Robert Fisk’s World: Lessons in justice and fairness from a no-nonsense historian

He will go into the whole Middle East fiasco and come out fighting

Share
Related Topics

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."

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."

Ouch!

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal  

What is 4Chan? And why does it threaten women like Emma Watson?

Memphis Barker
Chuka Umunna was elected MP for Streatham in 2010  

Could flirty Chuka Umunna be worth a punt for Labour’s top job?

Matthew Norman
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits