‘Never say never’
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‘Never say never’

Historian's perspective on Mideast peace featured at Berman evening

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Dr. Steven Berk of Union College spoke at a private home in Saddle River at an evening celebrating the Gerrard Berman Day School.

Professor Stephen M. Berk, who teaches history at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., can shift easily between different emotional tones.

Ask him about his grandchildren’s school, the Gerrard Berman Day School, and he rhapsodizes.

Ask him about the existential dilemma facing Israel, and the mood darkens. And then, despite all that follows, it ends with hope.

First, the logistics. Berk, the Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at the small, well-regarded liberal arts college near Albany, spoke at a fundraising party for the school in a home in Saddle River.

The school enrolls about 130 students; there were 133 people, excluding staff, at the house that evening. Gerrard Berman draws students from four counties – Bergen, Passaic, Rockland, and some from Orange – with the largest clusters coming from Fair Lawn and Wayne.

The school is affiliated with the Conservative movement’s Schechter system, but “really we are a community school,” its director of community relations, Amy Silna Shafron, said. Among its goals is embedding a love of Israel deep in its students’ hearts, ensuring that it will remain there as they grow.

Given that stress, the evening focused on Israel, beginning with a short video of eighth graders discussing their upcoming trip to the Jewish state.

Berk told the group about “how this is a very difficult time for the State of Israel and those who support it,” he reported in a phone conversation the next day.

His narrative went from west to east, beginning in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has a “strong history of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” he said. “And after 1948, anti-Israel sentiment.” There is no real difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Israel feeling, he added, except that just as Zionism is more abstract than the State of Israel, so too is its opposition.

“We don’t know where the Arab Spring” – the movement to oust dictatorial regimes that began in late 2010 and was responsible for removing Hosni Mubarak from Egypt’s presidency, upon which he’d had an iron grip for 30 years – “is going,” he said. “We don’t know if it will become the Arab Winter.

“There was considerable opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, and to Salafism in Egypt,” he continued. (The Salafi movement tends to be fundamentalist and violent.) Many people there are secular and liberal – but they were and continue to be “divided, not well organized, and poorly led”; no obvious leader has emerged. “Therefore, they all suffer.”

“Any religious organization in the Islamic world has a tremendous advantage over their opponents,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, always could count on mosques as places where they could give sermons. Mubarak’s and Nasser’s governments were vehemently opposed to the Brotherhood, and they were totalitarian, but they couldn’t close down mosques.” (Gamal Abdel Nasser was Mubarak’s predecessor, once removed, after the assassinated Anwar al-Sadat.) “So the Brotherhood has the cachet of being the organized opposition.

From there, Berk moved to Gaza. “Hamas and Islamic Jihad are vehemently opposed to the State of Israel. They don’t believe it should exist,” he said. Those group’s declamations about Israelis, and in fact all Jews, are “no different than what the Nazis were saying before 1939.” And they dehumanize Jews – even beyond the rhetoric describing them as apes, monkeys, and pigs. Hamas and Islamic Jihad hold Jews responsible for the French Revolution, the revolutions that swept Europe in 1948, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and both world wars.

Berk emphasized, then and throughout his talk, that those are the views of Islamists, not of Muslims; the dangers are posed not by Islam, but by radical Islam.

Moving north, Berk said that Lebanon is not a nation-state, but a tribal confederation, and one of the strongest and most dangerous tribes is Hezbollah, which also believes that Israel does not have the right to exist.

Then, on to Syria.

Neither the United States nor Israel is in a good position there, Berk said. “It’s not clear which side will win, and which side would be better.”

That was not always the case. “I think that we made a terrible mistake” in Syria, Berk said. He believes that at first the revolt was largely secular, and that a no-fly zone would have allowed the dissidents to organize, and perhaps even to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But we didn’t, the fighting became “more vicious, and the government tried to defend itself using desperate means.”

The result, he said, was a “radicalization of the Islamic population. Now, most analysts agree that the strongest elements in the anti-Assad movement are Islamic extremists who want the destruction of Israel, are opposed to the United States, and have linked themselves in some cases to al Qaeda.”

So President Barack Obama is correct in hesitating now. “He is in a dilemma, but it is a dilemma of his own making.”

And then, moving east, Berk gets to the heart of the problem – Iran.

“Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad – all of them pose problems for Israel, but they don’t constitute the existential problem that is Iran,” Berk said.

“Some time in the next 12 to 18 months, someone – Obama, [Israel Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu – is going to have to make a difficult decision.”

Sanctions are unlikely to work, he said. So, “either we can live in peace with a nuclear-armed Iran, or we cannot. If we cannot, the decision to launch a pre-emptive strike must be made.”

Although his talk is somber, he said, “We should not fall into pessimism. We Jews have been in worse situations before, and today there is a sovereign Jewish state capable of defending itself.”

Israel is a country of extraordinary achievements, Berk continued. To begin with, it offers refuge for all Jews. He contrasted that to how hard it was to get into the United States, even when immigration was at its peak. “You might be too old or too sick; you could have a disabled sibling or child. But Israel takes all of our people.” In response to the Holocaust, it has become a refuge and a redeemer.

Israel is a country with no natural resources except brains, but it has become a technological superpower. And although Israel has fought five wars in less than 70 years and is never free from the danger of terrorist attacks, “It still is far closer to Athens than Sparta,” Berk said; it is not only the only democracy in the Middle East, but one of the strongest in the world.

And that brought his talk back to the Gerrard Berman School. Although Jews of his generation, born before the state was created or when it was very young, grew up with Israel absolutely at the center of their lives, that no longer is true. It no longer can be true in the same way; the time that has passed since the end of the Holocaust and the miracle of the state’s birth makes it impossible.

“I have a wonderful job teaching history, but there is a built-in problem,” Berk said. “My students are always between 17 and 22, and every year I am always one year older. They never get older.

“That’s why day schools are so important. It’s a place where students can learn about Israel and develop a love for it.

“But that’s not the only reason why Gerrard Berman and schools like it exist.

“You cannot build an American Jewish community on the Holocaust or Israel. Those are vicarious things. The survival of the American Jewish community will depend on the knowledge that American Jews have of their tradition.

“The Torah and the Talmud are the genius of the Jewish people. They are our contribution to humanity. That’s why it’s important to know it.”

As a historian, he concluded, he knows that there are no certainties, and that gives him comfort.

“There are supporters of Israel who say that there will never be peace between the Jews and the Arabs, the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he said. “Historians are not smarter than political scientists, or anthropologists, or social scientists, but they have perspective.

“One of the most famous photos of the Second World War is of a middle-aged Frenchman watching German troops parade down the Champs Elysees. Tears are streaming down his face. Who would have thought that 35 years later, combined German and French troops would march arm in arms down the Champs Elysees, and that together they would be the anchors of the European Union?

“In 1975, during apartheid, a Time magazine article on South Africa quoted a man as saying that, ‘if the blacks rise, we will ride until our stirrups are filled with blood.’ And then, 15 years later, Nelson Mandela comes out of prison and apartheid disappears into what Trotsky called the dustbin of history.

“No one predicted the demise of the Soviet Union. Everyone knew it was bankrupt and corrupt, but everyone thought that, through sheer intimidation, it would last well into the 21st century. And by 1991, it’s also in the garbage can of history.

“The ultimate lesson of history you can bring to the Middle East is to never say never.”

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