Interview with Plus61J

IT WILL TAKE A NEW generation, and a change of leadership, on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict for there to be a real possibility of progress towards peace, one of the world’s leading scholars on Israel believes.

Professor Colin Shindler, a visiting British academic who will deliver the first of three lectures at the University of Sydney’s Mandelbaum House on Sunday, is “not optimistic” about current prospects for peace, he told Plus61J in an interview this week.

“At the moment I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Shindler, appointed Britain’s first Professor of Israel Studies in 2008, and the current Scholar in Residence at Mandelbaum, the university’s Jewish residential college.

“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has not put forward any public peace initiatives for decades. [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas is well into his 80s and there’s a succession struggle there. In Gaza, Hamas will never recognise the right of self-determination of Jews and is probably incapable of any sort of compromise.

“I think that there will be a change of leadership and, indeed, of generations in both Israel and in Palestine during the next few years. The hope that things will change, that there will be a movement towards peace, must rest with the succeeding generation.”

Over the next fortnight, Shindler, who is based at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, will be lecturing on the rise of the Israeli Right; the evolution of left-wing attitudes towards Israel; and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British government’s promise to facilitate the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Shindler’s second Mandelbaum lecture is called A Pariah amongst Nations? A History of Israel and the Left. Does he really consider Israel a pariah?

“I don’t think it deserves to be, but in the UN it’s becoming tantamount to being a pariah,” he says, over a cup of coffee in the meeting room at Mandelbaum House, in Chippendale.

“I think that the campaign against Israel is just theatre, and it’s totally counter-productive. It uses up the energy of people on both sides and widens the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, who should be talking; it antagonises Jews the world over, it’s unfair and it distorts the political reality.

“So even if there were genuine grievance against, let’s say, the policies of the Netanyahu government, it’s drowned out in a welter of distortions that come out of the UN.”

“And, indeed, while there is no peace, no equitable, just peace between Israel and Palestine, then very clearly the developing world will identify with the Palestinians and will support them. And they are the majority of countries in the world, particularly of the UN.”

At the same time, Shindler is critical of “crass decisions” by the Israeli government, such as its attempt to bar Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old US citizen of Palestinian descent, who was detained at Ben Gurion Airport earlier this month after arriving on a student visa to undertake a master’s program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Alqasem, who has appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court to quash a deportation order, was refused entry under a 2017 law targeting foreigners who support anti-Israel boycotts. She is a former president of the Florida branch of the group Students for Justice in Palestine, which has, among other things, advocated a boycott of Sabra hummus, a US-Israeli brand.

While Shindler is dismissive of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, describing it as “ineffective and politically meaningless”, like many academics in and outside Israel he strongly opposes the 2017 law. “It’s this sort of action [in the Alqasem case], the profound stupidity of it, which will make a bad situation even worse,” he says.

He is equally scathing about the new “nation state” law, passed in July, which decrees that Jews have “an exclusive right to national self-determination” in Israel. Some commentators view that law as the opening move in Netanyahu’s campaign to retain power in the 2019 election – an election from which Netanyahu’s Likud party is expected to emerge with the largest number of seats, guaranteeing him a fifth term as Prime Minister.

“While there is no peace, no equitable, just peace between Israel and Palestine, then very clearly the developing world will identify with the Palestinians and will support them. And they are the majority of countries in the world, particularly of the UN.”

With the rise of Palestinian Islamism, and with the continuing turmoil across the Middle East, Israelis have “battened down the hatches” – and they regard Netanyahu as “the guarantor of national security”, says Shindler.

“It doesn’t matter about the morality of his actions or what sort of person he is – he’s awaiting indictment on four more [corruption] charges – or about his desire to expand the settlements in the West Bank. What matters to Israelis is that he guarantees the safety of their families. That’s why they vote for him.”

Studying Israel is a second career for London-born Shindler, who was a chemistry lecturer until the age of 50 – although he also wrote books and edited magazines about Jewish history and political affairs. Made a professor at 62, “I sort of re-invented myself,” he recalls, going on to become founding chair of the European Association of Israeli Studies in 2009.

The author of 10 books, his interests have focused on the emigration of Soviet Jewry, the evolution of the Israeli Right – which he predicts will remain in power “until there is peace outside the borders, and until figures in the Arab world are saying vocally that we want to have peace” – and the European Left’s shifting attitude towards Israel since 1948.

On the latter subject, he recounts how, in Britain, “the old Left stood shoulder to shoulder with Jews in fighting local Fascists … They lived through the Shoah, they bore witness to the rise of a Hebrew republic in the land of Israel.”

From the 1960s, however, the agenda of the new generation of the Left switched to decolonisation, “and therefore they could identify more closely with the nascent Palestinian nationalist movement than with the already established state of Israel … It’s important to note that this happened before 1967, before the settlement drive.

“It’s this sort of action, in the Alqasem case, the profound stupidity of it, which will make a bad situation even worse.”.

Such views now form part of mainstream politics in Britain, where the Labour Party is led by Jeremy Corbyn, whom Shindler describes as “an ideological anti-Zionist who talks about peace and reconciliation but who has never lifted a finger in 40 years of political activity to act as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians”.

Is Corbyn an anti-Semite, as many British Jews believe? Shindler thinks not, although he says the veteran left-winger “has, through his silence when appearing with anti-Semites on the same platform, empowered many subterranean racists to come out into the open”.

Diaspora Jews – more independent these days, and more willing to criticise Israeli government actions, while still supportive of the state itself – have a responsibility to “use their voice, and indeed, their political leverage, to contribute to the forward political direction of Israel”, he says.

“I think for diaspora Jews it’s still very important to proclaim that they are Zionists, but to be Zionists in the sense of participating in the affairs of Israel and not standing apart from them.”

Two authoritative opinion polls in recent years have found that three-quarters of British Jews oppose the expansion of settlements.

Shindler thinks a two-state solution is still feasible. However, given the unlikelihood of a mass withdrawal of Jewish settlers, a Palestinian state would consist of “an archipelago of territory on the West Bank where Palestinians are concentrated”.

He does not regard the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem as an obstruction to peace. As for the Australian government’s announcement that it is considering a similar move, he observes: “They’re trying to get the Jews to vote for the Liberals, for Dave Sharma, in Wentworth, aren’t they? That’s how I read it, anyway.”

Reflecting on the Balfour Declaration, Shindler says: “I think Israel has been a tremendous success. I think Zionism has been a remarkable movement to emancipate the Jews from the tragedies of the past. And I think 1948 symbolises the difference between before and after.

“Jews in Australia and the UK and elsewhere feel that they also have someone to stand up for them.”

Plus 61J 19 October 2018


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