Q & A with… Dr. Stephen M. Berk
History professor is “hopeful” – but not optimistic – about the current peace talks
By Cindy Mindell
Stephen M. Berk is widely known for his expertise on the Holocaust, Russia, and the Middle East. The Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., Berk is listed in two college guidebooks — “Lisa Birnbach’s New and Improved College Book” and “Fiske Guide to Colleges” as the best instructor at Union. Fiske describes Berk’s course on the Holocaust, which he has taught for 35 years, as the most popular one offered at the college.
The New York City native received his B.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania, his Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. from Columbia University. While at Columbia, he also earned a certificate in Russian studies.
Berk teaches a variety of classes at Union, including Russian history, modern history of the Middle East, history of Poland, European history, and Jewish history. He also directs the college’s interdepartmental program in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Berk has lectured and written extensively on Russian history, Russian Jewish history, antisemitism, and American policy in the Middle East. His well received book, “Year of Crisis, Year of Hope: Russian Jewry and the Pogroms of 1881-1882” (Greenwood Press, 1985), is an important contribution to the pre-history of the Holocaust in the Jewish heartland.
Prof. Berk will present “Obama, Netanyahu, and the Search for Peace in the Middle East” on Sunday, Oct. 3 at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield. He spoke with the Ledger about the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Q: How do you interpret the developments of the last several weeks?
A: I’m hopeful but not optimistic because the issues are very, very difficult. It’s not just the issue of borders, settlement, refugees, and Jerusalem. The primary reason as to why there has not been peace has to do with the basic fact that, going back to the 1920s, the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular were not prepared to agree to a sovereign Jewish state in a truncated part of Palestine. It’s not clear, even in 2010, that there are large numbers of Palestinians prepared to accept Israel as a Jewish state.
To begin with, there are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, who repudiate the idea of the state of Israel and call for its destruction. Even on the West Bank and in the Palestinian Authority, it’s not clear how many Palestinians – and there have been various political polls on the subject – are interested in living in peace with Israel.
The problem is that the Palestinian leadership, even the allegedly moderate leadership of Abbas, find themselves in a different position. They told their people that they’re going home, that all the refugees are going home and reclaiming their land. No Israeli government, no matter how liberal, is going to allow that because it would destroy the state of Israel.
The Palestinian leadership, like Abbas and others, find themselves in a difficult position. There’s no way the Palestinians are going home, so that presents a problem. The Israeli leadership – center right and left – have been preparing the Israeli people for some very difficult compromises; not all Israelis agree, but the idea of two states is accepted by most Israelis.
In terms of Netanyahu and Obama, there are some serious issues here: Netanyahu is grudgingly reluctant to agree to a Palestinian state but has come along and has agreed. He knows that Israel can’t rule over the Palestinians indefinitely; that is a problem politically, morally, and geographically. Obama’s intentions are good – he wants to bring peace, wants a two-state solution – but style is very important in politics and up until recently, his style vis a vis Netanyahu has left something to be desired. I think he has learned some lessons and the relationship between the two has gotten better, and things are changing. It is essential that Obama go to Israel. He may have been ill-advised; he may have been told, “Don’t go yet, wait until things are moving in terms of negotiations, then go and make your mark.”
There is a fundamental element of mistrust on both sides. For example, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, lives in a settlement. He is not supportive of the talks and, while not in a position to influence the negotiations, even he has said that he would leave his settlement. But Lieberman and others on the right don’t believe that the Palestinians really want to make peace.
Q: Many analysts say that the proposed one-year timetable is not realistic. What’s your take?
A: It is unrealistic but I understand why it was suggested: it’s a way to prod the negotiators to move as quickly as possible. But history, politics, and international relations aren’t math and science. You really don’t know how long something will take to resolve. There are too many variables and human behavior is involved. It’s difficult enough for the historian to understand the truth of what happened in the past. When it comes to becoming a prophet, it’s virtually impossible. When I’m called for a radio or TV interview, people always want to know what will happen. They don’t always want to understand what happened in the past and why it unfolded the way it did.
Q: Do you think the U.S. will have to play an ongoing role? What role?
A: Yes, certainly under Obama. I don’t believe this is the last chance for peace. People have been saying this for 30 years. The issues are very, very difficult to resolve.
Q: How does Iran play into the talks?
A: Iran looms over the talks. Someone in Israel or the U.S., within the next 18 to 24 months, will have to make a tough decision: Can we live with nuclear Iran? It’s a function of timing, based on what the intelligence operations say about how quickly Iran can enrich uranium. Today, the U.S. is of the opinion that Iran won’t acquire a nuclear weapon before 2014, but that’s based on what we know of the existing enrichment plants. If they have secret enrichment plants, that timetable may be incorrect.
Q: How does Hamas impact a possible resolution?
A: If you’re an optimist, Israel can make peace with Abbas, the West Bank would be a Palestinian state and will thrive and become a model, leading people in Gaza to force Hamas or within Hamas itself to turn to the idea of negotiating with Israel. If you’re a pessimist, Hamas will continue to launch strikes against Israel, there will be a military response from Israel, Hamas will do everything to undermine an agreement.
What exacerbates the problem is the geography, the smallness of size. If Israel makes an agreement with Abbas and there is an independent state on the West Bank, but Hamas is determined to subvert peace, it can shoot down planes landing at Ben Gurion International Airport, the distances are that small. One can argue that an independent state on the West Bank will do everything in its power to stop that and Americans like General Dreighton, who is now training Palestinians with some success, will stop such action. But recently, Hamas killed four Israelis and wounded two others, even with Dreighton’s support and training.
The problem for Israelis is security. They withdrew from southern Lebanon and got rocket fire in the north; they withdrew from Gaza and got rocket fire in the south. Forget about ideology and religion; if you can convince Israelis that there will be no rocket fire from a Palestinian state, the Israelis will agree to a two-state solution.
Q: You have written about Jewish-Muslim relations. How do you come down on the New York mosque controversy?
A: I’m not supportive of building the mosque at the proposed location. I take a position similar to that taken in Israel for many years after the Holocaust: you don’t play Wagner because he was antisemitic and his music was used at Nazi rallies and doing so would antagonize and upset Israeli Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Now one does hear Wagner played in Israel.
The mosque is too provocative a statement. To build there would infuriate large numbers of people, and there are even Muslims inside and outside the U.S. who think it is provocative and serves no useful purpose.
My question is: what kind of Islam will be promoted there? The people who blew up the Twin Towers were Muslim and acted in the name of Islam, and one should ask the question, what is there in Islam that would lead people to do that? There’s no evidence that there’s only a minority who feel that way. What about the treatment of women and the view that those who convert out of Islam should be killed? I would want to know what people in that mosque think of these issues.
Prof. Berk will present “Obama, Netanyahu, and the Search for Peace in the Middle East” on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 4 p.m. at Congregation Beth El, 1200 Fairfield Woods Road, Fairfield. For information contact (203) 374-5544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.