Sir Martin Gilbert

A brief moment to pay tribute (and give thanks) to a giant who passed away this week.

Looking over the nine pages of books Sir Martin Gilbert has listed on Amazon, it seems amazing that he was only on this planet for a mere 78 years.

Gilbert came to prominence as the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and a number of his dozens of works cover Britain’s legendary Prime Minister or weave the Churchill story into the author’s other favorite topics: British, World War II, Jewish and Israeli history.

The obits published since news came of Gilbert’s passing highlight the astounding scope and quality of his work, with this short piece providing a telling anecdote regarding his qualities as a scholar and human being (a simple and powerful lesson in an age when debates over academic discourse have devolved to defending the right of professors to spew expletives on Twitter).

Since I’ve read far less of Gilbert’s work than the many people covering his passing, I’d like to simply give personal thanks for one of his slimmest volumes: The Routledge Atlas of the Arab Israeli Conflict (one of many Atlases he created, others covering British, Jewish and World War II history).

While not every picture manages to tell a thousand words, a well-constructed map (with accompanying detailed labels) can explain and illustrate narratives that might take chapters to describe through prose alone.  And when those maps fit together to tell a true story, that story becomes not just convincing but compelling.

I discovered this almost twenty years ago when I began my journey on the road to activism by taking a class at a local adult education organization on modern Judaism.  Word had it that the teacher had issues with the Jewish state (a condition I later learned afflicts a number of Jews in my part of the country), but given that the course was described as offering lessons on bringing Jewish meaning into one’s life, I decided to give it a go (especially given the lack of both meaning and Judaism in my own life at the time).

No sooner had the first class commenced, however, that the teacher’s hostility to modern Israel began creeping into almost every discussion.  And while I tried to grin and bear it (despite having self-identified as someone searching out his Jewish and Zionist identity at the start of the class – which upon reflection probably got me pegged), once discussion moved to Middle East history, it was time to act.

I think it was at the eight minute mark of a description of the 1948 war consisting solely of Jews dumping Arab bodies down wells in Dar Yasin that I put my foot down (not rudely, but firmly) and asked if I could be allowed to fill in a few holes in the history being presented the following week. And given the informal nature of the class (not to mention the general unease of my classmates over who/what to believe) I was given the green light to go forward.

Keep in mind that this all played out during an age previous to our current “Powerpoint uber ales” era, which meant I would have to make an accurate and compelling presentation of Israel’s actual history with words and black-and-white photocopied handouts rather than dancing bullet points, animated timelines and downloaded talking heads.

Fortunately, my anchor was Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Arab Israeli Conflict.  And as much as some of my classmates (as well as the teacher) did not want to believe the story these maps so clearly laid out, their ignorance and craving for a different narrative could not withstand the power of truth so elegantly and eloquently spoken on the pages of Gilbert’s atlas.

Now I wish I could say that this presentation turned everyone in the room into ardent Zionists, but that would be a stretch.  By the time the class ended (after several more sessions that included the ongoing tale of Israel – facilitated again by Sir Martin’s maps) the class had dwindled to half its original size, and most of those who remained (including one I ended up dating) could best be described as confused, rather than convinced.

But given that the teacher was clearly hoping to replace confusion with his own inappropriate and inaccurate storyline, I think it’s fair to call the thwarting of that effort (which included, I learned later, some reflection by the teacher himself over whether his approach to the subject was appropriate) a success.

And suffice to say, I owe it all to Martin Gilbert who educated me to a point where I was able to educate others.

And his work goes on.  For when my eldest son recently watched his favorite history blog (CrashCourse) as its narrator made a foray into Middle East politics, it was clear to him that something was wrong.  And rather than doing going down the Dad/Activist route and telling him what was missing (which would be everything that has ever happened in the Middle East outside of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians), I simply pulled Martin Gilbert’s atlas off the shelf and gave them to him, with the expectation that the stories they tell will help him think for himself.

So as a lover of history, as a Jew, as a Zionist and as a parent, I’d like to stop and say: “Thank you Martin Gilbert.”  For while he probably could have cranked out another dozen books had he lived as long as Churchill, the contributions he made to scholarship, truth, history, the British and Jewish people have already assured his immortality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.