Letters to the Editor

Are Historians AWOL From Public Debate?

January 30, 2011

To the Editor:

"Historians Criticized as Often AWOL From Public Debate Over 'War on Terror'" (The Chronicle, January 12) reports that some scholars on a panel at the recent American Historical Association meeting in Boston complained that their fellow historians had not engaged in public debates about the war in Iraq and the war on terror. Having engaged in these debates publicly since the fall of 2001 in the pages of The New Republic online and elsewhere, I find these complaints most peculiar.

For historians, of all people, to simply whitewash their colleagues out of existence, even while we are alive and kicking, is quite an accomplishment. Or, as I suspect, do the complainers mean that those of us who disagree with them about the relationship between past and present do not count as engaging in public debate? The idea that historians have been reluctant to express their views about these issues, on various sides of these issues, is erroneous. Rather, in my view, there have been too few historians who have been willing to acknowledge the similarities as well as the differences between the radical anti-Semitism of the Nazi era and that of radical Islamism. But fellow scholars and observers from outside the academy can be assured that a serious scholarly debate about this and related issues is under way among historians in the Middle East, Europe, and in this country.

Jeffrey Herf
Department of History
University of Maryland
College Park, Md.