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.”

Given that Central Park is in New York City, I actually think that the random bicyclist or walker in the park has ten times more wisdom than any of these historians. Even the left-wing Mayor Bill DeBlasio heralds his pro-Israel views, undoubtedly because he realizes that his own leftist base is out of touch with the majority sentiment of the city’s residents.

More importantly, the petition is not just anti-Israel, it is pro-Hamas. In an op-ed that appears  in The American Interest by historian Jeffrey Herf,  he notes the spurious nature of their charges. They argue for Israel’s guilt without attempting to prove their case. To the left, this conclusion is simply a given. The actions of Hamas, which has fired more than three thousand rockets into Israel, cynically use civilians as human shields as they launch them from mosques, hospitals, UN schools and from heavily populated civilian areas, is not even mentioned once in the historian’s petition.

The demands they make upon Israel, Herf argues, without corresponding demands made on Hamas, is in essence repeating Hamas’ demands as their own. The petition writers do not even mention that the fighting in Gaza began with Hamas’ aggression. This is, Herf continues, a major change in the Left’s position taken over many years. Once a movement that always claimed to be “anti-fascist” above all, it is now supporting and praising the equivalent of the Islamic fascists.

Herf makes a sound analogy between their position and that taken by the old Communists in the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact from Aug. 1939 to June 1941. Just as the Communists ignored fascism -- the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov famously said that “fascism is a matter of taste,” the historians now justify many of the Islamists’ actions as a cultural difference that Westerners should respect. Recall that historian Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton a few years ago refused to condemn Tariq Ramadan’s failure to oppose the stoning of women to death in Muslim nations. Stoning, she said at a forum, was an aspect of their culture that we had to understand.

What explains these historians’ actions? Do they really want to be known as supporters of Hamas? Have they bothered to read the Hamas Charter? If not, how can they purport to be scholars and historians? Either they have read it and ignore it; or are so negligent as to not have bothered to learn what Hamas’s beliefs and aims are. It is especially shameful that these senior scholars, many of whom are historians of Germany no less and are proud of their anti-fascism, totally ignore the nature of Israel’s enemy.

There is an answer to why these historians are all anti-Israel, and it is the same answer I gave in my column last week at PJ Media. The American Left, following the long standing stance of its British comrades, favors an alliance with the West’s greatest enemies. The Left is now defined by one thing -- hatred of and opposition to Israel. The hatred of their own country -- they used to spell it as “Amerika” -- has now been replaced by their hatred of Israel. As for Hamas, its own agenda is eerily similar to that of ISIS. True, they do not behead their enemies or crucify them. But as Alan Dershowitz notes in an important op-ed appearing today, “Hamas has probably killed more civilians -- through its suicide bombs, its murder of Palestinian Authority members, its rocket attacks and its terror tunnels -- than ISIS has done.” As for its own tactics, he says, they are the moral equivalent of beheading:

And it matters little to the victim's family whether the death was caused by beheading, by hanging or by a bullet in the back of a head. Indeed most of ISIS's victims have been shot rather than beheaded, while Hamas terrorists have slaughtered innocent babies in their beds, teenagers on the way home from school, women shopping, Jews praying and students eating pizza.

Shame on these supposed intellectuals, historians all, who have abandoned the most basic tenants of the historical method to propagandize for the Islamists, whom the late Christopher Hitchens aptly referred to as “Islamofascists.” As Roger Cohen of The New York Times wrote recently, the recent conflict has shown “how the virulent anti-Israel sentiment now evident among the bien-pensant European left can create a climate that makes violent hatred of Jews permissible once again." For the Europeans, he writes, “not having a negative opinion of Israel is tantamount to not having a conscience.”

Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen asks, “how did the moral center of the American left get so isolationist and selfish?” He adds another question: “Why does it see no difference between a moral obligation to save lives, [he refers to Israel’s self-defense measures taken against Hamas rockets] by avoiding murder -- not just with humanitarian measures -- and a kind of militarist lust” exemplified by Hamas?

Both columnists -- men who are often critical of various Israeli policies -- understand the legitimacy of Israel’s current fight against its enemies. How different are their arguments than these would-be intellectuals and historians, who indeed reveal themselves as nothing more than part of the bien pensant group of thoughtless intellectuals, who spout anti-Semitism as a new form of wisdom.

They exemplify well what in the 1920s, the French writer Julian Benda called La Trahison des clercs, roughly translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals. In an introduction to a new printing of the book, my PJM colleague Roger Kimball writes that once the intellectuals abandoned their traditional scholarly and philosophical set of ideas, they “had lately allowed political commitment to insinuate itself into their understanding of the intellectual vocation as such.” He quotes Benda who wrote that “Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” The historians who wrote the current petition verify Benda’s insight, as well as his statement that the current work of intellectuals was a “cataclysm in the moral notions of those who educate the world.”

These words indeed do apply to these thoughtless historians, who whether they intend it to or not, have come down on the side of not only Israel’s enemies, but the humanistic values they purport to hold. Let us respond by no longer listening to anything these people write, including all their books and articles.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using a modified image from Shutterstock.com.)