Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Oren: An Ambassador for Historians

I have been reading Michael Oren's Six Days of War about the Six Day War. One wonders if the people who protested his speech at UC of Irvine had read it. It probably would not have made much of a difference if they did. What struck me about Ambassador Oren, from reading his work, was the extent to which he goes to putting a human face to the Arab side. Oren uses a variety of sources to tell the story from multiple perspectives. Since he is not just using Israeli sources he is not forced into just telling the Israeli side to things. He uses American sources to bring the American government into the story, Soviet sources to bring the Soviet Union in and Arabic sources to bring the various Arab countries in. This very act of bringing Arab sources and seeking to come to terms with their narrative in of itself goes a long toward giving a balanced story. By doing this Oren, from the beginning, concedes to Arabs that they have a perspective and are not merely the satanic other. As such the story is no longer "you Arabs are the villains who must simply repent your wrongdoing and accept the judgment of the world against you." This sentiment is summarized by Oren in his introduction:

My purpose is not to prove the justness of one party or another in the war, or to assign culpability for starting it. I want, simply, to understand how an event as immensely influential as this war came about – to show the context from which it sprang and the catalysts that precipitated it.

I would describe Oren's narrative as a counter to the Leon Uris narrative of Zionism, for example in his novel Exodus. The world that Oren describes is distinctively not one in which it is simply heroic Israelis, outnumbered and outgunned, fending off hordes of Arabs intent on finishing what Hitler started. This is a drama moving from political to military leaders to diplomats. The actors are motivated by various things. Probably the most interesting thing about the book is Oren's argument that war was not inevitable. Diplomacy was something that could have worked if it were not for chance and the haphazard’s of Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian foreign policy between themselves and the Soviet Union and the power of the Arab street.

Michael Oren, while writing a pro-Israel book, manages to use his skill as a historian to offer a narrative that all sides could accept as a basis for a peace agreement. The fact that Oren would be a target of anti-Israel protestors demonstrates to what extent opponents of Israel are distant from ever coming to a meaningful peace. Not only do they reject Israel in practice, but they even reject the right of supporters of Israel to have any narrative of their own. There can be no negotiation, but simply the surrender of Israel as it confesses to being the villains and begs the pardon of the Arab world.


Clarissa said...

"heroic Israelis, outnumbered and outgunned, fending off hordes of Arabs intent on finishing what Hitler started"

-Isn't that the truth, though?

Izgad said...

Planning to commit a Holocaust may have been the end result, but I assume the Arabs got to there from somewhere and I do not assume that somewhere was simply that they were hateful and evil people. That takes away their humanity, which in a way gets them off the hook. Monsters cannot be held responsible for being monsters; that is just the way they are. Furthermore if there is going to be peace it is going to be made with human beings. One cannot hope to make peace with monsters; you have to just kill them. I need there to be a better option for Israel and the world than simply nuking all Arab countries.

Christopher Smith said...

Well said, Ben!

Clarissa said...

I wasn't suggesting that anyone is a "monster", whatever that is. We are discussing world politics, not fairy tales, so I would avoid this kind of unhelpful vocabulary. I'm also not saying that anyone is "hateful and evil". That also sounds a little childish.

What I was trying to say is that time and again Arab leaders in the area have repeated that nothing short of a destruction of Israel would make them content. We can pretend that this is not their purpose, but what's the use of doing it?

Izgad said...


I think it is funny that you end up sounding more conservative than me on an issue. I agree with you that the central problem in the Middle East is that you have an Arab world out to destroy the State of Israel. As such I do not see peace in the Middle East as a serious possibility any time soon. What that leaves us is total war. I believe we are in this situation not because Arabs are by definition Jew haters, but because Israel opposition has become the foundation of Arab nationalism. As such I see peace as at least something that is theoretically possible. I come down on both the left and the right in terms of the Middle East. In theory I am willing to support land for peace and would even sit down with Hamas if I believed that they were honest about desiring peace. Since we are in a state of war with an opponent that does not respect the distinction between military and civilian, I support the use of Dresden style bombing raids against Palestinian targets.