Sunday, August 14, 2005

Inside the mind of Avi Shlaim

NB: This interview by Meron Rapoport with the Baghdad-born, Oxford-based 'new historian' Avi Shlaim (reprinted from Haaretz of 11 August) comes with a health warning. Some of the mindboggling claims peddled by Shlaim are guaranteed to make your blood pressure rise. Please send all complaints to (With thanks:Lily)

Try this for size:

'The Arabs have repeatedly outstretched a hand to peace and Israel has always rejected it. Each time with a different excuse."

And this, Shlaim's version of the 1950 exodus of the Jews from Iraq (his family among them), somewhat at variance with the highly-respected Professor Elie Kedourie's :

"I think - I can't prove it - that there was an understanding between the Iraqi government and the Israeli government. An understanding, not an agreement. Israel asked Iraq to let the Jews immigrate, the Iraqis said: we are not opposed, but the Jews are filling central positions in the Iraqi economy, so Israel said: Leave the Jewish property in Iraq.'

Here are some more extracts:

"Shlaim was born in Baghdad in 1945, to a wealthy family with a magnificent three-story house and 10 servants, including a special servant who went to the market to do the shopping. His father was an importer of building materials, and hobnobbed with the heads of the Iraqi government, including then-prime minister Nuri Said.

"Most of the ministers were customers of ours," says Shlaim. "They used to come to our house and order building materials for their houses. They never paid, but in return they ordered work for the government from us, and paid much more than necessary. That was corruption, but not brutal corruption, as with Saddam Hussein. That was an old Arab political culture, a culture of compromise."

"His mother was connected to the British government. Her father was the British army's head interpreter in Iraq during World War II, two of her brothers served in British intelligence as interpreters, and received British citizenship. That helped them later on, when they wanted to leave Iraq.

"Shlaim describes a home in which Judaism was not an important component of his parents' identity. "Judaism was ritual," he says. "My parents used to attend the synagogue once a year, at home we spoke Judeo-Arabic, we listened to Arabic music. Nor was Zionism important, my parents had no empathy for it. There were Zionist agents who tried to create propaganda, but it didn't impress the Jewish elite and the middle class. There was no tradition of persecution or anti-Semitism in Iraq."

"The first pogrom took place in 1941, in Farhoud, in the context of the (pro-Nazi) Iraqi rebellion against British rule. The real problems began with Israel's War of Independence in 1948, says Shlaim, when the harassment began. The climax came when a hand grenade was thrown into the central synagogue in Baghdad in 1951, "and from that day to this, there have been rumors that an Israeli agent tossed the grenade."

Note how the events of the Farhoud (which killed 169 Jews) are skimmed over in one sentence. Shlaim ignores the Nazification of Iraq, the raft of anti-Jewish legislation and the traumatic hanging of Shafiq Ades. In his zeal to blame Israel for the Iraqi Jews' troubles he echoes the standard Arab propaganda line that one hand grenade tossed by an Israeli agent caused the bulk of the community to flee. He protests that he was prevented from verifying his claim because he was not allowed to see the historical record.

"Out of the 130,000 Jews in Iraq, 100,000 registered, including my father. And then, immediately afterward, a new law was issued, to the effect that any Iraqi who had given up his citizenship was giving up all his other rights, including property rights. My father was sure that he would have enough time to sell his property, but then it turned out that he had lost everything: a house and warehouses and merchandise worth half a million pounds sterling at the time. In the end, he was even forced to cross the border illegally on a mule, because he was the guarantor of the debts of another Jew who had disappeared. I, my mother and my sisters, with our British citizenship, left Iraq on a regular flight to Cyprus, and met up with my father in Israel."

In the very next paragraph Shlaim makes the contradictory claim: "we are not refugees, nobody expelled us from Iraq, nobody told us that we were unwanted. But we were the victims of the Israeli-Arab conflict."

He then describes the pathetic figure of his father, whose refugee experience had left him a broken man:

"Shlaim, five years old at the time, landed with his parents in Ramat Gan. His father managed to bring some money with him, and tried to do business here, but failed. "They cheated him. In Baghdad, if you gave a check and it bounced, you wouldn't show your face again. Here it was a badge of honor," says Shlaim. His mother, who hadn't worked a day in her life, found work as a telephone operator in the Ramat Gan municipality. She acclimated (sic), as did Shlaim and his sisters. They learned Hebrew quickly, although they continued to speak Arabic with their parents.

"He was somewhat ashamed of his father, especially when he would call to him in Arabic in the street, but he didn't dare to ask him not to speak Arabic to him in front of strangers. "He was a broken man, but he continued to dress and to behave like a respectable man, very polite, he didn't interrupt and he was not aggressive," says Shlaim. "He brought with him from Baghdad all the suits that his tailor had sewn for him from British fabric. He didn't have any work, and he would go down to the street, in a suit and an ironed shirt and a tie, and go to the cafes to sit with his friends from Iraq, who also had no work, and also walked around in the street in their suits."

(Rapoport) And did you try to talk to him?

"He didn't talk about Iraq, he was silent. Today I'm interested in his trauma and I'm interested in why he didn't speak at the time. Maybe he spoke and I didn't show any interest. Children, apparently, are not interested in history. He died in 1971."

There follows a not-very-convincing attempt to allege anti-Mizrahi prejudice from his Ashkenazi fellow pupils and teachers: I didn't encounter discrimination, and I didn't feel deprived, but the atmosphere was that anything Ashkenazi was good and anything Arab was primitive. I felt I had accomplished something when I had Ashkenazi friends. I remember that one boy placed his hand on my shoulder and said to me: you're my best friend. I was amazed that he didn't feel that I was inferior."

What are we then to make of Avi Shlaim? How can one explain his Orwellian revisionism of Middle Eastern history? Is he suffering from an Oedipus complex? 'Stockholm syndrome'? Or has he been terminally brainwashed by The Guardian?

Update: two ex-Hebrew University professors respond:

"Shlaim's writing stems from a political agenda that is hostile to Israel, which is typical of the "new historians," rather than from an objective examination of the Israeli narrative. The following story will testify to the nature of Shlaim's attitude toward Israel. A few years ago he, together with Eugene L. Rogan, published the book "The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948." In the foreword to the book, Shlaim dared to write something to the effect of the following:

In the Middle East, as in other places, history plays a fundamental role in the building of a state, in granting legitimacy to its authority and to its political system. Governments in the region impose direct and indirect authority on the writing of history. The state controls the preparation of history textbooks for the elementary and high schools. The state runs the vast majority of the universities in the Middle East, and the members of their faculties are civil servants. National history associations and government publishing houses serve as filters whose job is to uproot impermissible historical descriptions, and to convince people of the truths that the state is interested in promoting. Since advancement in the academic establishment is closely related to adhering to the official line, historians are only barely motivated by the desire to engage in critical historical writing. Instead, the vast majority of Arab and Israeli historians have written and are writing in an uncritical nationalistic spirit.

The Israeli reader cannot help but react with astonishment to these lies regarding Israel. This entire description is of course valid in relation to the Arab countries, but in Israel the situation is the opposite: The government does not run the universities, their faculty members are not civil servants and their advancement is not dependent on their writing according to the wishes of the government. A failure to distinguish between the situation here and what is happening in the Arab countries is strong evidence of Shlaim's willingness to use lies and invective as long as he can achieve his goal, which is to denigrate Israel. It is unfortunate that this man is becoming such a leading figure in the eyes of Israeli journalists."

Update 10/10/07: An interesting insight from a commenter on Harry's Place who knew Shlaim at school:

Let me try to explain from what and from where Mr. Shlaim's hatred for all things Israeli, and more deeply, all things Jewish, may stem from.

In 1961, I, as a recent immigrant to England, started attending the JFS Secondary on Torriano Avenue in Camden Town. I was one of two non-English-born "foreigners" in the School, a 15-year-old Jewish boy from India; the other was an Iraqi-Israeli, Avi (Abe) Shlaim.
We were different from the others, so we became fast friends especially as we lived close by to each other, I with my family, and he with the Principal of the JFS, Dr. Conway.
We played the same sports, did the same subjects, and usually went home together. This went on for three years!

From the first day I knew him it was obvious that Abe absolutely HATED Israel. His family, well-to-do in Iraq, but forced out by the Baathist regime (so he said) were now just another family of Mizrahim, Sephardic Jews, in Israel, where, truth be told, they were never the equals of the Ashkenazim. But Abe never blamed Iraqi politics for this demeaning drop in status; he blamed the establishment of the State of Israel! The argument then, as now, being that if Israel did not exist then there would have been no massive disinterrment of Jews from the Arab countries, where they had lived in Dhimmi peace, but in peace, for centuries.
Abe's hatred for the State of Israel would show itself in his constant reiteration of the mantra that he would rather die than go to the mandatory, and in those days a universal badge of honor, service in the IDF.

As for his hatred of Jews; he was living in the home of the Conservative-Orthodox Principal, yet he took every possible opportunity to decry that; he would never wear his school cap, would laugh at kosher (admittedly not exactly revolutionary among us at the time) take every opportunity to desecrate Sabbath. We all did these things, but for Abe it was always a personal vendetta, like sneaking a Wimpy hamburger into a kosher home after telling us that he was going to, and then repeating what a forbidden thrill it was to eat it in his own room, half-hoping he would be discovered so he could "have it out" with his host.

Abe went on to read History at Cambridge; I the same at Sussex. We did not keep in touch, although I did hear that he was being groomed for the Israeli Diplomatic Service.
I never heard of him again until he started writing his books when it became abundantly clear that the Abe Shlaim I knew had become the Avi Shlaim I didn't want to!
So, protect your kids from themselves, and teach them well. The books they write as adults will nearly always be prefigured in their childhood loves and hates!

Posted by: eliXelx at October 10, 2007 10:24 AM


bataween said...

He should be challenged to produce his evidence - particularly on spurious theories based on his thoughts over 50 years after the event. Look how Irving was discredited.

His writings and rantings are dangerous and are exploited by others who are either anti semite or enemies of Israel (or possibly both).

Anonymous said...

You are far too polite - he is beyond the pale

Anonymous said...

It is revolting and unacceptable to compare Shalim to Irving. Anyone who knows about Irving will regard such comments as irresponsible. In the Iron Wall Shlaim argued that Israel and the Arabs had more chances to make peace before 1967 than one would have imagined. The case is overstated, in my view. But to cpmpare a thoughtful historian with ranting anti-Semite is disgusting.

Anonymous said...

i was in avi shlaim lecture in oslo and i was amazed by this man anti to his own land!!!!
i was shocked im an israeli who lived my all life in israel and probebly know a lot more then him how we feel under the fear of teror attack,this man brought up all he could aggenst israel he wasnt objective and i have to wonder why is he doing it going around the world and splash dirt on israel name on israel people!!
if there is any chance he can read it im asking you to stop!!!

Anonymous said...

"He should be challenged to produce his evidence" - Shlaim has consistently produced his evidence in the most detailed and thoughtful works of history you are likely to read. Rather than being anti-Israel, Shlaim clearly laments the missed opportunities to solve the conflict. He is analytical about the reasons these chances were missed and variously blames all parties involved where he finds evidence to do so, especially external actors. If you read his work you might also note he is unsparing in his criticism of the Arab regimes in the immediate post WW2 period.

Danny said...

sorry, one quick comment on the person who knew Shlaim at school and that is the Baathists were not in power until 1968 - except for a very short period in 1963.

bataween said...

Technically you are correct, the Baathists returned to power when Al-Bakr overthrew the pro-Nasser Arif in a bloodless coup, but Iraqi was nevertheless a military dictatorship where the remaining Jews were repressed and increasingly persecuted.

bataween said...

Avi Shalim's claim that his family was forced out by the Baathists is of course wrong, but the Iraqi regime in 1950 was also anti-Jewish

Anonymous said...

I've read the iron wall and it's clear to see whoever wrote this blog is one of those "If you disagree with Israel you're anti-semitic" type of people.
Personally I believe in history. Real hard facts, and the real facts show that Israel is turning into a hypocrisy of a state and treatment of Palestinians while not on the same scale smacks of persecution. We all know its wrong, and nobody agrees firing rockets and suicide bombings are the solution but when all is lost you can see why maybe some turn to this.
For me its refreshing to see someone who once served in the IDF speaking from a more worldly point of view. We are not anti Israel but if Israel wants to stop a growing 'hatred' for its country, then it must stop acting like its beyond reproach. Arab, Jew all humans.. fck religion out the window and we're all made up of the same stuff.
Lets fight for peace instead of continuing this kind of propaganda against those who want history to be heard.

bataween said...

Your version of history is one-sided: it casts Israel as the only villain without any kind of context. This is what Shlaim does too: It is as if Israel acts in a vacuum. Instead of shedding light on the facts, Shlaim actively distorts them, wilfully reversing the roles of aggressor and victim, to the extent that he cannot even distinguish who is the aggressor when he and his family are the victims!

Yaqov Israel said...

I was at his lecture yesterday, 17.12.2012 at LSE. I sat there with disbelieve, I am an Israeli living in London since 2001 and to my horror he said that when the Hamas was democraticly elected back in 2005 the state of Israel should have negotiate with them as this is the legitimate, freely elected ruler now. At the end of his lecture he did agree the Hamas was a terrorist organisation. He never mentioned the 7000 rockets fired from Gaza strip. At the end he thanked to several Arab "best friends" that were sitting in the crowed. I was shocked!

Born and bread in Israel I am left wing always voting MERETZ and a big fan to Mr Rabin legacy, I believe in 2 states soultion but hearing this talk was outrages even to me, half truth and one sided position. This man is anti Israel and he makes such a damage to my country!

bataween said...

Dear Yakov
I am not surprised - over the years Shlaim has become more and more anti-Israel. I think he has lived in England with his Arab friends for too long.