Interview with Tribune Juive

Professor Colin Shindler, you have, for the first time, opened up a disciplinary field that did not exist before you. Indeed, you are surprisingly the very first Professor of Israel Studies in the United Kingdom. You are also the President and Founder of the European Association for Israel Studies. You have already written twelve books, all of which are essential reading for their impeccable rigour of analysis and indisputable lucidity. Your field of research also includes the Israeli Right. A History of Israel in 100 Cartoons was published last year by Cambridge University Press. 

You are the editor of the Routledge Handbook on Zionism – to which forty scholars have contributed. It will be published in June 2024.

Thank you for all your compliments! I usually dive under the table when people utter such praises but I hope that I have made a contribution to the furthering of Israel Studies.

Professor Colin Shindler, before going into the body of your work and your books of such great accuracy, I would first like to know your opinion on the slope that England seems to be sliding down. – All eyes are currently on London in particular, where pro-Hamas demonstrations are becoming plentiful and where appalling anti-Semitic slogans are being chanted, awakening our worst nightmares: 

There is no violence against British Jews in London but clearly there is a sense of dislike, distaste and blame directed towards Jews in varying degrees especially when the media coverage about the complexity of the war in Gaza is so superficial and abbreviated. It is particularly difficult for Jewish students at university who have to quickly educate themselves about Jewish history and Israeli history in order to counteract intimidatory rhetoric. 

The slogan ‘Free Palestine: From the River to the Sea’ was originally chanted by pro-Palestinian marchers each Saturday. The irony is that it means ‘a Greater Palestine’ – and thereby a refusal to consider a two state solution. For many Jews, this also means a judenrein Palestine. There is a clear ambiguity about the meaning of this slogan and the British authorities have banned it at such demonstrations under threat of prosecution.

We can clearly see that the anti-Semitic violence began on 7 October, not when Israel entered Gaza. How do you explain this parading enthusiasm for the disappearance of Israël ? 

There is a profound ignorance about the Israel-Palestine conflict amongst the demonstrators. Palestinian Islamism regards twenty-first century Jews as being one and the same as Jews in seventh century Arabia during the time of the Prophet. Whereas it was possible for figures such as Yitzhak Rabin to make peace with Palestinian nationalists such as Yasser Arafat, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have no intention of negotiating with Israel. They conducted a suicide bombing campaign to wreck the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Both Israelis Jews and Arabs were killed by Hamas.  Israeli and Palestinian Islamists such as Yahya Sinwar undoubtedly wish to root out Israel as a poisonous weed from the Middle East.

The far Left – the political ostrich of our time – believes that the reactionary Hamas will eventually become part of the Left. It is willing to flirt with ‘revolutionary antisemitism’ often disguised as antagonism to Zionism to achieve that end. 

From France, it’s difficult to understand the passivity of the authorities? 

The British authorities have a difficult balancing act between allowing democratic protests on behalf of the Palestinians and preventing intimidation of British Jews. There was a huge demonstration against antisemitism by hundreds of thousands of Jews and their supporters a few months ago.

This passivity, or even deliberate encouragement, in the face of increasingly strong, violent, proselytising, zealot and, of course, anti-Semitic rhetoric in London’s neighbourhoods and mosques, has now been going on for decades. As the conspiracy theorists say, who benefits from the crime?

Most Muslims naturally support the Palestinians whereas most Jews support Israel. The British authorities are quick to act against Muslim clerics who wish to radicalise congregants or those who utter anti-Jewish comments, dressed up in religious language. Reports which condemn outrageous comments regularly appear in the Times newspaper. Some rabbis and imams work quietly together in the hope of repairing the rift between communities.  

Unregulated social media however is another story.

Yet it was in this context of history in general and of the history of British Jews in particular that a figure as universally loved and admired as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emerged. Is it the paradoxes of this country? Or of our times? What is the situation of British Jews today? How do they feel today?

The Jewish community in Britain is a fighting community. They have been in the UK since the English Republic of Oliver Cromwell allowed them to enter in 1656 after centuries in exile. British Protestantism unlike Catholicism in Europe has generally been tolerant and welcoming to its Jewish community. Jews know when to pack their suitcases and leave – that moment has not been reached in the UK.

Your book A History of Modern Israel, published in 2008 by Cambridge University Press, is not only a treasure trove of information, facts and historical events, but also of essential reflections on the real and symbolic construction of the country. You can feel how each word is weighed up, stretched between what you say and how it might be interpreted. Who was this book aimed at? Especially students? What were your surprises when it was published, both good and bad? 

Thank you. My books are usually aimed at the interested reader. This can include both students and general readers. I am told that my books are accessible for all – and this is gratifying. 

While I have no expectations from readers or reviewers, you feel that you have done something worthwhile if there is genuine praise.

What weight does a book like this, so finely thought out and with such responsible intelligence, have when we know, even more today in the vast turmoil of university wokisms, that the call to hate Israel is not supported by reason or by an analysis of history? You mentioned the refusal of a complex narrative about colonisation or decolonisation, but today, years after writing this academic work, do you still think it’s a refusal of complexity? Is it not a very minor part of today’s infatuation?

The narrative on parts of the British Left regarding Jews as settler-colonists was present before the Six Day war of 1967 and before the settlement drive. Many wish to return not to the situation in 1967 but to the situation in 1948.

Some were influenced by the Soviet antisemitism of the 1960s. 

Views are forged by many other factors outside of books. I had many students from all works of life taking my university course on the Israel-Palestine conflict. They arrived believing it to be a black or white, right or wrong, question. They left at the end of the course understanding the tragic complexity of it. I would tell my students not to accept my version of history but to educate themselves about the Israel-Palestine conflict. One of my Arab students who took my MA in Israel Studies wrote excellent essays about Vladimir Jabotinsky. You can only speak and write for those in front of you but no one knows where your words will land and who they will influence.

Would your other book, What do Zionists Believe ?, which everyone without exception should own and know inside out, – masterpiece of accuracy, responding to all the absurdities and contradictory statements that are thrust upon us day after day-, receive the same welcome today’s Britain? And in Europe more widely?

This was written almost twenty years and is really a primer – an introduction to Zionism, its many variants and its progenitors. 

I wrote this because there was a real lack of understanding – a profound ignorance – about the origins and ideology of Zionism. 

I had hoped that it would provide food for thought. In 2024, few wish to educate themselves about this subject. It is easier to make pejorative and superficial comments on social media. 

What was the underlying, let’s say personal, motivation behind writing such a book, in which every word is weighed against the world and what is being claim so loudly ? 

The Jews have always been stiff-necked outsiders, willing to be in a minority of one. I personally identify with this. In one sense, Zionism fits into this mindset. For many British Muslims, supporting the cause of Palestine is often a means of proclaiming a religious identity in the UK. There is no such identification with the cause of the million Muslim Uyghurs who are persecuted by the Chinese. There is no discussion about the civil war in Sudan where Muslims kill fellow Muslims. 

For a majority of Jews, however Zionism remains the major solution to the Jewish problem. British Jews are strongly pro-Israel even if they oppose the Netanyahu government and the settlement drive on the West Bank.

What, in your opinion, is so unbearable for the world about the return to Zion of a people of such small numerical importance?

The return of the Jews to Zion  does not fit into conventional theory about national liberation movements. Since it is different, many on the far Left believe that it must therefore also be wrong. 

Many on the far Left preferred to view the Jews purely as a religious community but after the fall of Napoleon, Jewishness also meant Jewish culture, Jewish language, Jewish literature as well as Judaism. The early Zionists were the first to argue that the Jews were a nation – nation in exile. 

During the first Zionist Congress in 1897, Max Nordau, Herzl’s close ally, spoke about ‘the great men of 1792’ of the French Revolution. He pointed out that the revolutionaries such as Robespierre, St. Just and Danton liberated the Jews for the sake of logic and not because of the reality that the Jews found themselves in. This has been at the root of the Jewish problem ever since – the difference between theory and practice.

Hasn’t this hoped for universalism (A social vision based on universalism, as a certain Theodore Herzl said about saving all peoples), in which a majority of European Jews had signed up, suddenly been turned on its head, at our expense?

At a time when wars are taking place in Gaza and Ukraine, it is very difficult to speak of love and peace in the spirit of universalism. Yet Jews have not forgotten their universalist inclinations, over 75% of American Jews will vote for Biden and not for Trump. South African Jews stood up against apartheid. Alexei Navalny had several Jewish aides including Leonid Volkov who was recently attacked with hammers in Lithuania by Putin’s thugs. 

In 1917, the Balfour Declaration and the October Revolution in Russia took place within days of each other. In one sense, they symbolically pointed to way to the future – particularism or universalism. In 2024, most Jews have chosen particularism and national interests. Others have chosen a different path whereby universalism comes first. Can universalism be counter-productive to Jewish interests? Yes, of course it can. But it is also part of our traditions and history to speak out for justice for the oppressed and persecuted. 

By illusion of envisaging a return to reason, paying little heed to propaganda or alleged conspiracies, by hope of believing in the possibility of convincing through knowledge, have we European Jews not been locked up in a fallacious intellectual ghetto for the last 20 years? Walking in parallel with events, worlds and excesses that were obviously going to hit us?

The unexpected always hits us. Who would have believed that Putin would invade Ukraine? Who would have thought that the Israeli political and military echelons would have allowed a situation whereby Hamas could commit a pogrom of ethnic cleansing on 7 October 2023? 

Only a knowledge of Jewish history can save us from being rendered immobile and subsequently prevented from taking action in such situations. We know that because it happened in the past, it can happen in the future. Therefore we should always be prepared without being paranoid. 

In What Do Zionists Believe? two conclusions are drawn, one: “Zionism will have completed its task only when it repairs the past and refurbishes the present, when the Augean stables are cleaned and when a just society arises in Israel.”

And :“Zionism was partly responsible for the birth of Palestinian nationalism. Given the opportunity, it will also be responsible for the birth of the Palestinian state”.

Since 7 October, and its consequences, will you still conclude with the same words?

Yes, I would use the same words. In a recent scientific survey of over 4,000 British  Jews, 79% of British Jews did not approve of Netanyahu. He has much to answer for including the attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary in Israel and the failure to protect the Jews on 7 October. 

Both Jewish nationalism and Arab nationalism came about during the same period of history with claims over the same territory. The logic therefore is partition and to divide the territory into two states. At present in the midst of war in Gaza, the prospect of a Palestinian state seems far off and reconciliation between the two peoples even further. But no one knows what tomorrow might bring?

Will 7 October and its aftermath change the form and content of your writing? Will they be aimed at the same audience?

My political writings always try and face the reality so inevitably the events of 7 October will come into it. My academic writings which are mainly historical will, I hope, remain objective and not descend into advocacy. It is up to my readers to decide whether I have been successful.

Doesn’t this appalling solitude of the Jews, in Galut as in Israel, condemn us to watch “paralysed” as our miraculously reborn destiny becomes absorbed “in the tragic wound of Judaism”? (as said David Grossman about Israelis)

I don’t think that the Jews are paralysed. We are in Diaspora not in Israel. Our tasks are very different therefore. It does not mean that Diaspora Jews are powerless.

As Ben-Gurion once commented ‘it is not what the non-Jews say but what the Jews do that matters.’ It is therefore important for Jews to stand up for themselves.

With the same strength as the pre-war Jews, with their exceptional energy, their outpouring of political and spiritual genius in search of a just and appropriate world, but perhaps now with a more certain lucidity, shouldn’t we collectively rethink the Jewish Nation not just as a state but as a whole?

The early Zionist writer, Moses Hess, broke with his friend and colleague, Karl Marx. He understood the Jews to be a nation in exile that would eventually return and reconstitute themselves as a nation in their own land. He saw Marx as narrow-minded and acculturated – someone who lacked any real insight into the Jewish condition. Hess who is regarded as ‘the father of socialist Zionism’  further understood that turning away from the non-Jewish Left did not mean turning to the Jewish Right.

The Jews today are – in my opinion – a nation both in Israel and in the Diaspora. In the UK, our nationality is  Jewish but our citizenship is British.

The prophet Isaiah announces the building of the future house of prayer for all nations. Let us begin by making it the house of life, reunion and praise for all Jews… The rest of the world will follow”. (Claude Vigée, “Où es-tu ?”[1]). Are we not on the way to understanding this?

Claude Vigée experienced the Nazi occupation of France and taught at the Hebrew University for forty years. His poetry is both spiritual and inspiring in a universalist sense. Uri Zvi Greenberg who had witnessed the killing of Jews after the First World War – and was the subject of a mock execution himself – was perhaps the polar opposite of Vigée.  Both experienced terror but Vigée did not abandon universalism whereas Greenberg did. 

Vigée’s comment of the Jews essentially being a light to the nations remains a Jewish aspiration even in these dark times but it is clear that many will find it difficult to relate this noble idea after the events of 7 October. 

Entretien mené par Daniella Pinkstein


[1] « Le prophète Isaïe annonce l’érection de la future maison de prière construite pour toutes les nations. Commençons par en faire la maison de la vie, des retrouvailles et de la louange pour tous les juifs… Le reste du monde suivra »

Tribune Juive 22 March 2024

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