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A Pro-Hamas Left Emerges

In the pursuit of political goals and an anti-Israel message, Historians Against the War has abandoned the standards of its profession and adopted a stance that objectively supports Hamas’s war aims.

Published on: August 26, 2014
Jeffrey Herf is distinguished university professor in the department of history at the University of Maryland in College Park, where he works on modern European and German history, and 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.
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  • dberger

    I wrote the following letter to signatories of the letter with whom I am acquainted;

    I hope that all is well.

    I am writing to express my distress at finding your signatures on the “Historians’
    Letter” regarding the Hamas-Israel war.

    I attach an article that I wrote for an anti-BDS event at the CUNY Graduate
    Center before the current hostilities that provides my perspective on the
    larger issues, and I hope that you will take the time to read it. You can also find it at

    With respect to the historians’ letter, I remind you of the following: (The
    problem is that whatever I will write is already known to you and has not
    affected your decision. Nonetheless, this will not be the first quixotic effort in which I have engaged.) Israel is faced with thousands of rockets that are being launched at its civilian population from densely populated civilian areas. Those locations were chosen precisely in order to create a situation in which attacking them would inevitably result in civilian casualties. (I refrain from addressing the ludicrous assertion that we hear all too often that because of the dense population of Gaza there are no other available locations.) The same is true of the massive, sophisticated tunnels intended for the mass kidnapping and murder of Israeli civilians.

    For this reason, Israel’s attacks have indeed caused civilian casualties. It has pursued measures unprecedented in the history of warfare to minimize such casualties. That these measures have succeeded to a significant degree is evident from the greatly disproportionate percentage of military age males killed even according to the figures supplied by Hamas entities and funneled through the UN and the media without the ability to evaluate them at this stage. The assertion that the harm inflicted on Palestinian civilians is disproportionate is, by any definition of disproportionate, misguided. If disproportionate refers to greater force than needed to neutralize the threat, then the assertion is not true. If it
    means that Israel should simply live with the attacks and the tunnels—something
    that no country in the world would do– then the assertion is immoral. And if it means that Israelis should die in larger numbers in order to make the sacrifices more balanced, then it is all the more immoral.

    All of this means that the assertion that Israel is committing war
    crimes is also immoral. As you know, one of my areas of scholarly study is medieval Jewish-Christians relations. I ask myself about the comparative moral
    culpability of medievals who accused Jews of ritual murder and contemporaries who accuse Israel of war crimes. The vast majority of those medieval Christians had no real evidence that Jews do not murder children and consume their blood.
    They knew that Jews had been executed by duly constituted authorities
    for doing precisely that. Even the few who knew that papal and imperial investigations had found the accusation baseless could have assumed in light of the accumulating evidence that the investigators had been misled. In our case,
    the evidence of Israel’s efforts to identify terrorist targets and avoid
    civilian deaths to the degree that this is possible is manifest to every
    observer who takes the trouble to learn the facts. I leave it to you to draw conclusions about comparative moral culpability.

    Despite the pro forma deploring of attacks on Israel that appears in the first sentence, the historians’ letter is devoted exclusively to urging steps that facilitate the re-arming of Hamas so that it can perfect its capacity to murder Israeli civilians on the largest possible scale with impunity. I leave it to you
    to draw conclusions about the ethical standing of this document.

    • Corlyss

      Good luck trying to present facts to the lot of knuckleheads who pride themselves on not listening to reason. I salute you for trying to make a difference, but their position is analogous to that of the True Believers in the AGW movement. Don’t be surprised if they come after you. They are practicing what John Batchelor used to call out as “feeding others to the monster in hopes that the monster will eat you last!” There’s no honor or heroism in their “stand” except in the echo chamber they inhabit.

    • Ethan56

      dberger: did you ever get any replies to your fine letter?

      • dberger

        Thank you. I sent it to two people. One has not replied. The other replied that she had read it and would read the article to which I linked. Nothing further since then. I am acquainted with a third signatory, but even my penchant for quixotic ventures was not strong enough to impel me to write to her.

  • That green fascists (i.e., islamists) and red fascists (i.e., the far left) would find common ground surprises me alas very little. While I gradually abandoned the left for Burkean conservatism/”classical liberalism” for many reasons, the cravenness with which the left responded to islamofascism was what finally opened my eyes and made me realize that the “bugs” of their system were actually not bugs but features.

    • Corlyss

      You sound like proudly Neocon Douglas Murray. I mean that as a compliment. There should still be a vid on C-SPAN from 8 or 9 years ago when he described the European foot-dragging indifference to what was happening in Kosovo as his Epiphany – before that he’d been a traditional Oxbridge educated Elite-type European Leftie. But Kosovo woke him up to the moral bankruptcy of the Left’s poses and attitudes and the danger presented by the operational dominance of people who couldn’t assess a real peril cultivated by their own disdain for Western culture and its virtues.

  • Rick Caird

    The solution is the end of tenure. If the trustees could act against nonsensical academics, those academics would be much more even handed when using their titles and university affiliations.

  • mbermangorvine

    Was “Hawblog” named after Lord Haw-Haw, I wonder?

  • Beauceron

    “a group of left-leaning historians”
    With the near complete takeover of academic institutions by the radical Left, is there any other kind of historian these days? Certainly not in the academies.

    • Corlyss

      There’s left, Left, and UberLeft. I’m waiting for some of them to fall off the edge in their scramble to out-stupid those of their fellows they consider too conservative.

  • Charles Dreyfus

    Superb. Needs the widest possible dissemination, and to be copied by all interested parties to the letter’s addressees.

  • Corlyss

    “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.”

    I was going to mention this till I see the author “self-corrected.” I say “self-corrected” because I wonder how he can call this development “new” with such glaring and obvious antecedents as he articulates one by one throughout the article. It really isn’t new. It’s just as appalling and hypocritical and cowardly as it has always been. Just another example of why tenure needs to go. Someone called academia “tenured radicals” and their control over the “scholarship” that goes into textbooks for k-12 has delivered unto us what we have now: generation after generation exceptionally ignorant of history, scornful of American Exceptionalism, contemptuous of civic responsibility, wrong-headed, indifferent, and thankfully ineffectual at the ballot box, incapable of looking after themselves with the kind of ordinary educational competence that was common 100 years ago among college students and graduates. I could go on but I’m late for the gym . . .

  • barbaro70

    Mr Herf, this is a very thorough and comprehensive analysis of the lib/lefty historian problem, thank you. BUT I do not really understand how these lib/lefty academics, who live, work, exist, in an ivory tower, insulated from reality, who could not earn a living honestly if they had to–which they do not, can be taken seriously. These lib/lefty academics still dream of the glories of communism and simply cannot be taken seriously regarding down to earth, practical matters. In fact, they are simple buffoons, nothing more. You insist, Mr Herf, “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.” But the whole academy is a joke these days–top heavy with elitist researchers who specialize in nonsense, paid for and they expect it by government/tax money grants–incapable of preparing college students for the reality of the United States today, a reality that has lost a great part of what is needed to maintain economic growth.
    In summary, Mr Herf, I think a future article could be dedicated to just how pathetic American higher education, with the exception of some very fine private schools, has gotten.

  • Winston

    To this day no one has defined what a “proportionate” response to thousands of rocket attacks is supposed to look like. It is a term without any content whose main utility is that it is so nebulous that you can attack Israel with it without any defined standards as to just what it is, without presenting any grounds for the charge, without any detailed analysis of the fighting and without reference to any comparison with recent military actions elsewhere. It is the equivalent of just shouting “war criminal.”

    • SteveGW

      There have been attempts to investigate and clarify the notion of proportionality that Just War Theory uses, but with no great success. The fundamental problem is JWT is not derived from the first principles of any coherent, well-established moral theory, but has been built up by appeals to intuition

    • Corlyss

      “To this day no one has defined what a “proportionate” response to thousands of rocket attacks is supposed to look like.”

      Well, it’s fairly obvious. If the side the UN/AI/HRW crowd doesn’t like scores clear kills of their enemies and should be congratulated in an old fashioned moral universe, the response was disproportionate. Conversely, if the side the UN/AI/HRW crowd likes uses innocents as shields, hides weapons in mosques and schools and clinics, and kills journalists, they are fighting fair. In the Carter administration I characterized this proportion-disproportion nonsense thus: “If the good guys have 100 tanks, and the bad guys have only 30, the good guys should mothball 70 so any contest between the two will be fair, because after all that’s all we care about in warfare: were the good guys fair.” If they used superior forces to crush their enemies, that victory was illegitimate.” Vide the claptrap spewed by Smithsonian and other modern exhibit mounters about . . . take your pick . . . the founding fathers-slavery, the European-Native confrontations; A-bomb-Japan controversy. The West has lost all concept of what it represents vis the rest of the world cultures, and no longer can sustain their own narrative.

  • Thanks for this, excellent work. You should correct the error in the first sentence about August 31, however. And, a further heads up, you might enjoy my new co-edited book of essays on the film about East Germany, The Lives of Others. The title of the collection is Totalitarianism on Screen.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Real leftists despise both Hamas and all of Islam for that matter—-because it is 1) a fib, and 2) not liberal. They (we) also believe Israel should be somewhere OTHER than where it is, so it can stop “defending” itself from enemies it need not have as next-door neighbors. Texas would be a good place to move to.

    • Doug
      • FriendlyGoat

        “Real” leftists are the ones who know a false and smothering religion from a hole in the ground. Ain’t that the point here?

        • Corlyss

          ” “Real” leftists are the ones who know a false and smothering religion from a hole in the ground.”

          First a question just looking for info on your own world view: is the left’s attitude toward religion the major element you use to identify your fellows?

          An then an observation: how do you distinguish the left’s AGW hysteria and tools they use for suppression of opposition from “a false and smothering religion?” If they behave exactly alike (with saints, icons, hyper-vigilance against apostasy and ruthless response to same, ritualistic behavior, confraternity of the environmentalists doctrine, etc.) If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, ain’t it a duck and therefore subject to your dismissal?

          “Some of us are actually liberal instead.”

          How would you distinguish between yourself and what routinely is labeled “liberal” by its fans?

          • FriendlyGoat

            I don’t pose to define all liberalism. But I am very sensitive to nonsense entertained by some from the left that “if only Israel was not oppressing Palestinians” or “if only the USA was not meddling in the Middle East” then Islam would be a religion of peace and something respectable.

            I believe Islam is first of all, simply false. Mohammad is not “The Prophet” whose sayings supposedly supersede everything else in human thought. Secondly, Islam is not liberal. No one on earth should be pretending to tell everyone else when to pray, what to pray, what language to use, what direction to face, what position to assume, and whether men and women should be separated for praying. Those, and whether to pray at all, are all basic human rights. Any philosophy which violates any of that (and so much more in the case of Islam) is NOT LIBERAL.

            So, show me a leftist who is warm to Islam, and I’ll show you someone who is lost in a fog of confusion. I favor the left for many, many social policies. But when my left-side brothers start with the mush-mindedness about Islam, I tend to start with “Please don’t pollute our philosophy with THAT. You know not what you’re glorifying”.

            This is not to say I hate Muslims. I wish to not hate ANY people. But I do “hate” Islam as a philosophy for its built-in offense against Christians, Jews, and all the other miscellaneous “infidels” who refuse to accept its statement of faith.

    • chicagorefugee

      Texas, huh? Yeah, your motivations for that aren’t too transparent or anything.

      Anyway, good luck selling that move to people who have been making the toast “Next year in Jerusalem!” for almost 2,000 years now.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Yes. It would be much cheaper for world Jews, world Christians and world Muslims to contribute a few hundred billion dollars to buy up a contiguous piece of land equal to 3% of Texas than to fight world wars over a particular piece of real estate. Obviously there is a sales value for what would be left behind in old Israel, too, of course. Everyone should be asking, why not? Are we too stupid in the 21st century to solve big problems?

        • ahad_ha_amoratsim

          A commenter calling himself Arthur Kirkland used to post a similar fanstasy at Volokh Conspiracy and elsewhere. Perhaps under a similar theory, Black families in the 1960’s seeking to move into white neighborhoods in the US should have been relocated to West Germany, or perhaps Harlem or East St. Louis. I doubt they would have seen the wisdom or compassion in that plan, any more than I can see any in yours.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Admittedly, I’m joking a little bit about moving Israel because it’s unlikely. I’m also kinda serious about floating the idea BECAUSE the present arrangement is not working out. EVERYONE knows it is not working out.

            Islam is not going to accept Israel where it is. Eventually this spat is going to lead to exploded nuclear weapons in some place—-or a lot of places. That makes MANY other people in the world have a vested interest to insert themselves into the matter. We don’t have to permit nuclear war over ancient writings and the stubborn ideas of stubborn people. It is not a racial matter—-it is a matter of beliefs.

            You may think “wisdom and compassion” reside in taking sides and fighting these things out with whatever weapons we have. I don’t.

  • Peter

    Another example of why “tenure” needs to be abandoned. No one deserves a guaranteed job for life.

  • SuzyS

    Do Israelis have to live and die for Israel so that diaspora Jews can have a country to go to when they feel or have the need to live the one they legally occupy?

  • Superb. Majorly important statement of plain fact and moral value, all in one.

  • oakhill1863

    the 200 signers of the letter should be indicted for aiding and abetting hamas’s war crimes.

    i will leave it up to the international court whether they are guilty and should be convicted.

    keevan d. morgan, esq., chicago

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