Whenever the Cap’n and I go to a mall, one of the stops we always make is to a Steimatzky’s book shop. The Cap’n likes to see what sci fi books are out in English (or Hebrew) that he hasn’t read yet, and I usually wander over the rest of the English language book section. The part that always depresses me, though, are the several shelves dedicated to Middle East peace.
It’s usually three or four shelves full of books describing the baby steps, the photo-ops, the missed opportunities, and the myth-making that have gotten in the way. When people talk about the many successes Israel has enjoyed in its young existence as a state, one of them is the publishing industry. Israel publishes 6,866 books per year, compared to 3,686 in Lebanon, 2,215 in Egypt, 1,800 in Syria, and 511 in Jordan (based on this Wikipedia page.) But of those books published, I sometimes wonder how many are about the failed peace process. It seems that many more people have cashed in on the lack of peace here than have gotten their hands dirty trying to make some.
My father recently sent me the syllabus of a Williams College professor who teaches a seminar on “historical narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” His books include such reads as Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows which claims to document the collaboration and exploitation of Arabs who sympathized with the Zionist cause, Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Sa’di and Abu-Lughod’s Nakba, and Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots, about how Israelis have taken the historical events of Masada, the Bar Kochba rebellion, and Tel Hai and transformed them from bloody defeats into heroic national narratives. In other words, this course is dedicated to a “they said, they said” version of events (which at best, in the end, suggests they’re both employing myths, lies, and half-truths to serve their own interests). Texts appear chosen for their polemical value on both sides (with Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel pitted against Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage) and are no doubt intended to “spark discussion.” (This rationale, it should be noted, also contributed to Jimmy Carter’s insistence, despite others’ efforts to discourage him, on giving his recent libel the title Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.)
As I wrote my father, I am deeply concerned about the sort of discussion that is likely to take place after reading texts that shed plenty of heat, but no light, on something as complex as the conflict here. I’ve written before that anyone who seeks to understand the Middle East would do well to read fact-filled, coolly written books and articles in order to understand not only the claims made by the combatants, but also the events and deeds they neglect to mention when making their cases. I like to think that higher education is in the service of teaching people to think, research, get the facts, and love and pursue truth. Taking a class like the one at Williams does none of those things, and at a cost of $39,250 per year (excluding room, board, and fees) is a colossal waste of money.
And like that Williams professor and his syllabus, all the books like the ones on the shelves at Steimatzky’s, and the journalists and professors who write them, seem more interested in rehashing the same tired claims, repeating the same old myths, rather than putting forward any new information. Professor Shlomo Sand has made waves recently in his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, by recycling the old, long-discredited claim that all the Jews are descended from the Khazars, and therefore have no historical claim to this land. Academics Ilan Pappé and Neve Gordon both traveled abroad to encourage academics in America and Britain to boycott Israel. And Haaretz’s editor, David Landau, told former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel “wanted to be raped.” With media moguls and professors like these, I’m reading the Jerusalem Post and sending my kids to NYU! (Not Columbia, which employed the great mythmaker Edward Said until his death and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak.)
I will still go to Steimatzky’s with the Cap’n, but in future I’ll stick to the sci fi. At least there, there’s always something new under the sun.