votes of less than 15% of the membership, it’s more than likely that the academic association boycott phenomenon simply measures which organizations are vulnerable to takeover by fanatics ready to take advantage of “majority-of-a-minority” voting to ram through their agenda, regardless of the cost to their colleagues, their field, or the academy as a whole.

Team BDS is always ready with a quick answer whenever they are challenged over why their devotion to “human rights” seems to begin and end with Israeli treatment of Palestinians (the rest of the world, including Palestinians killed by non-Israeli’s, be damned).

“Israel’s gets lots of aid from the US!” “Israel wants to be judged by Western standards!” “As a Jew, I resent your accusations of anti-Semitism” (including those you never made), yadda, yadda, yadda.  But the reason why boycotting Israel must be voted on by every academic association in the land is far simpler than this.

For Israel, alone among nations, has a propaganda war directed against it led by those who will say anything (no matter how untrue) and do anything (no matter how destructive) in order to get their propaganda message (that Israel is an “Apartheid State,” alone in the world at deserving exclusion from the community of nations) to come out of someone else’s mouth.

If other nations were targeted by an army of assholes who spend every waking hour trying to smear another people’s reputation, perhaps we’d see a few more countries brought to the dock within civic organizations, such as AHA – organizations with far better things to do than squander their reputation for someone else’s political benefit.

History Has Spoken – The AHA BDS Blues

As some of you might have heard, the latest attempt to bring an academic association on board the BDS “bandwagon” collapsed last night as the American Historical Association voted 144 to 51 to not bring two anti-Israel resolutions up for a vote within the wider organization.

The specifics of the decision will likely seem Byzantine to most non-academics, but the nut of it comes down to:

  • The proposals skirted the issue of an academic boycott (as did last year’s votes by the MLA), with the BDSers instead pushing resolutions condemning Israel for practices that they claim harm academic freedom (of Palestinian academics and American academics working with them). This might simply reflect a strategy of phases whereby this year’s condemnations would lead to next year’s boycotts, although it might also indicate a recognition that academic boycotts are radioactive after everything we saw ASA go through in 2014.
  • Decision-makers within the organization had already taken boycott votes off the table, and last night’s vote was over whether or not to take the extraordinary step of adding new resolutions to an agenda that had been closed in November (a deadline the BDS cru missed)

It is too early to tell if this decision reflects the start of an auto-immunization process within the academy, or if the boycott/condemnation bandwagon will continue across more and more academic associations in the coming year (including AHA which is likely to see the same resolutions submitted – within the deadline this time – for next year’s conference).

I was pleased to see that discussion over the resolution focuses on whether or not history professors at American universities (very few of whom have any expertise in Middle East history) equip them to make decisions that involve (among other thing) understand military choices made during last year’s Gaza war.  This  reflects a degree of intellectual humility that alone provides a certain level of protection against partisans insisting that an organization has the right – and responsibility – to make political statements in the name of the field (although only statements of which the boycotters approve).

I suspect that this recent vote will be used by critics of inter-disciplinary fields like American studies to make the case that academics representing more traditional fields (not to mention non-humanities fields like science and engineering) are better prepared to resist politicization and hubris.  But I think there is a simpler explanation as to why the boycotters seem to have lost so badly among History vs. American Studies professors.

For in this case, the AHA seems to be led by people who value scholarship, the needs of their members and the general cause of academic freedom over the requirements of a particular partisan agenda.  In contrast, organization that have passed anti-Israel boycott resolutions (notably ASA) chose to place the BDS “mission” of the leadership over scholarship, the needs of colleagues and the good of the academy as a whole.

Now there is no telling if the BDS tactic of infiltration will make AHA or some other academic organization vulnerable to the boycott infection in the future.  But I think the telltale sign of trouble moving forward is not the nature of the discipline, but whether or not a specific organization is run by a bunch of partisan hacks ready to trash everything and everyone for their own selfish gain.