Ian Lustick Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Coming to Terms with Israel: Conversation with Ian Lustick, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania; 3/4/02 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Lessons Learned

I'm reminded about what you said was your change of thinking back as an undergraduate or even before that, namely, that you have to come to the realization that what you think you know you don't actually know, or it has to be thought of in a different way.

Yes, you're right. I don't think it's a coincidence, although I didn't know it at the time, that the motto of Brandeis University is "Truth, even unto its innermost parts." Which actually is a traditional Jewish phrase, along with another phrase in Jewish tradition, "Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdot. Justice, justice pursue." Those are two themes that I try to follow, but I get satisfaction as an academic and as a person out of learning and teaching things that are surprising to people, and may be difficult for them to accept. It's not that I enjoy the pain that they experience, but I found my world so much more interesting and so much more exciting having gone through the process of understanding that I was only seeing a portion of it in a very distorted way before, and that afterward, thinking in a broader way, thinking in a way that always looks for universal patterns, or at least general patterns, and not assuming that one piece of human experience is totally isolated from all the rest, that this is a liberating experience.

Does it take courage to be Jewish and be a demystifier of power when it's exercised in a Jewish state?

You know, I've been attacked a lot because of this. I feel that it's a terrible tragedy that Jews get attacked for saying what I say. It is claimed that I'm a self-hating Jew and so on, for saying things critical of the government in Israel. But if it is the case that a Palestinian or even any non-Jew saying something like this is attacked even more viciously as an anti-Semite, then Jews who know, who are knowledgeable, have a greater responsibility to speak out. book coverThey have no right to keep silent.

People have said, "Boy, you are a courageous person." I don't feel that way. I love studying this. I remember thinking, "How come everybody isn't studying it? It's so fascinating." I have found so much satisfaction in being able to communicate intellectually with people about this, to engage their intellect, their critical faculties, showing them that what they deeply care about is best preserved by engaging those critical faculties, and not choosing one issue and saying, "I'm a brilliant lawyer ..." "I'm a brilliant actor ..." "I'm a brilliant playwright ..." "I'm a brilliant financier ... but when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, I don't apply my intellectual faculties." That is not the way they succeed in any of those areas, and they won't succeed in protecting Israel that way.

I've had so much success in communicating, and getting people to move a little bit beyond the way their thinking, that I don't think of myself as courageous, only as lucky to have so many opportunities to engage in that way.

I also feel that way about the country. There's no one who was more antiwar during the Vietnam War, and I was disabused in many myths I had about the country.

But consider this. Here is someone who studied one particular issue -- settlements in the occupied territories and how they would prevent peace -- and I don't think that anyone had studied this more than I had. And in 1989, I was called by the first President Bush to the White House for a closed discussion, "What should we do about this?" And for an hour and a half I got to talk to the president and his top advisors, and helped, I think, to convince them to give the kind of speech that James Baker gave to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], which led to the loan guarantees suspension, which led to the victory of the Rabin government, I believe -- Rabin over Shamir in the 1992 elections, and then led to Oslo.

So I feel that the country has opened the door to someone who wouldn't have much of a reason to believe could exercise that much influence. The idea that it may have taken some courage, again, that's not something that I feel, particularly.

One view of a social scientist is that you apply rationality, you publish a book and then go on to the next book. But very clearly in what you're saying is a notion of advocacy and seeking to help effect change beyond just the writing of a book. I'm curious whether you think what I just said is fair, and how you as a social scientist reconcile this concern about looking at a problem like a scientist on the one hand, and on the other hand, drawing on these emotions and passion to actually try to change things.

Well, Gramsci said you can't really have knowledge, discipline in science without passion. Nobody is going to sit at a bench for fourteen hours a day studying unless he feels that there's a real driving purpose behind it. A lot of science can be twisted and distorted by that kind of passion. The key for me, as I said earlier, is to set up a problem that stands on its own, so when you start to communicate about it, you can't tell what the solution to this problem is going to mean for the issue at stake. And the value of the science is in solving that problem. It may very well happen that as a result of solving that problem, you look at the problem of interest, the political issue, in a totally different way; but the science has to stand on its own.

It's also the case that sometimes I've come to conclusions, for example, in the early 1990s, that Jerusalem not only should be separated from Al Kuds, [but that] the Israeli idea of a united Jerusalem that's so large and expanded is not permanent, that it should be divided. What I wrote on that became quite influential in the Camp David and Taba negotiations, and basically now it is what the solution is going to be. But at the time, I was attacked by the left, by the moderates, for saying that. Even though I come to this [conclusion], I shouldn't publish it. Why? Because the right would be able to use the idea that the left was eventually going to divide Jerusalem in order to defeat them in the election. But I had come to this conclusion as a social scientist, and I was not going to delay publication because of that.

It was also the case that my book, Unsettled States, Disputed Lands, leads to certain advice, as I said, about how a government can get out of the territories. It was reviewed in the Israeli settler journal Neteuda extensively. [The reviewers] studied it, and they learned from it how to stop that process [of blocking the settlements], how the settlers in Ulster were so much more successful in the way they blocked British attempts to get out of all of Ireland than the French settlers in Algeria had been. The argument of the reviewer was, "We must learn from this, and therefore do that." And they did it.

So the point is that when you are doing good science, driven by whatever passion, if it's good science, it's available to both sides.

If students were to watch or read this interview, what does the story of Ian Lustick's intellectual journey tell them about what they should study, on the one hand, and on the other hand, how they shouldn't lose their passion for what they really care about?

One of the things I would say to students is that a lot of what's most important that's going on is not necessarily in the classroom, but in arguments and engagements that occur to you that are unsettling. You may not notice at the time that they've been unsettling, but try to keep some part of your mind focused on how you react, and on the things that are really surprising, contradictory to what you had always thought. Follow that. Work with it. Another thing I found is what my parents told me, that the main thing about your work is you should love it. There's plenty of talent around, there really is plenty of talent around. If you love something, chances are you're going to have talent in that area. The real difficulty is to find people ready to combine talent, commitment, and a personality that is capable of engaging with others in a way that shares appropriately. That's the problem, combining talent with a personal vehicle to carry it forward. That is, just go with what you love, and go with everything you've got after what you love.

Ian, thank you very much for spending this time with us today, coming back to Berkeley, and telling us about your intellectual odyssey.

It's been my privilege. Thank you, Harry.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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