Historian Jeff Herf taken to task for his criticism of the resolution against Israel

Historians in the News
tags: Israel, BDS, AHA2016



Matt Peppewrites about politics, U.S. foreign policy and Latin America on his blog. You can follow him on twitter.

As the American Historical Association (AHA) prepares to vote this week on a symbolic resolution that affirms support for the right to education in the occupied Palestinian territories, apologists for the Israeli regime’s policies against Palestinians are putting forward nonsensical rationalizations for their opposition to the measure. Writing in History News Network, University of Maryland History Professor Jeffrey Herf essentially argues that his profession has no practical value: “as historians we have neither the knowledge nor expertise to evaluate conflicting factual assertions about events in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.”

If historians should not evaluate the veracity of factual assertions about an issue then what exactly is the use of historical studies? To merely compile and organize documents? Surely a historian’s job involves analytical – in addition to technical – skills. And surely their methods include empirical analysis – no different than a scientist testing a theory. If someone says the earth is round but another person says the earth is flat, that doesn’t mean the scientist should throw his hands up in the air and say “as scientists we have neither the knowledge nor expertise to evaluate conflicting factual assertions.”

Historians analyzing political questions use the same principles as scientists testing a theory. Take, for example, conflicting accounts of the actions of the Belgians under King Leopold in the Congo near the end of the 19th century. Leopold claimed he treated the Congolese people benevolently as part of his “Christian duty” to help the poor. Others claimed Leopold’s forces were engaged in the systematic plunder of resources carried out through massive violence. They described women held hostage by Belgian forces to force Congolese men to engage in involuntary labor, with the hands of those who did not produce enough rubber for the colonists cut off and kept as trophies.

According to Herf’s axiom, historians would not have the ability to distinguish between these competing claims. It would be outside the scope of the historical vocation to evaluate the available evidence and reach a conclusion about the truth.

In the Congo, the African American historian George Washington Williams worked tirelessly to document the true condition of the local population under Belgian rule. As Adam Hochschild explains in his book King Leopold’s Ghost, Williams’s insistence on questioning the official narrative enabled him to uncover and expose the brazen lies meant to cover up the genocidal destruction of an entire society for the material enrichment of a tyrant. ...




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