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HAW at the AHA 
Atlanta, January 7-10, 2016 

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AHA defeats HAW resolution on right to education

A resolution to protect the right to education in the occupied Palestinian territories was defeated by a 111 to 51 margin at the 2016 meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA).

Historians Against the War (HAW) brought the resolution to the meeting, with the signatures of 126 AHA members. A group calling itself the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF) launched a concerted campaign against the resolution.

The resolution would have put the AHA on record as upholding the rights of Palestinian faculty and students to pursue their education and research freely in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Professor Barbara Weinstein of New York University and 2007 AHA president was one of the historians who supported the resolution. Weinstein stated, “It is entirely appropriate for our professional association to consider this issue. We are addressing serious and ongoing violations of academic freedom by a close U.S. ally.”

The debate and voting on the resolution took place at the AHA business meeting on January 9, 2016, at its annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Margaret Power, professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, made an opening statement for HAW in favor of the resolution. She outlined the limitations of movement that faculty and students in Palestine face, and argued that it was within the purview of the AHA to oppose such violations of human rights.

Sharon Musher of Stockton University provided a rebuttal in the name of the AAF. She argued that it was a divisive act, and pointed to what she claimed were errors in the resolution. The AAF also contended that the resolution wrongly singled out Israel while ignoring violations in other countries, and would burden the AHA with monitoring a situation for which it lacks the necessary resources.

Andrew Zimmerman from George Wash University responded to Musher that disagreement is at the heart of the historian’s work. He asked for logical arguments against the resolution; divisiveness is not an argument.

Carolyn “Rusti” Eisenberg from Hofstra University noted that no one disputed the charges in resolution. She highlighted the special relationship between the United States and Israel that allows abuses of Palestinians to continue. She noted that opposing such violations was a moral issue.

The AAF failed to engage the proposed resolution on its merits, but instead used diversionary tactics to challenge its passage. The AAF labeled itself progressive, by at the same time appealed to such conservative outfits as Freedom House and attempted to make an argument in favor of supporting right-wing student protests in Venezuela. A particularly low point in the debate was when an AAF supporter resorted to charges of anti-semitism. Nevertheless, as AHA Executive Director James Grossman noted at the end of the annual meeting, the debate was carried out with a good deal of civility.

The resolution did not lose on the merits, but with superior resources and funding the AAF was able to out maneuver HAW in mobilizing AHA members at the meeting. Even so, the 111 votes against the resolution was a small fraction of the 3338 people in attendance at the conference, and fewer than the 126 who signed the resolution.

Bringing the resolution to a vote in itself was a success for HAW. At the previous year’s AHA in New York, AAF used procedural issues to prevent a similar issue from even coming to a vote. Van Gosse from Franklin and Marshall College and lead organizer of the initiative left the meeting with a sense of victory. “We really dominated in the debate,” he noted. “They had no real arguments–just red herrings.”

At the AHA, HAW also sponsored a roundtable together with MARHO: The Radical Historians’ Organization on “Violations of Academic Freedom in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Salim Tamari of the Institute for Palestine Studies, Professor Leena Dallasheh of Humboldt State University, and Tom Ricks, an independent scholar who researches Palestinian higher education all spoke on the panel.

Ricks drew on his personal experience in Palestine since 1983 to highlight systematic violations of right to education. He pointed out that universities routinely faced weeks and months of closures, which was a particular issue around examination times, and this prevented students from graduating. Ricks noted that access to education is not only an issue in Palestine, but throughout the Middle East. He argued that we should help people gain access.

Salim Tamari argued for the need to disentangle issues of security and access to education. Every time the issue of freedom of education rises, Tamari noted, Israel uses the issue of security to deny access. Israel security forces regularly conduct raids on campuses under the pretext of hot pursuit, and arrest faculty and students under suspicion of membership in certain organizations. Educators’ right of movement is restricted at checkpoints. Access of external academics and students are also denied through visit restrictions.

Leena Dallasheh raised the issue of who has access to craft historical narratives, including the creation of historical knowledge. Palestinians face layers of obstacles, including through the active process of excluding their stories and privileging Israeli narratives. Because of a lack of statehood, Palestine does not have a formal archive. Records have been destroyed, stolen, or disappeared. Palestinian scholars also suffer from restricted access to Israeli archives. Dallasheh notes that history matters, because it gives us the tools to create active, engaged citizens. If that is the purpose of education, she asked, then why do we shy away from trying to change this situation? She contended that the AHA has a responsibility to make statements such as that contained in the resolution.

Historians Against the War was founded at the January 2003 AHA meeting to oppose the pending invasion of Iraq. Since then it has campaigned against a militaristic foreign policy via publications, public speaking, teach-ins, and several conferences. HAW has gathered substantial evidence to support the charges of Israeli government violations of the right to education in the territories it controls.