Ex-West Bank mayor in Berkeley visit, says Jews must study Arab culture

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Twelve years ago, Israeli Menahem Milson oversaw the daily activities of 1 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Today, as dean of humanities at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he's steeped in academia.

The two positions are not as incompatible as they might seem, Milson said.

As head of civil administration for the territories — the equivalent of mayor — Milson oversaw health conditions, economic growth and civilian life. As dean, he provides young Israelis with the background to possibly serve in the territories as he did.

Titles and responsibilities will certainly be different in the new Middle East map carved out by the peace process. Nonetheless, Milson says an understanding of Palestinian culture is as crucial for Israelis working in the territories today as it was for him 12 years ago.

Milson spoke of the need to study Arab culture amid the shift in the Middle East's political climate during an interview following the recent conference on "Origins of Modern Jewish Studies: Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem," in Berkeley. He was in the Bay Area shortly before the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"When you're taking care of olive groves and getting crops to the market [like I did], it makes a great difference to know holidays, customs and language. It makes it possible to bridge the gap of political rivalries," Milson said.

Tension was high 12 years ago. The Palestine Liberation Organization was powerful. Since then, the Gulf War weakened the PLO and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has denounced terrorism, he said.

Milson is hopeful these changes and the Oslo Accords represent "the ushering in of a new era." As a result, academics have a new responsibility.

"It's our obligation to train more students familiar with Islam, language and culture to serve as diplomats, translators and teachers," Milson said. "Business will also require people conversant in all aspects of Palestinian life."

Milson never planned for a career in government, never mind the military, which placed him in the territories from November 1981 through September 1982.

Milson, 62 and a native of Haifa, studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University and completed graduate and doctorate work at Harvard University.

He began teaching in the department of Arabic language and literature at Hebrew University in 1963. But on several occasions Milson was pulled out of academia to serve his country — a rather common occurrence.

Several Hebrew University professors took sabbatical to serve in positions of leadership, Milson noted. For example, a law professor acted as legal adviser to the state and a political science professor served as director general of Israel's foreign office.

In 1976 — long after completing his required two years in the military — Milson was called back into service by then-Minister of Defense Shimon Peres. Milson became the No. 2 adviser of Arab affairs. In 1981 he returned as head of civil administration.

According to Milson, his services were requested because "I'm what some call an Arabist.

"I was trained in language and culture and Islam. To serve an Arab population responsibly, one needs to know language and civilization. That is why so many professors have been called to do this."

Milson's education in Arab culture and Islam began in grammar school. The principal, whom Milson refers to as "a real Zionist, came to Israel before Hitler" and insisted that Jews learn Arabic, the Palestinian language.

Milson loved the challenge. But it was only when he grew older that he realized "studying Arab and Islam would enable me to serve my country better.

"It's sounds so trite I'm almost embarrassed to admit," he adds.

Nonetheless, as a result of his fluency, Milson found himself translator to Egypt's late President Anwar Sadat during the Egyptian's historic visit to Israel on Nov. 20, 1977.

Milson calls the trip, and Sadat's salute to the Israeli flag, "the first step in the peace process" — setting the stage for educators like himself to prepare the next generation for such service.

In the future, no university graduates will hold titles like "head of civil administration," because the Israeli government is dismantling that piece of the military service system.

Milson envisions providing the background for counselors, ministers, ambassadors and cultural attaches instead. That service will prove invaluable, he says.

"Looking back, I believe a lot of what we [Israeli military leaders] did was conducive to the present situation [i.e. the peace process]," Milson said. "Back then I was looking to protect those individuals already considering peace with Israel and distancing themselves from terrorism…Today the most delicate matters are [understanding] cultural ones."