Neil Caplan: Leading Canadian Authority On Mideast
written by Sheldon Kirshner

In this age of pop culture, you're more likely to have heard of the Spice Girls than Neil Caplan. But in the rarefied realm of Middle Eastern scholarship, Caplan's name evokes widespread acknowledgment and respect. Being modest, he describes himself as "an independent researcher who enjoys some credibility and a small reputation" among Middle East specialists. In actuality, Caplan, a 52-year- old political science professor in the humanities department of Montreal's Vanier College, is a top- notch scholar who gives new meaning to the hoary phrase, "publish or perish." Since 1978, he has written seven assiduously researched books and numerous monographs on the intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. By doing so, Caplan - the son of Nat and Mary of Cote St. Luc - has become one of its leading Canadian authorities.

A 1966 McGill graduate, Caplan burst upon the scene with Palestine Jewry, and the Arab Question, 1917-1925, a book based on his PhD dissertation at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Supervised by the late Elie Kedourie, Caplan's thesis offered a microcosm of the attitudes, situations and patterns which crystallized into enduring features of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Palestine Jewry and the Arab Question galvanized him to produce a series of related books, mainly under the umbrella title of Futile Diplomacy, about the efforts by Jewish and Arab leaders to reach a modus vivendi in strife-torn Palestine.

The first volume, entitled Early Arab-Zionist Negotiation Attempts, 1913-1931, was followed by Arab Zionist Negotiation Attempts and the End of the Mandate and The Lausanne Conference, 1949: A Case Study in Middle East Peacemaking. These works, in turn, spawned The United Nations, the Great Powers and Middle East Peacemaking, 1948-1954 and The Failure Of Anglo-American Coercive Diplomacy in the Arab- Israeli Conflict. Caplan's latest book, published several months ago in collaboration with Laura Zittrain Eisenberg of Carnegie Mellon University, is Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: Patterns, Problems, Possibilities.

The writing of these books, which Caplan calls a "lifetime project," has required him to be on an endless paper chase. As he put it: "I love digging up original documents buried in various archives around the world, and reconstructing the historical puzzle of the Arab-Israeli conflict by carefully piecing together what I think is a more reliable and balanced account of what happened and why people acted the way they did." Insofar as methodology is concerned, Caplan rigorously sticks to the facts. "Unlike the so-called 'new historians' or revisionists," he explained, " I try to avoid discussions of what might have or should have been, an approach which is usually ideologically driven."

Caplan, however, has a distinct point of view, as a reading of his newest work, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace, confirms. Two examples will suffice: "Zionism focused on Palestine, but largely overlooked the Arabs already living there, seeing them as residents of the larger Ottoman Empire but not as a Palestinian national people. As Jewish immigration and settlement increased, so did Arab opposition. The willingness of many Arab landowners to sell property in Palestine to Jews persuaded many Zionists that the Arabs would eventually reconcile themselves to the establishment of a Jewish state..."

Caplan contends that, notwithstanding the inherent irreconcilability of their respective aims, leading Zionists and Arabs met informally on dozens of occasions to thrash out differences. And he points out that direct Arab-Zionist contacts were in and of themselves not considered the breakthrough they seem today. None of the talks that took place between Zionist and Palestinian Arab representatives from 1919 onward were aimed at achieving "a mutually satisfactory solution," Caplan contends. Until the 1948 War of Independence, the political issues which dominated their discussions turned on immediate practical concerns like Jewish immigration and communal representation in self-governing bodies.

Looking back at the cumulative negotiating experience of Jews and Arabs over the past 80 years, Caplan reaches several conclusions: 1) Jews failed to appreciate the legitimacy of Palestinian Arab national sentiment and aspirations. 2) Arabs failed to recognize the legitimacy of Zionism and the Jewish yearning for a homeland. 3) The selfish interests and machinations of third parties, notably that of France, Britain, the former Soviet Union and the United States, undermined the chances for Arab-Jewish reconciliation. Contrary to popular belief, he goes on to say, the record also shows that merely increasing the amount of contact between the two sides did not necessarily increase the chances for successful talks.

Caplan, a graduate of Baron Byng High School who is married (to Marilyn Caplan, who works in the The Vanier College Learning Centre Ed) with two grown children (Benjamin and Hanna), has been drawn to Middle East issues since the 1967 Six Day War. "My interest in Middle Eastern studies evolved through three phases," he said. Before the Six Day War broke out, he was in the middle of an MA program in Canadian studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. "As a Jew, I found myself a news junkie, emotionally drained by reports of the buildup to war. I began to identify with endangered Israel, and sensed a looming threat through the lens of the Holocaust. Like most Jews, I was filled with joy and relief at Israel's lightning victory."

The second stage of his interest drew upon the Canadian, rather than the Jewish, component of his identity. "The mid-1960s were a time of intense introspection about the nature of the English-French partnership that made up Canada. I thought, at that time, that Canadian- style federalism might perhaps offer pointers toward a structural solution to the Arab-Israeli dilemma, and I applied to do graduate work in Middle Eastern studies with such a thesis in mind." During the last stage, in England, Caplan studied under such preeminent Middle East scholars as Bernard Lewis and P.J. Vatikiotis. "I also took courses to beef up my Hebrew, and learned some Arabic." As well, he accepted a fellowship at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

At Vanier College in the 1970s and 1980s, Caplan taught courses about the Middle East. In recent years, though, he has moved on to more Jewish content courses turning on the Holocaust and "Jewish world views." Caplan plans to spend (a small portion of Ed) the 1999 academic year at the Hebrew University, where he intends to study four peace-keepers and peacemakers: Count Folke Bernadotte, Ralph Bunche, Gen. E.L.M. Burns and Dag Hammarskjold.

Although he is not an avid newspaper reader, Caplan follows current Mideast developments closely. In general, he is optimistic that the Arab-Israeli dispute can be resolved through peaceful means. "But in how many years? And after how many more deaths? I believe that any settlement, to be a lasting one," he added, " must lead to some form of (Palestinian) statehood that is both acceptable to the Palestinians and answers Israel's basic security needs."