At the 2016 business meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta, members voted against a proposed resolution, “Protecting the Right to Education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” by a measure of 111–51.
AHA president Vicki L. Ruiz chaired the meeting, with Michael Les Benedict serving as parliamentarian. The business meeting began with reports from the various divisions of the Association before moving to the proposed resolution. Proponents and opponents lined up at microphones in the center of the hotel ballroom aisle. Debate was civil and efficient, albeit vigorous, with five-minute opening statements delivered by one representative each from Historians against the War (HAW), which submitted the measure in accordance with AHA bylaws in October 2015, and from the main group opposing the resolution, the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF).
Unlike the resolutions recently considered by other scholarly societies, the proposed resolution did not call for a boycott. Instead, it would have committed the AHA “to monitoring Israeli actions restricting the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” due to Israel’s violations of academic freedom there.
Contrary to wide reports last year that the AHA defeated a boycott resolution, this was the first year a resolution dealing with Israel-Palestine was introduced on the floor of the AHA business meeting. In 2015, some AHA members who wished to introduce a resolution without submitting it before the November 1 deadline moved to suspend the AHA bylaws to enable consideration of their proposal to condemn Israeli policy and actions; that motion was defeated.
For 2016, HAW submitted the resolution in accordance with AHA bylaws, meeting three requirements: that the resolution be signed by at least 100 members (the final total was 126), be submitted to the executive director by November 1 of the previous year, and be no more than 300 words. The proposed resolution appeared in the December 2015 issue of Perspectives on History, the AHA’s newsmagazine. Members thus had a chance to consider the measure in due time, heading off criticisms such as the ones raised at last year’s business meeting. The AHA also provided a special forum for members to debate the issue online. Notably, the print edition of the September issue of Perspectives featured one ad each from HAW and AAF.
Individual speakers were passionate but also eloquent about the resolution, presenting reasoned arguments and counterarguments. The most emphasized point by those in favor of the resolution was that since the AHA was committed to protecting academic freedom, it should take a clear stand regarding Israeli restrictions on student and faculty activities in the Occupied Territories. Opponents responded that academic freedom violations are legion throughout the world and that the AHA is already affiliated with Scholars at Risk, a group that monitors violations of academic freedom globally. Some opponents argued that a “yes” vote would be divisive, to which proponents responded that the Association has taken stands on other controversial matters and survived. Members disagreed over whether the occupation was the signal moral issue of our time, as well as whether the AHA has the capacity to do what the resolution would commit it to.
Anyone anticipating acrimony among business meeting attendees was likely disappointed. Members disagreed strenuously from the microphones, but there were no comments from the audience. The tensest point of the meeting was perhaps when there was disagreement over whether speakers should face the chair or be allowed to face the assembly at large. (From the dais, the chair ruled that speakers could face the assembly; the executive director joked, “No one up here feels the need to be looked at,” to widespread laughter.) Speakers generally kept to the two-minute time limit. No amendments were offered.
At 6:11 pm, the resolution went to a vote by general consensus. Members of Council collected ballots, which were counted by AHA staff members. At 6:22, when the vote count was finished, executive director James Grossman addressed the members, saying, “Before the vote is announced, I’d like to echo the words of a young scholar who said from the floor that he was proud to be a member of the AHA. That’s how I feel after the end of this debate. If the press is here, let the record show that the final motion was made by someone on one side of the issue and seconded by someone on the other side. We’re all here because we believe that historians do work that’s worth doing.”
Ruiz then announced the results: 51 in favor, 111 opposed. As her final act as AHA president, she passed the gavel to Patrick Manning, the Association’s new president. The meeting adjourned at 6:24.