by Jerry Gordon (November 2013)
On 9/11/13 Michael Curtis celebrated his 90th birthday by launching his latest published book, Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East, at the Princeton, New Jersey library. Since 9/11 he has largely avoiding celebratory events given the Al Qaeda jihadist attack on what was the twin towers of the World Trade that took the lives of more than 2,700 innocent lives injuring thousands more. After all, Manhattan is less than a one hour’s train ride from Curtis’s home. Professor Curtis is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Rutgers University who has created a significant oeuvre comprised of academic texts in politics and political theory since his arrival in this country six decades ago from England.
As a Fulbright Fellow at Cornell in the early 1950’s he initially intended to research and write a dissertation about American politics to complement his previous publication of a book on British politics. Because of a faculty retirement he turned his attention to examining the spectrum of French antisemitism from left to right in the works of three intellectuals. The resulting Cornell PhD thesis was published by the Princeton University Press, as, Three Against the Third Republic: Sorel, Barres and Maurras. It was later revised with a new introduction by Curtis covering French politics and Antisemitism in the 20th Century. In 2003, his Verdict on Vichy addressed the French collaboration that resulted in the destruction of one quarter of France’s Jews, 76,000 in Nazi Death Camps facilitated by French officials, French police and the officials and workers of the French national railway system.
Professor Curtis has held a number of academic honors that include Fellowships, at the Princeton Center of International Studies, its Institute for Advanced Study and the Bellagio, Rockefeller Institute. Besides being a long term member of the Princeton University political science faculty, he has taught as a visiting professor at Hebrew, Bologna, European University Institute, Fiesole, 1989, Tel Aviv Universities.
A Londoner by origin he is a living witness to the broad sweep of defining historical and political movements in Europe, America and the Middle East. As a teenager in 1936, Curtis “was part of the group that prevented Oswald Moseley and his Fascist organization from marching through the East End — then the Jewish section of London — on Cable Street.” Later in September 1938, he witnessed appeasement of the Hitler regime at Munich by the Chamberlain government. He served in the British Army during World War Two and learned of the effects of the Holocaust on Europe’s Jews when he reached liberated Trieste at the conclusion of the war. As a lifelong Zionist Curtis supported the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. His activism and concern about the continuing existential threats towards Israel gave rise (after the June 1967 Six Days of War) to the formation with several colleagues of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East (APPME) and his leadership and editorship of the group’s respected journal, Middle East Review. During the 1970’s he was a frequent commentator on Israel issues on the McNeil Lehrer News Hour PBS program. Unfortunately APPME went defunct in the 1980s for lack of funding. He is still consulted for his considerable expertise by scholars like Dr. Daniel Mandel, Director of the Zionist Organization of America Center for Middle East Policy. (See our interview with Dr. Mandel in the current edition of the New English Review).
In the initial decades of the 21st Century he grew increasingly concerned and wrote extensively about the unfortunate return of antisemitism in Europe from the spectrum of the hard Left, neo-Fascist and burgeoning Muslim émigré communities in the EU. Given his scholarship and in consultation with knowledgeable scholars, he began writing about the rise of Islamic jihadism and the insinuation of Sharia Islamic law in the West. In his watching brief for Israel he examined the conundrum of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians combating the fallacious charges derived from the “Palestinian Narrative” against Israel charging it with being an apartheid state and Nazi-like occupying power in the region. Moreover, he has raised the visibility in scholarly circles of the current existential nuclear threat of Iran to Israel and others in the Middle East.
Curtis is a watchman on the ramparts warning the world about existential threats to the Jewish people and the state of Israel arising from these political developments. He is dismayed to find both Israel and Jews isolated and treated as pariahs in the councils of Western government, academia, media, cultural groups and even the mainstream Christian NGOs where Israel is subject to calls for boycott of products, cultural performances and disinvestment. His 2012 book Should Israel Exist?: A Sovereign Nation Under Attack by the International Community addresses these issues, that have become in his later years an abiding concerns and his fueled his activism.
Given his concerns over the Islamic antisemitism that he has witnessed firsthand in Malmo, Sweden, the accommodation of Shariah in the EU and efforts to combat its recognition here in the US, he has developed an interest in the work of independent scholar Bat Ye’or. He facilitated the publication of her 2005 acclaimed work Eurabia: the Euro-Arab Axis. On the occasion of a visit by Bat Ye’or and her late husband David Littman in 2006, Curtis hosted a luncheon in Manhattan that brought together an American circle of her followers and friends, including this writer. Curtis wrote an introduction to Bat Ye’or’s Europe, Globalization, and the Coming of the Universal Caliphate (2011). See our review, Worldwide Caliphate Rising? (October 2011).
Against this background, we interview Professor Curtis.
Jerry Gordon: Professor Curtis thank you for consenting to this interview.
Professor Michael Curtis: Thank you for inviting me.
Gordon: You have had a remarkable career as a political scientist, author and activist. What were the circumstances that brought you to America from England post-war to complete your graduate work at Cornell University?
Curtis: The answer is I originally came to study American politics and American political theory about which little was known at the time in London where I was teaching. I thought I would come over for a year and study this with a gentleman named Professor Sabine who taught at Cornell. Unfortunately, the mistake I made knowing very little about him, about Cornell or anything else in the States at the time, was that he had retired some years before and was currently living in Spain. So I had to do other things.
Gordon: Your first work of note was Three Against the Third Republic. Was that your Cornell PhD thesis? What was behind your interest in discussing these three French intellectuals and writers, Messieurs Sorel, Barrès, and Maurras in Fin-de-Siècle, France?
Curtis: This was not my first work. I had already written a book in London on British politics. Three Against the Third Republic was the dissertation which I wrote at Cornell. I chose these three because they exemplified the fact that from different and indeed diametrically opposite points of view the three men represented ideologies of a counter-revolution, French nationalism and revolutionary syndicalism. These three quite different points of view, shared the same opinions in attacking Parliamentary institutions, democratic institutions and Jews. They were writing at the time of the Dreyfus Affair when antisemitism became prominent. What I showed was that people writing from different points of view can have the same opinions about centrist activities, democracy and on antisemitism. Since then a number of other writers and books have come out which make the same point that extremists from right and left can have the same views. Indeed, we have the same point of view now concerning the condemnations and attacks on the State of Israel where extreme right and extreme left join hands for different reasons in the same condemnation.
Gordon: In 2002, you published Verdict on Vichy that presented a veritable dossier on the extent of collaboration between the Vichy government and Nazi occupation acquiescing in the destruction of French and foreign Jews living in France during the Holocaust. What did you draw from that earlier experience that was reflected in your current work Jews, Antisemitism and the Middle East?
Curtis: Well a good mite of my work, writings and thought have been on the connected subjects of attacks on democracy, western civilization, antisemitism and Jews, and on Israel. In a sense these themes came together when I wrote the book on Vichy, and the same themes are present in some of the chapters in the new book on Jews, Antisemitism and the Middle East. The Vichy book showed the participation of government and public institutions in the French part of the Holocaust and the levels of support by the French people, the different levels of support that people in France gave to that objective. When you mentioned a moment ago the whole of France, the whole of Jews, it was actually only about a quarter of the Jews living in France who were sent to their death in Auschwitz and the other extermination camps. The point of my book was to make known the degree to which there was participation by the French. It was the French police who arrested the Jews, not the Germans and it was the French trains that carried the Jews to the German border from which they were taken to the extermination camps. Some of these points I deal with in chapters in the newly published book. The Jews Antisemitism and the Middle East shows the vast complicity, the attacks on democracy, the attacks on Jews, the attacks on Parliament. There is a constant link in these things .
Gordon: Why is Israel regarded as a pariah by a cabal of non-aligned nations, member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, members of the Security Council of the U.N., and even international NGO's?
Curtis: I think those issues are analyzed in a number of my writings and are dealt with in this present book and a book which I published last year which was called, Should Israel Exist: a Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community. They deal with this issue and it's very difficult to explain in any rational way why there should be such an outpouring of criticism and condemnation of the State of Israel by these vastly different groups and organizations writing from different points of view. In other words, my chief point here is not that Israel should not be criticized. Of course the State of Israel like any other group or any other state and like any other organization, like any individual in life have faults and imperfections and those can be pointed out in a sincere and accurate fashion. However, what is at stake regarding Israel is that there is an unduly disproportionate series of attacks on Israel. There is a double standard that is applied to the State of Israel where the criticisms are made about it which is not applied to other countries in the world. In fact if you take the United Nations which has 193 members and, a good part of the time the United Nations General Assembly, has been spent in condemnation of Israel and very little on other countries of the world. What I regard as an absurd international body is the United Nations Human Rights Council made up of 47 countries which meets in Geneva. You would find that about two thirds of the resolutions passed by it and a disproportionate amount of its time and energy is spent on resolutions condemning Israel for its alleged violations of human rights. Now it's totally absurd and you've got to live in the world of fantasy and dreams to imagine the other 192 countries in the world do not commit any violations of human rights but only this one small country in the Middle East is capable of doing this. The other organizations have adopted this view. Much of this stems from the kind of coalition or alliance that was formed in the 1970's between the then Soviet Union and Arab countries which sought to condemn Israel on the basis of its alleged discrimination and oppression of Palestinians. What they did was argue that Israel constituted a form of racism and racial discrimination, an argument that has recently culminated in the concept of Israel being an apartheid state. Other people, and organizations, which picked this up include a good part of the cultural and intellectual world today. I think this is increased by the very successful Palestinian propaganda and what I have called and addressed in my writings, the Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood. Palestinians and their supporters have been successful in portraying the Palestinians as if they were the main or and sometimes even the only victim of oppression in the world. No other countries such as Rwanda, Sudan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria apparently have any problems. As far as victimization or oppression is concerned it is only Israel which has been the oppressor of this downtrodden people whose rights have been taken away. This is a fallacious and absurd argument but nevertheless a lot of people have bought into it. I think this explains the kind of widespread acceptance by the groups that you mentioned engaged in this condemnation of Israel. Now it has gone into the theatrical and artistic world where people who know nothing about the intricacies of the Middle East, and are not expert or knowledgeable in any way of Middle Eastern politics have made the same accusations over the last year or two that Israel is an apartheid state. They compare it with the infamous former regime of South Africa where systematic, legal, racial discrimination, and segregation was enforced. That is absurd. A disgraceful series of condemnations by people who know nothing and who've taken the Palestinian propaganda at its word so that even well-meaning people, people in the media, people in the churches and people in trade unions have been taken in by this and called for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel and its citizens.
Gordon: What in your view are the principle features of what has been termed “the new Antisemitism” in the 21st Century?
Curtis: I think it takes a number of forms. Antisemitism is very difficult to comprehend and define in a rational way because of the contradictory arguments made for it. Historically it goes back thousands of years even to the times of the Greeks and even the Persians before them. It has changed its nature and basis from time to time at one time being largely religious. Now it's taken a racial form. The problem is the Jews formed a different race, which ought not to be part of any society in which they are living. After the Second World War expression of antisemitism was rather limited. It of course existed. It has never been eliminated, however, it was not very vocal and only a few if any political parties dwelt on it. In recent years antisemitism has emerged in a more open and more overt form both in the general public and disappointingly by people in the public sphere. One could say the reason may well be that the guilt that was felt and experienced by Europeans after the war because of their participation in the Holocaust may have worn off. The younger generation, the children and the grandchildren possibly don't have the same guilt feelings that their ancestors did about this. Therefore they feel less cordial to the Jews than two generations ago. So it is the younger people who feel this more strongly, but there are two other aspects of this. One is that it has gone into the public sphere where you find politicians in European countries openly express in the halls of Parliament and in public declarations antisemitic beliefs. In Belarus, in Hungary, in Bulgaria, in Greece and to some extent also in France. Add to this is the increasing amount of antisemitism that is manifested by Muslims in Europe and elsewhere. This has become very prominent, leading not only to graffiti and threats but also to actual actions, harassment and violent actions against Jews. The Islamic element is not likely to decline in the near future and Antisemitism is larger today than it was a generation ago.
Gordon: In your discussion of the Arab world and Islamist threat you draw attention to the fundamental conflict between Islamic Shariah law and traditional Western concepts of democracy. What do you see as the dangers of Shariah to sovereign law as we understand it in Western nations?
Curtis: l I think they are very considerable. There is no problem in a Muslim going to Shariah courts and obeying Shariah law if they want to. Some societies have defined themselves as Islamic states, the State of Iran for example is a Muslim state and exercising Shariah law. Now there are two problems with this. In the Islamic states the Shariah Law is a dictatorial form of control based on inequality especially where human rights are concerned. It is oppressive and all controlling in its nature. Islam is not simply a religion, it is a militant and politically oriented organization. It seeks control over the whole lives of the individual which is totally contrary to any kind of democratic form in existence which believes in free speech, free expression and a pluralistic society. With countries based on Shariah law the idea of Shariah law criticism is not allowed and any kind of criticism is punishable, as in the case of Salman Rushdie, the novelist, by condemnation and fatwas that he should be assassinated. The other aspect of Shariah law in Western societies is that because of the influx of Muslims into Western European countries and into the United States, Shariah law has become more prominent than before as far as Muslims are concerned. Now as I say, if Muslims want to go to a Shariah court and obey the Shariah law there is no objection to that if they feel they want to be bound in this strict form. The problem arises where the advocates of Shariah law and those responsible for it try to implant that Shariah law into the national laws of the country and argue that the decisions made in those courts should be part of the national law and that is unacceptable. Cases have arisen in the United States in New Jersey and Oklahoma to that respect. There are at the moment about 85 Shariah courts in Britain laying down the law and the argument there has been made very strongly. It has even been supported by other people that Shariah law which should be part of British common law and I find that unacceptable because they are totally opposed to democratic concepts, principles and freedom of religion and beliefs.
Gordon: You have acknowledged the independent scholarship of Bat Ye'or. What do you view as her contributions in elucidating the fundamental conflict between the authoritarianism of Islam versus the constitutional liberalism of the West?
Curtis: She has expressed her view very strongly in her various writings. I have dealt with them myself and in fact in her recent book on the Caliphate, I wrote the introduction. Not that I agree with all of her points of view, she takes perhaps a more extreme view of the situation than I do. However, she has pointed out with great accuracy a number of things. One is the whole concept of dhimmi and dhimmitude; that is the way in which non-Muslims both Jews and Christians have historically been treated in Islamic societies and still are to some extent. When you look at the barriers that are imposed on the freedom of the expression of their religions other than Islam in these countries, also her main contribution I think has been pointing out the increasing and very considerable influence that Arab Muslims have in European countries today. Witness their presence in arrangements that they have made diplomatically, politically, economically in terms of trade in European countries such that they are beginning to influence the policies and the mentality of the Europe. I think her contribution has been fundamental in pointing out what you called the authoritarianism of Islam and Islamic systems and the democratic values of Western Europe and the United States. She may be perhaps sometimes a little extreme in her formulation but the argument is correct and accurate and I applaud what she has done in this respect. She is almost a lone voice, not totally in this regard, arguing her case strongly but fairly and with rationality.
Gordon: Speaking of the question of the intrusion or accommodation of Shariah, how do you view the actions of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in seeking to impose blasphemy and non-critical restrictions on free speech in the West?
Curtis: I think it is totally undesirable and ought to be ended. What has been happening is something that the mass media and the mainstream media have not sufficiently appreciated. Nor have the mainstream churches I'm afraid seen what the Islamic countries have been doing through the OIC which has now 57 members. It is composed of 56 states and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO. What the OIC has been trying to do is prevent criticism of Islam or of the prophet Mohammed at the United Nations and at other forums. They have introduced what I call the resolutions against defamation of religion. Now defamation of religion in this case means only criticism of Islam. There is no other way in which this can be regarded and indeed all attempts at criticism of Islam and actual practice have been persecuted. The cartoons in Denmark, the books of Salman Rushdie, Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq, all of them have been persecuted. The killing in the Netherlands of Theo van Gogh who made a film about Islam was to prevent criticism from taking place. The Western media, Western churches and indeed any responsible individual ought to stand up and say it's about time that this was stopped, that Islam can rightfully be criticized in the same way as Judaism or Christianity and people should not be punished for doing this. Ironically the Arab Middle Eastern countries, the Islamic countries, are the countries in which Christians as well as Jews, who are largely absent from them now, Christians have been persecuted. Churches have been burned, people killed and property stolen. Christians are leaving those countries in considerable numbers. The irony is the only country where Christians are free to practice a religion and where their numbers have been growing is Israel.
Gordon: In the Palestinian narrative you spoke of earlier there is the question of the Palestinians demanding justice and recognition of their existence. That is in sharp contrast to the virtual silence about the status of non-Arab and yet significant populations in the Middle East, the Kurds and the Berbers. Why have their sovereign rights not been recognized for over a century?
Curtis: I think the answer is because they are not Arabs and they don't have Jews as enemies. In other words, the argument for the Kurds is a very much stronger one that for the Palestinians. There are about five or six times the number of Kurds in Middle Eastern countries than there are Palestinians. The Kurds were promised a state after World War I but it never took place. Turkey took much of the area where the Kurds were supposed to establish a state. So they discriminated against the Kurds in favor of the Palestinians. Added to that is the way in which the Palestinian refugee issue has become the major concern for so many whereas the refugees from all the other countries are essentially unknown, disregarded and not thought about.
Gordon: A similar situation arises in the Palestinian narrative regarding their demands for the rights of returns for what appears to be in excess of four million descendants of the original roughly seven hundred thousand Arab refugees who were ordered by the Grand Mufti and others to flee, at the start of the War for Independence in Israel in 1948. Contrast that with the status of the nearly equal number, roughly seven hundred thousand Jews, expelled from Arab lands. Why has the international community been transfixed by the Palestinian Narrative in this case while eschewing demands for reparations for Jewish refugees?
Curtis: Again, it's difficult to understand from a rational point of view but it's a prejudice which has been formulated by the powers opposed to Israel, the Arab countries themselves and the Palestinians in this incessant propaganda. Remember that there are two refugee organizations in the world both set up by the United Nations. One deals with all refugees in the world, now it's between thirty and forty million refugees in the world except the Palestinians. The Palestinians have their own organization. The organization which deals only with Palestinians deals with the three or four million refugees there. Now, as you have said in your question of course, the point is that who are these refugees? Are they people who left their homes because of the war which the Arabs instigated against Israel in 1948? Remember it is the Arabs who started the war. It is Arabs who started the refugee problem, not the other way around. Although it's still a matter of argument exactly who was responsible for their departure. And no doubt some Israelis were to some extent. However, the main bulk of them were asked to leave by local Arab leaders. Now the Palestinian refugee organization, UNRWA, is a very large, very substantial organization compared to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, responsible for all of the refugees in the world. UNRWA, deals with the children and increasingly with the grandchildren of those who left in 1948. Now it's an absurd argument to say that the grandchildren left the homes which happened seventy years ago and so the whole basis of it falls to the ground. The argument, the Palestinian argument, is that these refugees who have not been absorbed or integrated in any Arab country, all these countries have refused to grant them any kind of rights except Jordan. None of the other Arab states have and they have dispossessed them and treated them badly. The Palestinians want to return to the area not simply of the West Bank but to what is now Israel and clearly they would swamp the population of Israel in the course of time so that Israel would not be a land of Jews and a minority of Arabs. It would become basically majority Arab land and this would mean essentially elimination of Israel as a Jewish state as we know it. Now by contrast, there was a slightly larger number of Jewish refugees who left the Arab countries where they were persecuted. They have been absorbed into Israeli society and they play a significant role in the life of the country, economically, politically, culturally and so on. No attention has been paid by the media to these Jewish refugees because the Palestinian propaganda has kept on emphasizing their refugees exclusively. Palestinians have emphasized that they are being oppressed and impoverished whereas Jewish refugees in Israel have not. By coincidence I just published an article on the Palestinian corruption. Whereas the Palestinians have cried that they are being oppressed and left without resources the article I wrote about discusses the missing billions when Yasser Arafat was leader of the PLO and of the Palestinian Authority. The corruption is innate there and instead of spending the resources that they have been given by the international countries they have squandered it and no one knows where the money has gone.
Gordon: You mentioned previously the depredations that are daily occurring in the Middle East against approximately 14 million Christians especially in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Why is it that Christian groups, mainstream Christian groups in particular in the West have not risen to their defense?
Curtis: I don't know the answer to this and indeed I have written a number of articles just on this issue pointing out that among mainstream Christian organization in the US, specifically the Presbyterian Church USA mount condemnations of Israel and call for a boycott and sanctions against Israel. While it totally ignores the fate of the Christians, especially the Copts in Egypt who are now who are suffering badly. Considerable numbers of them are leaving Egypt where they have become second class citizens. It is inexplicable why the leaders of the certain church organizations have neglected the fact that Christians are being persecuted. Notice that towns connected with Jesus like Nazareth and Bethlehem used to have considerable Christian populations. Now the Christian populations are very small. They are now Muslim towns and the same has been happening everywhere in the Middle East. I don't know why the mainstream Christian churches do not criticize this except that their hatred of Israel is greater than their love of fellow Christians. There is no other way to explain it.
Gordon: Given the recent developments in the waning Arab Spring, is Israel in a stronger or weaker position given the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood governments in Egypt, Tunisia and apparently the isolation of Hamas in Gaza?
Curtis: Well, I don't have my crystal ball with me right now. It is not functioning and so I can't predict the future. I have enough difficulty predicting the past in the Middle East. However, what has been happening is kind of a mixed bag. At the moment, the Arab states are totally in turmoil. They are all of course artificial states created by Britain and France after World War I except for Egypt. They are riven by dissension, internal feuds, and civil wars and fighting. That means as far as Israel is concerned that it is not threatened by those states but it is threatened by maverick organizations, the asymmetrical ones especially Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Unfortunately for Israel, Hezbollah is becoming more disciplined, more organized and better equipped at fighting so it's a mixed bag at the moment and of course is a threat. A major threat is the non-Arab state of Iran and its nuclear facilities wherever they turn out to be. In answer to your question it is very mixed, but I think on the whole, Israel is safer at the moment than it has been in the recent past because of the inability of the Arab states to wage any kind of real hostilities against it.
Gordon: There is a current round of discussions about a possible agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5-plus-1 and EU representatives. What is the possible outcome that might emerge from those discussions regarding curtailment of Iran's “nuclear program”?
Curtis: At the moment I would say I was not optimistic about this in view of the real nature of Iran. Mr. Rouhani who has made a very charming appearance at the United Nations a couple of weeks ago and has ingratiated himself to so many may not be the real spokesperson for nuclear policy which of course is Ayatollah. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Supreme Council over which he presides establish their policy. I take it for granted that nuclear development will continue and whether it ends up in a peaceful form or in a bomb remains to be seen. I suspect the latter is the case so I would be very cautious. I would suggest that there is a lot of naive thinking about real possibilities and negotiations. I don't say that negotiations should not take place. I think they will even if they are a waste of time. It is good to assess the views and outlooks of the other party however, I don't hold out any real possibility of success at the moment.
Gordon: You previously mentioned the Palestinian narrative. Here I'm referring to the victimhood aspects that the Palestinians have cultivated and communicated to the rest of the world. What is the Palestinian narrative and why has the West succumbed to it?
Curtis: The Palestinian Narrative as I have defined is a fallacious document. It essentially argues that Jews have no right to exist in the Middle East. They have no right to the land of Eretz Israel. They have no history of belonging there. The Jews don't rightfully have their homeland there and that by contrast it is the Palestinians who can trace their ancestry back to the Canaanites 7000 years ago. The Narrative is also based on the Arabic concept of Nakba. Nakba means catastrophe. The catastrophe was the establishment of the State of Israel and the Arab loss in the 1948/49 war which was caused by an invasion of five Arab armies on the day that Israel was created. The problems they experience stem from their own actions. For example in relation to 1948, they will argue, “war happened” as if Zeus came down from Mt. Olympus and caused the war, instead of saying what is the accurate picture that their Arab armies invaded. I said earlier that invasion caused the refugee problem when their local officials insisted that Arabs leave for safety. Their argument is based on the assertion that the land belongs to Palestinians and therefore Israeli occupation of it is improper, illegal and unjust and a lot of people have bought into that. Now it is true that the land in what is called the West Bank is a disputed area. There is really no rightful legal occupant since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and from a technical and legal point of view it is disputed land. It is clear that Israel would make a bargain creating or leading to approving a second state which would be called Palestine in the disputed area. Those borders of that which don't exist in the moment would then be established. The Palestinian Narrative creates the misimpression that all the land is rightfully Palestinian and this is simply not the case but the fact that their propaganda has succeeded accounts for all the arguments and cause the boycott and sanctions against the State of Israel.
Gordon: What is your assessment of the possible outcome of the current round of peace discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority orchestrated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry?
Curtis: One has to be cautious in examining negotiations taking place but there is a fundamental assumption that has to be agreed upon. That is, if you are going to have a conversation between the two sides, both sides will have to agree to the existence of the other. What Israel is asking for simply is that without any other conditions that the Palestinian side and the Arab states in general recognize the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel. So far the Palestinians have refused to do so in any real concrete manner. The second aspect is contrary to the Israeli position. The Palestinians have set certain preconditions for any negotiations. The most important of them is that the so-called 1967 lines. They are lines which were established in 1949 as the result of the Armistice arrangements that were made at the end of the 1948/49 war. Those 1967 lines the Palestinians say should be the basis of the borders with perhaps minor adjustments. This is a precondition which is not acceptable to Israel. The final status arrangements on refugees, on the status of Jerusalem, as well as the borders should be discussed. Jerusalem of course is a difficult problem as the Palestinians argue that East Jerusalem should be the capital of the Palestinian state. Some of their group argue that the whole of Jerusalem should be in Palestinian hands. This is of course a major bone of contention. If you have all of these preconditions, I don't see how the negotiations can be successful. The Palestinians must withdraw all of those preconditions and simply sit down on the basis of good faith which is called for by the Oslo Accords twenty years ago to discuss the final status arrangements.
Gordon: You entered the fray of activism by founding American Professors for Peace in the Middle East (APPME) in the midst of the June 1967 Six Days of War. Why did you form the group with your colleagues and what did you consider among its more noteworthy accomplishments?
Curtis: Three colleagues and I founded APPME and I became President of the organization for a number of years. We came together in the midst of the Six Day War when there was a matter of concern whether Israel would be able to survive the onslaught at the time. By the time we published the declaration, in a full page ad in the New York Times, the war was over. The declaration was signed by hundreds of academics. It was a professors’ organization calling for peace negotiations and a just solution for the existence of Israel. What we did was to hold conferences and meetings and set up units on a considerable number of campuses throughout the country. We were trying to make the case that Israel should survive as a legitimate state and its existential character was in danger. APPME held together for a number of years. Unfortunately, like so many other bodies we ran out of money and had to close down including the journal I edited which was called the Middle East Review. What I had tried to do as Editor of the Review was to put forth kind of rational arguments and positions defending Israel as a state. It wasn't a polemical journal, it was one in which there were arguments from various points of view about Middle Eastern affairs. I was proud of it and was told it was a very worthwhile journal. I was saddened that it had to end so that is the story of that particular activity. There is a kind of minor successor to the organization with only a limited number of campuses involved.
Gordon: Professor Curtis I want to thank you for this masterful and comprehensive interview.
Curtis: Thank you very much.
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