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.