The Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, tells Chris Arnot that speaking out for the Palestinians turned him into a pariah
For an academic to describe himself as “feeling for a while like public enemy No 1” suggests either an inflated ego or an incurable case of paranoia. Professor Ilan Pappe gives every appearance of suffering from neither. He is an amiable character with an engaging grin. By his own admission, he “likes to be liked”. Not a natural rebel then? “Certainly not,” he says.
Yet in 2005 and 2006, this Israeli son of German-Jewish emigrants found himself in the eye of a storm that would lead him to leave the country of his birth and seek sanctuary in the English west country. He has been chair in the history department at Exeter University for the last 18 months. By the time he left the University of Haifa, he had been condemned in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset; the minister of education had publicly called for him to be sacked; and his pictures had appeared in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper at the centre of a target. Next to it, a popular columnist addressed his readers thus: “I’m not telling you to kill this person, but I shouldn’t be surprised if someone did.”
The death threats had already been arriving by post, email and phone since Pappe, 54, had been asked on national radio whether he was going to take his complaints about the treatment of Palestinians to the UN security council. “I had to point out that I was not a politician or a diplomat,” he says, “I was an academic.” Albeit an academic who had recently published a book called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. A somewhat provocative title, I suggest.
“It was,” he concedes. “I thought long and hard before using it, and my publisher [Oneworld Publications] hesitated. But I don’t think that the military and political elite has given up on the policy of ethnic cleansing. They think that the survival, and certainly the prosperity, of the Jewish state is connected to its ability to minimise the numbers of Palestinians living within its borders – although it has not yet decided where those borders should be.”
In 2005, Pappe and two friends wrote a warning online that Israeli settlers were being moved out of Gaza to allow government forces a free hand to bomb the residents of that overcrowded strip of land. When the current bombardment began at the end of last year, the Israeli government argued that it was trying to protect its citizens from rocket attacks by Hamas. But, says Pappe: “Those rocket attacks didn’t start until after Israel had blockaded Gaza.”
The conflict seems a million miles from where we’re sitting, overlooking a peaceful river valley in an idyllic part of Devon. Pappe did his PhD at Oxford in 1984 and remains a self-confessed Anglophile, despite reservations about the food and the weather. He has rented a property not far from Exeter for himself, his partner and two sons, aged 11 and 14. Fear for their safety was one reason why he felt impelled to leave Haifa. “The other reason was that I felt stifled as an intellectual.”
Having backed down from dismissing him through a disciplinary court, the university authorities in Haifa barred him from participating in seminars or conferences. “One of my colleagues was rung up and told: ‘You were seen having coffee with Ilan Pappe. Is that wise?’,” he says.
All the same, he says, he continued to receive support from some colleagues and many students, particularly Palestinian ones. There was external support, too, including from what was then the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in the UK. “I think my worst crime had been to back the academic and cultural boycott on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian lands,” he says. “When the AUT approached me to ask whether I thought they were morally justified in doing it, I said yes. Only strong external pressure will stop the Israeli policy of destroying the Palestinian people.”
Since then, the AUT has evolved into the University and College Union (UCU)and, faced with legal action, has dropped proposals for a collective boycott.
“I think what’s really important,” says Pappe, diplomatically, “is that a growing number of individual academics feel they can no longer tolerate co-operating with their Israeli counterparts, except for those who oppose current government policies.”
Revulsion in the UK at the carnage in Gaza is likely to have strained relations even further. Any temptation by Pappe to claim that he saw this coming has been overwhelmed by outrage, tinged with considerable sadness, at the media images of civilian victims. “For me these figures are not anonymous,” he says. “I fear for people I know personally.” He speaks Arabic and socialises with Arab as well as Jewish friends and colleagues. “The Israeli government may find it difficult to justify its butchery to the rest of the world, but they can still rely on widespread support internally,” Pappe says. “Loyalty to the state and Zionist ideology supersedes anything else.”
Can he not, I wonder, understand the siege mentality of people who feel themselves under threat from growing Islamic militancy?
“Yes, I can,” Pappe replies. “There are genuine collective fears that have to do with past and present dangers. But I think those fears are manipulated through the education system and the media to seem worse than the reality suggests. And Israelis don’t seem to realise that their behaviour is contributing to those dangers. Anyone who endorses a militantly aggressive policy towards Israel can only have benefited from what’s been going on in Gaza.”
Facing the Syrians
When Pappe was 19, he found himself on the Golan Heights facing the Syrians in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. “I remember the sergeant major telling us that we should kill Arabs young or they’ll grow up to kill us,” he says. “And that attitude is widespread. That’s why tank drivers, F16 pilots or artillery commanders will kill civilians without hesitation. They’ve been taught to dehumanise them all their lives.”
Pappe’s parents, like many others, fled Germany in the 1930s because they could see that Jews would be treated as less than human. Members of both their families perished in the subsequent genocide. “My mother had seven sisters, and only three survived,” Pappe says. “There were similar stories on my father’s side. They saw Palestine and, later, the state of Israel as a safe haven. And that’s the part of me that can’t totally condemn Zionism. Had it not been for the Zionist movement, my parents and many like them would not have escaped.
“I’ve never underestimated those achievements. But my parents could never see that setting up a Jewish state was done by dispossessing Palestinians. They turned a blind eye, in the same way that many Germans did in the 30s and 40s.”
Neither parent is still alive. “My brother and sister don’t share my politics, but we still get on,” he adds. “Some relatives in the wider family find it difficult to talk to me. To my mind, though, I belonged to a society that was doing terrible things to Palestinians. I felt it was my duty to protest, even if that made me a pariah.”
The best way to protest in exile is to write, he feels. Right now, he has three books on the go. One is to be called The Forgotten Palestinians (“those living in Israel”); another The Bureaucracy of Evil, an examination of the way Israeli officials have managed day-to-day life in those territories beyond the country’s original borders that the state has occupied since 1967. He is also editing a collection of essays from scholars around the world comparing the Zionist system and ideology with the government of apartheid South Africa. “There’s plenty to compare,” he insists.
Ilan Pappe may not be a natural rebel, but nobody could accuse him of settling for a quiet life in the west country.
Job Chair in the history department at University of Exeter
Before that Senior lecturer in political science at University of Haifa and president of Israeli Association for Multicultural Education
Likes 19th-century English novels, cinema, classical music, Liverpool FC
Dislikes systemised state injustice