On March 28, the School of Public Affairs and the Center for Israel Studies welcomed Israeli academic and public intellectual Daniel Gordis to give the prestigious Amos Perlmutter Lecture, named for a longtime political advisor to the Israeli government, and beloved SPA professor of political science from 1972 until his death in 2001.
During the lecture, Gordis talked about the way current leaders of Israel lack Menachem Begin’s hopeful vision, despite the fact that they frequently invoke the late prime minister’s name. Gordis called Begin a “unique figure who did not leave any political heirs.”
Gordis recounted the seeming contradictions of Begin’s remarkable career. Saught after by the British as a terrorist, he was a firebrand who rejected partition in 1947. He remained Likud party leader despite losing eight elections in succession. Once in power, he wrong-footed critics by signing Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab state. He later resigned after leading Israel into a divisive war in Lebanon in 1982.
Gordis said Begin differed sharply from his successors in three ways. First, the Polish-born prime minister was among the last generation to be educated in a European liberal-arts university. Gordis noted that Shalem College in Jerusalem, where he is senior vice president and the Koret distinguished fellow, is the only liberal-arts institution in Israel. Other Israeli institutions are characterized by a “parochialism” that limits their graduates’ vision, he said.
Gordis said Begin saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a conflict over territory.
“It has become a religious conflict that does not permit compromise,” said Gordis. “People once fighting over land are now fighting over principle.”
Finally, Gordis said, Begin and Israelis of his generation believed that peace was possible. Today’s Israelis do not hold that hope, Gordis said, nor do they believe that the world community supports the idea of a sovereign Israel.
Pressuring Israel through economic boycotts and the like is exactly the wrong approach, Gordis said. “Desperate societies do not make compromises.”
“Amos would have loved this lecture,” Saul Newman, Chair of SPA’s Department of Government, who was a friend and colleague of Professor Perlmutter.“He was an expert on Menachem Begin and wrote extensively on the challenges of nurturing visionary leadership in an unstable Middle East.”