Born and raised in Israel, Einat Wilf is a former member of the 18th Knesset (Israeli Parliament). During her time in the government, Dr. Wilf was a member of the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. She also served as a foreign policy advisor to former Israeli President Shimon Peres. On Oct. 24, Dr. Wilf spoke to a modest crowd in Brandi Recital Hall. Entitled “Refuge and Refugees: Israel, Its Neighbors, and the Quest for Peace,” the event was co-sponsored by Kenyon Students for Israel and the Religious Studies, History and International Studies departments.
What’s the most important thing for a college student in the United States to understand about the conflict between Israel and Palestine?
I think the most important thing to understand is that the Arab-Palestinian perspective still is of the view that the Jewish people have no right to the land whatsoever — not a partial right, certainly not an equal right. No right at all.
What’s your assessment of the relationship between Israel and the United States?
It’s one of the strongest relationships between any two countries, anywhere. I know a lot has been made of the personal lack of chemistry from the American president and the Israeli prime minister. But I also think both the American president and the Israeli prime minister are incredibly smart people. They have about as opposing a worldview as two smart men can have. President [Barack] Obama’s worldview is positive, is trusting. He believes in the capacity of human reason to resolve conflicts, and you can always sense his disappointment when the world does not behave according to his high view of humanity. The Israeli prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] has a much more grim and dark view of human affairs, certainly when it comes to the Jewish people. He sees danger everywhere. He believes in the importance of power, in defending ourselves. I think it comes from their personal experiences, the historical experiences of their nation. America can afford to be trusting of the world — Israel and the Jewish people much less. I think that shapes their personal relations more than anything.
During the talk, we witnessed some of the strong emotions that are a part of this conflict on both sides. Why do you feel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is particularly salient on college campuses, and why are there such strong sentiments surrounding it?
I actually don’t know. It’s the biggest question I ask myself. I go and I speak, and I see the strong emotions everywhere in the world. It’s about a remote place where many people have no connection and have never been, and they have such serious opinions and emotions and have such deeply-held views. I could give a whole answer about history and culture and biblical culture, and this is a way for people to express themselves and take sides. Fundamentally, I don’t have answer about why so many people are obsessed. It’s clearly, why I care about it, but why does anyone else care?
How would you describe the the levels of anti-Semitism on campuses across the country?
They’re rising. I was in college 20 years ago; there was literally none. They’re rising under this new supposedly “respectable” way, which is anti-Zionism. No one will admit to hating Jews. We saw that today. I know a lot of people emphatically reject the notion that their views are anti-Semitic — they merely argue that they’re anti-Zionist. There’s no doubt that anti-Zionism has become the socially respectable way to experience the historical emotional pleasure of hating Jews.
How did you come to identify as a devout atheist? What was that process like?
There was no process; I grew up in an atheist family. A lot of Zionists and a very major strain of Zionism are atheist, because it’s about idea of the assumption of human responsibility. When people ask me what that means, I say it’s very simple. It’s the human knowledge that it’s not God who created man, but man who created God. I don’t deny that God exists, but he exists as a human creation, and ever since we created him he’s been a remarkable presence in human affairs — but not as an outside, transcendental being. I believe in the human capacity to act, human responsibility. Humans are it, and until we discover aliens, that’s what exists. We have to assume responsibility for that.
Former Israeli President Shimon Peres was described by the New York Times in his obituary (Sept. 27) as “having done more than anyone to build up his country’s formidable military might, yet having worked as hard to establish lasting peace with his neighbors.” Would you agree? How would you describe his presidency?
It’s true. He was about securing the future of the sovereign Jewish people. When building military might was the critical element of doing it, he focused on that. When he thought that the historical moment might be ripe for ultimately securing it through peace — and this is also what my talk here was about — really we cannot rely on force and power forever. We might need to rely on it for the next 200 years, but we cannot exist as long as our neighbors think of us as a humiliating eyesore. So, ultimately, our ability to live depends on the fact that our neighbors accept us as their own and as equals in their midst. I think Shimon Peres was remarkable for having tried, but I think he was probably a century or two too early.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.