On July 31, 2014, a group of left-leaning historians called "Historians Against the War" posted an open letter to President Obama denouncing Israel's actions in the Gaza War and calling for a cut-off of American military assistance to Israel. On August 13, the letter was posted on the website of the History News Network. On August 13, the signers reported that "in less than twenty-four hours over two hundred US, based [sic] historians had signed the letter." This remarkable turnout depended on the mobilization of an already existing network of an academic Left that emerged in opposition to the war in Iraq and that stays in touch via a website called "The Hawblog." On August 14, the blog announced that more than a thousand historians had signed the statement, including a large number from Mexico and Brazil.
With a brief and unconvincing effort to sound balanced, the statement deplored "the ongoing attacks against civilians in Gaza and in Israel" but then turned its fire on Israel for what it called "the disproportionate harm that the Israeli military, which the United States has armed and supported for decades, is inflicting on the population of Gaza." The signers were "profoundly disturbed that Israeli forces are killing and wounding so many Palestinian children." They found "unacceptable the failure of United States elected officials to hold Israel accountable for such an act" and demanded "a cease-fire, the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and a permanent end to the blockade so that its people can resume some semblance of normal life." Further, they urged the President to suspend U.S. military aid to Israel until there is assurance that it will no longer be used for the commission of "war crimes." "As historians," they concluded, "we recognize this as a moment of acute moral crisis in which it is vitally important that United States policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict change direction."
It is old news that an academic tenured Left has a foothold in departments of history in the United States, as well as in Latin America. Also familiar is the deception involved in presenting oneself as "against war," as if those who disagree are "for" war, and as if the issue were one of war or peace rather than anything that has to do with the substance of the conflict. Nor is it surprising that left-of-center academics are largely hostile to Israel. Hostility to Israel became a defining element of what it means to be left-wing since the early 1950s in the Communist states, and since the late 1960s for the Left in Western Europe, the United States, and the Third World as well.
Nor is it even surprising that the signers conclude, before they can possibly have access to the evidence needed to reach this judgment, that Israel has engaged in "war crimes." The indictment of Israel before the facts are in, based on the reports of biased and often intimidated journalists, has been par for the course since the 1960s and has been a major theme of public discussion at least since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It has also been standard operating procedure for the anti-Israeli majority in the UN General Assembly since the 1960s—yet in this case even UN officials, no constant friends of Israel, have intimated that Hamas is guilty of war crimes both by intentionally targeting Israeli civilians and by using the people of the Gaza Strip as human shields.
Reaching such conclusions on the basis of media reports would be, one would think, less common among professional historians who are trained to follow rigorous standard rules of evidence. In fact, in the name of a political goal these academics have abandoned the standards of their profession. The evidence to support this conclusion is hard to avoid.
First, demands for a ceasefire before Israel had completed destruction of the tunnels Hamas was using to infiltrate Israel, or before it was able to destroy Hamas rocket launchers, fit a familiar pattern of attacking Israel's efforts to defend itself while ignoring the reasons why those actions are necessary. Similarly, second, as they have done before, indignant signers say nothing about the obvious fact that the Gaza war began with acts of aggression by Hamas, that by July 31 at least 1,500 rockets had been fired at Israel, and by August 13, the number was over 3,000. Third, and remarkably, in a statement about a war begun by Hamas the word "Hamas" does not even appear.
Finally, the signers called for ending the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza and stopping American military support for Israel in the midst of the Gaza war as Hamas was still firing rockets. This too was not surprising, coming as it did from an academic Left that largely views the exercise of American military power in world affairs as an evil to be categorically opposed rather than as a necessary part of preserving a set of key alliances and providing a global common security good. To call for an end to military aid to Israel obviously helps its enemy, Hamas. It is also worth noting what the signers did not mention: the demilitarization of Hamas, for example, which Israel and, surprisingly, even the sobered leaders of the European Union have made a condition for lifting the blockade.
The historians' demands were, in short, essentially the same as those made by Hamas. Satisfying these demands constituted its definition of victory: Lift the blockade without demilitarization, put Israel in the dock for alleged war crimes, and preserve Hamas's arsenal so it could continue to threaten Israel.
The interesting and historically significant aspect of these historians' response to Hamas's war of aggression is that it offers clear and depressing evidence of a change in the meaning of leftist ideology and politics. The leftism of the Historians Against the War statement reflects an opposition to some reactionary movements but not others. Movements of the extreme Right that are anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, and, of course, anti-democratic are acceptable so long as they aim to destroy the state of Israel and attack "U.S. imperialism." This soft spot for reactionary Islamist ideology is partly the result of years of denial and timidity in the face of bogus accusations of "Islamophobia." The moods expressed in the historians' statement lead to forgiveness for sins committed by those attacking Israel—sins that would be denounced if they came from political currents in Europe and the United States.
In politics, we distinguish between subjective intentions and objective consequences. Subjectively, the signers present themselves as simple people on the side of the angels. They merely oppose "disproportionate" loss of civilian life and Israel's "war crimes" in Gaza. Yet the signers are sophisticated intellectuals, and many are veteran senior scholars who understand very well that "objectively" the impact of their statement is to assist Hamas in winning what it would define as victory in the war it launched against Israel. The signers know very well that Hamas uses the civilian population as human shields and displays the deaths of civilians as a major strategy in its effort to defeat Israel in the court of world public opinion, erode Israel's standing in Europe, and perhaps even break or weaken the alliance with the United States. As objective partisans of one side of the conflict, they are fine with all that.
Some critics of the statement have pointed out that the vast majority of the signers have no expertise in the Middle East, which is true enough. Yet it takes no expertise in the Middle East to read and interpret the Hamas Covenant of 1988. (I did so in an essay for this magazine.) The Hamas Charter has been available at the Yale Law School's Avalon Project website for at least a decade. The Hamas authors wrote very clearly. At that website, the signers, some of whom included historians of modern European and German history, could read the Hamas authors' selections from the Koran and Muslim commentaries to offer theological justifications for raw, murderous Jew-hatred. They could read the Hamas authors' repetition of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They would see that Hamas has no interest whatsoever in a two-state solution but has from its origins been dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel by war. With a few mouse clicks, they could read a document that included phrases, some word for word, that would remind them of the rhetoric and propaganda of the fascists and Nazis that some of these historians have written about for decades.
"A refusal to speak frankly about the ideas animating Hamas and other Islamist terrorist organizations has become a litmus test for left-wing identity."
The signers of the "Historians Against the War" statement about the Gaza war can take one of only two positions. The first would be an argument from ignorance; that is, that they had not read the Hamas Covenant and have paid no attention to Hamas' repeated declarations of intent to destroy the state of Israel and to its numerous expressions of open Jew-hatred, even though they are readily available on the internet in English. Yet as the signers are speaking "as historians," it would be insulting to suggest that they have no idea that Hamas is inspired by a kind of religious fanaticism that in every other context they find repellent.
So let's give the signers the benefit of the doubt and make the second assumption, that the signers are sophisticated and well-informed, that they have read the Hamas Covenant, have followed Hamas's repeated expressions of Jew-hatred, and understand that Hamas has used the years since it seized power in Gaza to buy rockets, train young men how to use them, and spent millions on tunnel construction that could have been used instead to build schools, hospitals, and housing for the civilians population in Gaza. What, then, is the meaning of these historians' letter? It is that the "Hawblog" statement of July 31 was not a statement "against war"; it was objectively and, for some, subjectively an effort in favor of the war that Hamas launched against Israel.
The emergence of this objectively pro-Hamas and pro-war Left is an historically significant event. It breaks with both the self-understanding and public image of a Left that carried a banner of anti-fascism. It rests on a double standard of critique, a critical one applied to the extreme Right in the West and another, apologetic standard applied to similarly based rightist Islamist movements.
For this historian, the "Historians Against the War" statement of summer 2014 recalls the policy of the Comintern during the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939–1941. In that two-year period, as Hitler invaded and occupied all of continental Europe except the Soviet Union, and island Britain fought on alone, the Communist Parties denounced "Anglo-American imperialism", called Franklin Roosevelt a "war monger" for aiding Britain and abandoned verbal attacks on Nazi Germany. The Communist Parties only returned to the previous anti-fascist stance of the Popular Front era because Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Had Hitler not invaded the Soviet Union, presumably the Communists Parties would have opposed a strictly Anglo-American attack on Nazi Germany.
The years of the Hitler-Stalin pact offer an often forgotten and embarrassing case of the Left making common cause objectively with fascism and Nazism. It was only in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's massive contribution to the defeat of Nazism that "anti-fascism" again became embedded in the Left's essence and public presentation. The "Historians against the War" statement of July 31 revives the spirit of the infamous years of 1939-41, but does so with a confidence that many decades of Communist and Western leftist attacks on Israel and on Zionism, along with expressions of "solidarity with the Palestinian people," has fostered. The habits of mind and emotion cultivated in the Western Left in the era of the secular PLO's terrorist campaigns of the 1960s to 1980s have remained strikingly intact, even though the terror now comes from the Islamist extreme Right rather than the extreme Left.
"It was probably only a matter of time before seven decades of leftist antagonism to Israel would lead to waging political warfare in support of an organization known for terrorist attacks against civilians, religious fanaticism, and anti-Semitism of a most foul and familiar sort. In summer 2014, that moment has arrived."
Efforts by the literary scholar Judith Butler several years ago to include Hamas in the camp of the global Left illustrated a lack of historical knowledge that is simply not acceptable among professional historians. But Procrustean distortion in the name of a cause is apt to overwhelm any fealty to professional standards among ideologues of all stripes. In every sense of the word, Hamas is an organization of the extreme Right and rejects all of the values that at one point defined leftist politics ever since the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and large parts of the secular Left of the 20th century. This summer, the "Hawblog" group statement has offered support to an organization that has attacked the values that used to define the Western Left and made hatred of the Jews as Jews and the destruction of the Jewish state its primary goals. If these scholars have any criticisms of Hamas at all, they did not voice them at a time when doing so mattered.
It was probably only a matter of time before seven decades of leftist antagonism to Israel would lead to waging political warfare in support of an organization known for terrorist attacks against civilians, religious fanaticism, and anti-Semitism of a most foul and familiar sort. In summer 2014, that moment has arrived.
And "So what?" it might be asked. What does it matter that the academic Left yet again criticizes Israel and supports the aims of its enemies? In fact, it matters quite a bit, because political struggles are ultimately battles about ideas and their meaning. What begins in the universities and enjoys the prestige associated with them filters into journalism, the highbrow journals of opinion, the editorials of the media, and the policy think tanks in Washington. In the process, it fosters at best a language of moral equivalence regarding Israel and Hamas. It is also reflected in courses taught in the universities, which in turn have an impact on coming generations. A refusal to speak frankly about the ideas animating Hamas and other Islamist terrorist organizations has become a litmus test for left-wing identity. The fear of being called "Islamophobic" or "right-wing" has the effect of silencing criticism among liberals who don't want to field criticism on their left.
Moreover, now that the Republican Party's traditional support for vigorous American leadership is under challenge from a neo-isolationist right, it is all the more important that centrists in the Democratic Party recognize and vigorously respond to the challenge from an effectively pro-Hamas left. We need a renewed "militant democracy" in the center of American politics and intellectual life, one that fights totalitarian ideologies and movements no matter their source. Both within the academy and in the world of politics and policy in Washington, it is essential that there be much more frank speech about the nature of groups such as Hamas. There are some welcome signs that some in the political establishment are finding their voices about these issues. In the academy the voices of "Historians Against the War" are not a majority, but they shout the loudest and are well organized. For those of us in the academy who take a different view, it would be most helpful if more of our political leaders would also speak frankly on these matters. The arrows of influence in the history of ideas and politics can flow in both directions. It is important that they do so.
Jeffrey Herf is distinguished university professor in the department of history at the University of Maryland in College Park and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author most recently of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009). His essay "In Their Own Words, Why They Fight: Hamas' All Too-Little Known Fascist Charter" can be found here. His essay "At War with Israel: East Germany's Enthusiastic Support for Soviet Policy in the Middle East" is forthcoming in the Journal of Cold War Studies.