Political passions often lead to heated discussion, but it is also what has kept Michael Curtis going strong for 90 years. The distinguished Rutgers University professor emeritus of political science and author of more than 35 books will talk about his passions, activism, and new work, “Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East,” at the Princeton Public Library on Wednesday, September 11, at 6:30 p.m. The talk will be followed by a birthday party for the nonagenarian — all are welcome.
“Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East” is an anthology of Curtis’ recent short writings. He has been writing almost daily columns for the online journal the American Thinker (www.americanthinker.com), bringing to public view such issues as the fate of Christians in the Middle East after the recent revolutions or the role of the tribes in the Middle East that hold enormous power and transcend borders and official governments. A constant theme is his analysis of the ongoing political, verbal, and legal attacks on Israel by various segments of the international community.
“For those perplexed by the competing master narratives on the contemporary Middle East, Michael Curtis’ voice is one that must be heard,” writes Fred Gottheil, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “His insights cut through the labyrinth of distortions and half-truths and quickly get to the heart of the matter. This important work follows upon his 2010 book, ‘Should Israel Exist?’ This should be required reading of all those interested in Middle Eastern affairs.”
For the past four-and-a-half decades, Princeton resident Curtis has concentrated on two areas: the complex intersection of anti-Semitism, Israel, and the Middle East; and the origins of the political right in modern France, and France’s complicated role in the Holocaust during the Vichy regime and the Nazi occupation in World War II. His textbook on the great political philosophers published in the 1960s is still used throughout the U.S.
Born in London, Curtis grew up in the East End, a Jewish neighborhood. His father’s tailoring business made the suits for men’s stores on Savile Row, synonymous with men’s high fashion and elegance. He was educated at the London School of Economics and earned his doctorate from Cornell. He was one of the founders and president of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East and editor of the Middle East Review. In addition to his years at Rutgers, he has taught at Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Oberlin College, Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and the University of Bologna. Curtis is also an expert on the history of jazz.
The following conversation with Curtis reflects his recent thoughts as well as the work that has brought him internationally attention.
Why is there so much animosity toward Jews and the State of Israel?
This animosity, anti-Semitism or Judeophobia, has existed for centuries. One can trace it back to the Greeks and to early Christianity. It is an obsession which is fundamentally inexplicable because it is manifested in many countries throughout the world, some of which do not contain any Jewish population. It is based on contradictory statements and is the only expression of prejudice or hatred of a people that permeates the whole world. It is not confined to any particular political ideology or class of people or educational or economical level.
Why is anti-Semitism increasing?
It is disturbing that, according to recent objective surveys, anti-Semitism not only still exists but appears to be increasing especially in certain European countries. There are a number of reasons. Prejudice against Jews is especially the case in Hungary and Poland. For some years after World War II when the revelations of the magnitude of the Holocaust shamed many Europeans, manifestations of anti-Semitism seemed to have subsided or at least were not expressed. That degree of shame is not felt by the younger generation, and it is particularly a matter of concern that expressions of anti-Semitism have been made in public forums, in parliaments and by leaders of political parties in recent years.
A second reason is the emergence of Islamist extremists: people, and organizations, who make no secret of their hatred of Jews or expressions of vilification, [naming] Jews as animals, pigs, etc.
What are some of the biggest misrepresentations, propaganda, obsessions, and falsifications widely disseminated in the media?
It is unfortunate that the mainstream press is often unfair in articles on Israel, stressing only the problems and difficulties and incorrect treatment of Palestinians. It is time for all those who believe that Israel should survive to come forward to counter those attacks.
Should Israel exist?
It is understandable that Arab and some Muslim countries, arguing that Israel should never have been created, should feel hostility toward Israel and call for condemnations of it and even call for its elimination. They have been unwilling to reach any compromise with Israel, as suggested in the UN General Assembly Resolution of 1947. Instead they have waged wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and [have staged] unrelenting terrorists attacks on the state.
Only Egypt and Jordan have made peace treaties with Israel. But the Palestinians, now divided under two political groups, Fatah and Hamas, have so far been unwilling to enter into real negotiations without preconditions. This may change if the turmoil in the Arab world, in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq, leaves the Palestinians without substantial political or economic support.
What is surprising is the animosity on the part of non-Arabs or non-Muslims. This can be viewed in two ways. One is the activity of the Soviet Union, and now Russia if to a lesser extent, in formulating and helping Arabs in attacks on Israel. The Soviet Union was the first country to accept de jure the existence of Israel in May, 1948. Yet it has been the country most responsible for attacks on Israel, reaching a crescendo with the 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution that “Zionism is a form of racial discrimination.”
The Soviet-Arab alliance has distorted the activity of international organizations, making them into bodies that condemn Israel in unrelenting fashion. Everyone will admit that Israel, like every other nation in the world, is imperfect — but it is the wholesale condemnation of the state, irrespective of any particular action it has taken, and the application to it of standards that are not applicable to any other nation, that makes the situation unique. The international community has been guilty of applying “double standards” towards the state of Israel.
Can you talk briefly about political correctness and the obsessive attack on Israel?
Many in the world have accepted what I call the Palestinian narrative of victimhood. The Palestinians call the establishment of Israel and the defeat of Arab armies that attacked the new state in May 1948 a catastrophe. That narrative falsely suggests in various ways that Jews were never in the disputed territories of Israel and Palestinians; that Palestinians were the original inhabitants; that Israel is an imperialistic, colonial power that is subjugating the Palestinians. They refuse to acknowledge that much of the refugee problem was caused by their own leaders.
There are genuine differences over some of the settlements that Israelis have established, but there are no, and never have been, accepted boundaries in the disputed territories. The so-called 1967 lines are not borders, but simply the 1949 armistice lines. Borders, the resolution of the refugee problem, and differences over Jerusalem, can only be resolved by negotiations between the parties.
Changes in the Arab world, the threat of Iranian ambitions, the new alliance of Sunni Islamist states, and the growing strength and danger of Islamic fundamentalism and extremist behavior, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — what a complex stew. How can the rest of us be engaged to resolve this?
What is surprising and most unacceptable is the increasing acceptance by many in the academic, artistic, and generally cultural world of the idea of Palestinian victimhood — indeed of their being the people being most oppressed in the world. There are genuine differences over Israeli settlements but they are not the obstacle to peace. The most fallacious accusation in what has become the politically correct point of view is that Israel is an “apartheid” state, comparable to the infamous South African regime. As a result some, in political parties, academic groups, and mainstream churches, have called for boycotts against Israel. It is essential both to counter this false and ridiculous charge of apartheid and to call on United Nations organizations to end their bias against the state of Israel.
Groups, largely but not wholly Arabs, engage in constant attacks on Israel. I suggest to others that they also speak out on these issues.
You have been traveling a lot this summer. What are some places in the world with political systems that can teach us something?
During the last month in Britain, Sicily, and mainland Italy, I have been enjoying and absorbing the culture and cuisine of the different areas. In visiting Greek and Roman ruins and temples one is reminded that Jewish history goes back to the same era, that Jews were present in the area that one can define as Israel, Palestine, or Eretz Israel. That historic reminder provides the answer to any challenge to the fact that Israel should exist. Its existence was agreed to by the Balfour Declaration of November, 1917, and by the UN in November, 1947, but the essential case rests on that historical association and the inheritance and occupation of land once ruled by King David.
You are a self-described activist. What gets you riled up? What are the best actions to take in order to effect peaceful change?
I have been a political activist since I was 13 years old. In 1936, I 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. It is a famous incident. The Six Day War also led me to activism on behalf of Israel. I have not only written about these issues in many forms, but along with other interdisciplinary professors formed American Professors for Peace in the Middle East in June 1967, speaking in public, on television, and on radio. As president of APPME, I appeared regularly on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report during the 1970s and 1980s, speaking on behalf of Israel. APPME was disbanded at the end of the 1980s, but I have continued my activism through books and articles, explaining the Israeli situation and showing the history that has led to the current state of affairs.
You will be 90 soon, and you’re still active. What keeps you going?
I feel lucky to have survived so long, and can’t explain this unexpected longevity. My advice is not to believe you are so old, and to remain optimistic. Remain in the game of life. I am still writing about political issues almost daily for online journals, still speaking up about what I believe in as a guest on NPR, and I am still an activist in organizations based in New York. I also enjoying life in general, my children and grandchildren, and above all sharing experiences with my wife [the artist Judith Brodsky]. Judy and I are happy to host jazz concerts of top-flight musicians every few months, arranged by Maitland Jones (through the Princeton JazzNights series). Our life is pretty full.”
Michael Curtis, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Wednesday, September 11, 6:30 p.m. Free. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.