Friday, October 28, 2016

Should the US President Get Re-engaged in Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations? Duh.

Should President Obama encourage Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking? Of course he should, as indeed he did when he authorized Secretary of State John Kerry to make a major push to persuade the parties to resume direct negotiations. Why were they not persuaded? Why has the peace-process stalled that started in the early 1990’s and went on until 2008, when then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert affirmed the parameters of a bilateral final status agreement made by his predecessor Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and confirmed by President Clinton and subsequent administrations? Alan Dershowitz (“Obama, slow your roll on Mideast peace process,” in the Boston Globe of October 26, 2016) is right when he suggests that once again, a lame-duck president may be expected to give it a last push to help birth a peace agreement. At a recent Harvard Program on Negotiations panel on what the US can do to help revive the two-state-solution, Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher and Palestinian survey researcher Khalil Shikaki agreed that this is exactly what President Obama should do. Professor Dershowitz agrees that PM Netanyahu and President Abbas should sit down and engage in direct talks. But he wants the US president to refrain from making a statement that might boost UN involvement in the negotiations. Dershowitz fails to say what, short of international diplomatic pressure, might induce the two parties to resume negotiations. Gilead Sher and Khalil Shikaki agreed that the current lack of political will is eroding hope and mutual trust among the Israelis and the Palestinians. Sher was specifically worried that inaction has placed Israel on a slippery slope to a binational Apartheid state. According to Shikaki, a “no-partner-syndrome” is prevailing that is eroding Palestinian trust in its own secular nationalists. If the two parties in this interminable conflict cannot get to the table, someone else will need to step in. If Dershowitz doesn’t want it to be the American president, French and Russian presidents are waiting in the wings.

As a footnote: In a paragraph on the “multitude of complex and contentious issues (…) that must be thoroughly addressed in order to achieve a lasting peace,” Alan Dershowitz reflexively refers to the “so-called Palestinian refugees.” It may not be that important how Professor Dershowitz feels about the Palestinian refugees but that he felt the need to question the genuineness of their refugee status in a paragraph on issues to be resolved draws attention to where he stands and what he cares about the most. Like Bernard Avishai in a presentation at Boston University in 2011 (see, Alan Dershowitz seems to worry most about the refugee issue. To delegitimize Palestinian refugees may be in the long-term strategic interest of Israel as a Jewish state, but it needlessly muddies the waters if it is flagged as the single-most intractable issue among the “multitude of complex and contentious issues.” It is also a tactically problematic, needlessly partisan move. To dissuade the American president from taking a stand and encourage the parties to get back to the negotiating table, Dershowitz needs to provide Mr. Obama with arguments. Instead he suggests a policy position: a return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel is - in Dershowitz's view - non-negotiable. Fine. He has a right to his opinion. But he expresses it in a way that is insulting to the very Palestinians he hopes will be persuaded to return to direct negotiations, even though he doesn’t want the US or the UN do the persuading. In other words, Dershowitz strengthens the hands of those who want the decisions over the future of one of the parties to be made by the other party, while that other party is not supposed to put any preconditions on the table. This is precisely the reason why these negotiations have long since stalled. One must conclude that Alan Dershowitz is not sincere in his wish for direct negotiations, not unless the table is stacked against the Palestinians from the very start.

A shorter version of this blog entry appeared as Letter to the Editor, Boston Globe of October 28, 2016 (print edition p. A15)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Rabin in His Own Words"

Yesterday, the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University held its fourth annual Yitzhak Rabin memorial event by screening Erez Laufer's bio-pic "Rabin in His Own Words," followed by a talk-back with the director. In conversation afterwards Laufer explained that the film had been timed to be released on the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister and long-time military and public figure and broadcast on a minor Israeli docu-channel. Laufer worked on the film for about fifteen months, pretty much around the clock, using extensive archival recordings publicly available at the Rabin Center, among other sources. Among his notable revelations were the extraordinary statements Rabin made on the settlements as a "cancer" on Israeli society and the premonition of an Israeli Apartheid state if they were allowed to grow. Laufer told us that Rabin had included some of these statements in the draft of his autobiography but they were expunged by the political censor. While he had to leave them out of the Hebrew version of his book he went on and leaked them to the New York Times so they became public knowledge after all.

The film is moving. It provides a history of the modern state of Israel from the British Mandate period where Rabin came of age as the son of Russian immigrants and a young Palmachnik charged with helping immigrant survivors of the Shoah to enter Palestine illegally, acts for which he was detained by the British along with his father, who had nothing to do with it and did everything to help his son not to feel guilty about it. The narrative moves through the great moments of Israel's history: the run-up to the war of independence in '48, when Rabin was a commander in Jerusalem who helped a Haganah convoy to break the blockade of the city but helplessly witnessed the demise of a group of 14 to 16 year-old recruits and the evacuation of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; the re-capture of the Old City in 1967 that was both filmed and simulcast on Israeli radio; the horrors of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the subsequent demise of the labor party elite and the ugly power struggle between himself and Shimon Peres; his first stint as Prime Minister that ended in scandal and the elections of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister; his stint as Secretary of Defense in a national unity government in the late eighties that saw the rise of Palestinian violence in the occupied territories; his pivot toward the PLO ("Ashaf") in the nineties; his vilification by the opposition; and his final moments.

In between, Laufer mounts scenes Rabin took with his small old-fashioned film camera, home movies that allow you to see the world through Rabin's eyes in addition to hearing his spoken and written voice. These scenes, mostly of his wife and children, his father and sister, at home, in Washington D.C. during his stint as ambassador, and on vacation, are sweet and gentle, contrasting with the seriousness of the sepia-toned documentary moments of struggle, and stark television footage of terrorist violence, political demonstrations, and prime-ministerial statements.

What emerges is a consistent character. Without the aid of voice-over and with minimal explanatory panels that reference dates, places, and events - presupposing viewer familiarity with the general story - we get acquainted with a very curious, very Israeli, very shy leader, who loves his stern mother, his caring father, his sister, and his children, serves his country in several distinguised positions of leadership, weathers threats and crises, and in a certain way never changes. He is always the same loving, terse, shy person who does what he believes is right and good for his people and his country. No wonder, Bill Clinton is proud to have called him haver, friend. One gets the sense one meets an antique hero, a simple man who rose through the ranks of service and took on the leadership of his country in times of need. An old-fashioned patriot who doesn't excel through rhetoric, who is not a politician but a leader, a reflective do-er.

Arabs make scant appearances in this documentary, as if they played a marginal role in Rabin's life. With the exception of a few leaders such as Egypt's president Anwar al-Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, and Yasser Araft, they only appear as collectives, in contexts of war, expulsion, and in visual cues such as areal shots of villages and landscapes. We hear only a few Arab voices and they only speak Hebrew or English: a student from Nazareth who asks why Israel is not negotiating with the PLO (this was before the 90's); construction workers demanding living wages but also respond to the star-power of the moment of interaction with the Prime Minister; King Hussein in 1994, on a diplomatic occasion. The film shows the document in which Rabin - at then-PM Ben Gurion's command - orders the evacuation of the Arabs of Lod, leading to acts of violence that persuade the Arabs of neighboring Ramle, which is next on the list, to leave voluntarily. He then orders his men to clean up the mess before an imminent Red Cross inspection. In a pivotal statement about Gush Emunim and the settlements, he berates them for having turned something that should be a matter of government or politics (mediniyut) into a matter of value (inyan erki). He is incensed. The opposition runs deep. He has the first settlements cleared, but then he loses power and is sidelined, while Begin reaps the benefits of Rabin's policies of reconciliation with Egypt and makes the settlements a matter of policy. Rabin pays the ultimate price for applying his belief in legitimate coexistence between Israel and its Arab neighbors to the Palestinians. But it is not clear what he was thinking or who he was talking to. He merely appears dogged in his pursuit of the peace process (tahalikh ha-shalom) in the face of terror. Who were the Arabs that gave him the confidence that such a historic reconciliation was possible? Who did he listen to? Who gave him advice? What did he really think? Or was he as abstract in his thinking as he comes across toward the end, when his statements become even more terse, when he is booed and vilified by the opposition and can show his face in public only under security protection. We don't hear. The last word, btw, is not the assassination. Rabin has nothing to say about it, so it would be dramatically inappropriate. It is not the speech he gave in Tel Aviv in 1995 but Rabin's boyish smile and a gentle interaction with a teen he passes, who does not want to look at him nor get out of his way, with whom Rabin interacts gently.

By using Rabin's voice and because Rabin was not much of a talker, the film gives only a few hints to the most painful moments in Rabin's life: the loss of his mother; the guilt about his father's internment and failing to make it back from D.C. before he died; his collapse in the run-up to the June '67 war that made him wonder why he didn't have what it took, as chief of staff, to stop a war he thought could be avoided; his beloved wife's public disgrace because of a harmless financial oversight; seeing his society destroyed by the perils of peace and security that emanated from fanatics exploited by opposition politicians. One would have wished this timely film a stronger response in Israel, but perhaps it is still not the moment for soul-searching. The cancer is still growing. The fever may need to run its course. I would not be surprised if this film will be rediscovered before long and exert the effect of its quiet, complicated, morally ambivalent message and allow for Rabin to reemerge, as he did so many times during his lifetime, as a posthumous icon of what is right, even though it is not always good.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Rare papyrus from the 7th century mentions Jerusalem

A link forwarded by my former student Danielle Liberman reports on the finding of a rare 7th century papyrus fragment that refers to a wine consignment for a person of high station in Jerusalem. Ancient Hebrew manuscripts are very rare. What excites the reporter is that it mentions Jerusalem (in the common biblical and more ancient spelling of the name "yerushalem," not the later popular "yerushalayim"). What excites me is that the servant of the king sending the wine is a woman, herself clearly an important person.
See the article HERE.
The significance of the difference in the spelling of the name is that it attests to the antiquity of the way in which it is spelled in most biblical references to the city by that name. The later and now common pronunciation (Yerushalayim) is a grammatical dual and indicates the mythological notion (found among others in St. Paul's letters and in rabbinic literature) that Jerusalem exists twice, namely, above and below. As the rabbis put it: yerushalayim shel mata and yerushalayim shel ma'la.
"Yerushalem" - the city's biblical name, now further attested in the newly identified papyrus - indicates that the biblical Judahites did not rename the city when they occupied it and made it the seat of their kingdom but simply continued calling it by its ancient Amorite/Hittite/Canaanite name, an homage to the "evening star"shalem (twin-brother of the "morning star").
BTW, the article also reports that the papyrus was discovered during a sting operation that busted a ring of "looters" who were offering archaeological artifacts on the vast black market that exists for such items. The fourteen "looters" were apparently condemned to 18 years in prison, which sounds harsh to me. As long as they don't destroy the artifacts, perhaps they should be enlisted rather than punished. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

What is worse: no hope or no trust?

This was one of the audience questions at tonight's Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation event with a proposal statement by Gilead Sher and a commentary by Khalil Shikaki, followed by discussion moderated by the event's host and program director, Robert Mnookin. (See HERE.)
Sher and Shikaki disagreed in their answer, as they did on much - though not everything - else. For Shikaki, a prominent survey researcher and regular Brandeis University Crown Center for Middle East Studies lecturer from Ramallah, it is the prevailing distrust among Palestinian and Israeli majorities that sustains a "no-partner-syndrome," which is the main reason why final status negotiations have stalled. For Sher, a prominent Tel Aviv lawyer and formerly chief negotiator on Jerusalem under Ehud Barak at Camp David, worse than distrust is hopelessness. The difference between these views speaks volumes. It illuminates the policy disagreement between Sher and Shikaki. Both are troubled by the stalled negotiations. For Sher, who emphasized his Zionist credentials as someone who believes in Israel as the nation state of the Jews and as a liberal democracy, the threat emanating from the lack of leadership is the slippery slope toward a one-state solution that threatens both, Israel's demographic Jewishness and its democratic constitution. In the absence of negotiations and to avoid for things getting only more complex and intractable, suggests Sher, Israel needs to prepare for the only plausible solution, the two state solution, by taking wise, practical policy steps that help to prepare the ground for two states, if need be unilaterally, with interim agreements and as much cooperation with the Palestinians and the international community as possible. Such concrete steps would presuppose the Clinton parameters of December 2000, which include the assumption that Israel would annex the major settlement blocs, compensate the Palestinians through land-swaps, and retain security positions along the perimeter of the West Bank and in strategic locations. It also includes reaching out to settlers living outside the major settlement blocs to persuade them, through positive and negative incentives, to resettle in the Negev, the Galilee or elsewhere in Israel. Instead of removing them by force, as was done during the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, they should be commended for having achieved what they set out to do, but then "to come home." In other words, Sher is interested in building consensus with rather than against the settler-community, as such a consensus within the complex Israeli society is the precondition for any peaceful resolution that achieves the desired result: the preservation of the Zionist vision - as Sher understands it - of Israel as a democratic nation state of the Jews. Without such policies and the will to implement them, Sher implied, there is no hope for Zionism. The bi-national Apartheit state that is the inevitable consequence of the ever more openly advocated annexation of the West Bank would be the end of Zionism.

Khalil Shikaki disagreed. The unilateralism suggested by Sher would play into the hands of the religious extremists among the Palestinians. Unilateralism assumes, there is no partner, and thus while perhaps conducive to achieving the Zionist vision of a Jewish democratic nation state in the long run, it would undermine the partner there is, namely secular Palestinian nationalists, rewarding those who believe that Israelis only understand the language of force and hence result in more violence, at least in the short term.

For a secular Palestinian nationalist like Shikaki, Sher's solution spells a further erosion of his own place within Palestinian society. It dismisses moderate Palestinians while holding on to the idea that moderate and liberal Israelis can somehow regain momentum within their own society, not for the sake of the Palestinians but for their own sake. Audience questions sounded a skeptical note. Some called for more practical suggestions and better strategies in place of rehashing the history of failed negotiations that took up much of Sher's time. Others challenged Sher to explain how he imagined the Knesset to be composed in order to approve the very reasonable measures he suggested.

When challenged to suggest something more concrete Sher pointed to the work he initiated together with Admiral Amichai Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, an initiative they call "Blue-White Future", which brings together different stake-holders, including radical settlers and their rabbis, to work on building consensus for the kind of policy initiatives that Sher knows will require broad support across all factions of Israeli society.

The speakers and the audience agreed that a strong policy statement by the US president would be useful and help guide Israeli and Palestinian societies in their internal dialogues, as well as provide hope and strengthen trust, but they also agreed that it was unlikely such a statement was forthcoming before the elections.

Friday, October 14, 2016

On the UNESCO Executive Board declaration on the "status quo" at the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif)

As reported by Reuters, the UNESCO Executive Board recently put out a statement that repeats verbatim what that same board has been saying for years. The declaration is published under the heading "Occupied Palestine" and deals - among other subjects - with the status quo at the most important Muslim site in Jerusalem, the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif. 

The story caught my attention. I went to the UNESCO website – which seems super-busy and is not easy to find one’s way around on – to find the actual text of the declaration. (It is HERE).   The document does not deny Jewish history and its connections to the Haram al-Sharif. It simply does not mention Jewish history or Jewish sentiments. It speaks about the historical status quo, meaning the guardianship and practices associated with the place as it was before 1967, and takes exception at Israel’s interference with that status. By failing to mention Jewish attachment to the site, UNESCO's Executive Board is widely criticized (including by the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova) for failing to maintain its humanitarian mission and making itself a political proxy for the Palestinian National Authority, which uses its membership status in UNESCO to draw public attention to the ongoing “occupation” of East Jerusalem, putting diplomatic pressure on the Israelis.

The short-term Israeli concern is that talk of Israel’s “change in the status quo” at a Muslim holy place is not just false but stokes Muslim fears internationally and increases the ongoing sporadic violence locally. The long-term Israeli concern is that the language used in the declaration undermines the long-standing Jewish attachment to the place, an attachment that Israel has been using to justify its desire to hold on to Jerusalem as the "eternally undivided capital" of Israel (Basic Law Jerusalem 1980).

In the past, Israel justified its claim to remain in charge of the holy places in the name of better guardianship (a kind of mission civilatrice, or “Orientalist” argument), in the name of freedom of religion, etc. Since the late nineties and early oughts, the rhetoric has become more “Jewish,” appealing to the national religious base of the governing coalition’s electorate and supporters abroad. 

The rhetoric of outrage against the UNESCO declaration that’s been making the rounds in the English-language Jewish and Israeli print and social media seems aimed at closing the ranks between diaspora and Israel, where Dov Waxman (“Trouble in the Tribe”) and others like Peter Beinart have been showing an increasing rift between the Israeli national-religious right and the younger generation of diaspora Jews, especially in the US. The Temple Mount/Western Wall issue is very potent, as it is perhaps one of the few things on which Jews can viscerally agree.

You should go some time and see for yourself both the extraordinary devotion of the ultraorthodox but also the the grotesque sentimental hysteria of Birthright groups manipulated into religious experiences at the Western Wall. Conversely, you should also visit the Haram al-Sharif on days when ordinary Muslim Jerusalemites outnumber western tourists or when the place is closed to tourists, and experience the serenity and relaxation, especially of women and children, in a space that is – to a significant extent – devoid of the trappings of Israeli occupation. The Haram is, most of the time, a safe space and a retreat.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Scholarship and punditry

Ever since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 a crisis of conscience has haunted the western students of eastern affairs, especially of Arabic or Middle Eastern/North African affairs. This crisis of conscience calls into question the validity of the efforts, spearheaded by many individual scholars and schools of thought that flourished in many countries and languages over the last five hundred years and produced the questions and approaches, linguistic and methodological tools, editions, translations, and studies on which “we” depend in our feeble attempts to study, understand, and appreciate eastern civilizations and see them for what they “are.” Said’s critique of the field focuses on western (particularly French and British) approaches to the study of the Middle East, Arabic language and literature, and Islam, and insinuates that western academics and the products of their scholarship are not just inherently biased (they study another culture from an “etic” or outside point of view) but implicated in the modern imperialist project of domination, which uses intimate knowledge of a civilization as a means of its control. In this reading, scholarly objectivity turns into a kind of pathology and the work of the most well-meaning and empathetic scholars of Islam and Arab civilization is inevitably politicized in one direction or another. Western scholarship of Middle Eastern and Muslim civilizations veers either toward polemics or toward apologetics; tertium non datur.

In For Lust of Knowing (2006), a spirited defense of the disparaged discipline and the men and more recently also the women who pursued it, the novellist and Bernard-Lewis-student Robert Irwin attacks Said on scholarly and ideological grounds. Irwin points to Said’s narrow definition of the field in question, i.e., his focus on Arabists and scholars of Islam, but admits that this definition suits his own purpose well, which is to retell the same story from a less polemical point of view and in more comprehensive a scope. Irwin argues that Said’s purview is too limited even when one allows for the narrowing of the field to the antecedents of modern Middle Eastern studies. According to Irwin, Said egregiously ignores entire centuries of antecedent work and many individuals and schools of thought (especially from the rich German philolological tradition) that contributed to the study of “oriental” civilizations. In Irwin’s view, the field began to develop in the age of European Humanism and was pursued by a range of specialists, amateurs, memoirists, and polemicists who produced the lexicons of the Arabic language, editions and translations of texts, travelogs, and studies on which rests every serious attempt to “understand” the array of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other “oriental” civilizations, and especially on which every serious attempt of non-Muslims and Muslims alike depends a more than superficial appreciation of these civilizations in their linguistic and cultural particularity. Irwin revels in scurrilous details and cherishes the idiosyncrasies of the personages that produced mountains of acribic research and he does not hide ideological bias or polemic agendas that attached to the work of some of the most accomplished scholars and their schools. Yet he argues that Said’s attack on this entire tradition of work for its implicit or explicit biases has significantly damaged the field and contributed to its demise by “discrediting and demoralizing an entire tradition of scholarship.” (p. 276) Of course, it was not Said alone who single-handedly accomplished this. Some of it is credited to the general decline of funding for the study of languages, the displacement of acdaemic specializations by interdisciplinary “area studies,” and the odious “publish-or-perish” that makes it virtually impossible for scholars to produce the kinds of learned tomes on which our fields used to be based.

One must wonder how a single individual or a single and in many ways deficient book can have such a thoroughgoing effect on a field now ploughed by thousands of graduate students and established scholars across the globe. Said’s book was certainly a harbinger of modern anthropological studies of academics as members of tribes. Academic scholarship does not occur in a vacuum. Individuals choose their careers on the basis of their personal commitments and predelections that sustain them in the long and arduous path of scholarship. Individuals, schools, programs, journals, and scholarly associations all have their cultural contexts that can be described and that most scholars are in fact acutely aware of, as they need to situate themselves successfully in these contexts in order to have a career. Irwin acknowledges that progress in the western study of Middle Eastern languages and civilizations was not just hard-one but usually accomplished by stark scholarly polemic, mutual recrimination, and expressions of contempt against which pales Said’s elegant prose. What has changed is that, after Said and the postmodernist turn to social theory, the inevitable personal bias has been politicized. It is now an object of study in its own right, and it raises doubts about what remains of the claim to the production of knowledge in the humanities.

All of this gives me pause as I am engaged in an oriental study of my own, namely, the writing of a brief history of Jerusalem. No one can be a specialist on such a general topic. What, then, are my options? How do I avoid the most egregious errors of fact or dangerously reductive interpretations? I can do so, or at least try, only by relying on the best available scholarship on many relevant and specialized subjects, including the recent scholarly discoveries and debates in each of these many fields. In light of Said I must realize that not just I but the sources on which I rely are inherently biased, that the traditions of scholarship and the many scholars that have produced it and continue to produce, are inherently biased and fail to deliver the goods. Humanistic scholarship as such – not only in this particular area – seems to constitute more of a kind of soliloquy than a dialogue between subjects and objects, mind and matter, observer and observed, and the like. This is the “demoralizing” effect of Said’s broadside, as observed by Irwin. The self-knowledge it triggered seems futile, unproductive, dispiriting. What do we do if we are not anthropologists who thrive on the possibilities released by turning scholarly clans into objects of investigation and description, or sociologists interested in academic communities and their interactions with political and economic elites? Where do we turn if we remain interested in a particular phenomenon in human affairs? We turn to description of what we see (through whatever lens), admitting that we make no claim on what these phenomena “are” unto themselves. We share with others what we see as eloquently as we can, trying to persuade them of our viewpoint and knowing full well that the best result we can hope for is a thoughtful response that attests that our observations made someone else think harder or see better, which in turn makes us question our own observations, and so on. While this may not seem like much, especially when measured by the concreteness of progress in science and technoloy, we must break a lance for our way of producing knowledge or else we must perish. Who will fund the future dialogues of scholarship devoted to nuance and articulation? More acutely, can western Oriental studies thrive when western commitments and obligations implied in the unravelling of the very order imposed by western “orientalist” imperial forces vitiate against all pretenses of scholarly objectivity? To name an example that is relevant for me as someone writing about Jerusalem, as a German- and American-educated scholar invested in the future of Jewish life on this earth, how objective can I be in handling questions of Palestinian history and Muslim attachment to Jerusalem? If I foreground this history and its implications for Palestinian and Muslim rights to Jerusalem and its holy places, will I not automatically lose the trust of Jewish and Christian readers?  Will I fall under Irwin’s verdict on John Esposito whose work on Islam he calls “pollyannish?” If I show Jewish commitments to Jerusalem long before the rise of modern Zionism and describe the latter as anything other than an imperialist colonial settler movement, will I not be branded as a pro-Israel propagandist? On the other hand, if I show that extremist Jewish attachments to Jerusalem’s Muslim holy places has been a pawn in the hand of right-wing national religious parties and are cynically exploited by the current government to stir unrest, shame the Palestinians, distract from the ongoing settlement activities, and curry favor with an increasingly divided electorate, will I not be called a Nestbeschmutzer, a disloyal self-hating Jew?

Said teaches me that scholarly objectivity is not possible, but that does not mean fairness isn’t. No one in the west will doubt that the study of the languages, literatures, and histories of the people of the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel and the Jews, is useful and even urgently necessary in an age that continues to depend on fossil fuel and that confronts the unravelling of the political order established in the wake of Christian imperialist deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire. Scholarly objectivity may not be possible but it remains a cherished ideal. It is true: as a scholar of religion I cannot be neutral when I see people exploit every opportunity to gain an advantage on their competitors and where I see religion implicated in such struggles. While I cannot be neutral I can try to be fair and describe what I see as accurately as I can, without needless polemics, and remaining open to being corrected where I am wrong. I don’t need to adjudicate what is not my own struggle. I am sympathetic toward those on either side who are trying to find a peaceful, just, speedy, and lasting resolution to the conflict. Much of what goes on in the Middle East plays out not just locally but globally, through mass media of information and persuasion. Scholars have an important role to play here. Our responsibility is not to fuel the conflict but help those on the inside and on the outside imagine how it could be resolved.

In this sense I accept the charge that scholarship on contemporary issues and even on cultural history in general inevitably veers toward persuasive speech. This is particularly obvious when we try to articulate an insight into the causes of a modern conflict. The line between contemporary history and political punditry is very thin, but there is still a line. The historian answers first and foremost to his own conscience: the primary question is whether what you say is true. Where truth eludes you, at least you are aiming for accuracy. For the pundit, the pressure is to have something to say that sounds like an explanation. You need to sound competent and persuasive, and you need to make an argument and stick to your guns. The historian tries to get it right and hopes to be proved wrong.