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The State of the Jewish State: An Interview with Professor Efraim Karsh

Head of the Mediterranean Studies Program at Kings College, University of London

Efraim Karsh, Head of the Mediterranean Studies Program at King’s College, University of London, was at Harvard for the fall semester serving as a visiting professor of Israel Studies in the department of Near East Languages and Civilizations. He is the author of many books, most recently Arafat’s War, and is currently working on a history of the Middle East since the rise of Islam. Israel Studies are often neglected in American Universities (no classes on the history of modern Israel have been offered at Harvard in recent memory and there is no permanent Israel Studies professorship), and Professor Karsh was invited, as the first visiting professor of Israel Studies, to fill the gap. He taught courses on the history of Israel and Israeli defense and foreign policy. An expert on the Arab refugees and Middle East history and politics, Karsh agreed to discuss relevant issues with HIR:
In your book Fabricating History, you argue that some self-styled “new historians,” often affiliated with the post-Zionist movement, not only engage Israeli history with a political slant, but actually distort the historical record. How has this charge been received?

As the first frontal assault on Israel’s fashionable “revisionist” school of thought, Fabricating sparked a heated debate that went on for several years. It was welcomed by many people, mainly outside academia, who had long been troubled by the “revisionist” rewriting of history in a manner casting the birth of Israel as the source of all evil. At the same time, it generated a sustained campaign of personal smear and innuendo by the “new historians” and their academic supporters aimed at discrediting my professional credentials. My publisher was even harassed at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) by an erstwhile critic of Israel urging his colleagues to boycott him for publishing my book.

Now, let me make it clear that I have nothing against true historical revisionism. To the contrary, most of my own work on the Middle East challenges the mainstream approach of Western scholarship to Middle Eastern history. But this is not what the “new historians” have been doing. Far from unearthing new facts or offering original interpretations that would transform the general understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have been reiterating the standard Arab “narrative” of the conflict, in an attempt to give it academic respectability. Worse, they systematically distort the archival evidence to invent an Israeli history in an image of their own making.

Any self-respecting academic discipline would not tolerate such distortions or their perpetrators. However, such is the politicization of modern Middle Eastern studies that Israel-bashing is an excellent career move.

Has the post-Zionist intellectual and political movement within Israel been undermined by mainstream Palestinian insistence on a right of return, the latest intifada, and the largely unsympathetic reading of Israel in light of the intifada by the world community?

First, I don’t like the term post-Zionism, which is effectively a euphemism for the old and familiar anti-Zionism. Both notions reject the idea that the Jews constitute a nation deserving of self-determination, and both advocate the destruction of the State of Israel and its replacement by an ordinary Arab-Muslim state in which Jews will be reduced to a permanent minority status, a modern-day version of the ahl al-dhimma system of “protected non-Muslim minorities” that existed since Islam’s early days. In the words of the Arab-American academic, Edward Said: “I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting...the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.”

Such notions have never struck a chord in Israel beyond narrow (albeit influential) academic and “intellectual” circles, for the simple reason that Israelis would rather live as free citizens in their own democratic state rather than as a small oppressed minority in an alien dictatorial state. But after Arafat started his vicious war of terror three years ago, even fewer people have any patience for the so-called post-Zionism. Indeed, when the call for Israel’s destruction was voiced recently by a couple of diehard leftists (Meron Benvenisti and Haim Hanegby) in lengthy interviews in Ha’aretz weekly magazine, most responses by the newspaper’s readers, by no means an audience of rightwing convictions, were overtly hostile.

The story outside Israel is completely different. In Europe, for example, the Palestinian war of terror has unleashed a tidal wave of anti-Semitism unprecedented in scope and intensity since the end of World War II. Some refer to this phenomenon as the “new anti-Semitism” mainly because it seems to be spearheaded by European Muslims. In my opinion, it is essentially a resurgence of the traditional European anti-Semitism that has never disappeared but has rather been dormant for a variety of reasons. Europe has yet to come to terms with its “Jewish problem.”

Have you observed the emergence of any kind of coherent, unifying ideology within Israel in response to the violence of the past few years and the decline of post-Zionism?

The Palestinian violence has not led to the advent of any new ideology in Israel but rather to the strengthening of national cohesiveness following the pervasive disillusionment with the Oslo mirage. Most Israelis understand that they had been duped by the Palestinian leadership, which has exploited Israel’s war weariness and yearning for normalcy to promote the traditional Palestinian goal of destroying the Jewish state.

Paradoxically, ordinary Israelis have a far better grasp of this reality than many academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, who seem to live in a dogmatic little world of their own making, unconnected to events on the ground. They continue to believe in “peace by appeasement,” namely that Arab-Israeli reconciliation can only be achieved by convincing Israel’s Arab neighbors of its peaceful intentions through public repentance and admission of (alleged) past misconduct, first and foremost the “original sin” of the creation of the Jewish state on the ruins of Palestinian society.

This mindset proved a necessary background to Oslo, or rather to the overwhelming readiness to see in something like Oslo a panacea to an otherwise intractable problem, and played a crucial part in the softening up of Israeli public attitudes, contributing in turn to the disastrous policies of the 1990s. It has also been demonstrated by the “revisionist” account of the July 2000 Camp David summit which seeks to absolve Yasser Arafat of culpability for the summit’s failure and to place it largely on Ehud Barak’s (allegedly) poor social skills. Aside from the absurd assumption that a few hours of socializing between Barak and Arafat could have miraculously resolved a bitter one-hundred-year war, this “revisionist” version runs contrary to accounts from Palestinian negotiators and sources close to them in the wake of the summit, which invariably praised Arafat’s intransigence in the face of heavy American and Israeli pressure, despite extracting substantial gains from Israel.

Most Israelis, however, seeing things for what they are, have been appalled by Arafat’s resort to wholesale violence, unmatched in scope and intensity since the Arab attempt to destroy the newly established state of Israel in 1948, just weeks after being offered an independent Palestinian state in the entire Gaza Strip and 92 percent of the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Were Arabs asked to leave by invading Arab armies? Is this claim “Zionist propaganda,” as scholars such as Walid Khalidi have charged?

No, it is not “Zionist propaganda,” though it does not explain the full scope of the Palestinian exodus. The war of annihilation launched by the Palestinians and the Arabs in 1947–48 threw both Jews and Arabs in Palestine into a whirlpool of hardship, dislocation, and all-out conflict—conditions that no society can survive without the absolute commitment of its most vital elites. Yet while the Jewish community (or Yishuv), a cohesive national movement, managed to weather the storm by extreme effort, and at a comparatively far higher human cost than any of its Arab adversaries, the atomized Palestinian community, lacking an equivalent sense of corporate identity, fragmented into small pieces. The moment its leading members chose to place their own safety ahead of all other considerations, the exodus became a foregone conclusion.

The desertion of the elites had a domino effect on the middle classes and the peasantry. But huge numbers of Palestinians were also driven out of their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces, whether out of military considerations or, more actively, to prevent them from becoming citizens of the Jewish state. In the largest and best-known example of such a forced exodus, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa against their wishes on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee, despite sustained Jewish efforts to convince them to stay. Only days earlier, thousands of Arabs in Tiberias had been similarly forced out by their own leaders. In Jaffa, the largest Arab community of mandatory Palestine, the municipality organized the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea, while in the town of Beisan, in the Jordan valley, the women and children were ordered out as the Arab Legion dug in. And then there were the tens of thousands of rural villagers who were likewise forced out of their homes by order of the Arab Higher Committee, local Arab militias, or the armies of the Arab states.

A recent poll of Palestinian refugees by Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shikaki indicates that a large majority of Palestinian refugees would not, if given the chance, actually return to Israel. Do you see this as a significantly positive development?

I am not at all sure. Few phrases have epitomized the Palestinian and Arab rejection of Israel’s legitimacy more clearly than the “right of return.” In their internal discourse, the demand for the return of the 1948 refugees and their descendants to territory now part of the State of Israel, plus their financial compensation for losses and suffering, is invariably equated with the destruction of Israel through demographic subversion. In addressing non-Arab audiences, however, Palestinians have been less than genuine about their objectives, presenting this “right” as humanitarian, as grounded in international law, and as a long-overdue redress of historical injustice.

It seems to me that this poll is part of the Palestinian propaganda effort to convince Israelis, and Western audiences, that the “right of return” does not pause an existential threat to Israel. A central plank of this propaganda effort has been the claim that all that the Palestinians want is an Israeli acknowledgement of culpability for the 1948 “catastrophe,” for the sake of redressing an “historical injustice,” since most refugees are not interested in returning to Israel proper. Yet when addressing their own people, Palestinian leaders and politicians have never mentioned this claim but have rather reiterating most emphatically and unequivocally their unwavering commitment to the full implementation of the “right of return.” Indeed, the name given in Palestinian internal discourse to Arafat’s war of terror is “The War of Independence and Return.” So much for Palestinian readiness to give up the “right of return.”

What are your observations on anti-Israel activity in America and England?

This is not a new phenomenon in England, where the atmosphere in universities has long been hostile to Israel due to both a strong Muslim presence on campuses and fashionable leftists fads. There were places where militant Muslim groups used to openly advocate the wholesale murder of Jews (Arabs and Muslims rarely differentiate between Jews and Israelis). In my own college there were posters quoting a famous verse from the Hadith urging the murder of Jews, to the last of them, wherever they are. After 9-11 the scope of this incitement subsided drastically for obvious reasons and remained subdued for some time, but it has returned to the fore over the past few months, if more with a political, rather than religious slant.

In America the left is largely pro-Palestinian, idealizing and romanticizing them in the worst Orientalist tradition. There is also a growing Arab and Muslim presence on campuses and one should not discount the undercurrents of latent anti-Semitism.

Is there an anti-Israel intellectual slant among faculty and the intelligentsia?

No doubt. Aside from leftist leaning of most academics in the social sciences and the humanities, over the past few decades Middle Eastern studies in Western universities have increasingly fallen under the sway of the Arabists and/or scholars of Arab descent, as a glance at the membership list of the American Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and its European counterparts will easily reveal. Moreover, for quite some time the Arab oil producing countries have been penetrating the foremost Western universities and academic publishing houses by subsidizing publications and extending generous grants for the establishment of endowed chairs and research centres, on which they exercise a lasting control. Finally, since democracy is an extremely rare commodity in the Middle East, and since students of the region’s contemporary affairs are anxious to maintain free access to its countries, they exercise a strict self-censorship, avoiding anything that smacks of criticism of local societies and regimes, however brutal and repressive they might be.

This extends well beyond the campuses. Arabists have gradually become key shapers of public opinion in their field of specialty. It is they who interpret the Middle East to the general public (on radio, television, and the press) whenever there is a fresh conflagration in this volatile area; and it is they who regularly give the benefit of their opinion to government and congress. All this is translated into anti-Israel attitudes and passed to students and the public at large.

How do you think Ariel Sharon has performed as Prime Minister? Do you think his reputation and style have helped Israel or been a liability?

Sharon came to power by default. By the late 1990s he was a spent power in Israeli politics and became head of the Likud party only after Netanyahu’s loss of the May 1999 elections and his resultant (temporary) departure from the political scene. Then came Arafat’s war of terror in response to Barak’s far-reaching concessions and convinced most Israelis that the Palestinians were not interested in peaceful coexistence but rather remained committed to their traditional goal of Israel’s destruction.

Barak was not seen as fit for meeting this huge challenge. After merely three months of Palestinian violence the Barak government succumbed to Palestinian military pressure and in January 2001, during a summit meeting at the Egyptian resort of Taba, ceded 97 percent of the territories to the Palestinians, together with some Israeli territory that would have made the nascent Palestinian state larger than the pre-1967 territory of the West Bank and Gaza, and made breathtaking concessions over Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian refugees. Only then, when faced with the prospect of the destruction of their state through demographic subversion, did the Israeli public react decisively, voting Barak out of office within days of the Taba summit. This left Arafat little choice but to intensify his war against Israel in an attempt to coerce the incoming prime minister, Ariel Sharon, into concessions similar to those of his ill-fated predecessor. He failed, and in a sustained and persistent effort over the past two and a half years Sharon managed to contain the Palestinian terrorist war and to discredit Arafat in the eyes of the U.S. administration.

Has the war in Iraq created a legitimate opportunity for peace?

The removal of Saddam is definitely good for peace and stability in the Middle East. But a lot will depend on American actions in Iraq. Just as the creation of free and democratic societies in Germany and Japan after World War II necessitated, above and beyond the overthrow of the ruling parties, a comprehensive purge of the existing political elites and the reeducation of the entire populace, so Iraq (or for that matter its fellow Baath regime in Damascus and the Palestinian Authority) must undergo a profound structural reform if it is to know representative government.

The administration is apparently applying this policy in Iraq. Also, in his famous speech of June 24, 2002, President Bush set this principle as the guideline for an Israeli-Palestinian peace by stating that “peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership” and that “a Palestinian state will never be created by terror. It will be built through reform. And reform must be more than cosmetic change or a veiled attempt to preserve the status quo. True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism.”

Regrettably, the administration has reneged on this vision by falling for the so-called roadmap—a European–Soviet–UN plan, contrived prior to the Iraq war in an attempt to weaken the U.S. resolve to take on Saddam by making a phony linkage between the Iraqi and the Palestinian problems. This is a stillborn and dangerous idea. Not merely because so long as Arafat hangs on to the levers of power he is certain to derail any peace process, but because Abu Mazen is a quintessential representative of the very same leadership whose removal President Bush considered a precondition for peace. There cannot be a true Palestinian reform under his leadership, or for that matter under the leadership of any other PLO leader. Only a profound structural reform that will sweep Arafat and his PA from power, free the residents of the territories from the stifling PLO grip and vile religious incitement, eradicate the endemic violence from Palestinian political and social life, and teach the virtues of peaceful coexistence with their Israeli neighbors holds promise of a better future for both peoples.

Do the “Clinton proposals” and the general consensus reached at Taba in 2001 provide adequate security for Israel? Has the terrorism of the intifada changed the political reality enough to enable Israel to ask for and receive a more favorable, or different, final arrangement?

No consensus was reached at Taba. Barak topped up his Camp David concessions by ceding 97 percent of the territories to the Palestinians, together with some Israeli territory that would have made the nascent Palestinian state larger than the pre-1967 territory of the West Bank and Gaza, and made far-reaching concessions over Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian refugees. Still the Palestinians rejected this offer.

The issue at hand, therefore, is not the fine details of one plan or another but rather the continued Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence. For Arafat and the PLO leadership, the Oslo process has always been a strategic means not to a two-state solution—Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—but to the substitution of a Palestinian state for that of Israel. In the words of prominent PLO leader Faisal Husseini, Oslo was a “Trojan Horse” designed to promote the PLO’s strategic goal of “Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea”—that is, a Palestine in place of Israel.

From the moment of his arrival in Gaza in July 1994, Arafat set out to build up an extensive terrorist infrastructure in flagrant violation of the Oslo accords, and in total disregard of the overriding reason he had been brought from Tunisia, namely, to lay the groundwork for Palestinian statehood. Arafat systematically failed to disarm the terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad as required by the Oslo accords, and tacitly approved the murder of hundreds of Israelis by these groups; created a far larger Palestinian army (the so-called police force) than was permitted by the accords; reconstructed the PLO’s old terrorist apparatus, mainly under the auspices of Tanzim, the military arm of Fatah, the PLO’s largest constituent organization and Arafat’s own alma mater; frantically acquired prohibited weapons through the use of large sums of money donated to the Palestinian Authority by the international community for the benefit of the civilian Palestinian population; and, eventually, resorted to outright mass violence, first in September 1996 to publicly discredit the newly-elected Benjamin Netanyahu, and then in September 2000 with the launch of his war of terror euphemistically titled al-aksa Intifada after the mosque in Jerusalem, this shortly after being offered by Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, the creation of an independent Palestinian state in 92 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Until this Palestinian state of mind is buried once and for all, no amount of good will or territorial concessions can hope to create anything but an appetite for more.


This Issue

HIR Notebook
Compiled by the editors

What Many Liberals Can't See Arthur Hertzberg

The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
Daniel Feith

Reviving Religious Zionism
Daniel Shoag

Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
Adam Levine

HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
Max Davis

Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

The State of the Jewish State
An Interview with Efraim Karsh