Our Bien Pensant American Historians: The New Friends of Hamas

In July of 1945, an organization called the Friends of the Haganah was created by American Jews, to support the defense forces of the Jewish community in Palestine. They knew that the Yishuv -- the name of the Palestinian Jews who had built up the basis for a future state -- were living under the dire threat of constant attacks by the surrounding Arab states.

How things have changed. Nowhere has this been illustrated better than in the recent petition signed by over 200 American historians (who now claim over 1000 signatures), condemning Israel for its “disproportionate” use of force and demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a permanent end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and most telling of all, the suspension of US military aid to Israel, until such time that aid is no longer used for “the commission of war crimes.” Nowhere in the petition is Hamas mentioned. (The list of those who were the initial signers and writers of the petition can be found here.) In essence, those who signed the document can be called “the Friends of Hamas.”

As a historian who has studied the American far Left for many years, and decades ago was part of, I immediately noticed that many on the initial list of signers are veterans of the already old New Left and either supporters of or fellow-travelers of the defunct  Soviet Union and the Communist movement. Indeed, I know many of them personally, and are aware of their old affiliations and political allegiances.

The petition is a document created by a group called “Historians Against the War.” It refers not to the current war in Gaza, but to the war in Iraq, as exemplified by a panel sponsored by the group held about it in 2003, which I wrote about here.  It is commonly believed that the group actually had its origins in the effort by leftist historians to create a caucus within the historical profession made up of historians opposed to the war in Vietnam. Then, and now, the group was composed of historians of the far Left. At their start, and it is hard to imagine, they were actually a minority of the historical profession.

What is different about this anti-Israel petition, is that the signers are writing not simply as American citizens opposed to Israel, but as “historians,” whose credentials are being used as evidence that their position in the profession gives them more expertise to comment on Israel’s would be perfidy. As historian K.C. Johnson writes at Minding the Campus, “This approach is odd given that many of the organizing signatories appear to have no academic specialty in U.S. foreign relations, Israeli history, or Palestinian history, the subjects of the petition.” To put it bluntly, the claim to be speaking as historians is nothing less than an attempt to fool the gullible into listening to them. Undoubtedly they are intelligent, Johnson says -- a claim that I actually dispute -- but, he adds, “they seem to possess no more academic qualifications to comment on U.S. foreign policy or Israeli-Palestinian security relations than random people wandering Central Park.”