Looking Ahead by Looking Back
One of the greatest myths in Middle East studies departments across North America and Europe is that the presence of an Israeli faculty member makes a "balanced" department. In fact, many Israeli academics have built their reputation on scholarship that is critical of Israel and its existence. These academics are frequently given center stage by the Association for Israel Studies, the Middle East Studies Association and Middle East studies centers, which host them and provide visiting appointments. This gives the scholars the visibility they seek, while allowing their hosts to claim balance in presenting an "Israeli viewpoint."
In Europe, there is hardly any attempt to create this so-called balance; pan-Arabist scholarship has become the coin of the realm. The University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the first part of the 20th century produced great Middle East scholars such as Bernard Lewis. But over the years, Edward Said and his acolytes, such as Joseph Massad, have been the ones to receive red-carpet receptions, especially at SOAS which is notorious for having an anti-Israel atmosphere. The university's Palestinian Society is the only student society in Britain professionally run by the student union and regularly hosts controversial events such as Israel Apartheid Weeks.
Given this environment, Colin Shindler's appointment as the first professor of Israeli studies at SOAS is significant. Shindler is the author of seven books and an authority on the Revisionist Zionist movement and the emergence of the Israeli Right. His latest book, entitled A History of Modern Israel, appeared just in time for Israel's 60th anniversary. In it the author traces six decades, from David Ben-Gurion to Ehud Olmert.
The author comes to the obvious conclusion that peace between Israelis and Palestinians has yet to be found. But it is worth noting that the same radical views of the al-Aksa intifada that consumed the Palestinian mainstream were in turn used by the far Left in Britain to justify boycotting Israeli academics. As Shindler observes, "This cocktail of Israeli separation, Palestinian opposition to normalization and Islamist zeal challenged the very idea of individual Israelis and Palestinians working together for peace and reconciliation."
While the country has come a long way since 1948, it is still driven by ideological disputes and different interpretations of "Jewishness" and Judaism. Nowhere are these divisions more visibly portrayed than in the lives and ideologies of its leaders from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination is still a traumatic memory for most Israelis, and a transformed Ariel Sharon. Sharon represented the last of the old guard in Israeli leadership. His absence from the political arena highlights how desperately Israelis are searching for new leadership, which is nowhere to be found under the Olmert administration. The findings of the Winograd Committee detailing Israel's failures during the Second Lebanon War illustrate this lack of leadership, direction or vision. The magnitude of the investigation has without a doubt created a political earthquake in Israel. As did the harshness of the committee's concluding that all Olmert's mistakes "add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence," which should have motivated him to rethink his actions as well as his government.
Israel has never experienced such a catastrophe in its cabinet until Olmert-Peretz came to power - two key leaders utterly lacking defense, military and political experience. Consequently, Shindler underscores that the tension has significantly grown between Israelis who seek stability and democratization versus those who see despair and destruction.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister as well as the father of the IDF, was without a doubt a war-statesman. He was one of the few leaders with the willingness and ability to think everything through. Less than two years after Israel's War of Independence, Ben-Gurion concluded that "the most dangerous enemy to Israel's security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security. This simple and fundamental idea guided me from the day that I accepted the 22nd Zionist Congress responsibility for the security of the Yishuv. And this simple and fundamental thought I tried to instill in all the comrades that worked with me on security matters before the war, during the war, and after it."
Finally, 60 years after the War of Independence, it is clear that no one individual can monopolize and maintain the military and political balance needed for Israel to regain the vision and deterrence it needs. Shindler's recount of Israeli history is one that enables the reader to understand the social and political cleavages that make up Israel of 2008 while looking back at 1948. It is that lens that would help any student of the Arab-Israeli conflict to not repeat history but learn how to move Israel forward toward the next 60 years.