At the annual conference of the American Historical Association in New York City this month, anti-Israeli activist historians suffered a rare double defeat. Calling themselves Historians Against War (HAW), the group pushed first for an academic boycott of Israel, then for condemnation of alleged Israeli violations of academic freedom. But a handful of AHA members led an effective fight against them—in an admirable echo of the great confrontation of 1970, when, thanks to the remarkable intervention of a then-Marxist historian, the AHA fended off a fierce challenge from the New Left.
Last week’s drama seemed to culminate when outgoing AHA president Jan Goldstein ruled that HAW’s boycott resolution lacked the requisite signatures. Goldstein’s objections, moreover, were not only procedural. She argued that the AHA, as a scholarly organization, had no purview over any Palestinian “right of return,” whose denial by Israel had been said to justify the boycott.
Goldstein had been lobbied intensely by historians Jeffrey Herf and Sonya Michel (University of Maryland), David Greenberg (Rutgers), Sharon Musher (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey), and others. They had warned her that many of the claims made by HAW to bolster its case against Israel were false. HAW maintained, for instance, that during the Gaza war, Israel had intentionally sought to destroy an oral history center at the Islamic University. Herf showed Goldstein evidence that the Israeli target was actually a facility where rocket components were manufactured for Hamas’s military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. Similarly, HAW maintained that Israel refused to allow Gaza students to study abroad, even in the West Bank, when in fact the restriction applied only to students supporting terrorist groups. Herf also warned Goldstein against further politicizing the AHA: The effect of endorsing HAW’s resolution would be to “support the right of academics to aid in a terrorist war waged against Israel.”
Undeterred by its initial defeat, HAW pushed its agenda again at the AHA business meeting on January 4. This time it sought votes on two resolutions that stopped short of calling for a boycott—but that had been submitted for consideration after the relevant deadline.
The first resolution accused Israel of violating academic freedom and called on the State Department to contest Israel’s denial of visas to (pro-Hamas and Hezbollah) academics seeking to work at Palestinian universities. The second called on the AHA to condemn alleged Israeli acts of violence against Palestinian researchers and archival collections that threatened to “destroy the Palestinians’ sense of historical identity as well as the historical record itself.”
HAW produced 50 signatures from AHA members asking for votes on these measures. The controversy excited enough interest that the business meeting was moved to the large Hilton ballroom, where HAW tried to have the bylaws governing deadlines for resolutions suspended. But the vote on the bylaws went heavily against the radicals, 144 to 51, in a major victory for the forces of sanity.
No such victory is permanent, as those of us who lived through a major defeat of the left at the AHA in 1970 know all too well. Back then, the challenge came from a group called the Radical Caucus—some of whose members are still active now, in HAW or the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians’ Organization, an AHA affiliate. Their object back then was to get the business meeting to put the AHA on record as opposing the war in Vietnam.
In the early 1970s, the New Left radicals were a minority in the profession, which was dominated by established mainstream historians like John K. Fairbank, Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward, old-style liberals who adhered to a strict separation of politics and history. The Radical Caucus, born in late December 1969, was at first composed largely of University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students. But even then, left-wing historians were beginning to gain university appointments. One of them—Marxist Eugene D. Genovese, at the University of Rochester—argued that leftist historians should defend the university and seek to hold it to its own highest standards. The New Left preferred to confront the university and expose its links to other so-called oppressive American institutions.