The same week our president received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, I met with American historian, writer and poet Robert Conquest. He was there before Peres. In 2005, he received this medal for his groundbreaking research on Soviet history, which he began in the 1950s. This was at a time when most of the West, with its numerous intellectuals, was under the Stalinist spell, blinding them from seeing the atrocities taking place in the utopia called the Soviet Union.
Earlier still, in 1993, he received the Jefferson Lecture award, the highest honor bestowed every year upon a single person in the U.S. for his accomplishments in the humanities. Conquest is currently in Israel to receive the prestigious Dan David award (whose namesake passed away this year), together with Tel Aviv University.
Forty years after its publication, Conquest’s groundbreaking book, “The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties” remains one of the most influential studies on Soviet history. It was translated into over 20 languages, but not into Hebrew. And perhaps this is our whole story in a nutshell: There was not a single publishing house in Israel that would publish the many works of one of the brightest conservative intellectuals of the twentieth century (barring one, to which we will return later), in face of the deluge of Neo-Marxist literature that overtook most of the syllabi in Social Sciences and Humanities In Israel. Conquest would have also most likely had difficulties securing a teaching position in any of the institutes for higher education in Israel.
The only book from his literary yield to be published in Hebrew was "Reflections on a Ravaged Century" (published by Dvir Press, with the excellent translation by Yaniv Farkash), subtitled in Hebrew as “The Twentieth Century: The Story of Ideologies that got out of control”. Do yourself a favor, buy this book and study it. At times it seems that Conquest wrote it about the reality in Israel.
This July, Robert Conquest turns 95. This man, born before the Balfour Declaration, was educated at top educational institutions, including at Oxford. During the Second World War he served in the British Infantry. When the war ended, he joined the Foreign Office and swiftly made his way to the Information Research Department (IRD), set up to counter Soviet propaganda by means of data collecting from “reliable sources” on the crimes of Communism. Conquest left in the mid-1950s and devoted his time to academic and literary writing, which yielded 32 books up to the present time.
The Golan – vital to Israel
One of the decisive points emphasized by Conquest was the failure to recognize threats in time, due to thinking that you can understand others by using the same criteria you apply to yourself. The problem is exacerbated when democracies are faced with totalitarian or almost totalitarian regimes. In his book he writes: “The true criticism of Neville Chamberlain is that he could not really imagine a man like Hitler or a party like the Nazis. ‘He's a good fellow and 'twill all be well’…is a parochial and limited attitude when it comes to foreign politics.”
Conquest recounts that those who raised the alarm about Hitler in the 1930s were accused in the media and the academia of being immoderate and unreasonable; “The concept of a quite different set of motivations, based on a different political psychology, was absent.”
In my interview with him, held the day after he received the award, I ask him if this means, in fact, that people presuppose that there is a basis for negotiations with every rival or foe. “That is indeed the danger of political thinking, and not only that,” Conquest responded. “They think they also have the same history, even the same ideas.”
Conquest was referring to his writings about the essential difference between different political psychologies and different political and cultural traditions. "We are much more dependent on our cultures than we think. Each country is populated not only by its citizens but also by ghosts from the past, phantasms from imaginary futures, or saints from lands outside time,” he said.
Can one apply these insights to Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians?
“Many problems are sometimes created by agreements," he said, nodding. "Some are redundant. Like in the case of the Golan Heights – anyone who has been there understands that it had to be taken. Sometimes you must take something from the other side.” At this point, Conquest’s wife joined the conversation and remarked that her husband often states in interviews that anyone who was in the Infantry – as he was - would see that the Golan was vital for Israel and could not be given up.
And what about Iran? Is the treatment of Iran by the West flawed due to this misunderstanding?
“The Iranian culture is not the same as the people who are in charge. Namely, Iran has a solid cultural background. However, at present it is not governed by a normal type of government but by a fanatically ideological and particularly stupid one. We don't know all the people at the top of the Iranian leadership. It is rumored that there are some moderates.”
Is Israel’s fear of Iran justified?
"It is thoroughly justified. Israel is not the 'bad guy' in this story. In any case, Israel is not going to attempt to attack the world –it is not a new empire.” When I asked whether he was making a reference to statements made by Gunter Grass on Israel, he responded sharply: “Gunter Grass sounds absolutely frightful, ghastly, and stupid, as well. Mixed up. His heart isn't working. His mind isn't either.”
In your books you speak of democracy in the abstract. What is democracy in your opinion?
“Democracy is very useful as a particular operation, as a tool. The term does not indicate how it handles things. It doesn't necessarily carry the culture. When democracy was introduced in the West, in ancient Greece, the rule of the citizens wasn't one hundred percent what you call democracy today. And if you look at the development of democracy in the English tradition, you see that it did not come about through formalism nor as result of a revolution. The Western, democratic or pluralistic culture is not flawless. It is continuously in a process of adaptation and debate, as well as hesitation and confusion.”
CNN has some really stupid people
The conversation on democracy as an abstract term and as a modus operandi leads to the turmoil in the surrounding Arab states, which started out as the “Arab Spring”.
What do you think of the chances for change in the Arab countries? I asked. He responded that as a historian, the question I asked “doesn't really work. You cannot ask what happens tomorrow.” When I persisted and asked how he sees the unfolding events, eighteen months after they erupted, he replied: “I am not an expert on the culture of Arab countries but I know two things: They differ in their attitudes and opinions.”
Mentioning the Iraqi coup d'etats 70 years ago, he added, “The Iraqis were far worse than the Egyptians today.”
“If we look at what happened in the last thirty years in Mubarak's Egypt, and we look at what happened in communist Russia, it is not the same but we can see some similarities. The Arab Spring was different from the Soviet Spring, since the Soviets are not as deeply cultured in one sense as the Arabs are. The general culture of Russia, the Soviet ideology, is collapsing and is 90% gone.”
According to Conquest, whoever rules these countries does not consult the masses. And apparently there are fanatics in all countries, with the idea that they must take over and perpetuate themselves. They seem to take over each other like in the medieval crusades. “They seem to be very good at taking power, but it is not clear what they will do with it," he said.
I reminded him of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, standing in Tahrir Square and hailing the revolution in Egypt, which he declared had nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. Conquest smiled and I then compared this to the writings of another New York Times journalist, Walter Duranty. In the 1930s, Duranty's reports supported the falsehoods of the Soviet culture, which denied the reality of famine and political cleansing. Duranty even won the Pulitzer Prize for "Objective, in-depth news reporting, clean of prejudice, sober of judgment and of unusual clarity."
Conquest wrote that due to these supposedly-reliable reports, the American public did not receive an accurate report, only the conclusion that any report on famine must be an exaggeration or malicious propaganda. Conquest nodded in recollection of the support Duranty received when he came back from New York. I asked whether he thought that the Duranty phenomenon has followers or supporters in world media today. “CNN has some really stupid people,” he answered in a hushed tone.
In his writings, Conquest mentioned other Western correspondents and citizens who delivered accurate reports on the situation (as opposed to Duranty and his ilk). And so the world was faced with two narratives on the famine (and Stalinist massacres). Why then should the vast majority of the intellectual elite believe the false report? It is irrational to readily accept a report on which so much conflicting evidence exists, and which evades investigation of its central issues.
I told Conquest that his description fit not only the 1930s but was also applicable to Israel of the 1990s, in regard to the Israeli public's manner of accepting the Oslo Agreement, the concealment of the true intentions of Yasser Arafat and his comrades, and the silencing of the voices objecting to the agreement.
Mirror Image of McCarthyism
Conquest was often critical of academic circles, and reproached their blind support for communism to the point of concealment of its crimes. It is possible that "academics may in the long run have been more influential even than people like Walter Duranty in peddling falsehoods. If only for their particular claim for special knowledge and to the disinterested pursuit of truth. Moreover – politicians, the media and the public took them seriously." Conquest reminded us that in the 1930s, when Soviet rule was at its worst, the "major validation of the enormous set of falsifications with which this was concealed came for the first time from Western academics from the highest standing." Sarcastically he remarked that "political science does not sufficiently take into account those other categories of reasons for political error: vanity, credulity, sophistry, and all their combinations."
Conquest also spoke of the harm caused by McCarthyism in the mid-twentieth century as those who exposed the Soviet cells of influence within Western academia were denounced and subjected to slander and professional persecution. Conquest termed this phenomenon "mirror-image McCartyism". After bringing dozens of examples of academic claims pertaining to the Soviet Union that were easily refutable, he ironically proposed obligating students to study a course on the naivete of the intellectual elites, even in theological seminaries.
I asked about Eric Hobsbawm, who was obsessed with taking apart the idea of nationalism. In passing, I mentioned our own Shlomo Sand, who wrote a best selling book on the invention of the Jewish people, and a more recent book on the invention of the Land of Israel. Unsurprisingly, Hobsbawm and Sand are both communists. I asked Conquest what they both have against the idea of nationalism.
“Hobsbawm was not a good scholar, but a narrow-minded person who subordinated himself to an ideology. There is a televised interview of Hobsbawm on the BBC from 1994, during which he was asked to justify his long membership in the Communist Party. The interviewer, Michael Ignatieff, then asked: 'In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?' Hobsbawm deliberated a while and eventually answered: 'Probably not…Because the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. …It turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure.'"
"Ignatieff then said: 'What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?' Hobsbawm immediately said: 'Yes.'"
And yet, despite these harsh remarks, his ideas are even more dominant than your own in certain Western universities.
“I don’t take it seriously. Indeed, quite a few students are more conservative than their professors."