At its early January annual session, the American Historical Association, in a procedural vote, decided not to debate two anti-Israel resolutions proposed by a group called “Historians Against the War.” (Given Hamas’ tendency to wage war against Israel, an outsider might have speculated that the group would be pro-Israel.) For the best analysis of the outcome, see this piece by Maryland professor Jeffrey Herf—who, along with David Greenberg of Rutgers, deserves most credit for beating back the resolutions. Herf and Greenberg were aided by the tactical incompetence of HAW, which for reasons unexplained missed the deadline for submitting the resolution, thus explaining the need for the procedural vote.
Some of the debate surrounding the resolution approached the level of caricature. Barbara Weinstein, a professor of Brazilian history, used a session organized by the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians’ Organization to explain her tactics about producing students that would eventually agree with her anti-Israel foreign policy views. She conceded that it was “her experience that undergraduates really don’t like to take time out from class” on Brazilian history to talk about Israel. (Imagine that: students want to cover the course topic for which they enrolled!) Talking about the topic directly, therefore, would only result in her students “being more unsympathetic to the position I adopt.” So Weinstein focuses on having her students be able to process issues in a way that “I think [emphasis in original] will lead to a more peaceful and ethical world.” It doesn’t appear that she informs her students that she hopes they leave her classes agreeing with her political positions on a topic unrelated to the course.
Then there was Sandi Cooper, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. According to a tweet from the debate over the resolutions (the debate itself was closed to the media), Cooper offered the following analysis as to why the rules should be suspended and HAW’s anti-Israel resolutions should proceed: “recalls 1969, [says] rules are designed to suppress and curtail debate.” Cooper’s assertion was (unintentionally) revealing. For many on the academic far left of her generation, it’s as if the world stopped in 1969, and we all still should be storming the barricades at Columbia or Cornell.
My former Brooklyn colleague, Bonnie S. Anderson, expressed sympathy for the Weinstein/Cooper effort even as she decided not to attend the meeting. (She was drained, she implied, by waging a similar pro-boycott fight at the “Park Slop Food Co-Op.” Again, an outsider would be forgiven for concluding that the debate was caricature.) Anderson, a specialist in British gender history who has no academic training in U.S. foreign relations or Middle Eastern history, then offered the following analysis, in a posting captured by Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg: “It seems to me the most effective thing Americans can do is work against the immensely powerful American Jewish lobby.”
Even Walt and Mearsheimer know to cover their tracks by using the phrase “Israel lobby,” rather than “Jewish lobby”—which has rather ugly connotations. And in another tactical error, HAW probably bungled the job by proposing a late resolution in hopes of bullying the measure through. This approach opened the resolution to tactical objection, and also, as some observers noted, frustrated efforts for younger, more anti-Israel professors, from attending the gathering.
Victory this year, therefore, doesn’t mean the fight is over. The incoming AHA president promised to devote half of next year’s presidential panels to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other areas of international tension—Russia/Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Islamic fundamentalism in western Africa—received a combined zero sessions. And advocates of academic freedom can’t count on the kind of tactical disorganization we witnessed this year, or on advocates issuing alienating statements such as Anderson’s.
It seems plausible, moreover, that leadership within the AHA’s anti-Israel movement will pass from the likes of Cooper and Weinstein to younger scholars, figures trained in an academy (and in particular in certain fields, such as Middle Eastern history) in which anti-Israel sentiment has become a unifying belief. (In this respect, Corey Robin’s claim that the current academy is one in which anti-Israel beliefs are silenced suggests a departure from reality.) Herf has described these figures as the “pro-Hamas left,” by which he means academic believers that “movements of the extreme Right that are anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, and, of course, anti-democratic are acceptable so long as they aim to destroy the state of Israel and attack “U.S. imperialism.’”
Several years ago, I had a first-hand encounter with the sentiment. During a search in Middle Eastern history, a candidate (who took a job elsewhere) came to campus with a list of publications savagely critical of Israeli security policy. During her job talk and question session, she was if anything more hostile to Israeli policies, and finally a student asked her if there was anyone in current Israeli politics that she admired. Yes, she replied: then-MK Azmi Bishara. Bishara subsequently was charged with treason and fled Israel—after passing on information about Israeli security issues to Hezbollah.
Perhaps this candidate, who seemed like a paragon of political correctness, was in fact a secret reactionary, someone who deeply sympathized with anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-human rights politicians and the political movements they represented. Or perhaps she was only willing to give anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas a pass for their far-right views.
People like this job candidate (who has received fawning coverage on the “anti-Zionist” site Mondoweiss) are true believers, and deeply committed to an anti-Israel agenda. The AHA victory was important, but there’s every reason to believe that anti-Israel activists in the historical profession will be back.