Voice of the 'Wrecking Ball': Interview with Israeli Historian Avi Shlaim
"It came as a great shock to hear Benny Morris blithely condemn the victims for their own misfortunes and exonerate Israel of any responsibility for the war crimes its forces committed in 1948..."
By Don Atapattu
Avi Shlaim’s perspectives on the ongoing crisis in the Middle East are possibly more salient than most being both Jewish and an Israeli, but whose family origins are ethnically Iraqi. Indeed, the whole history of his whole life has been inextricably linked with the Arab-Israeli conflict; and has witnessed dramatic changes in fortune in direct relation to events in the Middle East as a whole.
Uprooted from their affluent upper-class lifestyle in Baghdad, Shlaim and his family were obliged to start their lives from scratch in 1950’s Israel, where he still has relatives today. In 1966 Shlaim again relocated, this time to England to study International Relations at Cambridge University, and today he holds the most prestigious academic post available in Britain – a Professor’s Chair at Oxford University.
The author of numerous articles, he is a an occasional contributor to the leading liberal British broadsheet ‘The Guardian’; but he is probably best known as the writer of several books on the history of Zionism and the Middle East; the most well known being the exhaustively researched ‘The Iron Wall’.
Although denounced by the hard-line Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post as ‘non history’ and a ‘Wrecker's ball aimed at the 'Zionist narrative'; ‘The Iron Wall’ was widely acclaimed as a strikingly fair minded, and even those who disagree with Shlaim’s liberal pro Israel, anti occupation politics have found it a convincing revisionist account of the last half century of conflict.
Friendly and always courteous (he declines to even respond to an attack on him by a certain Right-wing Jewish writer), he speaks lucidly and at length on any topic you can mention on the Middle East and the scholarship available on it.
This interview was conducted at his Oxford home.
You were born in Baghdad. Do you have any memories of living in Iraq?
I was born in 1945, and my family left Iraq in 1950. I was 5 years old, and hadn’t started going to school so I never learned to read and write Arabic. I have only disjointed memories of life in Iraq. My father was a very wealthy merchant … we lived in a spacious house, and had a very leisurely and pleasant lifestyle. My parents always referred to Iraq as ‘God’s Paradise’, and there was no history of anti-Semitism in Iraq, only isolated incidents. The Jews were generally well integrated and happy.
But after Iraq’s participation in the 1948 war, there was a backlash against the Jews. Life became uncomfortable and in 1950 there was a mass exodus to Israel of about 100,000 of the 130,000 Iraqi Jews. The Iraqi government did not want the Jews to leave as they were a pillar of the Iraqi economy. The Israeli government, desperately short of manpower, pressed for the Jews to come out, even if this meant they had to leave everything behind.
My family and I were part of that exodus to Israel. We were not refugees in the strict sense of the word because we weren’t persecuted or expelled; we made our own decision to leave. So are situation is not comparable to that of the Palestinian refugees, who were displaced by Israel in 1948. But in a real sense to us, we were victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Iraqi born Israeli Rabbi David Rabeeya refers to himself as an Arab-Jew, which is not an expression that the Israeli government recognises. Is this a term with which you would describe yourself?
No, I would not. I would describe myself as an Israeli because I grew up in Israel, served in the Israeli army, and I was even a patriotic Israeli in my youth. It never occurred to me to describe myself as an Arab-Jew. Neither part of this description would fit my identity today. I don’t see myself as an Arab, and although I happen to be a Jew, it is not a major part of my identity because I am an atheist.
I have often thought that if the people of the Middle East were more aware of their common background as Semites, this might go some way to blurring the battle-lines in the Middle East.
I agree with that. Unfortunately the Israeli establishment has never used Jews from the Arab countries as a bridge. The official ideology in the 1950s (during the time of mass immigration to Israel) was that everything Arab was inferior and primitive. The task was to erase the Arab identity, culture, language, habits and folklore of the new immigrants, and give them a new Ashkenazi identity.
There was an element of racism, or at least arrogance on the part of the Ashkenazi elite, in wanting to ‘raise’ the Oriental Jews to their level of civilisation. This prevalent attitude meant that Jews from Arab countries did not dwell on their Arab heritage, but strove to integrate themselves into their new society.
They also internalised the ethos of Israel as a new state that surrounded by implacable enemies with no option but to stand up and fight. This is the reason that many Oriental Jews vote for Right-wing parties that are nationalistic and xenophobic such as Herut and later Likud. Incidentally, it is also true that Israel has never used its Arab population as a bridge to the neighbouring countries.
While the Israeli Arabs accepted the legitimacy of the new state, the Israeli establishment persisted in regarding them with suspicion as a potential Fifth Column. Although the Israeli Arabs wanted to integrate, Israel saw them as a problem rather than an asset and was unwilling or unable to treat them as equal citizens. David Ben Gurion set the tone by projecting Israel as a European country in culture and values which only ‘by accident’ is located in the Middle East.
Do you think that Israeli democracy can be reconciled with Israeli ethnocracy?
Formally Israel is a democracy but in practice not all of its inhabitants enjoy equal rights.
One problem is that Israeli Arabs are treated as second-class citizens. Another problem arises in the Occupied Territories. The occupation calls Israeli democracy into question as it involves imposing coercive rule over another 3.5 million Arabs. Some sociologists refer to Israel as a ‘master-race democracy’, where democracy is for the Jews only as the master-race. This strikes me as too extreme and emotive a term. I would prefer to describe Israel as a flawed democracy and one which is increasingly going the route of South African with its apartheid practices.
If you look at Israel’s specific policies on the West Bank - the illegal Jewish settlements, the brutal military repression of the Arabs, the abuses of human rights, the habitual disregard for international law, the building of the so-called ‘security barrier’, the roads for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers – all make up a pretty ugly picture. If that is not apartheid, I don’t know what is.
Even putting aside the issue of the Palestinians, the numbers of competing sub cultures within Israel (Ashkenazi, Sephardim, orthodox, secular, Russian, Arab etc.) do not make for a cohesive state. How will such a divided population, stand as a nation in the future?
Before 1967 Israeli was an embattled nation with a common enemy, a clear direction, and a strong sense of purpose. In the last 20 years this national identity has been eroded and Israel has collapsed into a series of very distinct sub cultures with little in common.
The orthodox-secular divide has become much more acute than in the past, with the orthodox having little contact with everyone else. The alienation of Israel’s Arabs from the state is increasing all the time. The gap between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews is still there. The million or so Russian Jews have their own institutions and their own political parties. To cap it all, the politicians of the right exploit these divisions to their own advantage instead of trying to unite the country.
So Israel today is a highly divided society.
Dr David Rabeeya suggests that the Israeli state deliberately fosters enmity between Palestinians and Arab-Jews to prevent a threat to the Ashkenazi elite’s supremacy. Would you agree with that assessment?
Yes I would. The Ashkenazi elite has from the beginning wanted to maintain its hegemony within Israeli society – political as well as cultural. They did this by co-opting the Sephardic Jews into their own parties. The Labor Party promoted a number of Iraqi Jews to ministerial posts, thereby depriving the Oriental masses of alternative leadership.
Likud’s leadership too has been predominantly Ashkenazi, with a few token Orientals. Likud enjoys substantial grass-root Oriental support even though it adheres to a social and political ideology that offers them next to nothing. It attracts the Oriental masses by raising the nationalist banner, rather than that of social reform or economic equality. Oriental Jews rally behind that banner as it gives them the opportunity to place themselves above the Israeli Arabs in the pecking order.
Many upwardly mobile Orientals fear that if the occupation ended, they will have to go back to doing the menial tasks that Arabs now do.
There was an article in The Economist about Israel’s ‘Rainbow Coalition’ of liberal Sephardic Jews. Its leader spoke of how he was taught to demonise Arabs at school, and consequently forbade his own grandmother to be seen with him publicly as she looked like a Palestinian. Do you think that much of the problem with the Israeli side is the limited information and understanding of the nature of the conflict, much of it stemming from school time indoctrination?
That was an interesting example of socially-induced shame.
I had a similar experience as a young boy. I felt that everything Arab was inferior and primitive, and would be acutely embarrassed if my parents spoke to me in Arabic in front of my friends. I never experienced direct discrimination as an Oriental Jew, but subjectively I felt all the time that I was inferior because I came from Iraq.
The dominant culture was Ashkenazi, and this was the ideal to aspire to. The Israeli education system does not provide much knowledge of the Arab world or its history. The emphasis is on Jewish history from Biblical times to the present, as well as some European history. There is a very high level of ignorance on the part of Israeli school leavers about their neighbours, and in this context prejudices are bound to grow, and racist stereotypes take hold to demonise Arabs as the enemy.
The New History had a limited influence on the teaching of history in Israeli schools during the time of Oslo, particularly Benny Morris’s findings on the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. The traditional Zionist version of the conflict was not discarded, but Israeli school kids were invited to think about how they would have felt if they had been Arabs in 1948.
This approach created a space for discussion and debate, and generated some empathy for ‘the other’. But after the Likud returned to power in 2001, the Minister of Education ordered the liberal history textbooks to be discarded and replaced with books which conveyed only Jewish and Zionist values. Thus, during the last three years, there has been a regression in the quality of secondary school education about the Arabs.
The governments of Netanyahu and Sharon were both notable in that they were criticised by high level military and intelligence figures for not wanting to make peace now when Israel has the region’s military balance massively in its favour. Do you think the hope for a peace could lie with pragmatic conservatives, now that the Israeli liberal peace camp is so marginal and weak?
No. I am deeply pessimistic about the future precisely because there is no hope either from the Left or from the pragmatic Right. The Labor Party is in complete disarray and does not offer a coherent alternative to the policies of the Likud government. The greatest mistake that Shimon Peres made was to take the Labor Party into the coalition government headed by Ariel Sharon.
This compromised the Labor Party, and made it impossible to disassociate itself from the hard-line policies of the government and the repression of the Palestinians. Labor Party voters are not born, they only die. The young do not vote for Labor, and so the party does not represent the wave of the future.
The pragmatic Right is problematic as it only looks at Israel’s interests, without paying any attention to the interests of the Palestinians, and consequently it offers no hope of reconciliation and peace. One example is the wall being built on the West Bank. Building the wall signifies that the Right has partially given up the dream of Greater Israel, having come to the conclusion that it cannot rule the whole of the West Bank. It wants to cut its losses in Gaza and annex about half of the West Bank to the state of Israel. But the wall offers no hope of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. What it amounts to is a unilateral attempt by Ariel Sharon to repartition Palestine and re-draw the borders. As this will not be acceptable to the Palestinians, the violence and the bloodshed will continue.
Right-wing Zionists such as Daniel Pipes are dismissive of the notion of a Palestinian nationhood. In your opinion, is there a Palestinian ‘nation’ as opposed to the Arabs of Palestine?
There definitely is a Palestinian nation. It emerged in the aftermath of the First World War and it was forged in the crucible of the conflict with the Zionists. The Zionist movement in Palestine posed a challenge and led to the emergence of the Palestinian sense of nationhood.
The Palestinians are clearly a nation because that is how they define themselves. They had a land called Palestine, and they were displaced from it. The end result is that the Palestinians have never exercised sovereignty over the land in which they lived: first they were under the Ottoman Empire; then they were under the British mandate. The Israelis use this fact against them. They say: ‘you never had sovereignty over this land, and therefore you have no rights.’ But during the struggle for Palestine, the Palestinians had a strong national movement under the leadership of the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. In 1948 they felt they had at least as much of a right to independence as the Iraqis or the Syrians, or the Lebanese. The fact that some Israelis, like Golda Meir, deny the existence of a Palestinian nation is neither here nor there.
You mention the Mufti of Jerusalem. He is often used by Israel’s defenders to taint the Palestinians as a whole with Nazism. Can you expand on what his role was in the pre 1948 period?
The Mufti was the leader of the Palestinian national movement but he was an out-and- out rejectionist and in this he did not serve his people well. He rejected a long series of compromise proposals put forward by the British. He embarked upon a very risky strategy of all-or-nothing and he ended up with nothing.
Whichever way you look at the Palestinian struggle for independence under the British mandate, it is the story of how Mufti muffed it! Yasser Arafat is not a great statesman either. The Palestinians have been most unfortunate in having a good cause, but incompetent leaders.
As for the Mufti and Nazism, it is simply not true that he participated in the Nazi holocaust. He fell out with Britain, he went over to Germany, and he met with Hitler. Zionist writers, with the exception of Zvi Elpeleg, have been very harsh on the Mufti. But they have produced no hard evidence to prove that he participated actively in the Nazi destruction of European Jewry.
You wrote in ‘The Iron Wall’ that David Ben-Gurion snubbed Arab attempts at negotiation on the grounds that time was on Israel’s side. Surely he was right. In 1949 the Arabs nations wanted land corridors through Israel and the return of refugees as the price of peace, but in 2004 this has been lowered to withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Perhaps in 2020, they will accept whatever peace Israel dictates.
I think Ben Gurion made a mistake after the end of the 1948 war. The Arab masses were virulently anti-Zionist, but the rulers of Syria, Egypt, and Transjordan were all very pragmatic. They all wanted two things: territory and the return of the refugees. But Ben Gurion was not prepared to make any concession on either issue. He was only prepared to make peace on the basis of the status quo – Israel keeps everything and does not allow the refugees to return.
I don’t believe that Ben Gurion was vindicated by subsequent history. He thought that time was on Israel’s side and that the Arabs would lower there expectations. What he did not realise was that just as there can be a momentum towards peace, so there can also be a momentum towards escalation and war. There can be no political vacuum or standstill for very long.
In the absence of active diplomacy, the war clouds begin to gather above the region. Sooner or later another war breaks out. Zionist propaganda has always claimed that Israel sought peace indefatigably and that there was no one to talk to. My work and that of the other New Historians show that there were many opportunities to negotiate with the Arabs after 1948 and that Israeli intransigence played a major part in frustrating the quest for a settlement.
Samuel Huntingdon’s thesis on the ‘clash of civilisations’ has enjoyed a resurrection since September 11 2001, despite being scorned by many when it first emerged. How useful is it as a framework with which to explain the current situation in the Middle East?
Samuel Huntingdon’s thesis is simplistic and superficial. When it was first put forward it was roundly attacked by most experts on the Middle East and the Islamic world. The thesis is not grounded in history. However, it has the merit of simplicity, hence its appeal to Americans who know little about the outside world.
To the uninformed, the theory seems to explain everything and 9-11 gave it a great boost. But the theory makes the mistake of treating the Islamic world as a monolithic entity, when it isn’t. There is much variety and pluralism in the Islamic world. International politics today is not comparable to the Cold War, when there was bi polarity and an identifiable enemy in the shape of the Soviet Union. Islamic fundamentalism is not an enemy. It does not have an army or a state, so we need a much more sophisticated approach to understanding terrorism and its roots than this simple theory conveys.
Many of your critics (and some of your supporters) describe you as anti-Zionist, but reading your work this is clearly not the case. How would you describe your position?
I have never been anti-Zionist, and I have never questioned the legitimacy of the Zionist movement or the state of Israel. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jews and the Jews are entitled, like any other nation, to independence and statehood.
Where I differ from the great majority of Israelis is that I openly acknowledge that Israel’s creation caused a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. It is important for Palestinians to have Israelis acknowledge at least a share of the moral responsibility for the Nakba, for the catastrophe of 1948 and, more specifically, for creating the refugee problem. But I don’t go on from there to say that Israel should be dismantled in order to redress this injustice.
Israel is a fact, and you do not redress one wrong by committing another wrong. The only realistic solution is not absolute justice, but relative justice and that means the partition of Palestine. After 1967 there was a real opportunity for the partition of Palestine and Israel rejected in favour of creeping annexation.
I therefore make a clear distinction between Israel in the pre- 1967 borders – which is entirely legitimate in my eyes – and the Zionist colonial project across the Green Line which is entirely illegal and illegitimate.
In a word, I would describe myself as a Post-Zionist: Zionism had achieved its basic objective by 1967 and now the occupation should be ended so both Israelis and Palestinians can get on with their lives.
What would be a fair settlement in your eyes?
The only fair settlement is a negotiated settlement leading to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with minor territorial adjustments. In other words, it would have to be a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The contours of such a settlement are clear. They were outlined in the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan of 1995. We also have the Clinton parameters of December 2000 for an independent Palestinian state in all of Gaza and 94% - 96% of the West Bank, with a capital in East Jerusalem. The Clinton parameters were the basis for the negotiations held in Taba in January 2001. At Taba the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators came closer to agreement on a final settlement than at any point before or since. So a fair settlement would have to build on the understandings reached at Taba.
You have written that before you started researching Israeli history you had no reason to doubt the orthodox ‘heroic’ version that you were taught. Were you disappointed by your own findings?
I was sad to discover that Israel’s conduct in 1948 was not as unblemished and noble as my teachers had taught me at school. In particular, it came as a surprise to learn that the IDF did not always live up to high moral standards or to its own mantra about ‘the purity of arms’.
There were countless cases of mistreatment of Palestinian civilians; there were forcible expulsions; there were massacres; and there were even some cases of gang rape. All this is deeply disturbing and upsetting. The evidence that Benny Morris and others have produced shows quite conclusively that in 1948 Israel practiced what today we would call ‘ethnic cleansing’.
My reaction to these findings is one of deep sorrow and sympathy for the victims. It therefore came as a great shock to hear Benny Morris, in a recent interview in Ha’aretz, blithely condemn the victims for their own misfortunes and exonerate Israel of any responsibility for the war crimes its forces committed in 1948. I still respect Benny Morris’s scholarship on the 1948 war but I find his current position on the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem morally repugnant. To my mind war crimes can never be condoned or justified whatever the circumstances.
What do you think of the scholarship of the pro- Zionist, Right-wing critics of your work?
Most of the criticism of my work, and that of the other New Historians, has come not from the Right but from the Left and from supporters of the Labor Party in particular. Professor Anita Shapira, one of my most vocal critics, is a Labor party person - ‘the Princess of Zionist history’. In her sanctimonious self-righteousness she is typical of the intellectual Labor mainstream in Israel.
They have a problem because of the gap between the noble Zionist ideal and the reality on the ground in the treatment of Palestinians; and they fill this gap with humbug and hypocrisy. Professor Shapira is a good example of this humbug. Her book in Hebrew is called the ‘The Sword of the Dove’, implying that Zionism was an innocent white dove that was forced to carry a sword by the brutal and fanatical Arab predators in the neighbourhood. That is a one-sided view of the causes of the conflict which portrays the Arabs as the aggressors and the Jews as the innocent victims.
But the Zionist movement involved aggression against the local Arabs from the start. It had to use force by definition as the Arabs were not just going to willingly make way for the Zionists. A better title for her book would be ‘Anita in Wonderland’! The Right, on the other hand, have much less difficulty in accepting the findings of the New History. They admit that Israel expelled Palestinians in 1948 and regret that it did not expel more because they started the war. At least they are prepared to call a spade a spade.
I wonder if you have been somewhat generous in your appraisal for the Oslo leaders of Arafat and Rabin. As you have said yourself, Arafat’s leadership has been disastrous for the Palestinians. Itzhak Rabin, on the other hand, built far more settlements than Netanyahu and had a human rights record almost as atrocious as Sharon’s.
I would not defend Rabin’s record. He was a very hard-line and brutal defence minister under Itzhak Shamir during the first Intifada. But he eventually saw the light; he understood that there is no military solution to this conflict. He realized that a political solution had to be found and he accordingly embarked on the road to Oslo. Rabin was not too troubled by the prospect of a Palestinian state; what mattered to him was Israel’s security.
He and Arafat cooperated closely and successfully in the security field and they made progress in the political field with Oslo II. I believe that had Rabin stayed in power, the course of history would have been different. Oslo was not doomed to failure from the start. It failed because Israel, under the leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu, reneged on its side of the deal
The settlements are a cancer and have poisoned Israeli-Palestinian relations. They also expose the colonial nature of the Zionist movement. You build settlements when you don’t have a state in order to create a territorial base. When you do have a state with internationally recognised borders, international law does not allow you to build settlements on someone else’s land. Labor was much more guilty than the Likud in this respect in the decade after Oslo. The greatest increase in settlement activity occurred under Ehud Barak. Now the chickens have come home to roost as Israel is so entrenched with settlements on the West Bank, it is very difficult to roll back the occupation. The settlements were a tragic mistake.
You view Sharon as a failure. However, that would seem dependent on the criteria you are using. Some Left-wing critics allege that Sharon has been manifestly successful in promoting his agenda of destroying the ‘peace process’ and keeping up the level of violence. Norman Finkelstein¹ has written that Hamas was on the verge of accepting a ceasefire in July 2002, when Sharon deliberately ordered dropping of a one ton bomb that killed a Hamas leader and 16 others (including 11 children); which saw the violence massively escalate.
Sharon’s policy is to avoid negotiation or compromise with the Palestinians. He has been in power for three years and he has not resumed final status talks with them. Sharon has been the unilateralist par excellence throughout his long and chequered career, and that is what he is now. He has his own agenda for Greater Israel and he is trying to impose it by force on the Palestinians.
As you note, Sharon does not want a ceasefire with Hamas. Every time he assassinates a Hamas leader, he knowingly provokes retaliation which invariably takes the form of another suicide bombing. A continual low level of violence keeps Sharon in power. As the leading Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling explains in his book Politicide, Sharon’s basic aim is to deny the Palestinians an independent political existence in Palestine. His vision is to annex de facto half the West Bank, to redraw unilaterally the borders of Israel, and to leave a few isolated enclaves for Palestinian rule. That would certainly not be a viable Palestinian state. You can call this a success.
But in the long term, Sharon’s project is doomed to failure because the Palestinians will continue their struggle, and the economic, political, and psychological price will become unsustainable for the Israeli public. In the meantime Sharon is destroying both societies. This is not my idea of a successful policy.
Can you recommend some books for our interested readers who want an overview of the Middle East conflict?
There are two good pro-Palestinian overviews: Charles D Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the new edition of David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch. From the New History I would recommend the books by Simha Flapan, Ilan Pappe, and Benny Morris. I would not recommend my own book but simply note that The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World covers the first 50 years of this conflict. There are also several critical sociologists who write about the conflict, notably Baruch Kimmerling.
Finally, would you like to comment on the so called ‘New Anti-Semtism’?
That is a very important issue as in recent years there has been an upsurge of anti-semtism in Europe. That is undeniable. The debate is about its causes.
One view is that the new anti-semitism is essentially a revival of old anti-semitism, of deeply-rooted hostility and hatred towards the Jews. The other view emphasises the contemporary sources of the new anti-semitism.
Without denying for a moment that there is plenty of old anti-semitism about, it seems to me that among the most important contributory causes of the new anti-Semitism are the policies of the Sharon government. It is necessary to distinguish between anti-Semitism and opposition to Sharon’s particular brand of Zionism, which has nothing to do with traditional Jewish values of truth, justice, and morality. Sharon is the enactment of the most exclusive, aggressive, and xenophobic aspects of Zionist ideology. There is growing hostility towards Israel, and by extension towards Jews everywhere as a direct result of the relentless war he is waging against the Palestinian people.
Israelis have always tried to silence criticism by claiming that the motives behind it are anti-semitism. But in most cases it is fair- minded people who see the suffering of the Palestinians, and their sympathy is naturally on their side as the underdog. Sympathy for the Palestinians is not evidence of anti-semitism. I, for example, feel doubly guilty towards the Palestinians.
I feel guilty as an Israeli for all the suffering Israel has inflicted upon them; and I feel guilty as an Englishman because of Britain’s long record of betrayal going all the way back to the Balfour Declaration. The Palestinians are the real victims of this conflict, and they deserve all the international sympathy and support that they can get. In short, it is essential today, more than ever, to make a clear distinction between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism.
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