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Historians demand evidence; anti-Israel lobby fails

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21 Feb 2016

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As students head back into another year of study, it is worth re-visiting the issue of academic freedom. We have previously written about this in the New Zealand context, and the need for discussion and debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The restriction of free speech within the halls of academia is of great concern and is something that ought to be challenged. So too, is the hijacking of academic organisations and stifling of debate by politically-motivated activists on campus. In light of these concerns, it is heartening indeed to see the American Historical Association (AHA) rejecting a resolution condemning Israel due to a lack of evidence, misleading statements, and a clear political bias.

As part of the broader BDS movement, a group called Historians Against War attempted for the second time to present a resolution to the AHA, purportedly to ‘Protect the Right to Education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories’. The resolution condemned Israel and called on the AHA “to monitor Israeli actions that restrict the right to education in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

Another group, the Alliance for Academic Freedom presented a strong challenge to the resolution. The AAF are a group “… dedicated to combating academic boycotts and blacklists, defending freedom of expression and promoting empathy and civility in the debate over Israelis and Palestinians.”

Interestingly, the AAF self-identifies as a group of ‘liberals and progressives who have been critical, individually and collectively, of Israeli policies toward the Palestinian people and supportive of the national aspirations of both Palestinians and Jews’.

The primary basis of their opposition to the resolution was its lack of grounding in evidence.

…we reject the all-too-common binary approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that seeks to justify one side or the other as all right or all wrong, and sets out to marshal evidence to prove a case of complete guilt or total exoneration. Scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach. As academics we recognize the subjective perspectives of individuals and peoples, but strive to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency.” Alliance for Academic Freedom

The American Historical Association held several scholarly panels over a four day period bringing historical context to the issue. After a considerable discussion and debate, the resolution put forward by Historians Against War was rejected by a significant margin; 111 to 51.

This outcome brings hope to rationally minded people on at least four counts:

  1. Demand for Evidence
    In the politicisation of the issue, facts become a casualty of ideology. Information that is filtered through an ideological construct or simple prejudice, frequently distorts, twists or subverts the evidence. Sloganeering passes for argument.According to Prof. Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland, who attended the meeting, ‘They (AHA) were not going to vote for a resolution like this that was making factual assertions that they couldn’t verify themselves’.
  1. Rejection of an Unfair Standard
    Oftentimes Israel is singled out to be treated differently from all other nations. The context and framework of the conflict is absent and the Jewish nation is held to a unique standard by anti-Israel groups.As one association member put it, ‘after some 40 minutes of debate…he still wanted to know why Israel alone was in the hot seat’.
  1. Palestinian Agency Restored
    Simply put, this is the idea that Palestinians can and do behave as actors in the conflict, rather than merely passive recipients of Israeli actions. Repeatedly, the blame (responsibility) for the conflict is laid entirely at the feet of Israel with little regard for the significant role the Palestinians play.This attitude is evident in the recent protest of academics from Victoria University, where the letter of complaint highlighted only the Israeli response to rocket fire and tunnels from Gaza. Ignoring the agency of Palestinians has also been called the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.Richard Golden, a professor of history at the University of North Texas called the resolution ‘condescending toward Palestinians in that it undermined their own role in their problems…If Canada was sending missiles over the U.S. border, he said, students at the University of Toronto might have issues entering the United States….’
  1. Reasoned Debate
    Finally, the outcome of this vote gives hope that it is still possible to have a rational debate about contentious issues. Although described as a ‘hot argument’, the discussion remained civil. Recently, it seems that academia has lost the ability to debate sensitive subjects in a reasonable way, resorting rather to shutting down free speech, whether it be Israeli soldiers, Palestinian activists, or feminists with whom some may disagree.Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz has commented on the fear that many students have of ideas that oppose their own. “They want to be kept safe from ideas that they may disagree with, and if they want to be safe from ideas, there are better places to be than college and university campuses.” While these same students are advocating for safe places on campuses for the ideas they hold, Dershowitz, who regularly speaks on Israel needs the protection of armed guards on campus.

The American Historical Association’s handling of this issue demonstrates that it is possible to debate contentious matters in a sound manner, relying on evidence and reasoned argument.

The outcome of this process gives hope that with these four elements in view – the demand for evidence, equitable treatment of Israel, viewing Palestinians as rational actors, reasonable debate – progress can be made in what has routinely been labelled an ‘intractable conflict’.

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