DATE June 11, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Raja Shehadeh discusses what it's like living in
Ramallah under Israeli occupation
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Later in the show we're going to hear an interview with Israeli historian
Michael Orrin, who has written a new history of the Six Day War, the war in
which Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, as well as other territories.
First, we're going to hear from a Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer
who lives in the West Bank, in the town of Ramallah. Raja Shehadeh is the
founder of the human rights group Al-Haq. His book "Strangers in the House"
is about coming of age in the occupied territory of the West Bank. In late
March, as Israeli tanks rolled into Ramallah, he began keeping a journal of
life during the incursion. The incursion was part of the Israeli operation to
root out terrorists in response to the suicide bombings. Shehadeh is
currently visiting the US, where he was invited to participate in a conference
held by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. I spoke with him
Welcome back to FRESH AIR. Apparently, you woke up to surprising news this
morning. What happened?
Mr. RAJA SHEHADEH (Writer/Human Rights Lawyer): I called my brother and heard
from him that they hadn't slept all night because--and I was sorry to hear
that also his six-year-old was also awake. His four-year-old slept through
it, but the six-year-old woke up, and they heard tanks rolling into Ramallah.
And, you know, tanks make very loud noises. So tanks rolled into Ramallah,
and then in the very early morning they heard on the loudspeaker that curfew
is imposed, and now Ramallah is once again occupied and under curfew and
arrests are taking place. And demolitions and sounds--when you're in your
house, it's difficult to determine what is exactly happening. You just hear
sounds and you don't know what is really taking place. But they're under
GROSS: Your wife was at a conference in Egypt when Israeli tanks moved into
Ramallah a month ago, and it took a few days, I think, before you were united.
Is she with you now in the United States or is she in Ramallah?
Mr. SHEHADEH: No, she is with me in the United States visiting her family in
Quincy, Illinois. In the first instance, she happened to be away. We knew
that something was going to happen, but Anthony Zinni was still in the area,
and naively we thought the Israelis cannot possibly occupy Ramallah while
he's, you know, going back and forth to Ramallah. So she was invited to a
conference, and it was important for her to go academically. So I said, you
know, `Just take the opportunity and go,' and then the occupation began and I
knew we made a mistake.
I mean, obviously eventually she'd be able to come back, but being a
Palestinian and having endured years and years of families split and long
operations of family reunion which very often never materialize, I was very
disturbed. And at the same time, I was alone in the house during this last
occupation for two weeks, so it was literally like solitary confinement.
GROSS: During the incursion you got a phone call from your brother that
Israeli soldiers had taken over his house. What did he tell you?
Mr. SHEHADEH: This was a most shocking thing because I got this phone and he
was whispering, and I said, `Why are you whispering?' and he said, `I have
Israeli soldiers in the house.' I said, `In the house?' He said, `Yes. They
came in the morning, broke the kitchen window, opened the door, and I found
them inside the house.' And he lives in a building, apartment block, and he's
on the ground floor. So the soldiers took him and he acted as a human shield.
And they went up to all the families in the building and brought them down.
And then they put everybody in my brother Samuel's(ph) house in three rooms.
And then they started searching the apartments.
In one apartment they found shells, and they came down furious. They said,
`You were the people who shot at us,' and the owners of the apartment said,
`We didn't shoot at you.' They said, `Yes. Here's the proof. These are the
empty shells.' So they said, `Will you just let us show you something if you
allow us to go back to our apartment?' They went back to the apartment. The
soldiers had been in their apartment in a previous invasion and they had made
a mess. They broke a plant pot and the floor was full of the soil. And one
soldier had written them a little note saying `Sorry for the mess. I hope we
meet in better times.' He wrote this in English, and it was on IDF paper. So
they told them, `Here is what happened. Soldiers had come to our building.
They left this note. They shot. The children found these empty shells in the
garden and collected them.'
GROSS: And the Israeli soldiers accepted that as an explanation.
Mr. SHEHADEH: Of course. They had to accept it when they saw the note and
they realized it couldn't be forged because it was on IDF paper. But...
GROSS: Well, let me ask you, does that give you any more of a sense of
confidence or respect for the Israeli soldiers? One Israeli soldier left this
nice note of apology, hoping to meet again in better times. The other Israeli
soldiers accepted that these shells were from Israeli soldiers from a previous
incursion. I mean, you know...
Mr. SHEHADEH: You know, one clings to moments like these...
Mr. SHEHADEH: ...and examples like these to find humanity in the other side.
And it has been a process of dehumanization. You know, we started with an
entirely different relationship between the occupier and occupied, and it has
been deteriorating and deteriorating. And the deterioration then began to
speed up because the soldiers who had come just a few weeks ago to the
building and left this note had the decency to apologize for the mess, which
is a very nice thing to do. Now the next time the soldiers came, they let the
people out and stayed in an empty apartment. The last time, they literally
stayed in the apartment of my brother and his family with them. So while they
were watching television, the gun was pointed at them.
GROSS: You describe your own experiences during the occupation as being like
under solitary confinement in prison. Describe a little bit about what it was
like in your house. How long were you confined to your house?
Mr. SHEHADEH: The confinement continued for the entire occupation, which was
about four weeks. And we were let out every four--between four to five days
to do the shopping. And the first two times, Ramallah was not replenished
with food, so we couldn't find fresh fruits and vegetables, and everybody was
rushing about. And, of course, the destruction in the town was quite dramatic
because they had used tanks all over the place, they had gone into buildings
and so on. And, of course, you heard a million stories about what was
happening and who was killed and who died a natural death and couldn't be
buried. That was another problem. You know, there were people who had, you
know, corpses of family members who had died and they could not be buried, and
they had to live with them for days.
And then we would be, again, put under curfew after a few hours of lifting the
curfew. And it was both a painful physical and psychological experience
because the entire day and often the entire night you would hear shelling and
sounds of bombs exploding, and you wouldn't know what is happening. And, of
course, they did random searches of many houses, and so you were constantly
under threat of your house being searched. And also there was a lot of
looting, unfortunately, which is a new phenomenon that we hadn't experienced
in the past with the Israeli army. And then, of course...
GROSS: Who was doing the looting? You're saying the army was doing the
Mr. SHEHADEH: The soldiers.
Mr. SHEHADEH: The soldiers. Yeah. And then, of course, you heard all the
explosions taking place, and you heard from people that they were entering
offices and taking the hard disks from computers and doing a lot of
destruction. And so, of course, you were wondering all the time whether your
own business--in our case, our law office--was going to be entered into or
not. I have several friends--actually Al-Haq, the human rights organization
which I helped establish in '79, was taken over. Offices of two friends were
entirely destroyed. Large number of institutions and clinics and places where
there were, you know, data for all kinds of things, including patients'
information, you know, were destroyed and information taken. Cultural centers
were entered into. So you sat in the house and you wondered, are they going
to come into your house? Are they now searching your office and destroying
In the beginning, of course, I was very worried about my brother and, you
know, the others sort of manage. The problem is the young, and he has a
four-year-old and a six-year-old, and with the soldiers with them day and
night, it was a violation of their world that afterwards they continued to
have nightmares for a long time.
GROSS: Did any Israeli soldiers enter your house?
Mr. SHEHADEH: No.
GROSS: And did any close friends or any members of your family suffer any
Mr. SHEHADEH: Fortunately, they didn't, and although I have--my uncle is an
old man and he lost his sight a few years ago, and my mother is an old woman,
nobody needed any kind of medical care throughout the period, in my family, so
I was very fortunate.
GROSS: When you were confined to your house and the only way you had of
getting information was through the telephone or the television, when the
television was working, or radio, I suppose, what was it like for you to watch
the story unfold on TV while you had to stay in your house?
Mr. SHEHADEH: I tell you, the first day, which was a Friday, I watched the
television all the time. And we have now the Arab satellites and they were
reporting everything. And in the beginning, the journalists were allowed to
have--you know, to move around, so they were reporting everything. It was
very, very weird because we were experiencing in real time along with all the
Arab world, because everybody else was watching. And it was, I mean, very
strange because it was happening in Ramallah, in my town, but I was seeing it
And it was extremely scary, of course, because in one case, for example, we
saw the reporter from Nile Television, an Egyptian station, and suddenly he
was shot. And you realized what was happening, and then suddenly he was on
the ground and his--the journalist next to him was trying to revive him,
trying to call an ambulance and screaming for an ambulance, and all the time
the photographer was continuing to photograph. So, I mean, it was
nerve-racking, absolutely nerve-racking.
In a way, I was saved by the fact that the electricity was cut and so I
stopped watching television. And then I realized I cannot go back to watching
television all the time. I started watching only twice a day, in the morning
and in the evening, and nothing more. And then in my case, I decided
regardless of everything around me that is happening, I am going to go on with
my work, and I just became fanatic about work. I sat...
GROSS: What kind of work did you do?
Mr. SHEHADEH: Well, I was working on a manuscript editing a work of fiction
that I was doing, and I had the program of when I was going to finish. I
finished in time. And then I got an e-mail from The New York Times--they
wanted an op-ed, and I started working on that. And then I got all--I was
working on the diary, and then I was asked for other articles. I was
constantly busy with work and actually worked more than I ever worked because
I had all day and all night to work, and I was alone in the house, so there
was no distraction.
GROSS: If you're j...
Mr. SHEHADEH: But for me it was a challenge. I wanted to defeat the purpose
of the Israelis, which was to dehumanize me, to reduce me, and I decided I
will do exactly what they don't want. I will continue to be productive. I
will not be a man reduced.
GROSS: My guest is Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian writer and human rights
lawyer. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Raja Shehadeh. He's a
Palestinian human rights worker and lawyer. He's an author. His latest book
is called "Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine."
He's also been keeping a journal of what life was like since the recent
Israeli incursion into Ramallah, where he lives.
As a Palestinian human rights activist, what do you think about when a fellow
Palestinian becomes a suicide bomber? What do you think about when a teen-age
man or a woman blows themselves up to kill Israelis?
Mr. SHEHADEH: Well, I think there are several aspects to the problem. There
is first the aspect that I've had to struggle with a lot, which is: What kind
of rage has brought a human being, and usually a young human being, to the
point that he's willing to give up his life and blow himself up along with
people who he has no right to decide should die? You know, very often it's
old women, young women, young men, children. I mean, it's haphazard. Who on
Earth has the right to decide that the lives of a number of people should end
at a certain point? That--I mean, it cannot be acceptable. At the same time,
the question is: What kind of experience has brought him to the point when he
is able and willing to do this?
Usually, he is in his early 20s and sometimes younger. His experience has
been of oppression at every point, no possibility to think of a future.
Probably he has seen the army kill or maim or do an action against his family,
his friends or something. He has also not had an experience of Israelis as
human beings, because since the Oslo, the occupied territories have been
closed off from Israel, which wasn't the case before. And the first suicide
bombing took place in 1994. There was none of this before the Oslo, and Oslo
is 1993. So in the past, there was no restriction on movement. Everybody
could go in and out. Israelis came, Palestinians went to Israel and there was
an experience of the other as a human being. But somebody who does an
operation now of this sort would never have encountered Israelis except as
soldiers, except as oppressors, and so he would be full of rage.
GROSS: Now you say that you think Israel's motivation in the incursion into
Ramallah is to dehumanize Palestinians and prove to them that they have no
future in that land. Israel says its motivation is to end terrorism, to tear
apart the terrorist infrastructure and stop the suicide bombings. What do you
think of that part of Israel's motivation, what Israel says it's about? Do
you see the Palestinian suicide bombers as being part of the cause?
Mr. SHEHADEH: No, I don't see it that way simply because I don't believe for
a minute that Israel is really defending itself by these incursions, because
it's the fourth strongest army in the world fighting in the streets of
Ramallah against commercial centers and against houses full of civilians who
are unarmed. And I don't believe for a minute that Israel's fight is really
for defending itself because Israel is not under threat of going away. I
mean, we've never heard of a country in recent history being destroyed, and
certainly a power such as Israel is not going to be destroyed by a few angry
young men who blow themselves up in civilian areas.
At the same time, I think that the way to prevent the extremism is by
preventing its cause, and to remove the cause, we have to remove the Israeli
presence, which has stifled our life and made it impossible. Otherwise, we're
not going to finish with this. There's no two ways about it. And we look for
countries such as the United States, who has a stake in Israel and a stake in
the region. We would hope that sanity would come from a country like the
United States, who would say--I don't know how they can muster the political
will to say, `Enough is enough. We have to end this problem.' And ending
this problem can only be by dividing the country into two states and
dismantling the settlements and giving the Palestinians their rights. I mean,
it's quite simple and straightforward.
GROSS: Have you had any disappointments in the Arab leadership?
Mr. SHEHADEH: Well, you know, I don't know about Arab leadership, because I
would speak about Palestinian leadership.
GROSS: Palestinian leadership, yes.
Mr. SHEHADEH: Yeah. Yeah. I've had disappointment with the Palestinian
leadership, of course, because I don't get the cue from what the Israeli or
the US administration is saying about reform. We the people in Palestine have
been speaking about reforms for years and years and years. And it's not
something that we would want in order to please anybody else. We want it
because it's important for our life. I am a lawyer, and I can say the
judiciary under the Palestinian Authority has been in the worst state than
ever before. There's no justification why it should be that bad. I also
think that if we had a strong leadership able to make policy and implement
policy, we would avoid the interference of so many other parties who do not
have necessarily our interests.
So, yes, I am disappointed with the Palestinian leadership, but I also
appreciate that what Israel is putting forward, which is that reform of the
Palestinian leadership is a pre-condition to getting into--is just another
obstacle which Israel has put in the past--you know, I mean, they put various
obstacles and this is just another one of them, so I don't buy that. And I
see the two things as separate. We need reforms, but we also need
GROSS: You're in the United States for a brief visit to do some speaking, to
participate in a convention. Are you anxious to get home or would you just as
soon stay away for awhile? I'm wondering if you ever think about leaving
Ramallah, moving someplace else so that you wouldn't be subjected to this.
Mr. SHEHADEH: I'm very anxious to go back. I'm, of course, anxious to go
back and see my house intact and not destroyed. You know, Ramallah and
Palestine is my place. It's the place where I feel comfortable. It's the
land which I like. It's the people I've always lived with. And, yes, life
has been very difficult in Ramallah. It's--I mean, I've been under
occupation--lived under occupation for 35 years. It's never been as difficult
and as dangerous as it is now and as frustrating as it is now. But, no, I
will not leave.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I hope you
stay safe. Thank you very much.
Mr. SHEHADEH: Thank you. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer. His
latest book is called "Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied
Palestine." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, Israeli historian Michael Orrin discusses his new book "A
History of the Six Day War,"(ph) in which Israel captured the West Bank and
Gaza, as well as other territories. And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the
expressions `moral equivalence,' `moral relativism' and `moral clarity.'
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Michael Orrin discusses his new book "Six Days of War"
and the events leading up to today's Israeli-Palestinian conflict
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Earlier, we spoke with writer and Palestinian human rights lawyer Raja
Shehadeh about what his life has been like in the West Bank town of Ramallah
since the Israeli incursion. My guest, Michael Oren, is an Israeli historian
who has written a new book about the Six Day War. In this war, Israel
captured, among other territories, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Oren's
book is called "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern
Middle East." He's American born and moved to Israel shortly after the Six
Day War. He has served as director of Israel's department of interreligious
affairs in the government of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and as an
adviser to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. Let's start with how
life in Israel has changed in the wake of the suicide bombings.
Mr. MICHAEL OREN (Author, "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the
Modern Middle East"): Well, on one hand, we go about our normal daily
activity. We go to restaurants. We go to movie theaters. Our kids go to
school. It hasn't curtailed our usual routine. On the other hand, we're
always aware of the dangers, and we're always weighing the dangers. So if
you go to a certain restaurant that has been in the proximity of suicide
bombers in the past, you think twice about going there. And you're very
curious to see what kind of security arrangements they have. Many restaurants
in Jerusalem today have security guards, have gates where they can buzz you
I also have a son who's in the army, and I don't necessarily know where he is
in any given time. Just this week, when there were 13 soldiers killed in a
suicide car attack against a bus, for many, many hours of panic, we didn't
know where he was, whether he was among these soldiers. So it's a constant
source of anxiety and a factor for rapid aging.
GROSS: How do you feel about his being in the army now?
Mr. OREN: Where he is in the army, I feel good about it. I know that he
feels good about it. I know he's not confronted with moral dilemmas. He
feels very strongly about what he's doing. I feel a certain kind of onus in
the sense that I moved to Israel. I was raised in the United States. That
was my decision. He was raised as an Israeli, so what for me was sort of
voluntary and optional is for him obligatory and a national commitment. And
there's a certain amount of onus in that.
GROSS: Do you think that the Israeli incursions into the territories are an
effective way of stopping the terrorist infrastructure?
Mr. OREN: Oh. Well, first I don't think you can stop the terrorist
infrastructure. I don't think anybody reasonably thinks that you can stop
terrorists solely through military means. Certainly the United States
government doesn't feel that way in its war against terror. Obviously the
only long-term solution to terror is a diplomatic political solution, and the
only people who can really stop terror, ultimately, are the Palestinians
themselves. This doesn't mean that military responses to terror cannot
contribute to lessening the terrorist phenomena, can reduce the number of
suicide bombings, simply make their work difficult for them.
I think it's also important for a sovereign state that when its citizens are
attacked, when they're injured, the sovereign state responds in some forceful
way. Again, the American paradigm is very relevant here. America, in
striking back at Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, wasn't under the illusion
that somehow this would kill al-Qaeda, but it would certainly send a message
to people who support al-Qaeda in the world that if you are a regime that's
going to give shelter to these type of terrorists, then there's a price to
pay. And it's very important that Israel also exact a price for terrorist
GROSS: There's a counterargument that goes like this, that Israel's
incursions in the occupied territories are creating more suicide bombers
because the suicide bombers--it's so both low-tech and free-lance you don't
need a big infrastructure, you don't need a lot of long-term planning. So the
more angry young people there are amongst the Palestinians, the more potential
suicide bombers there are, and Israel has created a lot more angry young
people. Your reaction to that argument?
Mr. OREN: Well, I understand the argument, and there is certainly an element
of truth in it. However, it's a situation that we've faced since our creation
in 1948. We've experienced terror--almost daily basis. People have a very
short historical memory. As an historian I chronicled terrorist attacks
virtually from the day of Israel's creation. And what's going on today, and
perhaps its degree, is more intense, but certainly the number of terrorist
attacks--and I recently wrote this book on 1967, and in the months before 1967
there were hundreds of terrorist attacks. And if Israel never responded, it
has never been proven that that lack of response to terror would somehow
reduce the terror. On the contrary, that maintaining an element of deterrence
has proven effective in reducing the number of terrorist attacks. I stress
reducing and not eliminating.
In the immediate aftermath of Israel's Defensive Shield operation there was a
radical fall-off in the number of terrorist attacks. And terrorists who have
become prisoners to Israel, have failed in their suicide attacks, have talked
about the difficulties, the tactical and logistical difficulties, they've had
in mounting these attacks since Israel's recent operation.
I wish, Terry, we could speak in absolutes, that I'm saying if Israel
retaliated, then the terror would stop. But we are deeply into the area of
gray where things are not necessarily always black and white.
GROSS: Do you feel you can justify putting an entire population basically
under solitary confinement for the duration of the incursions?
Mr. OREN: Well, I think we're placed in a position as a society whereas we
may be very uncomfortable with this, and no one likes being in the position of
occupier, that we really have no choice. We didn't bring this upon the
Palestinians. The Israeli perception is the Palestinians brought this on
themselves, that Israel made an equitable offer to the Palestinians back in
2001 at Camp David and then at Taba(ph). The Palestinians responded with
terror, with violence. And this has forced us to clamp down on the
Palestinians in a way that nobody really enjoys, but we really have no choice.
I served in the Rabin administration in the earlier half of the 1990s, and
there was a significant amount of terror then as well, several hundred
Israelis killed. People forget that during the Rabin period. And that is
when Israel began to close off and put up Palestinian cities, began to limit
the number of workers who came into Israel, established checkpoints. And it
was always a very painful, difficult decision 'cause we had embarked on what
we thought would be a process, ultimately, of reconciliation between the
Israelis and the Palestinian people. It didn't happen. It is unfortunate.
GROSS: You served in the Israeli army during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Mr. OREN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You've written about that a little bit, and you say, `If it came down
to a choice between upholding Israel's higher moral standards or returning
home to my new wife, which would I pick?' When did you have to make that
choice? Talk a little bit about the dilemma that you faced.
Mr. OREN: Well, Israel faces a dilemma. The Israeli soldier faces a dilemma
in going into an Arab town where he knows there are snipers, he knows there
are gunmen. And most armies in the world, and I include the United States
under that rubric, will send in its bomber forces, B-52 bombers, and level
the city. This is why the United States had no major casualties in Kosovo or
in Afghanistan. Israel army puts a high...
GROSS: Wait, wait. Let me stop you for a second. 'Cause I think...
Mr. OREN: Hmm?
GROSS: ...the United States made a point of trying to not attack civilians in
those bombings. Whether they were successful or not, that was the official
Mr. OREN: Always you try to avoid civilian casualties in the United States
Army and in the Israeli army. The question is the degree to which you're
willing to risk your own soldiers' lives...
GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK.
Mr. OREN: ...to protect civilian lives. And I do not think--and correct me
if I'm wrong--that the United States sent in ground forces into Kosovo into
civilian areas. They preferred to bomb from 35,000 feet. And there were
several thousand civilians killed as a result of that. Those civilian deaths,
I would imagine, could have been severely reduced, significantly reduced, if
the Army had gone house to house rather than bombing from the air. This is
what Israel chooses to do.
GROSS: So what was the specific dilemma you faced when you were in the
Mr. OREN: Well, I was often in a Jenin-like situation. I went through many
villages in Lebanon where there were snipers, where snipers were causing
casualties to our men. I was often a target of them. And there's a tendency
while you're sitting, you know, under a collapsed building with your head
down--'cause you can't keep your head up for more than a second, and you're
there for hours--you say, `Well, why don't they call in the air force? Why do
we have to do this?' And at that point your military education kicks in and
you recall why you have to do that, because this is what we're about. This is
what we're about as an army; it's what we're about as a society.
GROSS: My guest is Israeli historian Michael Oren, author of a new book
about the Six Day War. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Oren. He is an
Israeli historian. He's lived in Israel for about 25 years. He was born in
the United States. And he's the author of the new book "Six Days of War:
June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East."
Let's talk a little bit about your book. The '67 War is the war in which
Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza.
Mr. OREN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And so a lot of the conflict now dates back to that '67 War. What
questions did you set out to answer when you undertook writing this history?
Mr. OREN: Well, here's a war that was very short, very limited in its
geographic scope. And I can think of very few examples in history where such
a limited, intense conflict had such profound regional, and even global,
ramifications over the course of now 35 years. We're dealing--not just in the
Middle East, but throughout the whole world we're dealing with the outcome of
this war. And, indeed, every major even that has occurred in Arab-Israeli
relations since '67--you know, the Yom Kippur War, the war of attrition, the
Lebanon War, the peace process, the whole question of Israeli settlements, the
status of Jerusalem--all of that is an outcome of these six intense days of
fighting. So the question I set out to answer was: How did it happen? How
did we get from there to here?
I was fortunate because at the time that I started writing many Western
archives that observe what's known as the 30-year rule. After 30 years they
begin to declassify formerly top-secret documents, began to release these
documents. And I was able to gain access to tens of thousands of these
papers. And that significantly changed certainly my interpretation of the
war, things I never imagined. It was quite an eye-opener.
GROSS: Give us an example of one of the documents that changed your
Mr. OREN: Well, there was a--for a long time in the history field there was
an assumption that the Arab calls for war against Israel, President Nasser
saying he was going to destroy Israel, other Arab leaders saying they were
going to throw the Jews into the sea, was really only so much rhetoric, and
the Arabs really never had any operational plans. And going through the
documents, both Israeli and Arab, I began to come across actual operational
plans by the Egyptians to launch a surprise attack against Israel, an air and
ground attack, on May 27th, 1967. That's about nine days before Israel
launched its surprise ground and air attack.
And then there's the whole story about why this attack didn't take place. It
was a complete fluke. It was the Israelis operating on a hunch, telling the
Americans that really in the night between the 26th and the 27th, that they
think that the Egyptians are going to move. The Americans, President Johnson,
informed his counterpart in the Kremlin, Kosygin, who, in turn, sent his
ambassador to wake up Nasser in the middle of the night and said, `Don't you
And on the basis of that threat, Nasser canceled the operation. Now had that
operation gone off, the Middle East would have looked very different than it
would look today.
GROSS: One of the contested issues about the 1967 War is: Was Israel's
strike against the Egyptian army an act of aggression or an act of
self-defense? With the documents that you've uncovered, how would you answer
Mr. OREN: I think the '67 War was largely a case of misperceptions and
miscalculations. We know now from Egyptian records that Nasser didn't exactly
want to go to war, even in spite of his often bellicose rhetoric. What he
wanted to win was a bloodless political victory.
On the Israeli side one was hard-pressed to try to convince Israeli leaders
that Nasser's warlike rhetoric was only just that, rhetoric, and that he
didn't mean to do exactly what he said. Moreover there are Arab armies
gathering on all of Israel's border, not just on the Egyptian border--on the
Jordanian border, which is Israel's longest and most vulnerable, and then on
the Syrian--army from the Golan Heights. And then there were Arab contingents
arriving from 21 Arab states. So there was a tremendous sense of war frenzy
in the Arab world. Israeli leaders were uniform in thinking that if they
don't act quickly and act first that the future survival of the state was
indeed in jeopardy.
GROSS: After the war ended and Israel was left with new territories,
including the West Bank and Gaza, was there controversy within Israel about
what to do with that land?
Mr. OREN: We have to recall that what later became known as the Six Day War
was originally conceived by the Israelis as a 48-hour limited operation that
really only had two objectives: to eliminate the Egyptian air force in a
surprise attack on the ground and to neutralize the first of three Egyptian
defense lines in Sinai. That's it. No conquering the whole Sinai Peninsula,
no taking Gaza, no seizing the West Bank and Jerusalem, no capturing the Golan
How the war got out of control, how it snowballed from that original plan, is
a compelling story. It represents a big chunk of what my book's about, and
it's one of the major questions that I sought to answer. In the aftermath of
the war, on June 19th, 1967, less than 10 days after the cease-fire, the
Israeli government voted to return all of Sinai and all of the Golan Heights
in return for full peace treaties with Egypt and Syria. Well, that offer was
effectively rejected by the Arabs when they met at their summit meeting in
Khartoum at the beginning of September, where the Arabs voted no peace, no
negotiations, no recognition of Israel. So Israel's initiative was stillborn
One of the major revelations of the book is the secret Israeli plan, in the
summer of 1967, to canvass Palestinian leaders in the West Bank regarding the
possibility of creating an autonomous Palestinian entity that could possibly
evolve into an independent Palestinian state. Eighty Palestinian notables
were interviewed that summer, as I said, secretly, about the possibility and
each of them came back, more or less, with the same answer. They said, `Gee,
you know, we'd really like to be autonomous. We'd love to be independent
someday. But if we make a treaty with Israel at this time, Arab radicals will
kill us. We'll get a bullet in the head.' So that initiative also withered
on the vine and never got anywhere. But it's interesting that 35 years ago
Israel was dealing with questions of Palestinian statehood, Palestinian
autonomy and independence. And a great opportunity, I believe, was lost.
GROSS: Would you argue, after writing this history, that it would have been
in the Arab states' best interests to recognize Israel after the Six Day War
in an exchange of land for peace?
Mr. OREN: It's easy to operate in hindsight. The Arab world in 1967 was, in
many ways, a different world than it is today, and there was a different
dynamic. I believe that many Arab leaders--King Hussein, for example, and
even Nasser at certain times--were genuinely interested in reaching some type
of accommodation with Israel. An earlier research that I did was on the
secret peace process between Egypt and Israel in the 1950s. Between 10 and 15
years before '67, Nasser was secretly writing letters to Israeli leaders and
saying, `Listen, I'd love to make peace with you, but if I do they're going to
chop my head off, so I can't do it.'
Unfortunately, the dynamics and the environment in the Middle East hadn't
changed significantly in 1967 and Arab leaders could not come out publicly and
say they wanted peace. That dynamic began to change with Sadat's historic
visit to Israel in November of 1977, and that has really opened the way to a
peace process, which, though, it has had many vicissitudes and many pitfalls,
today still remains the only real show in town.
GROSS: What are some of the ways that you think Israel's victory in the Six
Day War and Israel's occupation of the territories that are conquered changed
Mr. OREN: Well, it changed Israel. It changed the entire Middle East.
People tend to forget that the Six Day War was fought by Israel with French
arms, not with American arms, and there had not been a strong or close
strategic relationship between Israel and the United States before that. Ben
Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel, never once set foot in the White
House. As a matter of fact, only one Israeli prime minister, the Prime
Minister Levi Eshkol during the war, visited the White House approximately
once for one hour before 1967. After 1967, the United States began to view
Israel as a strategic asset and began to develop a defense relationship with
it. And that has become a predominant factor in Middle Eastern politics
today. And that really began with '67.
It is also--the '67 War also brought, for the first time, Palestinian
populations in the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel proper together under one
rule--under Israeli rule. And it had the tremendous impact of developing and
formulating a Palestinian identity. It also--the war also heralded the end of
Arab nationalism in its purest form, Nasserism, as the predominant political
idiom in the Middle East and opened the door for the development of Islamic
ideologies which today predominate. And it also ended the Arab-Israeli
conflict as an intrastate conflict--principally a conflict between
Israel-Syria, Israel-Jordan, Israel-Egypt and began the development of an
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's not by accident that in 1968 the PLO,
which had really been a shadow organization before the war, emerges as a
serious force in Arab politics and that Arafat takes over that organization in
But more to the point it created a division with Israeli society that has
widened over years, that really for the last 30 years, the major issue
dividing Israelis has been the future of these territories almost to the
distraction of any other issue--our economy, our society, religious, secular
relations. And in that way the impact of '67 was deleterious and was
injurious to Israeli society.
GROSS: Michael Oren is the author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the
Making of the Modern Middle East."
Coming up, Geoff Nunberg reflects on the expressions `moral equivalence,'
`moral relativism' and `moral clarity.' This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Use of moral relativism, moral equivalence and moral
clarity in political language
TERRY GROSS, host:
Since September 11th, we've been hearing a lot about the need for moral
clarity in our foreign policy, but our linguist Geoff Nunberg tells us that
the word `clarity' always makes him a little nervous.
The historian David Green once observed that in political language the supreme
achievement is to make what is partisan and temporary seem universal and
timeless. However unconnected the questions on the table seem to be,
repealing the estate tax, parity for women's sports programs, the existence of
global warming, we want to think we can consult the same basic principles to
determine how we ought to think about them. That's what expressions like
`moral relativism,' `moral equivalence' and `moral clarity' are supposed to
accomplish. Gives the impression that your political positions all follow
from a few basic ethical axioms like the theorems of arithmetic.
Of course, some people might become a little wary when they see the word
`moral' in the name of a political doctrine. It's like seeing the word
`natural' on a cereal box. That was the trouble with Jerry Falwell's phrase
`moral majority.' It gave moral a crudely sectarian meaning where it seemed
to come down to a matter of how you spent your Saturday nights and Sunday
mornings. But the right has made much more effective use of the word `moral'
in other phrases.
Take `moral relativism,' the favorite epithet for the left's ostensible
refusal to recognize absolute standards of right and wrong. It's an elastic
phrase. At one point or another conservatives have charged the left with
relativism or situational ethics for countenancing homosexuality, pornography,
euthanasia, abortion, affirmative action and drug use. When it comes to the
crunch, in fact, the sense of morality here may not be that different from
Falwell's. But talking about moral relativism seems to put the objections on
a philosophical rather than a theological plane.
`Moral equivalence' is used with pretty much the same rhetorical intent. One
conservative commentator described it as the ultimate affliction of the
liberal mind. The phrase was popularized by Jeane Kirkpatrick during the Cold
War as a way of condemning criticisms of US actions and policies, as in `Are
you saying we're no better than they are?' But since the fall of communism,
it's become a catchphrase for denouncing anything that smacks of undue
evenhandedness, like giving too much coverage to civilian casualties in
Afghanistan or referring to a cycle of violence in Israel as if the
Palestinians were merely responding to Israeli attacks.
Then there's `moral clarity.' That isn't exactly a new phrase, but it has
acquired a specialized meaning in recent years, particularly since September
11th. William Bennett uses it in the title of his new book "Why We Fight:
Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism." Bennett defines moral clarity as the
rejection of both moral relativism and moral equivalence in favor of a morally
unambiguous foreign policy. When Bush called on Israel to withdraw its troops
from the occupied territories, for example, Bennett accused him of wandering
from moral clarity, a charge echoed by Paul Gigot and William Kristol.
Critics have objected to the doctrine of moral clarity as an oversimplistic
approach for a world where states are often forced to dine with the devil, as
Michael Elliot puts it in Time Magazine. But my own problems with the notion
are more pedestrian than that. Like most expressions that contain the word
`clarity,' this one gets a little cloudy when you hold it up to the light.
It's hard to see how you can reject moral equivalence at the same time you're
rejecting moral relativism, since those notions are actually at odds with one
The point comes up quite frequently in my household. `Dad,' my daughter
complains, `how come I have to clean up my room when your desk is always a
mess?' I tell her that that sounds suspiciously like moral equivalence to me.
You can't compare my delinquencies with hers. It's really no different from
the way I might argue that civilian casualties caused by American bombs in
Afghanistan aren't comparable to the deaths caused by terrorists. But in
either case, when I reject moral equivalence, I wind up embracing moral
relativism or situational ethics. The same acts can be acceptable in one
context and unacceptable in another.
Not that I'm a dogmatist. There are times when I find it convenient to reject
moral relativism in favor of moral equivalence, a position I usually
articulate as `We don't have different rules for kids and grown-ups in this
house.' Sophie always responds with the obvious objection, but her heart
isn't in it. She's learned that broad moral principles are made to be applied
in situationally flexible ways. People are willing to embrace moral
relativism when it comes to excusing toxic dumping in Africa or working
conditions in Indonesia, then wind up taking a firm stand against that
doctrine when they're arguing in favor of applying the three strikes law to
somebody who breaks into a garage to steal a bicycle. Crime is crime.
Is that an inconsistency? Not really, unless you're pretending that the
complexities of moral judgment can be reduced to categorical rules of thumb.
That's what drives people to come up with distinct phrases to fuzz over the
inconsistencies. When you do it, it's moral relativism. When I do it, it's
the repudiation of moral equivalence.
Left or right, political rhetoric has always had the job of concealing
internal contradictions. And for those purposes, few words are better suited
than `clarity.' Even after Nixon made a national joke out of `Let me make one
thing perfectly clear,' clarity is still out there throwing up smoke. As the
French poet Henri Mechanique(ph) once said, `Clarity, was there ever a notion
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of
Language and Information, and he's the author of the book "The Way We Talk
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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