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  • The Isaiah Berlin Public Lectures in Middle East Dialogue:An Introductory Note
  • Emanuele Ottolenghi (bio)

Early in 2002, an anonymous donor decided to support Israel studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. It was then a difficult time for Israel in the world of academe: the funding of a post in Israeli Society, Politics and Law coincided with the launch of an academic boycott against Israeli universities that soon turned against Israeli nationals, regardless of their academic affiliation or political convictions. Teaching about Israel in a climate of reflection, detachment, and critical thinking was never as difficult as at that time, and supporting scholarship on the subject was not popular either.

In funding scholarship on Israel in Oxford for five years, the anonymous benefactor established two conditions: one, that the post be named after Italian Jewish anti-Fascist intellectual Leone Ginzburg; and two, that the beneficiary of the donation be in charge of a series of public lectures, named (with Lady Berlin's readily granted permission) after the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, whose prime purpose was to shed light on the current conflict and put Israel's predicament into the right context.

This remains a complicated task. The politics of conflict in the Middle East have made it so difficult to discuss the painful but crucial issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict with detachment. Hence, the aim of the Isaiah Berlin Public Lectures in Middle East Dialogue: to allow intellectuals, politicians, academics, and journalists,—that is, theoreticians and practitioners of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its resolution—to come to Oxford and speak their minds far away from the fields of battle, literal and literary, and reflect upon the conflict and its possible future directions without pushing an agenda, but trying to shed light on its tragic intricacies.

It is not, therefore, a coincidence, that the organizer's post was named after Leone Ginzburg, a victim of intolerance, prejudice, and racial hatred. [End Page v] The benefactor's aim was to emphasize the importance of critical knowledge, detached inquiry, understanding, and reflection for a subject as complicated and fascinating as Israel is: recent discourse on Israel has not infrequently been affected by hysteria, and vitiated by political agendas of all kinds. Naming a post after an opponent of totalitarianism calls for a commitment, first and foremost, to a scholarship that is devoid of self-serving agendas. At the same time, Sir Isaiah Berlin was a natural name for a lecture series aimed at promoting a better understanding of the rights and the wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict, both because of his commitment to Israel and his life-long endeavor as a champion of liberty.

Leone Ginzburg fought against a totalitarian ideology that made men slaves of a deterministic vision of history, where freedom of choice was denied and human responsibility belittled. Isaiah Berlin defended the notion of choice, sometimes agonizing choice, as the necessary precondition for a world where human beings could be free. But while Berlin championed freedom, he also understood that the seductive power of a metaphysical, all-encompassing vision of reality lay in its promise of "a final harmony in which all riddles are solved, all contradictions reconciled."1 Against the alluring but false promise of such perfection, Berlin put forward a more difficult, yet ultimately more realistic, offer: "[I]f we are not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found . . . we must fall back on the ordinary sources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for supposing . . . that all good things or all bad things for that matter are reconcilable with each other."2 When it comes to the context of the Middle East, for which Isaiah Berlin cared so much, the vision of total harmony is peace; the reality is conflict.

Sir Isaiah Berlin held an unshakable faith in liberty, yet knew its cost. He also knew the difference between what was desirable in a world of men, and what was possible. In his much-celebrated essay on Two Concepts of Liberty, he wrote that

The world that we encounter...


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