With less than three weeks to go before his talk at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, journalist and political analyst Gil Hoffman is keeping his options open on the details of what he will discuss. His subject — peace in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Iran — is always a fast-changing topic, but never more so than now.
“That’s what makes it exciting and fun,” he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview on March 6, part of his privilege as a journalist with “a front row seat, writing the first draft of history.”
Hoffman will share his “front row” view on Monday, March 28, at the third program of the second annual University Lecture Series sponsored by the JCC in partnership with Kean University in Union, Drew University in Madison, and The Jerusalem Post, the paper for whom he serves as chief political correspondent and analyst. Hoffman is also the Israel correspondent for this newspaper.
The first lecture in the series is at 7:30 tonight: Prof. Monique Eckmann of the University of Applied Sciences-Western Switzerland and currently a Fulbright professor at Kean will talk about right-wing extremist movements, discussing how young people are drawn into them and how to respond.
The second lecture, on March 17, will be given by Rabbi Dr. Allan Nadler, professor of religion and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew. His topic is “Jews Don’t Burn Books or Do They?” He will explore the little-known incidents where Jews have done just that.
Abuse of democracy
For his talk, Hoffman has stuck to his title — “Peace, Politics, and Plutonium: An Israeli insider’s look at efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran and advance Mideast peace.” He considered changing it a few times, to bring in “pyramids” as a reference to the drama unfolding in Egypt, or “democracy” to take in the tide sweeping the region, but given its ongoing importance, went back to his original emphasis on Iran.
Hoffman, who was raised in Chicago by Israeli parents, lives in Jerusalem. In addition to the roles mentioned above, he is a regular analyst on CNN, Al-Jazeera, and other news outlets and has lectured in eight different countries.
Asked if recent events in Arab countries had taken him by surprise, he responded, “Why ask me?” Even in the inner circles where he moves, it seems, no one foresaw the upheaval about to erupt. He was at a briefing with military intelligence the day before the rioting in Egypt began, he said, and when the speaker — a senior IDF officer — was asked if there was a chance of an uprising there, he answered with an emphatic, “No.”
Hoffman said there had been some hope that the changes sweeping the Middle East might cool the attention on Israel, but that rapidly dissipated. As ever, Israel remains in the hot seat, not least because of its alliances in the region. Hoffman was emphatic that Israel has no cause to feel guilty about its connections to leaders despised by their people. “It’s not up to us to decide who their leaders should be,” he said. After all, the United States had also formed ties with those leaders. “If they were tyrants, then fine,” he said. “We needed all the help we could get.”
He pointed out that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was the only leader trusted by both Israel and the Palestinians. The man slated to step in as head of the Egyptian army is fiercely anti-Israel. And, Hoffman said, “Now we have an American president who isn’t trusted by either side.”
But for all the realignments under way, Iran remains the greatest threat, Hoffman said. Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu has been taking every opportunity to make the point that what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing to his people is worse than anything done in the other countries facing pressure to change.
The Iranians, Hoffman said, had tried to rise up against the regime before and the West failed to support them. “There is always hope for them, but now it has become a lot harder,” he said.
There is no predicting what democracy could bring to the region, he said. In the past it has been abused, with leaders trampling on the rights of the people, as Hamas has done in Gaza. “We hope that it can develop gradually, and be used wisely,” he said.