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Sunday, May 26, 2024

A commencement address that no one will hear

 Good morning, and a hearty welcome to friends and family who are sharing in this great occasion this year.  And congratulations to all our graduates.

This has been one of the  most difficult years in the history of American higher education, and certainly the most difficult since 1969-70, when protests against the invastion of Cambodia shut down hundreds of campuses and administrators canceled exams to encourage the protests. I myself had graduated from Harvard in the spring of 1969, in the wake of a protest there that had occupied the administration building, led to a violent police bust, and disrupted commencement.  Then, too, the demonstrators had demanded amnesty for evrything they had done, but the administration had suspended some of them and some of them faced charges in court.  Today the protesters demand divestment from any Israel-related enterprise, then they demanded the elimination of ROTC.  The administration caved into that demand, and for decades it was impossible for students to attend Harvard on scholarships while preparing to serve in the nation's officer corps.  That, to me, was a sad and tragic decision.  Yes, we were in the midst of a mistaken and horrifying war, but the country still needed an army and it was a better army, and a better nation, that included Ivy League graduates within it.  But then, as now, a good many students had concluded that that war was not simply a tragic mistake, but the symptom of a hoplessly oppressive society that had to be transformed utterly.  The faculty and administration gave into that view.

Today, two utterly irreconcilable views divide the campus, the faculty, and various parts of alumni community, including some very important donors.  One view argues that Israel, a "settler colonialist" state, has no legitimacy, and that Palestinians should rule the whole territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Some who hold that view, by the way, also see the United States as a settler colonialist state and deny its legitimacy as well, although it is less clear exactly what changes they woul would like to make now to remedy the injustice of the nation's creation.  On the other side, people regard Israel as an essential refuge for the Jewish people and claim an Israeli right to takle all necessary steps to defend their country's security and subdue Palestinian groups such as Hamas that do not accept it and act volently against it.  Both views are based upon near-absolute ideas of right and wrong, and in my opinion, they mirror the views, not of all Israelis and Palestinians, but certainly of the Israelis and Palestinians who now exercise political power over their two peoples.  I have been an historian of international conflict all my life and I have watched the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for at least 58 years.  Today, as we finish a year dominated by that conflict, I want to offer you a different perspective on it--one based not upon one particular idea of justice, but upon the facts as I have come to understand them.  And I do so partly because I think that you, our new graduates, will need that perspective as you make your way through life.

The Jewish people originated millenia ago in what we call the Middle East, and apparently settled or resettled in what is now Israel after a period of captivity in Egypt.  They established their Kingdom, their written language, and their religion there, although they were conquered a few centuries later, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans.  Judaism then gave birth to Christianity, perhaps the source of its greatest worldwide influence.  The Romans apparently scattered the Jews around the Mediterranean in the early Christian era.  Then, a few centuries later, Islam arose further East, and eventually conquered and conversted the whole southern shore of the Mediterranean as well as most of the Middle East.  Eventually it conquered the Byzantine Empire as well, both in Asia and parts of Europe, and for several centuries it occupied Spain and Portugal.  Jewish communities suffered discrimination  in Christian and Muslim communities alike during the Middle Ages.  By the end of the Middle Ages, the largest Jewish communities were in Poland and Russia.

In the 18th and 19th centuries nationality began to replace the hereditary right to rule as the organizing principle of Europe.  Where did that leave the Jews?  They might in theory become equal citizens of the new nations in which they lived, as they eventually did in western Europe and above all here in the United States.  That option did not appear to be open, however, to the much larger Jewish populations in Russia and Russian-ruled Poland or in Austria-Hungary.  A good many of those Jews immigrated to the United States and elsewhere, but millions remained.  And among them, in the late 19th century, the dream of Zionism was born--the idea of re-establishing a state of Israel in the Holy Land where they could live.   During the First World War, leaders of the international Jewish community secured the support of the British government for a "Jewish national home" in Palestine--a province of the Ottoman Empire--and the new League of Nations endorsed that idea after the war, while reaffirming the rights of the existing Palestinian population.  Britain secured a League mandate to rule Palestine

It immediately became clear within Palestine that the Muslim Arab population would not accept the idea of a Jewish national home, and periodic outbreaks of violence between Jews and Arabs began.  Meanwhile, nationalist political movements in Poland, other Eastern European nations, and eventually in Germany became strongly anti-Semitic, arguing that Jews had no place in their communities.  The Soviet Union treated its millions of Jews better than Tsarist Russia had, but also stopped emigration for them.  As conditions for Jews became harder in Europe, the United States and other western nations restricted immigration, and the British eventually put limits on immigration into Palestine to mollify the Arabs.  Then came the Second World War and the Holocaust.  Those events left the Zionists in Palestine determined to create a new state of Israel, which they did in 1948.  In retrospect that decision was very understandable.  Six million Jews, the vast majority of them from Poland and Eastern Europe, had just been murdered by the Nazis.  The United States maintained strict immigration quotas against them.  The western European nations had not been able to protect them against the Nazis.  In addition, the creation of Israel and the decolonization of much of the Arab world left the Jews there living in hostile evironments, and they immigrated en masse into the new state.

I now must try to summarize about 75 years of Arab-Israeli conflict.  It has been marked, I think, by irreoncilable goals.  Most of the surrounding Arab states refused to accept Israel, immediately went to war against it, and refused to conclude a real peace treaty with it.  Decades later, after wars in 1948-9, 1956, 1967, and 1973, Egypt, and eventually Jordan, made peace with Israel--but the Palestinian population of hte territoy that became Israel never did.  Most of it was driven out of Israel in 1948-9 and has lived in refugee camps in Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon ever since.  The 1967 war left Israel in control of an additional large Palestinian population in the West Bank, and also began a long-term Israeli attempt to add much, or all, of the West Bank to Israel itself.  Both the Jewish population of Israel and the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank have continued to increase, and they are now approximately equal.

The Israelis and Palestinians have never been able to make peace, in my opinon, because they have irreoncilable goals.  Both peoples include many individuals who would welcome a two-state solution and peace, but such individuals have never predominated among their peoples.  In the early 1990s, Yitzak Rabin,  a former Israeli military leader and hero of the original war of independence in 1948, became Israeli prime minister and reached agreements with Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Authority, or PLO, providing for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the possibility of an eventual Palestinian state.  Rabin,. however, faced bitter opposition from Israeli factions who regarded the West Bank as an indissoluble part of Israel and dreamed of replacing its Arab population with settlers, and one such person assassinated him.  His successor tried to conclude a new agreement with Arafat but could not do so, and we will never know if he could have sold such an agreement to Israel as a whole. Meanwhile, the Palestinians used their limited self-rule to build up military capabilities in the West Bank and eventually unleashed the second intifada, a terrorist campaign against Israel itself.  Later, Hamas supplanted the PLO as the Palestinians' effective political authority in Gaza and began building military capabilities there after the Israelis withdrew from it.  That allowed them to mount the attacks of last October 7.

The Israeli government now argues that it cannot agree to a Palestinian state as long as it seems that the Palestinians will simply use it to prepare further attacks against Israel--and I must say that the history supports that view of what will happen. But on the other hand, the current Israeli government also apparently rejects peace because it wants Israeli control of the whole territory "from the river to the sea" as well.  Some members of the present government are openly calling for forcing the population of Gaza to become refugees in some other country, and clearly have similar plans for the population of the West Bank--and the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is, in fact, making the whole territory uninhabitable, with consequences that we cannot foresee.  

Where does that leave US citizens, the US government, and indeed, the whole international community?  Here I have my own perspective.  To all of you--and especially to those of you who have protested on one side or the other, except for the Israelis and Palestinians among you--let me suggest that we aim for some humility.  We cannot solve the problem, frankly, because neither side really cares what we think.  They are dedicated to their own irreoncilable goals which preclude a peaceful solution, and if anything is to change, it must change, first among them.  In these tragic circumstances--and they are tragic--foreign governments, it seems to me, can play one important role.  They can insist,in word and deed, that given their irreconcilable goals, both sides have a responsibility to keep the conflict at the lowest possible level, simply to allow their peoples some security and the opportunity to live their lives.  This, in the current crisis, they have failed to do.  Other previous US administrations did this after wars in 1956 and 1973 and during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s, and I regret that the current administration has not done the same.  Yes, the Israeli government had a right and a duty to retaliate for the terrible attacks on October 7, but no right, in my view, to kill more than 30 Palestinians, most of them civilians, for every single Israeli who died that day, or to level most of the buildings in an area in which two million people live.

And to the US citizens among you I point out that our forefathers did found a nation on principles that have allowed people of every race and religion to live together on a footing of relative equality.  Yes, it took centuries to turn the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into reality for all--but we never stopped trying and we eventually succeeded in doing that.  And that effort, as Lincoln argued, kept the hope of such a world alive elsewhere.  Because we are human we are not perfect--but I believe we must keep our original dreams alive, lest we, too, sink into endless conflict, and perhaps even into collapse and disunion.

The protests of the past year, like the ones I lived through as an observer in 1969-70, assume that a vision of absolute justice can solve anything.  Such a view denies the essentially tragic character of human existence, as recognized by the ancient Greeks, by Shakespeare, and by the greatest of modern historians.  My own education and my own life have taught me a good deal about such tragedy.  Yours may  or may not have done the same for you--but life will do so in due course.  You will find that heroism and tragedy are inseparable and that the noblest goals can still have terrible results--both as citizens of your nations, and in your own life.  That is why now, as you receive your diplomas, your education is only beginning.  Good luck with it, and thank you.


Bruce Wilder said...

The Manichean drama posited by some activists just incites criminal behavior. Most of the Jews I know personally are highly ethical, thoughtful people, but I listen now to bloodlust from Israelis that make me wonder if Israel was ever a good idea.

The Israelis assert their right to defend themselves without conceding the Palestinians a similar right to defend themselves. That's not an ethic by universalist standards.

Gail Spilsbury said...

Glad I was able to "hear" this wise commencement address!

Slink said...

Thank you for this. As an "outsider", I find all of this recent excitement confusing, so, I'm grateful for the history lesson. It's much as I expected. I'm 56 and it seems like Israel/Palestine disputes pop up every few years to the point where I kind of tune them out. Not my Circus, Not my Monkeys. All of a sudden, this year, it's come to my town and University. I'm still trying to figure out why.

(I wish you would clean up the typos. I found them distracting.)

Thanks again. I appreciate your perspective.


Energyflow said...

Einstein said that you can't solve a problem on the level it is created. In this case that would be land, blood ties and religion. Jews gave up the first for the latter two for two thousand years, with some success. Many nations have come and gone, been absorbed into empires, languages died(Latin, most Celtic) been newly created, reborn as Hebrew was. Nothing is permanent. Trying to maintain a multi millennial cultural idea with a people,unwaveringly seems a daunting task indeed. I switched religions, ideologies several times and have married outside my ethnicity as did my parents. Jewish intermarriage is, as I understand, the highest in ex Soviet ara. In America it stopped at 1/3 and now Jewish online dating sites are normal as for other minorities. Try that for so-called whites and you will be branded racist, so I understand. Myths often define our nationalism. Serbia war for Kosovo was defined by an old epic poem of war against the Ottomans, although the population in the area had long since tilted against slavs to Albanians(also an ancient European people, Illyrians, more native to that area than slavs). Jews have their ancient texts, now taken as holy script by 2 billion people, but as history very questionable. Egyptian exile, conquest of Palestine, Babylonian exile, resettlement, Macchabean war, Rome. Following written texts, like say the Iliad or Mahabharata, fixates us in the past, makes us inflexible in our approach. The US Constitution is a case in point. What did Jefferson think of Semi-Automatic machine guns and preterm abortions? Absurd of course, but no less so than what is happening in the middle east. Churchill was said to have been of the opinion to let the Germans and Russians finish each other off, then to take the spoils for the Anglo powers afterwards. One could in view of permanent hatreds in the middle east just say " a pox on both their houses" and hope they grind each other down to a point of utter exhaustion, creating an unspoken understanding along the way. So one learns one's enemy by becoming similar. After Soviet fall they turned excellent capitalists, mimicking America. Hezbollah learned great war techniques fighting Israel. Everything equals out over time perhaps. People will not easily give way but fight to the last, seeking advantage. In America, the West, Muslims are becoming substantial. Jewish influence will wane as well. Others, Indians, Chinese immigrants will come to the fore. The USD will wane. Israel will need another leg for support or just seek peace like any nation it's size( Belgium for example). Obviously controlling the biggest superpower democracy by influence peddling is only a short term solution as that empire declines. Jews have fewer children than Arab Israelites. They will be a small minority. All these factors make the future look grim. Therefore the war. A land grab. A last chance. It seems downhill now for the Zionist project demographically and with a support from a declining West. Christianity is also declining in the West, leaving atheists neutral, not knowing their Bible.