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The Rules Were Not Suspended: What Happened at the AHA Business Meeting

January 5, 2015, 12:47 pm

grumpy_noYesterday afternoon the members of the American Historical Association (AHA) present at the business meeting were asked to take up several resolutions proposed by Historians Against the War (HAW). These resolutions proposed that the AHA condemn the state of Israel for alleged violations of academic freedom against both US and Palestinian scholars; and for attacks on research centers in Gaza last summer. You can read the resolutions here; you can read accounts of the meeting at History News Networkin my Twitter feed (I was sitting right behind Rick Shenkman, so I guess we were the press section) and in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The business meeting had been preceded by a session organized by the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians Organization (MARHO). It too was organized late and was not on the program, although it was well publicized in the weeks leading up to the annual meeting. I could not have attended it had I wanted to, nor could numerous other people, since we were scheduled to be in our own sessions at that very moment.

Despite what you may have heard, however, AHA members present at the meeting did not vote down the resolutions. The resolutions were never discussed, since the necessary first motion was to suspend the rules to allow the resolutions on the agenda in the first place. They had not been received until mid-December, six weeks after the deadline, and Council (which could have put them on the agenda) had declined to act. The motion to suspend the rules, made by past AHA president Barbara Weinstein, failed by a 3-1 margin.

The Coalition of No was a heterogeneous one, and I voted with it: I cannot speak for others, but I will describe my own thinking below. I can say that my reasons did not include concern that Israel was being unfairly targeted; nor was I concerned about divisiveness within the organization, something people have reason to expect following vicious fights at the 2013 American Studies Association (ASA) and another that will be renewed at the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Vancouver as I write this. I do deplore divisiveness, but my experience is that the pro-Israel folks deplore it at the same time as they are perfectly willing to fuel it; and the anti-Israel folks fuel it by unrestrained attacks while insisting that divisiveness is being forced upon them by conservatives and their fellow travelers.

I’ve also been the object of such divisiveness, and I am here to tell you that life goes on: it is not necessarily a reason not to act. As readers know, a little over a year ago I ended up in a series of nasty online confrontations with the ASA faction pushing the BDS resolution when I questioned whether the “boycott” part of  Boycott, Divest and Sanction violated academic freedom. These attacks extended themselves to Facebook and Twitter, as well as to vile messages sent to my personal email accounts. Subsequently, when I supported the Council’s decision to send the resolution to the membership for a vote, I received similarly hateful messages from supporters of Israel, except that this time I was called a Nazi instead of a Zionist, and sent a lot of Holocaust porn over email and Twitter.

In an interesting twist, and I do feel twisted by it, the resolutions that were presented to the AHA by HAW took an academic freedom perspective, with Israel as the culprit.

People keep asking me what I think of the resolutions themselves, and honestly? I don’t know, except that my own inquiries support some of the facts they assert. But that was part of the problem. Many of us on the academic left find our heads spinning as esteemed colleagues tell us that the situation they are describing in the Occupied Territories, and the urgency of AHA action in relation to them, is so obvious and incontrovertible that no documentation need be presented. Perhaps differently from other humanities scholars, many historians find this so profoundly opposed to the ethic of our practice, they dig in their heels right there, and I happen to be one of those people. You can’t be a student of the American past and not know that people repeat falsehoods all the time (white supremacy is a good example of this); and assert things they are sure of without knowing the facts (show me a race riot or lynching, and I’ll show you a rumor or falsehood.)  Deliberately lying — which, I would like to say emphatically, I do not believe my colleagues in HAW have done — is also not uncommon in politics.

The question of documentation is not a trivial one, and documentation could have been provided. There is also the question of people voting to support things they know little about but that have unintended, entirely predictable consequences. Had the resolution passed, all kinds of expensive, legal hell would have broken over the heads of our AHA officers and the paid staff in Washington. I heard a rumor (a rumor! this may or may not be true!) last year that the executive director of ASA, John Stephens, worked from home for a prolonged period after that vote because he was receiving serious and violent threats.

I consider myself well informed enough at this point to be deeply concerned about the Occupation.  At the same time, I see no benefit to anyone that would result from the AHA shaking its finger, with unaccustomed severity, at Bibi and his coalition in the Knesset. One outcome of the BDS nastiness (other than several people with whom I no longer have a speaking relationship) is that I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the international crisis that these resolutions address; as well as talking to activist scholars who are involved, either through BDS or through community partnerships, in the Occupied Territories.

As a result, I am far better informed about Israel’s policies and violence in the Occupied Territories and towards Palestinians within Israel’s borders than I was twelve months ago, and more reluctant to support organizing that begins and ends in academia. I have acquired a new appreciation and respect for why people who support BDS strategies do so, and my own views reflect an increasing conviction that US support for Israel is a critical element of regional violence. One might imagine that this is a “good outcome” of all the opprobrium dumped on me, but shouldn’t a scholarly organization, or a movement, be able to achieve this without hectoring people and trashing them in social media?

A consistent theme between the ASA resolutions and the resolutions that HAW hoped to put on the agenda at AHA is the claim that the process chosen was fully transparent to the entire membership when in fact it was not. The information disseminated to AHA members came late, and the HAW process leading to the resolutions, while not explicitly secret, was confined to the steering committee who acted independently and notified the rest of us that they had submitted resolutions on December 17. I was not the only member of HAW in the room who was never consulted about the content, or desirability, of these resolutions.

An earlier resolution, which was similar to that passed at the ASA but even more convoluted, was submitted on time. It was circulated to at least some HAW members, including yours truly, but did not meet the criteria for inclusion in an AHA business meeting. Weeks ago, when I asked a colleague who is one of the more active members of HAW how a BDS organizer had obtained the HAW mailing list, my friend did not know. I believe her that she did not know, but that information should have been available for any HAW member who asked, and any subsequent action should have included consultation with the entire HAW list.

I realize that a great many of my friends who feel strongly about the crisis in Palestine are frustrated by the willingness of many colleagues on the left to vote with our moderate and conservative colleagues at moments like this. But moderates and conservatives are not always wrong about everything. Here are some things to think about as we move forward as politically engaged scholars:

  • First, join the organization. The November resolution was turned back partly because a third of the people who had signed off on it were not AHA members. I know of at least four resolution proponents who joined between December 17 and the business meeting, seemingly unaware that in order to vote as a member you needed to be one.
  • Follow the rules, in letter and spirit. Is this really so hard? AHA executive director Jim Grossman was committed at the outset to running an open process; he and President Jan Goldstein worked with organizers, pro and con, at every stage. Deadlines aren’t just window dressing intended to repress the people: they are part of a legible governance process in a membership organization.  The first resolution fell outside the guidelines of what can be accepted as an agenda item; the second set of resolutions did follow AHA guidelines, but were submitted a few days before Christmas when grading, travel and personal obligations tend to interrupt our concern for how the AHA will broker the crisis in the Middle East. Since these resolutions followed the ASA nastiness by well over a year, it is hard to understand why resolutions framed within the guidelines could not have been presented in a timely manner. This is what makes many of us, regardless of our politics, feel like what HAW was really saying was:
  • “Up against the wall, m***erf***er!” In other words, the suspicion remains that what is actually desired is a resolution passed by any means necessary; and a vote organized in such a way as to keep interested parties from voting because they had not planned to come to the meeting at all or stay long enough to attend a business meeting where, traditionally, very little occurs.  HAW members claim that they wanted to solicit a vote of the full membership, knowing full well that less than a third of ASA members voted on the BDS resolution in 2014. If that is not the case, take the criticism seriously and stop surprising people with last minute resolutions of great consequence. There’s nothing less helpful for a colonized people in crisis than white people in New York arguing about the calendar and Roberts Rules of Order.
  • When a BDS resolution has already been circulated, claiming that the revision being presented is *not* a BDS resolution may be technically correct but not entirely honest. In the video attached to the HNN link above, Van Gosse, who seems to have been the lead organizer for HAW, characterizes the resolutions’ focus on academic freedom as strategic. I actually appreciate this, because I think it is true, and acknowledges that the toned down resolutions were a second choice. At the same time, “strategic” is really not the same thing as a principled, and expansive, defense of academic freedom which would exclude an academic boycott of Israel. It is also a misrepresentation of what happened: the BDS resolution did not meet the AHA criteria, was rejected, and was extensively rewritten into resolutions that could meet the germane test. In addition, during last year’s ASA wars, the argument was that academic freedom was not universal in practice, particularly in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and therefore sanctions against Israel that violated academic freedom were entirely acceptable. These two positions are not entirely inconsistent with each other (see, for example, historian Joan Scott’s “Changing My Mind About the Boycott,” 2013), but it requires a longer conversation for most people to understand why.
  • But — we only want to talk! Several people who argued in favor of the HAW motion to suspend made this argument: that those voting no were suppressing the debate about academic freedom that they claimed to want. (There isn’t anything more perversely hilarious than a room of tenured professors accusing each other of being anti-democratic.) Speaking only for myself, however, we had had a year since ASA and the blood bath at MLA to have this conversation, and demanding that it occur in the space of an hour was profoundly offensive. In addition, it wasn’t true that those who designed the resolution only wanted to talk. Passing the resolution to suspend would have led to the introduction of new resolutions, not just talk, then a discussion and a necessary vote on the resolutions. It would have taken a deft Parliamentary hand or a mass walkout followed by a quorum call (this idea was, in fact, circulating) to prevent a vote on the resolutions. It was also not clear why, if talking was a principle objective a) conversation had not been organized for more than one session and a business meeting; b) Alice Kessler-Harris was cat-called when she inquired as to whether a motion for discussion only could be made; and c) why the announcement that Vicki Ruiz was turning over half of her Presidential sessions in 2016 and charging the program committee to promote a stream, caused a resolution organizer in the audience to start screaming at Jan Goldstein.
  • A successful argument has not yet been made as to why non-binding sanctions levied by academic organizations are more effective than diligent research, writing, public speaking and scholarly engagement in the political sphere. I know a lot of BDS affiliated, and non-BDS affiliated scholars who are doing this, and could point to serious projects underway that promote civil rights, education and civil society. It is less clear to me what the effect of scholars passing resolutions has been, or in what tangible way they support civil society anywhere. Although the ASA resolution has been declared to be a grand success, its accomplishments and damage seem to be limited to the ASA itself. It has yet to be proven that ASA support for an academic boycott has achieved anything for anybody outside the United States, short of the few Palestinian scholars who were invited to attend the annual meeting in Los Angeles. If the ASA boycott has achieved tangible results, then this would have been important evidence to make available at the AHA business meeting. Although the 2007 AHA resolution against the Iraq war, which I think I did vote for, was repeatedly cited at yesterday’s business meeting, no one really made the case that it had any effect on US foreign policy.

Let me be clear: I do not doubt any assertions that the situation in Israel and the Occupied territories is dire, primarily for Palestinians, but also for civil society in Israel. Palestinian and Israeli scholars are surveilled by the Israeli state, with the consent of the US government, which seems to be documenting the political activities of everyone else. I have talked to Palestinian graduate students who have been presented with dossiers about themselves by Israeli state agents, dossiers with materials often gathered in the United States. I was horrified by the war in Gaza, and if I thought passing a resolution at the AHA would alleviate suffering I would work hard to do it.

However, I am less convinced that — well-meaning as it may be — the attempt to jam through anti-Israel resolutions at an academic meeting are anything but a sideshow to an international crisis that requires real interventions, not phony ones. There are times, places and circumstances under which we must suspend the rules: yesterday was not one of them.

Update 01.06.2015: Van Gosse of HAW has asked me to clarify that “the BDS resolution that went to AHA in November had nothing to do with HAW, or at least anyone active in any way with whom I am familiar;” that HAW did not provide the organizer of the November resolution with a mailing list of members;” and that HAW would never offer its mailing list to another person or group. In other words, there was no relationship between the November and December resolutions.  I appreciate his contribution to making the post more accurate.

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