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Kenny Kolander: Research Trip to Israel

Last summer, thanks to generous funding from the History Department, I had the opportunity to conduct two weeks of research at the Israel State Archives (ISA) in Jerusalem. The trip was a huge success – I found some very illuminating documents that significantly contributed to my dissertation. I was also able to experience life in Israel for a few weeks – meeting people, eating food, riding public transportation – typical day-to-day interactions. These interactions, along with experiencing Israeli culture more generally, certainly enriched my understanding of Israeli society, as well as my research material.

My area of specialty is U.S. relations with Israel during the Presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. In my dissertation, I argue that the U.S. Congress played a pivotal role in advancing a “special relationship” with Israel during the Nixon and Ford years; the “special relationship” refers to a U.S.-Israel informal alliance which is largely built upon cultural factors, political support for Israel, and foreign assistance that increasingly took the form of weapons sales. Importantly, the ways in which Congress challenged the White House on U.S.-Israeli relations impacted U.S. efforts to mediate peace agreements connected to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

My desire to research in Israel reflects a trend in the field of U.S. foreign relations – the importance of non-U.S. agency in shaping U.S. policymaking. To this point, scholars have yet to integrate Israeli documents from the 1970s into studies of U.S. foreign relations with Israel. I figured that if I could find discussion about perceptions of U.S. policies, as well as any efforts to influence U.S. policy, then I could potentially make a worthwhile contribution to the field. I hoped to answer questions like: How did Israeli officials view the efforts of the Ford administration to facilitate peace negotiations? Did Israel feel threatened by U.S. pressure? What efforts were made to influence U.S. policymaking? What coordination, if any, existed between the State of Israel and Jewish Americans? In the case of my research, I was specifically looking for any efforts made by the State of Israel to directly influence U.S. policy during a particularly crucial period of time, Gerald Ford’s “reassessment” of U.S.-Middle East foreign policy, which began in March 1975.

But I had a big problem – the sources are only available in Hebrew. I have zero ability to read Hebrew. So researching Hebrew-language documents at the ISA, while an interesting and appealing idea, seemed to be beyond my ability.

Thankfully, I managed to find a quality research assistant. My advisor, Dr. James Siekmeier, put me in touch with his friend, Dr. Gil Merom, who is originally from Israel and periodically researches there. Knowing many people in the area, Dr. Merom sent a message through the History Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and mentioned I was looking for a researching assistant. Jonathan Matthews, a graduate student who is fluent in English, Hebrew, and German, accepted the job.

Jonathan and I had a simple system. First, he would tell me the author and recipient of a document, followed by a brief overview of the document. Then, I would decide if I wanted to focus on that document or if we should move on to the next one. If I felt the information was relevant then we went through the entire document, word-for-word. He translated the document from Hebrew to English out loud, and I typed. In many cases a word or phrase did not translate very well to English, so we had to come to agreement as to the best way to translate into English without losing the purpose inherent in Hebrew. Idioms are the worst.

In addition to interpreting documents, Jonathan also helped me to better appreciate Israeli society, culture, and politics. With his background in Israeli history, both from studying and living in Israel, he had many insightful thoughts about Israeli officials that proved to be very instructive for me. Ironically, through our active discussions of the Hebrew-language documents (in addition to typing them out in English), I discovered that my understanding of the archival material from the ISA was beyond anything I had developed from researching English-language documents at a U.S. archive.

It helped that we stumbled upon a treasure trove of documents that are crucial for understanding Gerald Ford’s reassessment. Papers from the Israeli Office of the Foreign Ministry between March and May 1975 – the main period of reassessment – include extensive discussions between Jerusalem and the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. about how to best influence U.S. policymaking. The Israeli embassy worked tirelessly to explain the Israeli position to U.S. congressional leadership, and also used meetings with congressional assistants and lower-level officials from the executive branch to access important information, which was then sent back to Jerusalem. Additionally, the embassy coordinated its efforts with the leadership of the American Jewish community, and at times Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz even “prepared” individuals for their meetings with Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Ultimately, the ability of the Israeli embassy to work with American Jews and the U.S. Senate led to a May 22 letter signed by 76 senators that undermined Ford’s reassessment. Referred to by some Israeli officials at the time as “the spirit of the 76”, the letter was a tremendous achievement for Israel, thanks in large part to Dinitz, who first proposed the idea of such a letter to Foreign Minister Yigal Allon in late April. This source material forms the core of one chapter in my dissertation.

I also enjoyed sight-seeing in my free time. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, should not be missed. I was fortunate that my research guide, Jonathan, also worked as a tour guide for the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem, and he invited me to go along with one of his tour groups. He was a tremendous guide, and the wrenching, personal stories are both powerful and disarming. Eliza joined me for the last portion of my trip, and we spent time visiting Masada, Ein Gedi, the Dead Sea, and East Jerusalem. I compiled some useful tips for anyone hoping to travel to Israel:

  • If you go to the Dead Sea, do not put your head underwater. I know someone who did, and she was not pleased.
  • Avoid the sushi at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. You have to be thinking – why get sushi in Jerusalem? My response – why not? The Mediterranean Sea is not that far away. But proximity to the Sea does not mean good sushi can be found. Stick to the pita bread, vegetables, and Shawarma – the best of my life.
  • The number of cats in the market areas of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is just astonishing. They are everywhere. The reason, as one seller told me, is that without the cats there would be tons of rats. So be glad there are so many cats!
  • Stock up before Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, which is Saturday. Virtually all of Jerusalem shuts down. I learned. 
    • Also, do not try to make a frozen pizza on a hot plate.

My trip to Israel was a tremendous success, and I am very grateful for the financial support given by the History Department. I certainly encourage others to consider researching in foreign archives, even if that means hiring a research assistant, and to absorb as much of the culture as possible. You may be surprised by what you find.