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Israel's Occupation Turns 35: Avi Shlaim on History and the Current Impasse
Avi Shlaim, Israel
May 10, 2002
Avi Shlaim, a well-known Israeli historian, spoke with Elliott Colla in Oxford.
Q: In the US-led peace negotiations of the last few years, there has been an insistent denial that the past has, or should have, any bearing on the present. What do you, as an historian, think of the prospects of negotiations which declare that the past is off limits?
A: Americans in positions of power, like the American public, don't know history. One of my American students in a discussion of this conflict said,
"This is past history." As if history could be anything other than past. But
his point was: "Let's talk about the here and now, and not what happened in
the past." Not knowing history, Americans cannot make any sense of the
situation in the Middle East.
Edward Said has pointed out that [the 1993 Oslo agreement] only addresses the problems and issues raised by the Israeli victory of 1967. It doesn't touch the root of the problem, which is what happened in 1948, or the rights of the original refugees. Now, other Americans don't want to raise the
problems raised in 1967, let alone the problems going back to 1948.
There are consequences to this. Because Americans rarely make any reference to 1948 or 1967, it's very difficult for them to understand what a huge compromise the Palestinians made in signing Oslo and agreeing to a two-state solution. They don't really grasp that the Palestinians have already given
up their claim to 78 percent of mandatory Palestine and are only insisting
that they get the remaining 22 percent, the West Bank and Gaza. Even there,
they're prepared to compromise even further, but not much further than this.
Q: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman complains to us twice a week about how Arab culture, and especially Palestinian culture, dwells too much on the past. How would you reply?
A: Thomas Friedman was a student here at St. Antony's and we're very proud of him. But that doesn't mean I agree with everything that he writes. It's absurd for him to say that the Arabs won't forget the past. How can anyone be asked to forget the past? Do the Jews forget the past? Can the Jews forget the Holocaust? Of course not. So why should the Palestinians be asked to forget the nakba [the forced flight of Palestinians from their homes in
History plays an important role—and not because it looks only toward the
past. Edward Said has written about the significance of revisionist history
in Israel. Not only does it offer a better understanding of the past, but it
also helps to create the right climate for moving both sides forward in the
Q: Is there a pattern in Israeli society for what gets remembered and what gets forgotten?
A: In a sense, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, on the psychological level, a contest over who is the victim. The Israelis would never concede to the Palestinians the status of victims, this they insist on keeping for
themselves. One example of this is the case of the 1948 refugees, which
Benny Morris demonstrated was the result of Israeli pressure and outright
expulsions. And yet no Israeli leader would ever accept the moral
responsibility, let alone the political responsibility, for creating the
refugee problem. They wouldn't even accept a share of the moral
responsibility for this problem. Ehud Barak at Camp David wasn't asked to
accept the right of return for refugees. He was asked to accept that Israel
bear merely a part of the moral responsibility for this problem, which would
then be tackled by the international community. And he refused.
Israelis have a certain collective memory, which is reflected in the old
history of this conflict: Israel is in the right, Israel is pure, the Arabs
are wrong. That's what the old history says, the version that is still
taught in Israeli schools about the history of this conflict.
The Israelis are undoubtedly victors, and yet they insist that they're
victims as well. This has always been a paradox within Israeli society. On
the one hand, they have so much military capability, and on the other hand,
they have so much psychological vulnerability, and a self-image that they're
weak and under threat.
Q: Is this collective memory selective?
A: What’s been called "the lachrymose version of Jewish history" is an Ashkenazi [European Jewish] version of Jewish and Israeli history which is
not supported by the experience of the Jews in Arab countries until 1948. We
come from Iraq. For my parents, Iraq was the Garden of Eden. They were very
nostalgic about it. There weren't any real problems between Jews and Arabs
until the state of Israel was established. So the broad experience of Jews
under Arab rule does not support what has been called "the lachrymose
version of Jewish history." In a sense, Arab Jews are asked to forget their
past in order to conform with the commemoration of an Ashkenazi past,
because the political, military, economic and above all the cultural elite
in Israel has always been and still is an Ashkenazi elite. Radical, dissenting
non-European discourse is marginal. There are a few minority
voices, but they don't effect the climate of opinion in Israel. The history
which is taught at school is an Ashkenazi history.
Q: You seem to have a real optimism about the value of history. But what if the connection between knowing historical information and acting on that information has been broken?
A: There used to be three new historians: Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé and myself. Benny Morris has veered to the extreme right and defected. That leaves two of us. But there was always a disagreement between the three of us on the nature of history. E.H. Carr says the fundamental task of the
historian is not to record but to evaluate. Benny Morris has always believed
that this is not so, that the fundamental task of the historian is to
record, not to pass judgment. Ilan Pappé and I still believe that the task
is to do both. But the emphasis is on evaluation. And some of my Israeli
friends say to me: "Why are you always passing judgment?" My reply to them
is: "That's my job as a historian." My view is that the historian is a
judge, and above all a hanging judge. And therefore I sit in judgment on
My job is to provide new information, new insights and a better balanced,
more critical understanding of the causes and the course of the Arab-Israeli
conflict. I've never been involved in politics. And I don't have any great
illusions I can influence politics. But that doesn't matter. My job is to do
the research, and to write the history books and to comment on the conflict
in ways of resolving it. And that's where my job ends as a historian.
In the past, I didn't feel any moral responsibility to speak up. But today,
because of what is happening to the Palestinians, I do have a sense of moral
responsibility. I cannot stay in my study at home and deal with history. I
have to be involved in current affairs—because as an expert on this conflict
I feel a moral responsibility to stand up and be counted at this moment when
Israel, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, is trying to sweep away the
remnants of Oslo and destroy the basis of a two-state solution.
I used to be very optimistic about the long-term prospects of resolving this
conflict. My early optimism was based on a comment that Abba Eban used to
make: "Nations are capable of acting rationally after they've exhausted all
the other alternatives." I once thought that Israelis and Palestinians had
exhausted all the other alternatives, and that finally, they were acting
rationally, but now I am a pessimist.
Q: A professor once told me that what matters in Israeli society is not facts, but rather feeling, a feeling of community. Would you agree?
A: In Israel feelings do count for more than facts. A sense of solidarity, of community. But I would qualify that, by saying that in the last decade or so, the national consensus, the perception of a single, straightforward, bipolar conflict between Israel on the one side and all the Arabs on the other side, has been breaking down. And it's been replaced by a number of subcultures in Israel who no longer share this broad consensus of being one
nation against the Arab world. You have six million people in Israel. One
million are Israeli Arabs. They did their best to be integrated, but they
were rebuffed and rejected and now they are becoming, especially the young
ones, much more militant and radical, and they identify much more openly
with their Palestinian brothers on the West Bank and Gaza. Then you have
another subculture which revolves around Shas, which has 17 seats in the
Knesset. Their culture is not democratic, nor do they believe in the rule of
law. And then you have religious nationalist parties, the Ashkenazi parties.
They combine religious messianism with Jewish nationalism. Then you have a
million Russian immigrants. So you no longer have the single cohesive polity
that you used to have in Israel, but a breakdown into subcultures.
Q: If "group feeling" is what matters, what hope does the historian have in producing facts which run contrary to the feelings and communities that exist?
A: The revisionist history did make an impact in the teaching of history in Israeli high schools. But this has been reversed by a counterattack on us by Ariel Sharon's right-wing Minister of Education. She has sacked her
liberal director general of the office and ordered that all the history
books that incorporate the findings of the New History be junked and old
history books be reassigned. But I can't give up the battle now. It's a
long-term struggle for the hearts and minds of people. Now Sharon's people
are on the offensive and the New History is in retreat. But this could
change when he leaves office. The New History will still be there.
But as for the impact of the new history, or history more generally, there
are really two Israels. There is the majority of Israelis who are not
interested in history and who think they have a God-given right to Eretz
Israel. They have a charter from God that they own this land and they don't
want to be confused with facts. And there is a shrinking minority open to
history and even the New History.
Q: There is talk of a boycott of Israeli intellectuals and academic
institutions. What do you think of this? Ilan Pappé has sounded off in favor
A: I’m for a boycott of Israeli goods and against a boycott of Israeli academics. Israel does 40 percent of its trade with the EU and very little
of its trade with the US, so EU economic sanctions against Israel would be
effective and I'm in favor of them, as well as an arms embargo. Britain to
its credit has implemented an embargo on arms sales. . . .
A cultural and academic boycott is an entirely different proposition: that
wouldn't hurt the government. On the contrary, it would play into the hands
of the government, because the government would say, "You see, there is
anti-Semitism, there is hostility towards us as a people. We are all in the
same boat, so you should rally behind the flag." Most Israel academics are
liberal. Or they used to be anyway. You don't want to discourage them from
dialogue and contact.
But the real problem is America's relationship to Israel, which is so
partial and so biased. America gives overwhelming support to Israel, to the
tune of billions of dollars a year. Never in the annals of human history
have so few owed so much to so many. This introduces a fatal contradiction
into America's position in the peace process. On the one hand, America sets
itself up as the honest broker, and on the other, it's completely beholden
to one side in this dispute. So it can't be an honest broker. Along these
lines, Moshe Dayan used to say: "Our American friends give us money, they
give us arms and they give us advice. We take their money, we take their
arms and we reject their advice."
So it's up to you as Americans to make sure that Israel doesn't take you
money and arms and completely dismiss the advice you give. It's up to
Americans to put some leverage on Israel to behave itself, to go forward in
the peace process.
What really annoys me about America is that it has done nothing to promote the resolution of this conflict and yet it excludes everyone else from
playing a constructive part in bringing about a resolution. Since 1967, the
US has insisted on a monopoly on the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli
conflict and excluded the EU and the UN. But it hasn't produced a
settlement. So why is America excluding everyone else?
Q: "The Iron Wall," combining military might with territorial conquest, was once a strategy designed to force the Palestinians and Arabs to accept a settlement with Israel, at which point it could be dismantled. In other
words, it was a means to an end. Lately you've been arguing that the Iron
Wall has become an ideology, an end in itself.
A: In the last year, Ariel Sharon has set up 34 new settlement outposts. This is leading the whole region to disaster. The international community has a responsibility to protect the Palestinians and to rein in the
Israelis. The trouble is that the Bush administration has accepted the
Sharon thesis that Arafat is a terrorist who should be removed and the PA is
a terrorist organization. There should be an international insistence on the
principles and negotiations on this basis towards a two-state solution. And the Arab side has offered to negotiate on this basis. Prince Abdallah's plan,
endorsed by the Beirut Arab League summit, offers Israel not just peace, but
normalization, not just with its neighbors, but with the whole Arab world,
based on Israeli withdrawal from most of the territories it captured in
1967, not all of them. So there is an Arab agreement on this settlement,
there is an international agreement on this plan and these principles. The
international community needs to pressure Israel back to the political
track, to force Sharon to stop shooting and start talking.
Avi Shlaim teaches international relations at St. Antony's College, Oxford. His most recent work focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict is The Iron Wall (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999).
From Middle East Report, vol. 223 (Summer 2002).