Earning sympathy for Zionism from intellectuals is a thankless task. Why are Noam Chomsky and Peter Beinart so critical of Israel, while their less academically-gifted brethren tend to sympathize with the Jewish state? Could it be that elite universities in America imbue their most promising Jewish students with a leftist bias? Perhaps, but why does this situation repeat itself in Israel, where the intelligentsia also tends to support dovish positions?Could it be that dovish positions are smarter? This is a dubious claim to make in the light of how events in Palestine have played out during the last 20 years. Could it be that dovish positions are more ethical? Given the grief and bloodshed brought upon both Jews and Arabs by their realization, this is also questionable.
The enigma deepens, when we reflect on three Jewish demographic groups during the last two decades which had foresight in their geopolitical predictions. Sephardic Jews, Russian immigrants and the religious Jews of the Diaspora are constituencies which opposed the Oslo peace process and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
How could their skepticism have been so right, while the promises of the intelligentsia proved so delusional? Could it be that Israel is the sole country that denies knowledge its predictive powers?
In order to address this question it is necessary to redefine knowledge. Does earning PhDs in Middle Eastern Studies from elite universities guarantee acquisition of a genuine understanding of Arab countries or Islam? Does hobnobbing with Arab intellectuals or spending a semester in Amman or Cairo enable a Westerner to really understand Muslim culture?Academic credentials are crucial in being considered an expert on the Middle East both in Israel and abroad. But could it be that in Israel the real experts on the Arab world often do not possess such credentials?
I strongly believe that if Israel had taken the knowledge and experience of its elderly Sephardic population more seriously, Israel could have spared itself many tears. Any Sephardic Jew, who spent decades in Arab countries ranging from Morocco and Yemen to Lebanon and Iraq, understands Arab culture and Muslim values better than even sterling graduates of Oxford and Harvard.
The same principle applies to vindicate the wisdom of Russian immigrants. Russian Jews nurtured on a Soviet propaganda machine that pontificated daily about international brotherhood while subjugating its citizens, knew how to distinguish substance from propaganda far better than the Israeli elites.
It was not – as leftist Israelis claim – the Russians’ lack of experience with democracy, but precisely their love of freedom, which made them deeply suspicious of Arafat’s intentions early on in the Oslo game.
The support of Diaspora religious Jews for hawkish positions has also been attributed to ignorance and fanaticism. This is yet another mirage of the leftist intelligentsia. In the Diaspora, religious Jews tend to be more knowledgeable about Israel than secular Jews. They study longer periods in Israel, they usually have more family members living in Israel, and they travel more often to Israel. Their hawkish positions are thus the product of knowledge and interest, the complete opposite of prejudice and ignorance.
Perhaps bias needs to be sought elsewhere. Perhaps the cognitive dissonance is to be sought in those unable to grasp the unique circumstances of the land of Israel. In those who indiscriminately apply theoretical models when passing judgment; in those who think in terms of philosophical schemata and political conventions rather than grounding their judgment on enlightened commonsense and a trove of personal experiences.
In the light of these realities, perhaps the time has come for even Jews to reassess the importance owed to academic credentials.