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Historian Avi Shlaim gives talk on Gaza

By James Cancelarich     4/9/24 10:55pm

Avi Shlaim, a historian of Israel and Palestine, spoke April 6 at Rice in a talk titled “Gaza in Context: Reflections of an Arab Jew.” The event was a collaboration between the Rice history department, Jewish studies program and Arab-American educational foundation chair of Arab studies Abdel Razzaq Takriti.

Nathan Citino, head of the history department, said that Shlaim was invited to speak because of his preeminence in the field of Israeli and Palestinian history.

“We invited him mainly because he’s one of the most accomplished, senior historians who studies the international history of the Middle East in the 20th century, specializing in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Citino wrote in an email to the Thresher. 

Citino said that Shlaim’s visit to Rice was part of a wider range of speakers of various perspectives and disciplines who are speaking about the current conflict.

“He’s one of the New Historians whose research in Israeli sources in the 1980s revolutionized scholarship about the founding of Israel in 1948,” Citino added. In his event opening statements, Citino said that the New Historians is a group of Israeli scholars who provided critical historical interpretations of Zionism and the founding of Israel.

Shlaim calls himself an Arab Jew.

“An Arab Jew I define as someone who lived in an Arab country … To be an Arab Jew in the sense of having lived in an Arab country, you have to be born before 1948,” Shlaim said.

In Shlaim’s interpretation, Zionism was created by European Jews, and Arab Jews were largely excluded from Zionism until Germany murdered some 6 million European Jews in the Holocaust. Shlaim said Zionists then turned to Arab Jews — often forcibly displacing them — to fill the new state of Israel.

“Jews lived throughout the Arab world, and they lived, by and large, happily with their non-Jewish neighbors. In Iran, we were a minority. In Iran, there were a lot of minorities … There was a long tradition of religious tolerance,” Shlaim said during his address. 

Shlaim recounted his involuntary displacement to Israel and said that Zionists perpetrated terror attacks in Baghdad to force Jewish migration into Israel. He maintains that Israel is an apartheid state that was founded upon the ruins of historic Palestine, and said that there can be no two-state solution and that Palestine must be emancipated.

“Today, I support one democratic state from the river to the sea for every citizen, regardless of religion or race,” Shlaim said. The phrase “from the river to the sea” refers to a liberated Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, according to NPR.

“[Israel] is an apartheid system,” Shlaim said. “It’s a messianic, murderous and genocidal government. This kind of Zionism has no room for Arab Jews like myself, and I think that this kind of Zionism is not sustainable in the longer term.”

Shlaim called the prior situation in Gaza a colonial enterprise of Israel.

“In 2000, Gaza was a classic colonial situation. A few 1,000 Jewish settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land, and the lion’s share of the desperately short water resources,” Shlaim said.  

“Hamas has a really impressive record of honoring agreements, honoring ceasefire,” Shlaim said. “Israel is the opposite. Israel has broken every ceasefire.”

Shlaim recalled when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections and election of Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh in 2006, in an election he called “free and fair.” He said that the Hamas government attempted peace talks with Israel, which were refused. The U.S. did not recognize the Hamas-led government. Hamas was, and still currently is, recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

“The original aim [of Hamas] was the Unitary Islamic State, from the river to the sea,” Shlaim said.

“[In 2007] this [aim] was modified to a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders,” Shlaim said. The 1967 borders refers to the borders before the Six Day War, when the Gaza Strip, occupied by Egypt, and East Jerusalem and the West Bank, occupied by Jordan, were separated from Israel by armistice lines, according to the BBC.

Following the Six Day War, Israel was left in occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, among other contested areas.

“But this moderation was not available because Israel refused to negotiate [with Hamas],” Shlaim said. “So Israel and America then encouraged Fatah to stage a coup to recapture power in 2007 … Since then, Gaza has been ruled by Hamas and the West Bank by the Palestinians.” Fatah, formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, is a political party whose primary goal is a “free and Arab” Palestine, according to an 2009 Palestine National Liberation Movement internal charter.

Following Hamas’ seizure of Gaza, Israel instituted a blockade, which Shlaim said has been enforced for the last 17 years and is a form of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law.

“The scale of this military offensive in Gaza is unprecedented … It’s a cultural genocide,” Shlaim said. Over 33,000 Palestinians have been killed and over 75,000 have been injured, as of April 5 according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Shlaim criticized the American response to the violence and cited America’s use of their U.N. Security Council veto to block U.N. Security Council Resolution 2720  in 2023, which called for a humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

“This is not a war between Israel and Hamas. It’s a broader war between Zionist settler colonialism, backed by American imperialism, against the people of Palestine,” Shlaim said.

“I feel that as a Jew, as an Israeli, I have a moral duty to stand by the Palestinians in this hour,” Shlaim said at the conclusion of his address. “This is why I am here to denounce the Israeli genocide and to show my solidary with the Palestinian people in the struggle for dignity, freedom and independence.”

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