History and the Current Impasse: An Interview with Avi Shlaim
Middle East Report, 10 May 2002
Avi Shlaim, a well-known Israeli historian, teaches international
relations at St. Antony's College, Oxford. His most recent work
focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict is titled The Iron Wall (W.W.
Norton, 1999). Shlaim spoke with Elliott Colla in Oxford on May 10,
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?
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.
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
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 1948]?
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 peace process.
Is there a pattern in Israeli society for what gets remembered and what gets forgotten?
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.
Is this collective memory selective?
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.
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?
There used to be three new historians: Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe 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 Pappe 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 Israeli leaders.
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.
A professor once told me that what
matters in Israeli society is not facts, but rather feeling, a feeling
of community. Would you agree?
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
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?
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.
There is talk of a boycott of Israeli
intellectuals and academic institutions. What do you think of this?
Ilan Pappe has sounded off in favor of it.
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
because Israel has violated the rule it purchased British military
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
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
"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.
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 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.