The set-up of the ‘Debating Israel and Apartheid’ conference – opinion

Members of a four-person panel to speak at a conference sponsored by the American Historical Association essentially hold the same harsh viewpoint towards Israel.

By Moshe Phillips, via JNS

The most prestigious organization of historians in the United States will be hosting a panel at its upcoming conference called “Debating Israel and Apartheid,” though all of the panelists will be taking the same side in the debate. Can you guess which one?

The venerable American Historical Association, founded in 1884, is the premier professional association for American historians in all fields. Its next annual conference will be held in January in New Orleans.

A panel scheduled for Jan. 8 is called “Debating Israel and Apartheid.” With that kind of title, one would assume that the participants will be expressing a variety of viewpoints. Certainly, that’s what any serious academic panel should have. But don’t count on it in this case. It’s fairly obvious from the panelists’ track records that they will all be pointing an accusing finger at the Jewish state.

The chairman of the panel, Professor Andor D. Skotnes of Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y., is a passionate supporter of the BDS movement against Israel. He is one of the signatories to the declaration of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Skotnes signed an open letter in July 2014 accusing Israel of “provoking” thousands of Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza. He signed another open letter in 2014 urging then-President Barack Obama “to suspend U.S. military aid to Israel.”

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Skotnes has also signed multiple petitions urging the boycotting of academic events at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the grounds that Israel is guilty of “apartheid.” So the chair of the “Debating Israel and Apartheid” panel is somebody who has already decided in advance that Israel is guilty.

The four panelists have similar histories.

Professor Sean Jacobs of The New School in New York City is the author of a book called Apartheid Israel. That’s right—a panelist who is supposed to objectively discuss “Debating Israel and Apartheid” has literally already written a book called Apartheid Israel.

The second panelist will be Professor Jonathan Alschech of the University of Northern British Columbia. Earlier this year, he signed an open letter to British university officials urging them to reject the idea that calling Israel a Nazi state is anti-Semitic. The letter also accused Israel of “occupation, dispossession, segregation and discrimination.” Not surprisingly, the letter is featured on the official BDS website.

Now, what position do you suppose Alschech will take in a “debate” over whether Israel is an apartheid state?

The third panelist is Professor Alex Lichtenstein of Indiana University, who is editor of the American Historical Association’s journal, “American Historical Review.” Lichtenstein has not written as much about Israel as the other panelists, but in the pages of the journal in 2015 and in 2018, he gave a clear indication as to his perspective.

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He wrote there about what he called “the profound impact of the occupation of the West Bank in stimulating Palestinian nationalism” and “the eruption of the post-Occupation national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.” The entire premise of those two sentences is utter nonsense.

For a historian, Lichtenstein is astonishingly unaware of the history of the Arab war against Israel. It wasn’t Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, starting in 1967, which created “Palestinian nationalism.” And the “national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians” is not a “post-Occupation” phenomenon. The Palestinian Arab war did not begin in 1967. Palestinian Arabs have been slaughtering Jews in the Land of Israel since the 1920s. They slaughtered Jews long before there was any “occupation” or any “settlers.” The Palestine Liberation Organization was created in 1964. The “Palestine” they were trying to “liberate” was Tel Aviv and Haifa.

The final panelist is Professor Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, an extremist who teaches sociology at Hebrew University. In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, she accused Israel of “trying to de-Palestinize” Israeli Arabs. “But we are all part of one community,” she vowed. “We are all Palestinians.”

In her writings and lectures, Sabbagh-Khoury rails against alleged Israeli “expulsions,” “pillaging of Palestinian lands and property,” and, of course, “settler colonialism,” a favorite catch-all phrase—although, ironically, Sabbagh-Khoury often uses the term to refer to left-wing kibbutzniks in the 1940s, not the religious-nationalist Israelis in Judea and Samaria today. (The title of her 2016 guest lecture at Brown University was “The Zionist Left: Settler Colonial Practices and the Representation of the Palestinian Nakba.”)

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In short, the line-up for the “Debating Israel and Apartheid” panel at the upcoming American Historical Association conference will be nothing less than a kangaroo court, with Israel in the docket and its harshest critics making up the entire jury.

The great irony is that Lichtenstein, writing in the December 2015 issue of American Historical Review, declared: “Our organization has always housed multiple viewpoints on the questions of Zionism, Israel, and Palestinian self-determination.” And yet the panel on which he is serving at the association’s conference will be occupied completely by people who all have essentially the same harsh viewpoint towards Israel.


Moshe Phillips is a commentator on Jewish affairs whose writings appear regularly in the American and Israeli press. He was a U.S. delegate to the 38th World Zionist Congress in 2020.