History professor long way from Israel

The Arab-Israeli conflict is perhaps one of the most complex situations in the world and David Tal has come from his home in Tel Aviv to share and continue his research on the subject by joining the University of Calgary as Kahanoff Chair of Israeli Studies.

“Certainly, people are very, very uninformed,” said Tal. “Not only the general public, but even academics are influenced by what they see on TV, what they read in newspapers . . .usually it is the very present event and . . . in many cases they don’t see the process that leads to that situation, they don’t understand the context.”

This semester is Tal’s first at the U of C. He received his PhD in History from Tel Aviv University, where he subsequently taught from 1995-2005. He then accepted positions at Emory University in Atlanta and Syracuse University in New York before coming to Canada this past July.

“I’m still in the process of getting to know what is going on around me,” Tal grinned. “Canadians are very nice people, [and] this university looks like a very good one . . . my colleagues [have] welcomed me in a very warm way.”

Tal has been a popular invite across Canada, having spoken at Montreal’s McGill University, Queen’s University in Ontario and the University of Ottawa, among others. Recently Tal gave a talk hosted by the U of C’s International Relations Club based on one of his books, Israel’s Conception of Current Security: Origins and Development, 1949-1956.

Tal explained that historians must consider how people understood the events happening around them at the time, not just the objective realities we see today.

“As a historian I have an access to documents that they didn’t have, and I have access to events that surround them in a way that they didn’t have,” he said. “But it would be wrong to judge them in their mistakes. [Myself] knowing that reality has nothing to do with what the people of the time knew.”

Though he has many academic responsibilities, Tal told the Gauntlet that the focus of his work is ultimately driven by his own interests.

After writing two books about Israel and editing a third, he decided to challenge himself by researching a topic he was not familiar with. His book The American Nuclear Disarmament Dilemma, 1945-1963 was published in 2008. The book addresses the question, ” Why did the United States first attempt to negotiate disarmament and fail?”

“On the one hand, the United States, like other nations, were strongly committed to the idea of disarmament for . . . ideological and moral reasons,” Tal explained. “But, dramatically, they were not ready to give up nuclear weapons. So the dilemma was to bring together these two issues: the moral values and the military and strategic necessity.”

“Despite the fact that, in my work, I’m not writing as an Israeli but as a historian . . . to a great extent [writing this book] was an interesting experience,” he continued. “It reflects also in my work on Israel [regarding] how to approach issues and how, really, to remain as objective as possible.”

Tal has just started researching a book on the 1973 war between Egypt, Israel and Syria. He plans to return to Israel whenever he can because many documents and books needed for research are there — not to mention it is his home.

The U of C library has offered funds to buy books in Hebrew, so Tal plans to enrich the library with some when he returns from Israel. He also says the university may possibly offer Hebrew classes in the future — something that might be useful for students wishing to read Hebrew books.

Tal is enthusiastic to continue his research and organize programs and events as the Kahanoff Chair of Israeli Studies at the U of C.

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