I have had the pleasure of meeting Sir Martin Gilbert once before, although our meeting then was particularly brief and is likely not to have registered with the esteemed historian. Sir Martin was serving a visiting professorship in History at the university that I attended before coming to Cambridge (the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada), and was due to give a public lecture entitled “Did Churchill Believe in Democracy?”

There was palpable excitement on campus among history enthusiasts at the prospect of hearing one of the world’s foremost authorities on Winston Churchill talk about his area of expertise.

Sir Martin’s illustrious list of accomplishments was cited in tones of hushed reverence. Author of over 80 books, Churchill’s official biographer, knighted by the Queen for “services to British history and international relations”. The expectations were high and the talk did not disappoint.

Given this history, I jumped at the opportunity to speak to Sir Martin on his recent visit to Cambridge. He was invited by the CU Israel Society to deliver the inaugural Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture on the legacy of Rabin.

While I had originally planned for our conversation to be about the challenges and prospects for peace in the Middle East, as a history student, I could not resist asking Sir Martin about the practice of history itself.

We started by talking about how a sense of history hangs over long-standing conflicts, such as the one in the Middle East. “One of the problems in the Middle East conflict is that neither side understands the other’s narrative. It is important to see how the other person sees the historical narrative,” Sir Martin explained.
According to Sir Martin, it is very important to understand how the other side views itself and its circumstances in the great sweep of history. “The narrative of the underdog needs to be understood both ways,” he said.

The public recognition of each other’s history has practical implications as far as the Middle East is concerned. Since the “essence of true history requires both sides recognising the other’s side”, Sir Martin argued that “parallel to peace negotiations you need educational initiatives.”

As an example, Sir Martin mentioned an initiative which involved Israeli and Palestinian women who were suffering from cancer to meet and share each other’s experiences. However, since it has become increasingly difficult for there to be travel between the West Bank and Israel, the frequency of such initiatives has decreased.

“The situation has hardened. It’s more difficult for people to meet,” explained Sir Martin.

The theme of one side understanding the other’s perspective seems to be very important to Sir Martin’s work. His latest book (his 82nd), which was published this year, is titled ‘In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands’.

Described by reviewers as a “masterful” and an “epic examination”, the book is about 1,400 years of Jewish life in Muslim territories.  As the book jacket describes it, it is a story of both “co-existence and conflict”.

“I spent three years writing it,” Sir Martin explained. “And I studied thousands of different episodes.”

The book is a remarkable portrait of hope and reconciliation between the two faiths. So much so that, “one reviewer felt it was too politically correct,” Sir Martin said with a chuckle.

In this way, the book perhaps reflects the kind of history that Sir Martin is interested in writing. “When you write history, do you inevitably bend in one direction or the other when you choose to write about certain episodes and not others?” he asked.

Explaining his own perspective, he said, “I don’t think I would be interested in a subject that highlighted a particularly negative aspect. I chose this subject because it had a positive aspect in it.”

Sir Martin’s efforts, however, did not stop some from using his historical work for their own ends. “In Ishmael’s House was taken up by the partisans of the two narratives,” he recalled. “But, nothing is black and white.”

This leads us to a discussion of the public uses and abuses of history. “History is a very accessible subject and lends itself to popularising quite easily, as it relates to people’s parents and grandparents.”

Sir Martin is the unique historian whose works are not only well-reviewed in academic ivory towers, but are also popular with average readers.

“I have quite a high respect for my readers,” he said. “I welcome feedback from them, and they frequently email me with comments or points about which they are angry.”

Does he think that the general public is informed enough about history? “In some areas,” he said. “Military history, for example, is very popular, partly because of the attention given to it by films and television programmes.”

However, there are many other areas of historical knowledge that he would like to see strengthened. “It is important to understand the evolution of society, of where our society is and how we got here,” he explained.

“In every society, people take for granted where they are. But, it is important to ask, ‘how did we get to this point? How did the role of the state evolve?’ These are important questions.”

They are important questions indeed, and the totality of Sir Martin’s work has been asking these questions with deep intelligence and insight for nearly five decades.