Explaining hostility toward Israel

Explaining hostility toward Israel

Dr. Stephen Berk explores why so much hate is directed at the Jewish state 

Dr. Stephen Berk
Dr. Stephen Berk

When he speaks about Israel at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff on May 5, Dr. Stephen M. Berk plans to be clear about an issue that “many people think is very complicated, but really isn’t,” he said.

He’ll be talking about the root causes of the war in Gaza. Oh, that uncomplicated thing?

Dr. Berk, a professor of history — specifically of Holocaust and Jewish studies — at Union College in Schenectady, has a résumé filled with honors and impressive positions. He is, among many other things, Union’s former history department chair, the director of its program in comparative community studies, and faculty adviser to its Jewish Student Organization. He specializes in Russian Jewish history as well as in the Middle East, and he is a fervent Zionist.

When he talks about Israel, you hear both academic rigor and human passion.

The root cause of the conflict, Dr. Berk said — and will discuss in more detail at the talk — is “the unwillingness of the Islamic world to accept the existence of a Jewish state, even in a truncated part of Palestine.

“That’s the issue. Had it been resolved, had they been able to accept the idea of a Jewish state in a small part of Palestinian, there wouldn’t be a single Palestinian refugee, and there wouldn’t have been the cycle of wars, the tension, the hostility that resonates right down to the present.”

There were many chances for Palestinians to accept their own state, even before Israel was created, and they rejected all of them, Dr. Berk said. “They had a chance to get a state in 1937 with a new partition plan.” They rejected it. “They rejected the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947. And they have consistently rejected Israeli overtures to have a Palestinian state.

“They could have had it under President Clinton, and they probably could have had it under President Obama.”

But they held out.


“There is a religious dimension, a social dimension, and of course, a political dimension,” Dr. Berk said. “There are a number of reasons, and many of them go back a very long time. Some of it is related to a traditional Islamic belief about the Jews.

“According to Islam, Jews are dhimmi, protected people.” That protection is from Muslims, who believe that the Jews’ religion “is legitimate but inferior.” Any attempt by any Jew — or any other dhimmi, because there are other legitimate but inferior religions — to assert any kind of control, much less statehood, is unacceptable.

Dr. Berk plans on talking about the situation with Iran. “Although one may have doubts about Prime Minister Netanyahu for a whole variety of reasons” — and he does — “it is my belief that he is conducting the war in the correct way by not accepting a ceasefire,” he said. “To accept a ceasefire — let’s say for six weeks, or for longer — Hamas will replenish its forces. If Israel continues the war after that, Hamas will kill more Israeli soldiers, just as it has said it will do.

“And if Israel does not continue the war, if the ceasefire continues to hold, then Hamas will have a small fortress in the Gaza Strip, and all the talk by pundits on television and by the Biden administration that they want to create a Gaza government by a reformed Palestinian Authority — and I think that a reformed Palestinian Authority is an oxymoron — what Arab is going to try to govern the Gaza Strip? Hamas is still there. That person would be dead within 24 hours.”

But there still are hostages in Gaza. What about them? “It is a very difficult thing for me to say — I don’t have anyone who is a hostage — but I think that for the sake of the country, the war has to continue.”

That doesn’t mean that he thinks that there are just opposing choices — have a ceasefire and get them back, or don’t and don’t — because there is no way to know. “I think that from the standpoint of Israel, for the sake of Israel, for the sake of the entire Middle East, it’s necessary for Israel to win the war.

“Hamas is playing a game with Israel, offering 40 hostages, 50 hostages. We don’t know how many still are alive.

“I think that if a deal could be struck where Israel would get all the hostages and all the bodies back, any prime minister would take it and not continue the war. But I think that from the vantage point of Israel and the whole Middle East, continuing the war is the best possible outcome.”

As for the day after — “I think that there would have to be a brief Israeli occupation,” Dr. Berk said. “I am not sure that any Arab country would send men in. I think that the best outcome would be for NATO to send troops — but no Irish or Turkish troops.

“Ireland is incredibly anti-Israel, and there is a good deal of antisemitism there. I will talk about an incident I had there when I led to trip there.” (Dr. Berk often accompanies trips to Russia, Spain, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Israel as the group’s scholar.)

“And as long as Erdogan is president of Turkey, to have any Turkish forces there would be catastrophic.”

Next, Dr. Berk will turn his attention to Iran. “I will talk about the Iranian attack and the Israeli response.

“Sooner or later, for the sake of Israel and the United States and a good part of the civilized world, someone will have to take out the nuclear plants in Iran.

“Iran is a rogue state, and if it acquires a nuclear weapon…”

“Look at the way it behaves now. If it had a nuclear weapon, it would be even more dangerous, and it wouldn’t be an issue just for Israel. Iran is developing long-range antiballistic missiles. It’s a threat to our allies, and to the United States. We know that a nuclear weapon can be put into a suitcase and smuggled into another country.”

What should Israel do about Iran? For that matter, what should we do about Iran?

“If we believe that a change in regime is possible — and it always is possible, but we also know that authoritarian regimes can last a long time, and the Soviet Union lasted for 69 years — then you hold onto what George Tenet” — the former head of the CIA — “said about the Soviet Union. You hold the line, you arm yourself to the teeth, you watch very carefully. And you wait until things change. Until the Soviet Union changes — or until suddenly there is no more Soviet Union.

“But the difference is that Iran is a regime that talks about the destruction of Israel. And that’s what many people are not saying.

“Those guys who get on television — I call them the Maryland commandos — they’re very smart men, but they don’t talk about the fact that they take for granted and they assume everyone else knows but they don’t — that this is not a war between Iran and Israel for regional hegemony. It’s a war in which one side — Iran — wants to destroy the other side. Israel.”

Why does Iran hate Israel so much? There are at least two different reasons. One is that “the religious dimension there is very very strong,” Dr. Berk said. “Ayatollah   Khomeini had a really hostile attitude toward Jews.”

Also, “the Iranians continue to believe that championing the Palestinians will gain them considerable influence in the region and in the Islamic world.” So Iran’s approach toward Israel is fueled by a particularly unholy blend of religious fervor and contemporary politics.

And Dr. Berk will discuss many of them, straightforwardly.

Who: Dr. Stephen Berk of Union College

What: Will talk about “Israel at the Crossroads” as the synagogue’s distinguished speaker for 2024

Where: At Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff

When: On Sunday, May 5; breakfast is at 9:45 and the program starts at 10:30

How: For more information or to register, call (201) 891-4466 or email templeoffice@bethrishon.org. To register, go to bethrishon.org.

How much: $20 for preregistered synagogue members, $25 for everyone else.

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