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Lessons in Justice in the Middle East

Posted on Jul 26, 2009
Avi Shlaim

Author and historian Avi Shlaim, pictured, wins Robert Fisk’s approval with his latest book.

By Robert Fisk

Editor’s note: This article was originally printed in The Independent.

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Let us now praise famous men and their fathers that begat them. The famous man—he should be much more famous—is the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim whose wonderful “reappraisals, revisions and refutations” is coming out in September under the simple title: Israel and Palestine.

But to Avi’s father first. I hope I tell the story correctly—Avi will be after me if I don’t—but he first came to Israel from Iraq with his parents in 1950 and they found themselves in miserable circumstances, at least compared with the life they had left behind. And Avi’s dad would always tell him: “The Jews have prayed for a state of their own for many generations—but they prayed in vain. Did it have to happen in my lifetime?!”

But to Avi. He recalls arguing with the late Edward Said—and there is a titanic voice to be ever missed, irreplaceable is the only word—over the Oslo agreement. Here is what Avi writes: “In the years since 1993, I have often asked myself: who was right and who was wrong? When things were going well, when progress was being made, when Oslo II was signed, for example, I thought that I was right and that Edward was wrong.

“When the political process (between Israel and the Palestinians) stalled with the inevitable return to violence, I thought that Edward Said was right and I was wrong. From today’s vantage point, 16 years on, it is indisputable that I was wrong and Edward Said was right in his analysis of the nature and limitations of the Oslo accord.”


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Not often today do we find historians who are this honest and this bleak and this able—for some reason, I think here of T S Eliot’s essays—to express truth so simply. The point about Eliot, I suppose (and here I recall the words of Dr David Craig, one of my English lecturers at Lancaster), is that he was unanswerable and that when he wrote, you felt he could not but be correct. There are few today to whom that can be applied (George Antonius being long dead) but Avi has, as we scribes say, a way with words.

Upon which note, a “deviation” as the French would say. I was once asked to give a lecture at the Hilton Hotel in London and invited my regular taxi driver if he’d like to park and come to the talk. He did. And as I emerged into the downpour, there he was waiting with the passenger door open. So how, asked Fisk—waiting for grovelling flattery—did he enjoy my talk? “Well,” my driver replied, “you certainly know how to string the words together, don’t you?” Deflation of Fisk.

But Avi does know how to string the words together. Here he is, for example, deflating Benny Morris, one of his Israeli academic colleagues who—after immense and scholarly research which proved that the Palestinian Arabs fled Palestine not with promises of Arab victory but in terror of the Israelis—suddenly believed that the Palestinians had brought the catastrophe of the second intifada on themselves. “His post-conversion interpretation of history is old history with a vengeance. It is indistinguishable from the propaganda of the victors. He used to have the courage of his convictions. He now has the courage of his prejudices.”


Avi’s splendid assault on Alan Dershowitz—the Harvard academic who managed to destroy Norman Finkelstein’s career at the lamentable DePaul University in Chicago—and the so-called Campus Watch in the United States are classics. “As its mission suggests,” he writes of Campus Watch, “this organisation is incompatible with the core values of higher education such as tolerance, free speech, and the dignity of difference.”

Bang. There you have it. That last phrase—“the dignity of difference”—is the killer-takes-all. What does it say on Dean Swift’s epitaph in Dublin? “Imitate, if you can, his strenuous vindication of man’s liberty.” No, Avi is no Dean Swift, but he is among those rare historians who will go into the whole Middle East fiasco and come out fighting. Here he is dissecting the events of 1948. “The UN resolution provided an international charter of legitimacy for the Jewish state. True, the Arabs were not responsible for the barbaric treatment of the Jews in the heartland of Christian Europe. Most Arabs consequently felt that the gift of part of Palestine to the Jews was illegal. However, a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly by a large majority cannot be illegal. It may be unjust but not illegal. Injustice and illegality are not the same thing. What is legal is not necessarily just.”

Yet Avi has a dark humour which I always enjoy. When I called him yesterday—yes, of course I did, to check his dad’s quote—he reminded me that the first suicide bomber was Samson, who broke the twin pillars (yes, we remember the other twin pillars), saying he wanted to take some Philistines with him. The Philistines lived in Phoenicia, a piece of real estate that would pretty much approximate to the sea shore just outside my Beirut balcony. And in Lebanon, we are all worried about earthquakes.

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By Dar, July 28, 2009 at 11:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“The Philistines lived in Phoenicia, a piece of real estate that would pretty much approximate to the sea shore just outside my Beirut balcony. And in Lebanon, we are all worried about earthquakes.”

Minor correction to Mr.Fisk.

The Philistines actually lived in what is now the Gaza strip, and were of Aegean descent. The rest of Palestine and Lebanon were inhabited by Canaanites.

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By omop, July 28, 2009 at 9:09 am Link to this comment

By Howard, July 27 at 10:37 pm #
“the ONLY imperialism to worry about is not the U.S.‘s; but Islamic Imperialism.”

  Howard you and dershowitz are de men

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By Ed Harges, July 28, 2009 at 8:54 am Link to this comment

I get so sick of Israeli claims to be our “only ally” in the Middle East.

They are not an ally. They are fond of us only because we are so extravagantly generous to them, we adopt all their enemies as our enemies, and we adopt all their interests as our interests. We could have picked any random country in the Mideast - say, Lebanon - and lavished this kind of unique and bizarrely excessive support on them, and then voilà! - we would have found that that country was our declared Best Friend Forever.

And guess what? Under Obama, we are a vivid demonstration that Israel’s supposed love for the US is contingent on continued 110% US government acquiescence in all of Israel’s demands. We are now seeing Israeli politicians calling for sanctions against the US in the Knesset; others are holding anti-Obama hate rallies and gleefully predicting the “disintegration” of the United States because of Obama’s policy toward Israel.

And how has that policy changed under Obama? Has the US become anti-Israel, or pro-Palestinian, or pro-Iran?

Of course not. Under Obama, the US continues to issue outrageous threats to Iran, to praise Israel to the skies, and to do nothing to interfere in any serious way with Israel’s ongoing torture and murder and dispossession of the Palestinian people. But Obama has just slightly shifted the rhetoric away from abject groveling to Israel. He has just slightly moved our country in the direction of a somewhat less than totally abject subservience to Israel.

And that’s enough to make our darling “ally” erupt in a snarling fit of vicious insults and threats.

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By Howard, July 28, 2009 at 6:11 am Link to this comment

Russan Paul:  LIKEWISE !

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By Russian Paul, July 28, 2009 at 5:13 am Link to this comment

Howard you should be a comedian.

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By Howard, July 27, 2009 at 7:37 pm Link to this comment

the ONLY imperialism to worry about is not the U.S.‘s; but Islamic Imperialism.

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By Folktruther, July 27, 2009 at 2:05 pm Link to this comment

Ed, I agree with Ardee that Zionists and Israel are subsiderary to US imperialism and do the bidding of the US ruling class, like the Christian fundamentalists.  Even though they have a strong presence of their own, it is the US dog wagging the Israeli tail, not the reverse.  I changed my mind on this after analyzing a number of foreign events.

Ardee, Ed Harges is in no way anti-Semitic, as I am not, and you do your argument no good by saying so.  I can understand your thinking so, but this reflects your background more than his.  I suggest an agonizing reapprasal.  Also, extended pissing matches are boring.

It is good that Israel scholars are now comming out against racists like Benny Morris and their supporters, ziofascists like Sepharad and Nefish.  Although American Jews still tend to identify with the Aipac narrative, and McCarthyite supporters like Dershowitz and Hooriwitz, over historical time a fraction of them may return to common policical decency.  I haven’t read him but Brewerstroupe recommends him so he must be alright.

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By ardee, July 27, 2009 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment

omop, July 27 at 1:11 pm #
Actually the call for a permanent military presence in the Middle East was a product of the Vulcan Group and was authored under the Bush 41 regime. James Baker shot it down after much protest by our own allies…

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By rollzone, July 27, 2009 at 11:43 am Link to this comment

hello. apparently it took a lifetime to discover that the Jewish way of getting lawyers to read letters of the law to adversaries, may result in monetary gains; but the unequivocal disposition of blind justice: is meted out with aggressive vengeance, upon those wrongfully committing crimes against oneself. having a case of beer in the trunk for the Hells Angels garners more justice than any lawyer ever will. the acts of people are often stronger than words. justice is an act of vengeance.

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By omop, July 27, 2009 at 10:11 am Link to this comment

ardee seems to be oblivious to facts that transcends his accusations to wit:

The Blueprint for the new Bush policy had actually been drawn up five years earlier by three of his top national security advisors, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser who were working for conservative pro-Israel think tanks at the behest of Bibi Netanyahu.

  James Bamford explains, “the centerpiece of the recommendations was the removal of Saddam Hussein as the first step in remaking the Middle East into a region friendly, instead of hostile, to Israel.

Their plan “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” also signaled a radical departure from the peace-oriented policies of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a member of an extreme right-wing Israeli group.”

The report was “a kind of US-Israeli neoconservative manifesto” according to journalist Jason Vest.

In Vest’s analysis, the report proposed “a mini-cold war in the Middle East, advocating the use of proxy armies for regime changes, destabilization and containment. Indeed, it even goes so far as to articulate a way to advance right-wing Zionism by melding it with missile-defense advocacy.”

Like the homeless cousin in Beverly Hills opined, “if its OK for Israelis/Americans to call certain Iranians Nazis why is an Iranian/American not permitted to call certain Israelis Nazis?”

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By Ed Harges, July 27, 2009 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

Ardee slanders me as an anti-Semite is not because of my opposition to Israeli policies or ideology - he opposes both as much as I do - but because I have dared to name elite American Jewish power (along with what can only honestly be called loyalty to a foreign nation) —  as the primary source of Israel’s ability to compel American political support.

Amy Goodman recently interviewed former Israeli minister Shulamit Aloni, who stated the case quite plainly, as it seems only an Israeli Jew is allowed to do:

“It’s a trick; we always use it [calling people anti-Semitic].... The organization is strong and it has a lot of money, and the ties between the American Jewish establishment are very strong, and they [Jews] are very strong in this country, as you know. They have power which ... it’s OK, they are talented people, and they have power, money, and media, and other things, and their attitude is ‘Israel, my country, right or wrong’, they identify [with Israel], and they are not ready to hear criticism.”

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By Ed Harges, July 27, 2009 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

re:By ardee, July 27 at 6:18 am:

As for Ardee’s slandering me as an “anti-Semite of the first water”:

I don’t know what “the first water” is, but I would remind readers that Ardee’s definition of “anti-Semite” includes anyone who believes that Israel’s supporters are the most powerful political constituency influencing US foreign policy in the Middle East. So, if we accept Ardee’s peculiar definition, I’m an anti-Semite, and so are lots of other perfectly good and sensible people.

But then, Ardee writes that “our military entered the Middle East in response to the events of 9/11”, which is patently false — and so we can’t expect him to have his facts or definitions straight.

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By B L Canary, July 27, 2009 at 5:39 am Link to this comment

Monday, July 27, 2009
The popular “Rogatka” (slingshot) nightclub in Tel Aviv is refusing entry to IDF soldiers in uniform.

IDF Uniforms are associated with oppression and genocide, and the IDF’s violence is the reason for all violence in Israel, explained the club’s workers.

“It’s nothing personal, but ideological. Your uniforms symbolize genocide and violence.” they were told by club employees and guests.

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By ardee, July 27, 2009 at 3:18 am Link to this comment

The attempted distortion of my words by Mr. Harges in no way alters the historical facts of the situation. Prior to a US military presence in the Middle East we armed Israel and used that nation as a threat to enforce our own Middle East policies.

Now that Bush has succeeded in establishing a permanent US presence in that region we are much less dependent upon Israel’s military there.

I would remind this forum of two things; Mr. Harges is an anti Semite of the first water, seeing US foreign policy in terms of the influence of ‘the Jews’, and ,secondly, that his hating ignores the fact that our military entered the Middle East in response to the events of 9/11 and not because the Jews in our society insisted we go there, as this poster would have you believe.

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By Ed Harges, July 27, 2009 at 2:48 am Link to this comment

Ardee writes:

”...also the presence of a certain influence of America involved in the genocidal policies as it dovetailed with our foreign policy needs to have a strong military presence in the Middle East.”

The “strong military presence” which the US has in the Middle East is the US military itself, and it is only “needed” because of the power of Israel’s supporters in the US political system to compel US support for Israel.

Every objective US material interest in the Middle East, including access to oil, is obstructed by the need to bribe or pursue permanently belligerent policies toward Israel’s Arab and Muslim neighbors.

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By Robert, July 26, 2009 at 7:09 pm Link to this comment

Raul Hilberg and Avi Shlaim with Amy Goodman - Democracy Now! May 9, 2007 - 18:28 - Dec 9, 2008

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By bluecanary, July 26, 2009 at 6:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

‘However, a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly by a large majority cannot be illegal. It may be unjust but not illegal’

I should like to know which ‘law’ made it ‘legal’ for the UNGA to expropriate land on which Palestinian Arabs had been the majority indigenous people for well over a thousand years.

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By brewerstroupe, July 26, 2009 at 5:01 pm Link to this comment

Avi Shlaim’s “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World” is one of the most incisive and authoritative books on the History of this conflict. Essential reading for all who wish to understand the origins of the Middle East problem.

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By ardee, July 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm Link to this comment

“The Dignity of Difference” may mean less to a family bombed out of their home in Gaza I suspect.

There is encouragement in the emergence of Israelis who see the real history of the State of Israel as it became an immense cancer on the Palestinian people. I think it fair to note that, along with the bloodthirsty expansionist policies of the Israeli leadership, there is also the presence of a certain influence of America involved in the genocidal policies as it dovetailed with our foreign policy needs to have a strong military presence in the Middle East. Before ,of course, we put our own such presence there.

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