Pundit, Shmundit: Juan Cole on Zionism

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You know how it happens. You go onto the Internet looking for something specific but soon your eye catches a referenced site that leads to something slightly different but promising and before long you’re clicking away on other slightly different promising sites until you’re more than six degrees of separation from your original search. You’re now staring at a blog you had no intention of ever reading. That’s how I got onto Juan Cole’s “Informed Comment.”

I had never seen his blog before. I do, however, know he’s a chaired professor of history at Michigan and an outspoken critic of everything Israel. In fact, Juan Cole is a capo among a rather large set of academics who bash Israel’s policies if not its very existence. So I stopped to read what makes him — he refers to himself as a public intellectual — tick. What I saw surprised me.

Running down the left column of his blog is a list of topics to access, among them maps, on-line works, Islam web links, books on the Middle East and topping them all, his biography. The bio is over 20 pages and when you get to the end, it tells you it’s only part one. Its detail of minutia rivals any you may read, including Chernow’s Andrew Hamilton. You learn about his family lineage, about his intellectual accomplishment even as a young lad, his learning French and Arabic — his father served in the US military in places like Ethiopia — and as a young teenager was selected valedictorian at his high school. He also tells you about his brilliant college career and in the many pages later, you are treated to glowing lengthy comments made about him by the mandarins of Middle East history. It’s a biography of accomplishment and self-applause that others might find a wee bit embarrassing.

The blog’s daily entries run the gambit, like why Cheney is a traitor, or of Russia’s assurance that Iran will cease enriching uranium at 20 percent, or a reproduction of an interview he had with a Panama City newspaper, including a flattering caricature of himself. It’s all informed comment, as his blog is titled, but perhaps only to those who buy into his master narrative about the contemporary Middle East. It is more misinforming than informed if you don’t necessarily buy into that narrative.

The blog also allows you to access its extensive archive which is arranged according to topic. I clicked on his 15 Israel entries and read, among his informed comments, about his theory on Zionism. He writes: “Zionism: The theory that because murderous Nazis hated Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, all Jews should now crowd into a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and 400 million angry Muslims.”

That’s Juan Cole on Zionism. Crude, nasty, but by self-description, informed. That’s the summary statement on Zionism by the chaired professor of Middle East history at Michigan. Can you imagine being a student and talking notes on the Arab-Israeli conflict in his class? Can you imagine writing an essay on that conflict knowing he will grade your work?

Juan Cole’s reputation as a historian is built on an impressive lists of published books, some co-authored, on chapters in books, and papers whose focus is principally on the early histories of the Baha’i and Shi’as. But his academic reach stretches as well into contemporary history of the Muslim Middle East. Yet his knowledge of Jewish history, of early Zionist thought, of Hebrew literature, of Israeli political philosophy, of contemporary Israeli politics, sociology, and economics has no real scholarly roots. His views on these matters are as pedestrian and ideologically tainted as those of any other academic trained in any other branch of academic knowledge who, too, dislikes a Jewish state. Juan Cole might just as well sound off on global warming as he does on theories of Zionism.

His analysis of Israel and Zionism are revered by those who share his views. His scholarship or lack of scholarship is of little consequence. Consider again Juan Coles’ idea of Zionism: “Zionism: The theory that because murderous Nazis hated Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, all Jews should now crowd into a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and 400 million angry Muslims.”

It is interesting to note that since 1948, those Jews who have crowded into that narrow strip of land have created a remarkable standard of living for its people, among them over a million Israeli Arabs. That it has won more Nobel prizes since 1948 than have the 400 million angry Muslims. That it has defended itself successfully against several attempts by those 400 million angry Muslims who tried to run the Jews into that Mediterranean Sea Juan Cole refers to. That the Israelis discovered enough natural gas in that Mediterranean Sea to become energy independent while the energy revenue of those 400 million angry Muslims has been wholly dependent on the discovery, extraction, transportation, and refining of crude oil done by the not-angry Christians of the Western world.

So much for Juan Cole as a pundit on Israel and Zionism.

Pundit, Shmundit: Juan Cole on Zionism

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Fred Gottheil

Fred Gottheil is Professor, Department of Economics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Read all stories by Fred Gottheil

  • Noga Contentious

    The rebuttal of Cole’s definition of Zionism cannot be based on Israel’s achievements these days. The rebuttal should be based on the obvious falseness of this definition of ZIONISM, a political nationalist movement that grew up in Europe amid many other nationalist movements at the time and fuelled by eliminationist anti-semitism of European people.

    The Peel Commission Report (July 1937), to the League of Nations, states:

    “Considering what the possibility of finding a refuge in Palestine means to
    thousands of suffering Jews, is the loss occasioned by Partition, great
    as it would be, more than Arab generosity can bear?”

    Let me repeat: The statement was written in 1937, when the world was beginning to get wise to what was being planned for the Jews, but even so, the report can only imagine “thousands” of suffering Jews getting a lease on life if permitted to
    immigrate to Palestine.

    The Arabs of Palestine, though addressed with the most explicit plea in the
    report for showing “generosity” to the persecuted Jews of Europe,
    existentially threatened, did not for a second consider this possibility
    and continued to mount their pressure on the British to seal the
    borders. When there was hardly a country in the world open to accept
    Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler’s ominous programmes, Mandate
    Palestine, which had been commissioned with the provision of a safe
    haven for Jews, chose to close ranks with the Arabs and seal the
    borders, against the Jews.

    The only place that would have welcomed these refugees and could have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, joined the rest of the world’s complicity in these crimes.

    20 years later Ben-Gurion wrote:

    “Had partition [referring to the Peel Commission partition plan] been carried out, the history of our people would have been different and six million Jews in Europe would not have been killed—most of them would be in Israel”.

    The Palestinian narrative likes to attribute the establishment of the Jewish State in 1947 to Western guilt over the Holocaust, an expiation of which turned the Palestinian Arabs into a sort of totally innocent sacrificial lamb. But here is the Peel Commission Report, the Jewish acceptance and the Arab rejection, telling us a different kind of story.

    It tells us that Britain reneged on its international commitment to the League of Nation’s mandate principles,

    that there was full awareness of the evil brewing up in Europe against the Jews,

    that there was a formal, international plea addressed to the Arabs to allow a very small part of the territory originally promised to the Jews as a safe haven for persecuted European refugees,

    that there was never the slightest indication that Arabs ever considered the implications of such a total and implacable rejection, despite the clear and shrill warnings,

    that the most important Palestinian Arab leader spent the war years as Hitler’s guest, and helping him wherever he could in liquidating Jews.

    It also tells us that Arabs’ rejection of the Peel Commission plea for partition yielded favourable fruits for them: 6 millions Jews exterminated and none who would ever be able to set foot in the land of their ancestors.

    Imagine the re-doubled rage when it turned out that the Jews were not giving up on their existence or their rights in the land of the Jews.

    Imagine the rage when it turned out that the Jews could actually fight to keep that land and win!

    Imagine the rage when it turned out that the Jews, far from being a broken up, intimidated and traumatized people, turned out to have the stamina, the will, the intelligence, to build a state where other Jews could now find refuge and no longer need be the supplicants for a right given freely to anyone else: the right for a free, decent, and dignified life in their own country.

    Will the Arabs ever learn that human rights are indivisible?

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