Howard Epstein


Professor Dr Avi Shlaim


The normally fascinating podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit should carry a health warning, albeit a focussed one – for Jews who do not indulge in self-flagellation.

To be fair to Snow, whose interviewees are on the whole measured, objective and balanced, he did disclose an interest: his interviewee on 2 November 2017 – the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – was his brother-in-law. To be fair to the interviewee, Professor Dr Avi Shlaim, he also disclosed an interest: he is driven by an irrational desire to blame the birth of the State of Israel for the forfeiture of his father’s/family’s wealth, in Baghdad in 1948.

Sad, really. For an Iraqi-born Israeli to become an Oxford don – Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford – and a fellow of the British Academy, no less, is no mean achievement; so to be mean to the land that took in the newly impoverished Shlaim family shows an irrational resentment that should not be the innate driving force of any professional historian. Yet with Shlaim, such an animus was evident in almost every sentence he uttered. You can listen to it yourself by downloading the podcast but, unless you are a masochist, start on an empty stomach:

Naturally, an hour’s reportage cannot be reproduced verbatim here. A few examples will have to do, and you will either have to take my word for it (or check it out for yourself) that they fairly characterise the gist and the detail of Shlaim’s thesis viz:-

  • Why did Britain grant the Balfour Declaration? Britain was afraid it would lose the war and it would not then have to fulfil any of the (conflicting) promises it had made to the Arabs or the Jews. Nonsense. The declaration was issued on 2 November 1917. That Britain could not by then lose the war (WWI) was a foregone conclusion, since the Americans had joined the war the previous April.
  • In Britain there was very little support for Zionism. The great majority of the Jewish leaders in Britain were opposed to Zionism. The Zionists were just a tiny minority within the Jewish minority. The Zionists were mostly foreigners who came to this country and their leader was Dr Chaim Weizmann. There were at least as many Zionists as assimilationists amongst the leaders of the Jewish community in Britain (and both Chief rabbis were Zionists) and by definition (think about it, for Shlaim has not) the leaders are never the majority. London contained many Zionists and the Manchester community was Zionist almost to a man. Most were newly-arrived “foreigners”, and Weizmann’s foreign provenance was more than cancelled out by the fact that single-handedly he saved the British Empire from defeat in 1915. (His solution to the absence of acetone to make cordite for the shells, raising production from 100,000 per month to 1.5 million a month within a year of his engagement by HMG, must have confirmed him as loyal to Britain for all his personification of Zionism).
  • Shlaim adopts the rhetoric of the treacherous Edwin Montagu and quotes him as saying that: “Zionism is a mischievous political doctrine utterly untenable by any patriotic Englishman”, which is to cast Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Chamberlain, George Elliot, Lloyd George, Churchill, Balfour and many other Protestant Zionists as unpatriotic. Well, I suppose, it takes one who is unpatriotic to know another, but Shlaim is (to adopt his epithet) utterly mistaken, in ignoring a long line of British patriots who were also Zionists. (The most helpful Gentile to the Zionist cause was none other than Sir Mark Sykes (of Sykes-Picot fame), but T E Lawrence was also a Zionist sympathiser, for all his association with Arabia, and a frequent guest in Weizmann’s Kensington home in the 1920s.)

All the foregoing is extracted from just the first eight minutes of this nauseating podcast diatribe. Later, we hear this:-

  • “Palestine was not lost in the late 1940s but in the late 1930s when Britain crushed the Arab Revolt”. This ignores the damage that the British inflicted on the Yishuv and its fighters up to the British departure after midnight on 14/15 May 1948 and the invasion by five Arab armies. Are we to believe that the suppression of the Arab Revolt over ten years earlier was not overwhelmingly compensated by the events of 1948? How naïve does an Oxford don expect the layman to be?

In buying into Montagu’s narrative without providing any balance, Shlaim’s account is downright misleading and shameful for an Oxford University based historian. There is much more in that vein, but space and temperament prevent me from quoting more here. (For the struggle that led to the granting of the Balfour Declaration, please see my book, referenced at the foot of this article.)

Unhappily, Shlaim is, as we know, not alone as either Jew or Israeli in his desire to abase Israel. As reported by the redoubtable Caroline B Glick in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post[1], four of the witnesses called to provide testimony before the US House Judiciary Committee last week regarding the Antisemitism Awareness Act (“intended to facilitate the fight against antisemitism on campuses by requiring university authorities to refer to the State Department’s definition of antisemitism when they consider whether harassing acts were ‘motivated by anti-Semitic intent’”) spoke against it. They were all Jewish and two are Jewish studies professors.

As Glick reported, the four were Pamela Nadell[2], Barry Trachtenberg[3], Kenneth Stern[4] and Suzanne Nossel[5]. All had their reasons for opposing legislation designed to ease the well-known plight of Jewish Students on US campuses (not that the Gang of Four were admitting that it exists). Glick expertly demonstrated the fallacies in their arguments and concluded: As the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who testified in favor of the bill, said “having Trachtenberg testify is ‘like inviting people from the Flat Earth Society to a hearing about NASA’”.

This makes sounds Trachtenberg appear as delusional as Shlaim; but there is another factor. There is something quite disagreeable about Israelis and Jews who, driven doubtlessly by the purest of motives, have done their respective careers no harm in swimming against the tide of the “standard Zionist narrative”.

Shlaim proudly insists that “[t]he job of the historian is to judge”. To that extent he is honest about his mission – he judges. Most historians would not agree with him, however, that that is the historian’s proper purpose.

John Lukacs (who has written more than 30 history books, few likely to be more impressive than his “Five Days in London, May 1940” – and if you have not yet read it, you really should) wrote:

the purpose of historical knowledge is more than accuracy; it is understanding” (The Hitler of History, 1997).

How, one might ask, can one “understand” without objectivity and balance?

Lukacs helps us further with this:

In the narrower sense, the purpose of a revisionist historian may be exposé, scandal, sensation–or the more or less unselfish wish to demolish untruths. It may be his desire for academic or financial success, to further his advancement in the eyes of his colleagues, or, in the greater world, to gain publicity; or to further the cause of a political or national ideology–on which the treatment of his subject sometimes depends.

So, from Lukacs, whilst we see nothing about historians judging, we learn much about revisionist historians, not least the suggestion that they may have selfish motives.

Lukacs’ masterpiece on Churchill in May 1940, which also had a successful run on the West End stage (as the play Three Days in May), showed how history should be presented: with balance.

And that is what is missing from Shlaim’s thesis. Not for him an objective view of the position of the Yishuv in 1947 when, months before Ben Gurion read out the Declaration of Independence erev Shabbat on 14 May 1948, Jerusalem was already being starved out by Arab gangs from the villages around Castel, at the choke point on the road to Jerusalem. There was no mention that the Arabs started what they hoped would be a war of annihilation whilst the Zionist baby had yet to emerge from the womb.

And not for Shlaim the recognition that Arab distress might have been morally trumped by the plight of the wretched survivors of the Nazis’ (aka the Germans) extermination and concentration camps, then hanging onto life by their fingernails in “displaced persons’ camps”, ghoulishly situated in Germany and Austria or on British-controlled Cyprus.

Nor for Shlaim, either, the recognition that the zero-sum game, played by the Arabs in rejecting the Two State Solution (Partition) offered them by the Peel Commission (in 1936) and the United Nations (in November 1947), produced self-inflicted wounds.

For Shlaim, every failure, every deprivation of Arab self-determination, is an Israeli one. Hook, line and sinker he buys into the Palestinian line: “We were robbed”.

There is a further point about Shlaim that needs to be made. His resentment at the Jewish wish to survive (the visceral reaction of every living organism to an imminent death) being solely responsible for the deprivation of his family’s wealth in Baghdad, exposes his disconnection from reality. Does he really think that the game was not up in any event in 1948 Baghdad for the Family Shlaim, and all the other Jews in all other Arab lands (with the possible exception of Morocco), once the blud fest had – absent a State of Israel – been visited upon the Jews of the Yishuv? With or without a Jewish state in Palestine, they were going to have to leave as they did: penniless. This is the fault of the Zionists? Or of those whose descendants still scream for their eradication from Eretz Yisrael? As Shlaim is too blinkered to choose, you decide.

The indispensable Zionist, Chaim Weizmann, wrote to US President Truman on April 9, 1948: “The choice for our people, Mr President, is between statehood and extermination.” Weizmann’s long experience at the cutting edge of emergent and developing Zionism led from years before Herzl’s epiphany until after Weizmann was so disenchanted with the British as to convene the Biltmore conference in New York in May 1942. (By this he unified the disparate American Zionist organisations as a counterbalance to the British.) Weizmann thereby learned more about realpolitik than Shlaim’s combined stints at the universities of the London School of Economics, Reading, Cambridge and Oxford (although for balance – Shlaim please note – he also served in the Israeli Army in the mid-1960s) were ever likely to provide – or did.

Shlaim’s distaste for Israel, the thieve of the wealth of Mishpachah Shlaim, became his calling card. In his 2001 The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World”, he proudly proclaims himself as a revisionist historian stating in the foreword:

My aim in the present book is to offer a revisionist interpretation of Israel’s policy toward the Arab world during the 50 years following the achievement of statehood.”

There is the admission – of revisionism – not obtained under torture, but openly flaunted at the outset. And we know what Lukacs thinks of historians of that ilk (“It may be his desire for academic or financial success, to further his advancement in the eyes of his colleagues, or, in the greater world, to gain publicity”.)

Shlaim burnishes his credentials with regular contributions to the Guardian, on one occasion castigating Israel for its conduct of the 2009 war in Gaza. (For the avoidance of any doubt, Oxford is out-of-range of the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza.) Shlaim put his name to a letter to The Guardian which contained the words:

Israel must lose ….. We must do what we can to stop Israel from winning its war… We call on the British government and the British people to take all feasible steps to oblige Israel to comply with these demands, starting with a programme of boycott, divestment and sanctions….

Admittedly, Shlaim was but one of 353 signatories to the letter but use the link[6] to see if you can find any reference to the Hamas pledge to remove the Zionist Entity, “missiles” or “retaliation”. Again, no balance.

In The Spectator in February 2012 (“An Israeli spring? Rejecting the prospect of greater democracy in the Arab world could put the Jewish state at risk”), Shlaim showed both that his judgment (that which is so important to him as an historian) is completely skewed and that he had completely lost his way. Which particular Arab spring was it that Israel was supposed to embrace? The Syrian variety? Or the Egyptian or Libyan iterations?

It may not be a coincidence that Shlaim’s career as an historian of the revisionist variety has earned him accolades, such as the British Academy Medal “for lifetime achievement”. There are parallels. Waltz with Bashir (which castigated Israel for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982) won no less than 28 artistic prizes and 20 further nominations at film festivals around the world.

A clear message emerges: if you want to promote your artistic (or literary) talents as a Jew, and especially as an Israeli one, do not shrink from showing your humanism by castigating the land that nurtured you. There are many who will applaud your courage and accept the criticism of Israel – without the need for you to present balance – with great enthusiasm.

If by now you consider my approach unbalanced, let me make it clear (as I have previously in these columns) that I do not consider Israel free from blame, but it is the only democracy in the Middle East and it is the only place in the region where one may criticise “the regime” without earning a one-way ticket to the slammer – or to meet one’s maker. Turkey (supposedly a democracy) has a particular problem with journalists. According to CNN on October 11 last: “At least 81 journalists are behind bars in Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.” Elsewhere in this neighbourhood, tomorrow’s copy could be your last living act. But Shlaim and his ilk know that they have nothing like that to fear from the Zionist Entity.

Looking for the Arab or Muslim who will emulate Avi Shlaim, and criticise the actions of those opposed to Israel, can take an age. I found one, and you should (as I do) genuflect in her direction at the appearance of her name: Ayaan Hirsi Ali. To be fair to Suzanne Nossel and her PEN America Center (see footnote 5), there is a long interview on their website with the stupendously brave Hirsi Ali, in which she says: There is a lot of resistance to anything that criticizes Islam in any way.[7] She should know. After documentary director, Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered in an Amsterdam street in November 2004, Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script and provided the voice-over for Van Gogh’s Submission (which criticised the treatment of women in Islamic society) had to leave Holland for the Land of the Free.

And that just about sums it up: there is no shortage of Jews and Israelis who can make Israel-bashing their life’s work, often lauded by gentiles. Some (doubtlessly amongst them Palestinian sympathisers) will regard them as “useful idiots”, as Stalin did when his western disciples such as Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm and his friend Ralph Miliband – even Eleanor Roosevelt and H G Wells – fawned over the bloodthirsty, heartless tyrant. As Julio Cesar Pino, Ph D from University of California, Los Angeles, wrote: “Stalin, who agreed with Lenin that liberals were ‘gutless’, must have chuckled at all that praise heaped at him.”[8] The Palestinians, too, must have a good long chuckle, every time they see Shlaim’s output.

So here is a challenge for Avi Shlaim, a professional historian, who must be an infinitely better researcher than I: you find me one Arab/Muslim critic of Islam for every ten (we could probably make it fifty) Israel-bashers and I shall consider an apology for doubting your objectivity -although, given your admissions of personal loss at the hands of Israel, and self-declared determination to be a revisionist historian, perhaps I have set myself an impossible task. But I have set you one too, I have no doubt.

And for those who fear that I may have set myself up for a libel suit, I say two things:-

  1. In 2005, Professor Yosef Gorny wrote[9]:

Prof. Avi Shlaim concluded the comprehensive interview with Meron Rapoport by describing Israel as an “Ashkenazi trick,” Indeed, speaking as historian to historian, I ask Shlaim: Is there another example in history in general and in modern history in particular, of such a brilliant and successful “trick”? … And personally speaking, as a child who arrived in Israel three years before Shlaim, and as someone who was also happy with his sabra friends – I thank him for making me proud to be an Ashkenazi Zionist. Israel a trick? See what I mean by “delusional”?

  1. Bring it on. My address for the service of defamation proceedings is easily obtainable from the Internet. Just one problem: in the Jerusalem Post in July 2012, David Harris  wrote of “Avi Shlaim’s Anti-Israel Slime”. I have not traced an action for libel against David Harris.

© Howard Epstein – November 2017

The author’s book, Israel at Seventy: In Weizmann’s Image is available now from Amazon in paperback or as a Kindle e-book. (See overleaf)

As Israel reaches its seventieth birthday, it is timely to consider the story of its indispensable founder, Chaim Weizmann. Statesman and scientist, it was Weizmann who saved the British Empire from defeat in World War I, kindled the hope for the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland, after an absence of 2,000 years, and was then instrumental in securing what was needed to establish the State of Israel and its future as a technological powerhouse. Weizmann may be said to be the world’s first 20th century – even 21st century – man. If any aspects of modern life became supremely important last century, and remain so in this, they are science & technology and networking. Weizmann’s chemistry, both in the laboratory and with a wide-range of key people, led to his four great political coups, each essential to the emergence of the State of Israel. In addition, he pulled off three crucial educational feats that secured Israel’s future and ensured its success – in his image. In the case of the political achievements, only Weizmann could have wrought them. In the case of the others, only he did. Despite these signature successes, today little is known of him and what he achieved. Why this should be so is revealed in a tale of rivalry between two political giants: Weizmann, the greater talent, but the older, and his nemesis, David Ben-Gurion.

Amazon USA – Paperback

Amazon USA – Kindle E-Book keywords=israel+at+70

Amazon UK – Paperback

Amazon UK – Kindle E-Book



[2] director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University and president of the Jewish Studies Association

[3] Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University

[4] from the Rosenberg Foundation

[5] executive director of the non-Jewish PEN America Center




[9] Professor of Study of Zionism and head of the Zionist Research Institute and former head of the Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism at the Tel Aviv University see

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