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The "Historians" Confront Israel

Apart from the Steven Salaita affair (best analyzed by Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet) and the occasional, if typical, borderline anti-Semitic comment from a member of Columbia’s Middle Eastern studies department, the summer has been surprisingly quiet, given events in the region, in academic denunciations of Israel. Until now. A group of 45 historians prepared a statement—subsequently co-signed by hundreds of other historians and people calling themselves historians—on events in Israel and Gaza.

Speaking as historians, the scholars’ letter raised three central points. First, it deplored the “ongoing attacks against civilians in Gaza and Israel.” Second, it condemned Israel for using disproportionate force, thereby “killing and wounding so many Palestinian children.” And third, it demanded that the United States suspend military aid to Israel, while Israel end any blockade of Gaza.

Historians, of course, have the same First Amendment rights as their fellow citizens. Yet the scholars’ letter went out of its way to affirm that the signatories were speaking as historians, not simply as citizens. 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. For example, Rutgers’ Temma Kaplan describes her scholarly interests as “women, gender and sexuality and their impact on political popular culture in Spain, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, South Africa, and the United States.” My former Brooklyn colleague, Renate Bridenthal, is a German historian whose work focused on German immigrants and women in Europe. NYU’s Rebecca Karl is a historian of modern China; her colleague Michelle Mitchell specializes in African-American history, especially of the Jim Crow era. No doubt these are all very intelligent people. But 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.

Perhaps, it might be said, these non-specialists see the letter as applying the historians’ craft—interpreting the past to better understand the present—to address whether Israel used disproportionate force in “killing and wounding so many Palestinian children.” The concept of disproportionate force, which is ill-defined in international law and poorly understood among the public, cries out for historical comparisons and analysis. Did, for instance, the Union employ disproportionate force in the Civil War, which left tens of thousands Southern white civilians dead? After Paraguay launched a war of aggression against them, did Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay employ disproportionate force in the War of the Triple Alliance, which left around half of Paraguay’s population dead? After the Nazi invasion of Poland and Pearl Harbor, did Britain and the United States employ disproportionate force in World War II, which left hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians dead? By the standards laid out in the scholars’ letter, the answer to each of these questions would be yes, suggesting that the historians believe that any successful war, even if one of self-defense, violates international law.

But the historians’ letter doesn’t raise these historical questions. Perhaps these scholars of the past believe that the only appropriate timeframe to examine the disproportionate use of force comes in events that occurred after late June 2014. Even here, however, their letter seems wildly incomplete, since it addresses the conduct of only one side in the conflict. Do the historians believe that Hamas employed disproportionate force against Israeli children (and against Palestinian children who happened to be in the way of Hamas’ ill-directed rockets) when it launched more than 2500 rockets? If so, why didn’t the historians make that point in their letter? If not, how many rockets targeted at Israeli children would be disproportionate—four thousand? Ten thousand? And do the historians consider Hamas’ use of tunnels to target Israeli children in the south of Israel a proportionate use of force?

But, the historians might object, their letter does deplore violence against Israeli citizens. A reader of their document, however, could be forgiven for doubting the sincerity of the scholars’ sentiments on this issue. After all, the signatories’ policy recommendations would dramatically increase the likelihood of innocent Israeli children perishing. Suspending U.S. military aid would eliminate, in part, funding for Iron Dome, which has saved the lives of thousands of Israeli citizens over the past two months. And allowing unfettered access to Gaza would provide an opening for Hamas’ patrons in Ankara, Doha, and (sometimes) Teheran to supply the terrorist regime with more, and more powerful, rockets—which could then be fired on an Israeli populace whose Iron Dome protection had been weakened by the military aid cutoff the historians demand.

Doubtless the historians would regret such an outcome. But they’re historians, who deal with the past, not the future.