Conservatives go after UCLA's historian James Gelvin

Historians in the News
tags: James Gelvin

HNN Editor:  On December 19, 2014, we published an excerpt from Cinnamon Stillwell's recent attack on UCLA's James Gelvin. Ms. Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that focuses on Middle East studies. It was founded by Daniel Pipes. Her work appears in conservative publications that support Israel. After it was posted Professor Gelvin emailed HNN with a response.  You can read his response below.     

Excerpt from Cinnamon Stillwell's attack on Professor Gelvin   

It seemed too good to be true: the required reading in UCLA history professor James Gelvin’s fall 2014 class, History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1881 to Present, includes a pro-Israel book, Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel (2004).  Described by the New York Times Book Review as “[e]specially effective at pointing to the hypocrisy of many of Israel’s critics,” the Washington Post Book World called it a “lively, hotly argued broadside against Israel’s increasingly venomous critics."

Why would a professor so openly critical of Israel assign such a work?  To balance his own unfavorable views on the topic, perhaps?  To spark classroom debate on complex issues?

Not quite.  A source at UCLA tells Campus Watch that students are reading Dershowitz in order to locate and write about the alleged errors, a requirement that does not extend to any of the other reading material.

Would that Gelvin’s students could apply such scrutiny to his own book, The Israel Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (2014), which is also required reading.  Martin Sherman, formerly of the University of Southern California and the Hebrew Union College, reviewed the book for the Middle East Quarterly in 2010 and concluded that it provides:

... an account of the Israel-Palestine conflict which is appallingly shallow, shoddy, and slanted. ... [I]t will certainly underscore the mendacious manner in which this topic is dealt with in mainstream academe.


To the Editor of HNN: 

I have recently been apprised of an attack on me originally published on CampusWatch, a conservative, pro-Likud group that has been targeting historians such as myself who teach the Israel-Palestine conflict in a manner the group considers hostile to Israel.

CampusWatch has a reputation for playing fast and loose with facts, particularly when they concern academics they do not consider sufficiently pro-Israel.

As someone who has twice contributed to History News Network and consider it a valuable resource, I was disappointed to see you post a piece with so many errors, half-truths and outright fabrications.

For example, for their final assignment, I require students to read and find six significant mistakes in both Alan Dershowitz's Case for Israel and Jimmy Carter's The Blood of Abraham.

It is a training exercise so they might learn to cut through the nonsense propagandists for both sides put forth in their arguments about Israel-Palestine.

As I state in the prompt, "The purpose of this exercise is to prepare you for life after class. Those of you who plan on becoming engaged citizens will be reading or listening to discussions about the Israel-Palestine conflict.  In many cases, those of you who plan on becoming engaged citizens will be reading or listening to nonsense masquerading as analysis."

The article you posted says, "students are reading Dershowitz in order to locate and write about the alleged errors, a requirement that does not extend to any of the other reading material." This, in spite of the fact that the assignment explicitly states that significant errors from both books must be cited, critiqued, and corrected.

The article also quotes an unfavorable review of my own book, The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War, written by polemicist Martin Sherman, whose Jerusalem Post bio begins, "Dr. Martin Sherman served for seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli Defense establishment. He was a ministerial adviser to Yitzhak Shamir's government..." It fails to mention that the book was peer reviewed and published by Cambridge University Press (it is currently in its 3rd edition, published in 2013), nor does it mention the favorable reviews the book has garnered, including from L. Carl Brown in Foreign Affairs, Nigel J Ashton in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, and George R. Wilkes, in the Journal of Jewish Studies. The book also received high praise in The Journal of Palestine Studies and, in fact, won the Choice book award for outstanding academic title in 2007.

The article also accuses me of choosing The Blood of Abraham because Carter discusses the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt which led to the 1979 peace treaty and somehow I must be against that. In fact, I chose the book as a gift to my students, because Carter makes an egregious error in his analysis of the conflict on the first page of this book.

I plead guilty to putting the "new historians" on my syllabus. I also put on other historians--historians, mind you, not propagandists--from the opposite side of the political spectrum who have made significant contributions to understanding the social and economic history of the Israel/Palestine and the history of the conflict.

I also plead guilty to situating the struggle in terms of rival nationalisms. That's my call. But not only does that call not delegitimize Israel, it makes the conflict into a run-of-the-mill nationalist struggle that can only be resolved by a two state solution; i.e., it affirms the continued existence of Israel.

In short, the piece you ran is a politically motivated hatchet job. I am not surprised that Cinnamon Stillwell would take another swing with her axe at me, but I am disturbed you would provide her with a forum to do so.


James L. Gelvin
Professor of History