On Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Conversation with Professor Avi Shlaim

By Wesam Hassan

How can we study and teach the Arab-Israeli conflict? In this interview, I speak with Professor Avi Shlaim, an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. Professor Shlaim has published eight books on the Arab-Israeli conflict and has been teaching the subject for more than three decades.

I was introduced to the academic oeuvre of professor Shlaim when I was preparing for tutoring a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a DPhil student reading anthropology, I was occupied with which pedagogical approach that I will be using in designing and teaching a course that is part of the International Relations subjects. I decided to adopt an interdisciplinary approach emphasizing the nuanced anthropological and historical nature of the topic which placed the everyday lived experiences of the people at the core of the conflict and facilitated reflective discussions in the tutorials. In this conversation, Professor Shlaim explains the advantages of adopting a historical approach in teaching and researching topics related to the international relations discipline. He discusses the scholarly work of the New Historians movement, explains contested concepts related to the topic, and shares his hopes for a one democratic state as a solution for the conflict.  

WH: What are the main intellectual milestones that influenced your academic career and your intellectual journey?

AS: I’ve been teaching in Oxford for the last 34 years in the department of politics and international relations. However, as an undergraduate, I read history at Cambridge, and once a historian, always a historian. History has shaped my outlook and has been the main intellectual formation of my work. One of my tutors at Cambridge, Professor Sir F H Hinsley, used to say to us that he considered history to be the best approach to international relations. Maybe one day a better approach might be found, but the best approach so far was history. This was in the late 1960s. Today when I’m 76, and I still haven’t found another approach which is more productive than history to study and teach the international relations of the Middle East.

WH: Selecting a time to start with can be a difficult task for historians and can influence the overall history that is being written and its bigger picture. What was the start date that you’ve chosen to explain the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict? 

AS: The start date would depend on the theme that you are exploring. My starting point in writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict would be the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It enabled the systematic Zionist takeover of Palestine that still goes on today.  But I’m also interested in the bigger picture, in the great powers and their involvement in the region. To understand the international politics of the region, one must examine it not just from the outside looking in, but also from the inside looking out. I wrote a short Penguin book titled War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History  (1995) as an easy introduction to the international relations of the Middle East. The book was translated into Arabic. The key point in this book is the unpacking of relations between external and local powers in the Middle East. The start date for this book is the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. 

WH: The task of the historian is a dynamic one that involves searching, evaluating, and presenting narratives from the past to converse with the present. This process makes the task of a historian intrinsically political. What do you think of that? How do you define the political in your work? 

AS: One can divide scholars into two categories. Those who claim to be non-political, who claim to be detached and objective, and those who are politically committed and politically engaged. I would define myself as a politically engaged scholar. Ilan Pappé and Edward Said are classic examples of scholars who are politically engaged. I think that our political preferences and our political views are bound to colour what we write. Moreover, history is not written in a vacuum. Every generation writes its own distinctive history. Even when we write about the past, we look at it through the prism of contemporary issues and contemporary debates.

WH: You are one of the founders of the ‘New Historians’, a group of academics who are collectively known as the revisionist Israeli historians. Can you tell us more about the background and academic work of the group?

AS: The original group of ‘New Historians’ consisted of Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and myself. The ‘new history’ emerged in the late 1980s. In 1988, on the 40th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, four books appeared from the four of us. Flapan’s book was called The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. Morris wrote The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947- 1949. Pappé published Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-1951. Then there was my book, Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine, 1988. All four books were published in 1988. Collectively, we became known as the ‘New Historians,’ or the revisionist Israeli historians.

There’s a very extensive literature on the conflict, but it tended to be written by politicians and writers with a strong pro-Zionist perspective. They painted a heroic and moralistic picture of little Jewish David fighting a mighty Arab Goliath. The New Historians challenged these nationalist perspectives. In fact, the movement was a frontal attack on all the myths that surrounded the birth of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War. 

Two factors help to explain the emergence of the ‘New History’. One was the availability of the official documents that were being declassified under the 30-year rule. We had access to the bulk of primary sources and official Israeli documents. The other factor that accounts for the emergence of the New History was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Until then, there had been a consensus in Israel around the notion that all its wars were defensive wars, not offensive wars. However, during the Lebanon War, there was political dissent in Israel and people started questioning their leaders’ motives. This encouraged a more critical look at the country’s past. In the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave a lecture on wars of choice and wars of no choice, and he admitted that the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was a war of choice. With this admission, the whole consensus behind Israel’s position in the conflict had collapsed, and this created a space in which the New Historians could make their own contribution.

WH:  Critiques of the New Historians claim that they are biased and have unbalanced views about the conflict. What do you think of these critiques? Is it possible for scholars working on the conflict to be “neutral” and “unbiased”? 

AS: Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, and I were all attacked for our alleged political bias. One critic claimed that our work was so defective and distorted that it could not be considered as proper history at all. Other critics claimed that we had a political agenda, and that our aim as New Historians was to generate new sources of international sympathy and support for the Palestinians and to delegitimize Israel. I don’t have a political agenda, but, in fact, I do have an agenda as a historian. My agenda is to write about the history of this conflict in as much detail as possible, as accurately as possible, and as interestingly as possible.

Among the New Historians, there are different approaches and political affiliations. Ilan Pappé was always the most radical one of us; he regarded the state of Israel as a colonial project from the beginning. He wrote about the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, and for him Israel has never had any legitimacy whatsoever. Benny Morris used to be on the left, but the Zionist left, and he regarded Israel as fully legitimate. I used to be somewhere in between these two, but in recent years I have moved closer to Pappé’s position. In the past, I used to regard Israel as legitimate because of two main diplomatic milestones. One was the UN partition resolution of 1947, which Israel accepted, and the Arabs rejected. That was a charter of international legitimacy for a Jewish state in Palestine. The other landmark was the 1949 armistice agreements, which Israel signed with all its neighbours, and which settled its borders. These are the only internationally recognized borders that Israel has ever had, and they are the only borders that I recognize as legitimate. 

But, in 1967, Israel tripled its territories, and started building civilian settlements on the occupied Palestinian lands. This is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line, which is totally illegitimate from my point of view. The distinction between Israel proper and the occupied territories is no longer tenable. The whole area under Israel’s rule is an apartheid regime, a Jewish supremacist regime. Therefore, I now question Israel’s legitimacy altogether. An apartheid state is not just illegitimate, but utterly abhorrent. 

WH: Are accusations of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism being used to silence the critique of Israel’s practices? How do you define these concepts? 

AS:  Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are key concepts in the current public debate about Israel and Palestine in Britain and in other countries. My own definition of anti-Semitism is hostility towards Jews because they are Jews. Anti-Zionism is opposition to the state of Israel’s official ideology and especially to its policies towards the Palestinians.  Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are completely different things. The Jews are the people that you can find anywhere around the world, whereas Israel is a sovereign state in one location. Therefore, it’s perfectly possible to have legitimate criticisms of specific Israeli policies like the building of settlements on occupied land, which is illegal, or the annexation of East Jerusalem, which is also illegal, or the abuse of Palestinian human rights, which is a contravention of international humanitarian law. 

It’s perfectly possible to make these criticisms of the state of Israel and its policies without in any way being anti-Semitic. However, Israel and its friends blur the distinction between the two concepts and try to present any critique of Israel as being essentially anti-Semitic and motivated by hatred and hostility towards Jews. The clearest example of this conflation is the definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA). It’s a working non-legally binding definition and it’s completely vacuous. It says that: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This definition is followed by eleven examples of what may constitute anti-Semitism. Six out of these eleven examples concern Israel. For example, it’s anti-Semitic to regard the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour.  However, some Israelis, including the B’tselem human rights organization, do regard Israel as a racist state and apartheid state. So why should it be okay for Israelis to say that and for people in the rest of the world to be accused of anti-Semitism if they say that Israel is a racist endeavour?

Israel’s aggressive defenders claim, falsely, that the examples are an integral part of the IHRA definition. The British government adopted the IHRA definition in its entirety and tried to impose it on local government. The Labour Party adopted the definition but without some of the examples. It then came under strong pressure from the Israel lobby to adopt all the eleven examples as they stand without any qualification. It caved in. There is sustained pressure from Zionist quarters to impose this problematic definition on all levels of British society and on the universities in particular. 

The former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, in October of 2020, sent a letter to all vice chancellors of English universities in which he said that universities had to adopt the IHRA definition, and that they had until Christmas to do it. If they failed, he threatened to cut off their funding. He said that if universities had not adopted this definition, it meant that they were not taking anti-Semitism seriously. Here he was clearly wrong: you can take anti-Semitism seriously without adopting this deeply flawed definition.  This was an attack on free speech by the government and not just an empty warning, but a threat to cut off funding. Interestingly, Mr Williamson didn’t say anything about Islamophobia. Islamophobia is a much bigger problem in British society and universities than anti-Semitism, but he didn’t say anything about it or any other form of racism, like anti-Black racism, and he never explained why a definition is necessary in the first place. 

You do not need a specific definition of anti-Semitism. It makes more sense to include anti-Semitism in a comprehensive definition that encompass all aspects of racism. If I must have a definition of anti-Semitism, then I much prefer my own definition to the IHRA’s definition. By my definition, if someone is critical of Israel, he/she may be anti-Semitic. Maybe their motive is hatred of the Jews, but you must prove that this was in fact the motive. What is important is freedom of speech, especially in universities. The IHRA definition and the government’s insistence on it have a chilling effect on freedom of speech on campuses and elsewhere. To sum up, I think that Israel and its friends have weaponized anti-Semitism to stigmatise supporters of Palestinian rights and critics of Israel. 

WH: You have written about Israel’s response to the Arab Spring. Could you walk us through your thought process?  

AS: I published a chapter on “Israel, Palestine, and the Arab Spring”  in a volume edited by Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the LSE, The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Fawaz, incidentally, was my first DPhil student when I came to Oxford in 1987. Fawaz and I are both regionalists: we give agency to the local actors rather than treating them as mere driftwood on the sea of international affairs. In this chapter, I examine Israel’s response to the Arab spring, and I note the parallel protest movement in Israel. The protestors demanded political reform, social justice, and better economic opportunities throughout the Arab world and in Israel as well. However, the official Israeli response to Arab Spring was extremely hostile. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister at the time, used to say that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be resolved until all the Arab countries become democratic. The Arab Spring was precisely such a move towards democracy and reform in the Arab world, yet he was against it, saying that this was not a democratic revolution but an Islamic revolution. He warned the world about the consequences for the West if the Arab Spring was allowed to succeed. 

And this tells me what I already knew, which is that Israel doesn’t want Arab democracy. Israel’s record shows that it was indifferent or hostile to democracy in the Arab world and that it actively undermined democracy in the Palestinian arena. In 2006, the Palestinians, under the most difficult circumstances of military occupation, managed to hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza and the result was a clear victory for Hamas. It was a clean, fair, and free election. However, Israel, America, and European Union, refused to recognise the Hamas-led government. They supported democracy in theory, but not when the people voted for the wrong bunch of politicians!

This response to the Arab Spring highlighted something that is very fundamental to Israel’s position, namely, that it never wanted to be part of the Middle East. It has never wanted to belong to, let alone integrate into the Middle East. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister, said in one internal discussion that it was only as the result of a geographical accident that Israel found itself in this region: its culture and values made it part of the West. This is a key point about Israel:  it regards itself as part of the West, and that is an underlying cause for the conflict with its neighbours.  Moreover, Israel’s aim is not just peaceful coexistence with all the countries of the region. Israel aspires to regional hegemony and domination as well as the consolidation of the Zionist colonial project in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is not democracy; it is imperialism allied to an apartheid regime. 

Noam Chomsky once said that the most extreme and vicious form of imperialism is settler colonialism. The Palestinians have the unique misfortune of being at the receiving end of both western imperialism and Zionist settler colonialism.

WH:  Can you explain the role that identity politics plays in the conflict? 

AS: We live in an age in which identity is all-important, and the politics of identity is at the forefront in many regions of the world. America is a prime example, but Israel and the Middle East is another region in which we are seeing an upsurge of the politics of identity. The focus on identity is not helpful for democracy because in a democratic polity, you need all individuals to identify and be part of the same society, to feel that they all belong to that country. But if you shift your loyalty to your sectarian identity, that sets you apart from the rest of society. 

In the case of Israel, it is very striking that there has been a growing focus on the country’s identity as a Jewish state. Benjamin Netanyahu was the first prime minister to demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This was a new condition, which no Palestinian leader could ever accept. Twenty percent of the population are Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. They cannot be expected to recognise Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. Indeed, there’s no reason why anyone should recognize Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. 

Israel has become more sectarian, more divided, more unequal, and more racist over the last couple of decades. All these trends culminated in July 2018, when the Knesset passed the Nation State Law. This law stipulates that the Jews have a unique right to national self-determination in the land of Israel. This means that even if Jews became a minority between the Jordan River and the sea, they would still have an exclusive right to national self-determination. Israel is probably the only member of the United Nations that is officially a racist state. The evidence for that is the Nation State Law. There are many other racist states in the world, but they don’t officially declare themselves as racist state. Israel is unique in that respect. 

Another result of the Nation State Law was to downgrade Arabic from an “official” language to a “special” language. Arabic used to be an official language in Israel alongside Hebrew. Not anymore. Israel is now clearly a racist state that discriminates against its own Palestinian citizens, as well as being an apartheid state, oppressing the Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories. 

WH: What do you think about the possible solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? 

AS: There is a broad international consensus behind the two-state solution. However, a two-state solution is not a viable proposition now, if it ever was. It became fashionable recently to say that the two-state solution is dead. I would say the two-state solution was never born, because no Israeli government since June 1967 has been serious about an independent Palestinian state. On the Israeli side, the leader who came closest to a two-state solution was Itzhak Rabin; he did so when he signed the Oslo Accord in 1993.  This accord, however, doesn’t mention, let alone promise a Palestinian state down the road. It was an experiment in limited Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho. Edward Said denounced the Oslo Accord immediately as a Palestinian Versailles, an instrument of Palestinian surrender. I defended it at the time as a modest step in the right direction, a step that would eventually lead to the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. Subsequent events showed that Said was right, and I was wrong. 

Itzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic with the aim of derailing the peace process and of stopping the handover of territory to the Palestinian Authority. But even Rabin never ever agreed to a fully-fledged Palestinian state. Israel’s right-wing parties are fundamentally opposed a Palestinian state because they claim that Jews have a historic right to the whole of the “Land of Israel”. Netanyahu and the extreme Right in Israel have made it clear that they wouldn’t accept an independent Palestinian state under any conditions.

Therefore, the two-state solution is an illusion. It’s a convenient illusion because it enables the Americans, the British government, and European Union to say that they support a two-state solution, and it is up to the two parties to negotiate between themselves and come to an agreement. But that is clearly impossible because of the huge asymmetry of power between the two sides. If you press me on how Israel eliminated the option of a Palestinian state, I can sum it up in one word — settlements.  Israel built and continues to build settlements on the West Bank. They are illegal, every one of them. Settlements are about land-grabbing, not about peace-making. Israel must choose between peace with the Palestinians or land-grabbing. This has been the choice since 1967, and from its actions it is clear that Israel prefers land to peace. Therefore, the only fair solution would be one state,  a democratic state, with equal rights for all its citizens. 

WH: Thank you very much for your time and for this very valuable interview. The last question will be how you feel about the future of the conflict after all these years of your engagement in its scholarship and politics.  

AS: I’ve studied and taught the Arab-Israeli conflict for the last four decades as a scholar, from an academic point of view, and I’ve published a fair amount on this subject. But I am not a detached observer of this conflict; I am deeply affected by it at the personal level. My personal background contributed directly to my engagement and inevitably influenced my writing. 

I was born in Baghdad in 1945. My family moved to Israel when I was only five years old, yet I would define myself as an Arab Jew. The term Arab Jew is very controversial in Israel. Because the predominant view is that if you are a Jew, you can’t be an Arab, and if you are an Arab, you can’t be a Jew. An Arab Jew is said to be an ontological impossibility. I beg to differ. I was undeniably an Arab Jew in the first five years of my life and that is how I still see myself and my identity today. 

We were a Jewish family in Iraq, an Arab country with a very long tradition of Muslim-Jewish harmony. Iraq did not have a “Jewish problem.” Europe had a “Jewish problem.” In Europe, the Jews were “the other,” and anti-Semitism developed there. In Iraq, by contrast, the Jews were one minority among several minorities.  

Basically, we were Arabs whose religion was Judaism. We spoke Arabic at home, our culture was an Arab culture, our food was Arab food, and my parents’ music was a happy blend of Arabic and Jewish music. It was against our will that we were uprooted in 1950 and ended up in Israel. We are not Zionists, and we had no interest in moving to the newly born state of Israel. Zionism was a movement by European Jews for European Jews. For my family and the whole Jewish community in Iraq, the move to Israel was painful, like a tree being pulled up by the roots. In Zionist jargon, immigrating to Israel is called aliya or ascent. In our case, it was decidedly yerida or descent to the margins of Israeli society.

In the last four years, I have been working on a book which is very personal. It is both a family history and a memoir of my early life as an Arab Jew. The working title is “Three Worlds: Memoir of an Arab Jew”.  The book documents our journey from Baghdad to Ramat Gan in Israel. The third world alluded to in the title is London where I went to school from the age of 15 to 18 before returning to Israel to do military service. The first part of the book recalls the religious tolerance that prevailed in past times and the harmony between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the experience of my family and that of the wider Jewish community in Iraq. Recording the past also encouraged and enabled me to think about a better future for the Middle East. 

Nationalism spawned intolerance, division, strife, and war. The rise of Arab nationalism contributed to the identifying of the Jews with Zionism and with Israel rather than viewing them as just another Iraqi minority. The Zionist movement, by ethnically cleansing the indigenous Arabs from Palestine, exacerbated relations between Muslims and Jews throughout the Arab world. Zionism made continued coexistence between Muslims and Jews in Iraq and other Arab countries virtually impossible. Reflecting upon the multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic societies of the Middle East of my childhood thus helps to sustain my hopes for a more humane, peaceful, and democratic future for the entire region.