A lecturer’s unqualified bias
GRESHAM COLLEGE WAS the brainchild of Sir Thomas Gresham, a 16th-century merchant and financier who left a fund to be jointly administered by the Corporation of London and the Mercers’ Company for the purpose of instituting a programme of free public lectures by Gresham “professors”. The College was established in 1597 and has been fulfilling this promise ever since.
The Gresham professoriate has included many distinguished experts, not least in the field of law. From 2008 until 2012, the Gresham professor of law was Baroness Ruth Deech, an authority on medical ethics and an outspoken defender of the Jewish people. Deech was succeeded by Sir Geoffrey Nice, a barrister who is said to specialise in international criminal law. On October 7, Nice delivered, as Gresham professor, a lecture on “Gaza-Israel” that was so biased as to call into question the judgment of Gresham administrators in appointing him in the first place. I was not present at the lecture; but the text is available on the Gresham website and you can watch it on YouTube.
Since Nice is not himself a historian, of necessity he relies on secondary sources, and while I would have expected these to include a range of expert opinions, Nice in fact relies exclusively on the findings of just one historian, namely Avi Shlaim, whom he cites 18 times.
Shlaim (who refused to share a platform with me at the Belfast Festival back in 2010) is the doyen of the so-called “New Historians” of Zionism, the founding father of the historical school that insists that Israel was born in “original sin” (the alleged wholesale expulsion of Arabs), that there was no co-ordinated Arab plan to destroy the Jewish state at that time, and that the roots of the present tensions in the region are to be found in Israeli intransigence rather than in Arab obduracy. Shlaim’s controversial views have been expertly challenged by (among others) professor Benny Morris. But — presumably since Morris’s devastating critique does not suit Nice’s purpose — Nice ignores it. What is Nice’s purpose? Nothing less that to extol Shlaim’s opinion “that violence was the defining characteristic of the Netanyahu government’s approach to Hamas.”
There is absolutely no mention of the explicit anti-Jewish racism that underpins Hamas’s world view. No mention of its ambition to destroy the Jewish state. Repeated rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel are mentioned, but only in order to be explained away — excused, in fact — as retaliation for Israeli attacks upon Gaza and upon Hamas supporters in Judea and Samaria. More than that, Nice insists, Israeli leaders, both political and religious, have engaged in wholesale demonisation of Arabs “as a group”. He quotes some forthright pronouncements by the late rabbi Ovadia Yosef but utterly fails to put them in context. (In fact, Yosef is on record as having declared, during the Oslo negotiations that it was halachically permissible to give up sovereignty over parts of the Land of Israel, but only in exchange for a genuine peace).
Towards the end of his lecture, Nice does, in a perfunctory way, address the possibility that Hamas might itself have been guilty of war crimes. “There is a great deal of material (he admits) showing a clear intent to attack Israel as an enemy but only rarely are characteristics of dehumanising /potentially criminal hate speech revealed.” Actually, as the distinguished commentator Dr David Pollock has shown (on the Washington Institute website, 2012), Hamas media “are replete with violent images and exhortations to martyrdom, including explicit advocacy of terrorising, killing, and dismembering ‘Zionists’, whether soldiers or civilians.”
Nice is of course entitled to his views, however unbalanced and prejudiced, and to air them. But whether he was entitled to air them as a Gresham professor is a moot point. At the very least, his audience was surely entitled to know that he has acted professionally for the victims and families of those killed in the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, and that he has made no secret of his desire to see Israel brought before the International Criminal Court.
Perhaps the Provost of Gresham College (the distinguished historian of Nazi Germany Sir Richard Evans) can tell us why this necessary declaration of interest was not publicly made.
Nice is entitled to his views, however prejudiced