One on One with Sir Martin Gilbert: Hindsight and aforethought

Exclusive: Renowned historian compares today's global climate with the pre-WWII era.

sir martin gilbert 88 29 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sir martin gilbert 88 29
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'This isn't the time of the Israelite prophets, when disaster struck in spite of their warnings, because the people didn't wake up. I think Europe has woken up' 'A seed won't germinate on infertile soil," says acclaimed British-Jewish historian Sir Martin Gilbert about the ease with which anti-Semitic sentiment seems to be spreading. He then quotes a passage from a letter written to Winston Churchill by a concerned colleague who refers to the "hereditary antipathy against the Jewish race." This passage appears in his upcoming book, Churchill and the Jews - the latest of several dozen major works, among them: The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War; Churchill: A Life; The First World War; The Second World War; A Comprehensive History of Israel; and A History of the Twentieth Century. A regular visitor to Israel ("I try to come two or three times a year"), Churchill's official biographer - who just turned 70 - is here this time to attend Jerusalem's annual International Book Fair, where he delivered a talk Wednesday on "What Jews can learn from history." What, indeed, can anyone learn from history, when it appears to repeat itself in such full force - or at least in new forms, like that of the threat to Western civilization being posed by the current "barbarism" of radical Islam and its apologists? The answer, it turns out, is at once utterly simple and completely complex. On the one hand, asserts Sir Martin over breakfast at the King David Hotel, "Each nation has to know what it stands for... The weakness in many [Western] countries is the lack of clarity about the bedrock of their existence. And it is that bedrock which has to be defended." On the other hand, he insists, nothing is at it appears while it is going on. "What you see when you [examine archives opened only 30 years after an event] is that the people you imagined had been strong were weak; the people you thought weak were strong; and things you thought couldn't possibly be taking place were taking place." Hmmm. If so, one can only wait with anticipation to see whether Sir Martin will take up the offer - which he says he's "mulling" - to write a biography of former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Would you assess the current discourse on Israel as anti-Semitic? Anti-Semitism certainly plays a major part. People don't like Jews. It's legitimate to dislike people. But anti-Semitism is liking Jews even less than is permissible in sane discourse. Do you think that criticism of Israel is a way of using permissible discourse to express dislike of Jews? When one goes to debates, such as [London Mayor Ken] Livingstone's [event last month, titled "A World Civilization or a Clash of Civilizations?" - at which he debated Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes], the difference between legitimate criticism, based on rational arguments, and anti-Semitic criticism, not based on answerable facts, but rather on nonsense, becomes clear quite quickly. What do you mean by "nonsense"? The theme of the Livingstone event was multiculturalism. Its subtext was that the only intolerance one ever finds in London is that against Muslims. Livingstone spoke very mellifluously. The only time he began to rant was when he was talking about Israel. The point he made was that Israel had no legitimacy - he even called its existence a "travesty." When, in response, somebody asked him about the November 1947 UN vote for a Jewish state, he said: "Ah, the United Nations then was dominated and controlled by the United States, which didn't want the 100,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to go to America, so it voted to establish the State of Israel to keep the Jews out." Is there a connection between anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism? At the moment, anti-Americanism is very strong in Western Europe and in Britain. America's perceived unconditional support for Israel - which is one of these things upon which an incredible amount of myth is built - is a black mark. Then there is the belief of Jewish dominance over America, an example of which can be seen in the recent report about AIPAC and in former US president Jimmy Carter's book. How much of this is mere "nonsense," accepted by ignorant people who don't know the facts, and how much an intellectual tool anti-Semites are happy to use as justification? I think it is more the latter. A seed won't germinate on infertile soil. I just finished a book, which is being published in June, on Churchill's relationship with the Jews and the Zionists. On one occasion when Churchill was arguing the case for a Jewish state, one of his conservative colleagues wrote him: "You don't understand that you are going to stir up the hereditary antipathy against the Jewish race." What would Churchill have said about the Israeli government's response to attack over the last few years? He always quoted the French saying, "Cet animal est mechant." This animal is dangerous; when you attack him, he defends himself. A nation has to defend itself. In the 1930s, when the whole fabric of Western civilization was under attack by Nazism - even before a single shot had been fired, or a single German soldier had crossed a border - Churchill said, "We're under attack and we have to defend ourselves; we have to know what it is we stand for." Do you see a parallel between Churchill's attitude and that of George Bush after 9/11? The war against the Taliban and al-Qaida was an example of defending yourself, even when your borders weren't being breached by armies. Is there not a greater problem today than during World War II identifying the enemy? The real problem is that each nation has to know what it stands for - what ideology it adheres to. The weakness in many [Western] countries is the lack of clarity about the bedrock of their existence. And it is that bedrock which has to be defended. More than borders, because borders are less and less under attack. Prime Minister Tony Blair has touted British values that are central to our society: democracy, rule of law, free speech. Not based on hatred. When you have, within that society, people for whom hatred seems to be a dominant force, you have to say to them, as cruel as it may sound: "If you come here to be part of our society, and don't like our basic norms, please go find a society more amenable to your own way of life." Why is the concept of freedom so elusive, particularly among the people who most enjoy it? The hardest thing to enjoy is freedom. One takes it for granted when it's not something he's had to struggle for. In Israel, there is a whole generation who had to struggle for the very existence of the state. Britain has been in existence for hundreds of years; Israel is merely 59. So, Israelis may be more attuned to what it is they are struggling for and seeking to maintain. In England, Western Europe and the United States, that's much less true. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, it's only been 15 years since they've thrown off communism - so there, it is a bit different. Still, I was recently talking to a Pole in her mid-20s, who has no memory of the communist period. So, there's already a new generation in Eastern Europe for whom the struggle against communism and to establish independent national identities is not part of their memory. They, too, have to be reminded - whether by their parents or by reading - that "this is what we stand for, and that is what we struggled for; and now we have it." How is it, then, that the younger generation in the West, which doesn't know what it's like to fight for freedom, nevertheless talks a lot about freedom for women, gays and minorities? I wouldn't say this is universal, and depends on the youth themselves: their upbringing, environment, organizations with which they are affiliated. Education plays a major part. But in the West today, liberal education educates to liberalism. That may be the case, but there are also trends in education. At his debate, Livingstone posited multiculturalism as a universal good and the status quo indicating that the only conflict in the world was between multiculturalism and its enemies. Daniel Pipes said something very different: that the conflict in the world is between culture and barbarism - that there is civilized behavior, and there is also a barbaric instinct. This barbaric instinct has to be recognized and understood. It may be much harder to see, because it's not a very comforting thought. Why isn't it comforting? Because it involves struggle. Danger. Having to respond to danger. The other day, the British police raided one of the major mosques in London, much to the indignation of the Muslim community, which said it was a violation of its freedom. The police raided that mosque, in fact, in order to enter its adjacent bookshop and remove inflammatory material - the sort that's on the barbarism side of Daniel Pipes's equation. The debate among liberal people about whether it's right to break into a mosque's premises or a bookshop is clear: Wait a minute - a bookshop! That's freedom of speech. After all, Hitler burned books outside the Opera House in 1933. That's what makes this all very difficult to conceptualize. Are there really circumstances under which we have to seize or make certain books unavailable? The answer, in my view, is yes. Because this barbarism is a reality; it's not just some enemy facing you with a gun. It is an ideological and surreptitious enemy that works through the educational system of the adversary. Speaking of books, let's talk about the Koran. There's is an ongoing debate about whether the holy book of Islam is inherently violent or has been hijacked by extremists. What is your view? That it's in the interpretation. All religions have had their zealots interpret their holy texts in a way that has led to bloodshed and war. For many hundreds of years, the New Testament led to the most terrifying violence. But then, new interpretations came forward, and continued to come forward, so now we have a situation in which the Christian theologians and the Catholic Church have turned their back on anything in the scriptures that implies the Jews were responsible for the murder of Jesus. Islam has always had extremist movements. In the Middle Ages, for example. Now we have Wahhabism and its various derivatives. This is a phase we're in. In the current crisis over the Mughrabi Gate ramp - something with which I've been familiar over the last 35 years in my work on Jerusalem - the head of the Arab League called [the renovations] an attempt to create a synagogue in the area and an insult to Muslims that has to be fought. It was equally open to him to say that it is an absurd storm in a teacup - that this thing is 60 meters from the wall; not slated for a synagogue, but actually just a dangerous structure. In other words, in the end, it's up to each individual - in this case Muslim leader - to decide how he wants to interpret and present his scriptures. But doesn't this bring us to the connection between religion and politics? If you use the goings-on in the Palestinian Authority right now as an example, you can see the way religion is used as a tool to rally the people around a common enemy. If so, it would not serve any leader's interest to interpret the texts differently. Nor would it have served the purposes of the head of the Arab League you mentioned to have called the Mughrabi ramp crisis an "absurd storm in a teacup." Religious leaders have a tremendous responsibility not to distort their religious texts. My wife and I happened to be walking in the Old City on Friday just after lunch, and we heard the imam of the mosque blasting out hatred. Well, this is certainly political, in the sense that it has a political agenda. But it is based on religion. There is a phenomenon in the current Muslim world, which has arisen before, but which has rearisen in a bizarre form - thanks, mainly to Osama bin Laden: the restoration of the caliphate. This is a combined political-religious force which Islam created in the past, but which most modern societies long ago turned their back on. The idea that anyone - least of all young Muslims in Britain - should dream of restoring a powerful medieval tool of Islamic conquest and rule is incredible. Historian Bernard Lewis refers to Western Europe's capitulation; Eurabia author Bat Yeor warns of its demographic Islamization. Is barbarism indeed winning? I'm a great believer in people's waking up. Sometimes, they wake up rather late. Britain in 1938 was capitulating; in 1939 it woke up - much, incidentally, to Hitler's surprise. When he was told the British were now going to actually stand up against him, he said, "Oh, no. I saw these worms at Munich, and they're not going to do anything now that I'm about to attack Poland." But he was wrong. I think that's true now of Britain, as well. Britain has woken up. But what about the demography problem? I've read Bat Yeor's book. I know her and have a great respect for her sense of anguish. She has studied the way in which the European Parliament and European institutions have become infiltrated by thoughts and legislation which are essentially seeking to appease fundamentalist Islamic activity - the ultimate dominance of the caliphate and Sharia law in Europe. But we're a long, long way from that. Are you saying that the presentation of her findings is too alarmist? No. I'm saying that her book - which is 100 percent accurate - is an alarm call that will ultimately prevent what she's warning about from taking place. The same applies to Bernard Lewis. Because he is the greatest mind of our time in this whole area, people will take his warnings seriously. This isn't the time of the Israelite prophets, when disaster struck in spite of their warnings, because the people didn't wake up. I think Europe has woken up. If so, will Europeans view the United States more positively - as an ally in the struggle against barbarism? The relationship between Europe and the United States has always been complicated. Every sane British person knows that we only won the two world wars of the 20th century because of American intervention and commitment. But there are levels of grievance, the first being that this intervention and commitment came rather late, which caused a lot of unnecessary suffering. The greater level of grievance comes precisely from the sense that we were dependent on the US during those wars. Anti-Americanism has its surges and probably always will. As a school boy after World War II - when the Marshall Plan was enabling us finally to have fresh eggs instead of powdered ones - I remember people reducing American culture to Coca-Cola and Hollywood. It's the jealousy of smaller nations and lesser minds. Still, there are many Britons - myself included - who regard America's contribution to both world wars, and massively to the Marshall Plan after World War II, as the defining contribution in the survival of Western values and democracy. Today, the British government, at some considerable loss of popularity, stood by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. More importantly, it doesn't belittle American civilization. As for Europe, if, on a deeper level, it feels itself in danger from the Islamist threat, there will be a greater understanding of the American position. Ironically, the United States is not at the moment threatened in the way that Europe is. There isn't a great extremist Islamist movement within the US. According to American Center for Democracy director Rachel Ehrenfeld, there is a wider network in the US than is immediately apparent. It may become so five or 10 years from now. But right now, Americans do not perceive a threat from Islamic fundamentalism from within. Americans not perceiving such a threat could land Hillary Clinton in the White House. Perhaps that'll be a good thing. If she becomes president and the threat materializes, she will feel all the more cheated and betrayed, and will become a tough, feisty opponent. Name another leader who felt betrayed and as a result became a tough opponent. Neville Chamberlain. He had wanted to make concessions to Hitler because he believed there was no ultimate quarrel between Britain and Germany. When the war came, he became the toughest supporter of drastic action against Germany. How much of a role does Iran play in this discussion? Iran, by its own actions, has alerted Europe, and the European Union is taking an increasingly strong stand. People no longer dismiss extremist statements as mere verbiage. This is one lesson which has been learned from history. When Hitler said in 1939, "The war will not end with the Bolshevization of Europe, but with the destruction of the Jews," people said, "Well, that's just a way of speaking." When Ahmadinejad said he wanted to wipe Israel off the map, people sat up and took notice. If what you say about alarm bells and learning from history is true, how do you explain that in Israel there is still a view that appeasing the Palestinians is a better course than defeating them, or that siding with Fatah is a way of weakening Hamas? As a historian, I'm very cautious about anyone's claiming to know what any government is doing at the present time. Israel elected this government. It's an amalgam - one might say a sludgy amalgam - of political forces. Though some of its leaders appear to have minor blemishes, they were chosen by the electoral process. And we do not really know what they're actually doing in their conclaves. As we're sitting here in the lobby of the King David Hotel, we don't know whether, in another room in the hotel, some Israeli official is sitting with someone from Hamas. Just as in the old days, when you couldn't sit with the PLO, meetings were held with them. If the leaders have decided that Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] is the one they want to support, let's say they have a reason for it, though it may be a reason we don't know. We don't know what the actual relationship between the Israeli leaders and the Fatah leaders is. Certainly, if you read the newspapers, the situation looks bizarre. Commenting on the Mughrabi Gate ramp, Abu Mazen made an extremely hostile and uncompromising statement from Mecca. It certainly didn't smack either of statesmanship or of trying to find a peaceful way forward. I study archives as soon as they are open - normally 30 years after an event; sometimes a bit less. What you see when you do this is that the people you imagined had been strong were weak; the people you thought weak were strong; and things you thought couldn't possibly be taking place were taking place. If 30 years later, you discover that nothing is the way you'd perceived it at the time, isn't it ridiculous to form any opinions while you're living through something? [He laughs] Well, you have to form opinions. One of the bases of democratic government is that each elected leader promises open government, no secret deals, etc. And it may be that before coming to power, candidates think that's actually how they're going to behave. But they can't. The very nature of international relations - even domestic politics, to some extent - is that there are so many factors a prime minister is confronted with in the first dossier he opens that are unknown to him and the public. So, right at the outset he finds himself having to withhold information. But you can't say to the public, "Look, things don't seem right. You heard a bit of shooting here, and there's bit of trouble over there, but it's not going to be for another 30 years before you'll know what we're doing." You have to hope your governments will be more open rather than less, but you shouldn't be under any illusions that what you're told is 100% of the truth. It's an approximation to the truth, and you hope it's not lies. What was your most surprising archival revelation - one that completely contradicted your previous assumptions? I wouldn't have gone on writing history if it hadn't been for the fact that nothing is what it seems when you go into the archives. But the most interesting thing, from an Israeli perspective, is about Lawrence of Arabia. The great Arabist, right? The man who supported the Arabs, and who pushed for Arab nationhood in the 1920s. He's always pictured wearing Arab robes. What is so astonishing - which you'll see in my next book, Churchill and the Jews - is that he was a serious Zionist. He believed that the only hope for the Arabs of Palestine and the rest of the region was Jewish statehood - that if the Jews had a state here, they would provide the modernity, the "leaven," as he put it, with which to enable the Arabs to move into the 20th century. He had a sort of contempt for the Arabs, actually. He felt that only with a Jewish presence and state would the Arabs ever make anything of themselves. And, by a Jewish state, he meant a Jewish state from the Mediterranean shore to the River Jordan - something [he says, smiling] which will never come to pass.