Rabbi’s Essays

A Cold Spring or The Lead-Up to Summer
The Middle East in 2011

In June 2009, the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran began to fill with crowds protesting a clearly rigged election that had returned Mahmud Ahmadinijad to the Presidency. The demonstrations certainly rocked the nation and caught the attention of most of the world. In time, however, they dissipated. The rulers, Ahmadinijad and his sponsor, “Supreme Ruler” Ayatollah Khamanei, seemed to assert their authority and regained control. The “Revolution,” a little over thirty years-old, was not ready to give up, but a warning shot had crossed its bow. Some time in the next decade or so, the current theocratic/autocratic system will be upended, and Iran might settle into a form of secular democracy.

Of course, Iran has actually had a limited form of democracy for some time. It had peacefully turned leaders out of office in the past. The uprisings of 2009 represented both a popular refusal to allow the nation to collapse into an unaccountable autocracy, and a determination to challenge the theocratic authority of the Islamic Republic. A major change is underway, but not one that could not be predicted. Indeed, many observers had seen the signs, and had written about them prior to the uprisings. No one, however, saw what has swept the Arab nations from Morocco to Yemen.

In December 2010, a fruit stand operator in Tunis killed himself over frustration with the intrusive bureaucracy and corruption of the State. Within weeks, the dictatorial and corrupt President Ben Ali had to flee the nation. In short order, serious and widespread street demonstrations began to appear in Egypt — successfully leading to the resignation of President Mubarak — Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Libya. Morocco and Jordan also experienced brief expressions of discontent. As of this writing, Bahrain’s revolt seems to have been repressed. The battles continue in Yemen, Syria and Libya. The last bastion of resistance to democratic expression, the Arab Middle East (now often referred to as MENA — Middle East and North Africa), was crumbling.

This “Arab Spring” has been both utterly stunning and utterly expected. It is something akin to an elderly patient who has been in long decline, rallies briefly and then suddenly passes away. The end, we all know, is inevitable, and yet we are surprised when it actually happens. Sooner or later, the worldwide trend toward responsive and accountable governments was finally going to reach MENA. Most of us figured that it was going to be later.

A day of reckoning has come. As of this writing, fighting continues in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The new political configurations of Egypt and Tunisia have not been drawn. The kings of Morocco and Jordan have begun to implement reforms, and the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah, in the face of potential unrest, have signed an accord to unify once again as the Palestinian Authority (PA). Who knows what is going to happen in Algeria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Arab Emirates. Something will! MENA is entering a long tunnel — I need to emphasize the word “long” — and when it emerges, it will be a very different region from what it was just last December. Clearly, all this is going to have an impact on the State of Israel, but it will not be terribly profound.

The Agony of the Arabs

In 2002, a collegium of Arab intellectuals issued a report (the Arab Human Development Report) on the social-cultural state of the Arab world (Morocco to Iraq). It was sharply critical of states uniformly awash in repression and corruption. The study found that, even as state revenues had increased since the 1970s, as a result of oil production, the condition of the populace had deteriorated. The group issued a follow-up in 2009, and found marginal differences. The Arab world was lagging behind every other region of the world in personal freedom, intellectual development, and general well-being. This is the same region that, 700-1200 years ago, easily outdistanced or, at worst, rivaled the rest of the world in cultural, intellectual and technological achievements. What happened?

I suppose a book can be written on the subject. Curiously, if it has, I am not aware of it. Gleaning from various other works on Muslim and Arab society, I will venture a few guesses.

First, the initial success of Islam necessarily points toward its profound and significant assets. They include two elements of Muslim society that have been mostly suppressed in later years: egalitarianism and openness. Islam is fundamentally egalitarian in the social-economic sense. Muslim society tended to resist the establishment of relatively impermeable classes. There was always upward and downward mobility, and few of the so-called royalty (sultans, caliphs and sheiks) established longstanding dynasties.

Further, the Quran, as the foundational sacred literature of Islam, is not a particularly legal document. Muslim practice arose for the most part out of the hadith, the stories of Muhammad, whose actions would then serve as a model of behavior. Later, legal systems — sha’riah — were developed. Sha’riah has historically been mostly fluid and flexible. Moreover, it represented only a component of the exercise of authority in Muslim societies that were far more complex than a simple matter of rule of law.

In brief, Muslim society presented few barriers to individual initiative and creativity. Men (yes, Muslim society has been no less sexist than virtually any other system) from modest circumstances and means could aspire to both wealth and authority, and not be held back by the limitations of class. And scholars, writers, poets, artists and architects could pursue many avenues of inquiry and expression without feeling the heavy hand of authority over them. These qualities — egalitarianism and openness — are fundamental elements of Islam today. They have clearly been overwhelmed by other factors that have led to their suppression in Muslim, and particularly Arab, societies.

Let me suggest two factors. Muslim society has never been able to achieve the ideals of Islam itself. Muhammad imagined Muslims being drawn into a single ‘ummah, an extended family. As Islam expanded out of the Arabian peninsula, however, tribes and clans continued to maintain a primary allegiance to one another, over and against other tribes, Muslim or not. Society thus was forged out of a complex interaction between these groups, mediated by the principles of Islam. In time, this arrangement valued stability and control over innovation.

Further, putting additional stress on the well-being of the society was its geography. Islam reached out most successfully to the east and west, creating a Muslim world from the Iberian peninsula to India. This stretch of land is mostly arid, which has established a certain set of conditions for survival. Muslim society well adapted to its geographic limitations, and even flourished within it. The dramatic change in its fortunes seems to begin with Christian Europe’s development of sea power. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europe began to outflank and severely contain Muslim lands, ultimately leading to a thorough overrunning and colonization of virtually the entire Muslim world by 1900. Muslims, and particularly Arabs, have been playing catch-up ever since.

Islam, as a religious system, played a critical role in the early growth and development of civilization in the Muslim, and, to a great extent, the inability to sustain an egalitarian and open spirit inherent in classic Muslim thought, has led to its near eclipse in the modern world. Compounding the circumstances, influential forces seemed to have learned precisely the wrong lessons from this sad trajectory. Political leaders looked at Europe’s secular social welfare state and sought to impose a regime that repressed Islamic influence. Religious leaders determined that their nations’ failures were as a result of wavering from their Muslim roots, but then sought to recapitulate an anti-modern theocratic society. The result is a replay of the European Middle Ages: secular autocratic rulers, wholly dependent on the support of an army, clashing with tough-minded religious authorities over power and influence, while most of the population languishes in poverty and oppression.

Two large and economically strong Muslim powers have broken from this syndrome in recent years. They are Turkey and Indonesia (the most populous Muslim state in the world). Both nations have become democratic societies, in that they are capable of having mostly unrigged elections in which power might be transferred peaceably. Neither nation, however, has come by this current situation smoothly. Indonesia endured two long autocratic regimes. Turkey’s army regularly intervened and deposed leadership. Now, however, they are relatively free societies. I find it worth noting that both are outside the arid zone that characterizes most of the rest of the Muslim world.

And now, finally, the Middle Ages are drawing to a close in the Arab world as well. It is worth noting that when political and economic modernity came to Europe, it was accompanied by decades of violence. Wars that had, at least in part, a religious basis, usually pitting Catholic against Protestant, but also Protestant against Protestant, and Catholic against Orthodox, raged through the sixteenth century, all the way up to the end of the twentieth century! Consider how recently an accord has been worked out in Northern Ireland at one end of the continent, and in the Balkan States, at the other.

I think that the Arab world has now entered a tunnel which is going to be characterized as much by uncertainty and probably a good deal of violence before there is any discernable progress. At the end of the tunnel, however, is a modern secular democracy. The Middle Ages are drawing to an end.

Meanwhile, In the Middle of All This

Like the eye of a hurricane, the State of Israel sits mostly undisturbed in the center of all this upheaval. Actually, Israeli society roils with conflicts. A former President has been sent to jail for sexual misconduct; the Foreign Minister is likely to be indicted for embezzlement; the tension among various strata of society — the ultra-Orthodox, non-Orthodox religious women, Israeli Arab citizens, Ethiopian immigrants, among others — is played out daily in the newspapers. All of this, however, is business as usual. Israel has severe socio-economic problems and it has an unprecedented weak and ineffective government. (Its popularity — support of about 38% of the electorate — is dependent upon no strong opposition.) Yet, its difficulties are only on the order of any advanced democratic nation.

I have maintained for many years that one of Israel’s most significant strengths within the International community has been its stable democracy — the emphasis on ‘stable.’ What Israel achieved even before it became a state, is now being sought by most the nations in its region. This is a circumstance that cuts both ways for the Jewish State. In due time, Israel will lose its unique standing in MENA. Given the pressures of other factors — trade, oil and other resources and investment possibilities — American governments might find it more in their interest to be even-handed in their relations with Israel and Arab countries. The longstanding privileged position Israel has enjoyed could well be reduced. I should note that democratic normalization in MENA is still a long way off. Revolutions are almost always upending. The unified opposition to the dictator gives way to intense, often violent, infighting. It may be decades before one can talk about Egypt or Tunisia — much less the rest of the Arab nations who populations are not nearly as homogenous — having truly stable democracies.

In the other direction, the Israel-Palestine dispute tended to disappear as a serious issue within the countries experiencing their revolutions. All politics is local. Civic engagement in each of the Arab nations puts foreign policy concerns that do not directly impact one’s society firmly on the margins. Saddam Hussein regularly addressed the plight of the Palestinians. How often have Iraqi leaders had anything to say about them since Saddam’s fall? There is a real but very remote chance that Egypt, Jordan and/or Morocco will consider revoking their diplomatic recognition of Israel. For the most part, however, Israel is a bystander.

I have written before, and still contend to be the case, that time is on no one’s side. The basic outline of a settlement has already been determined. It was mostly hammered out in the Israel-Egypt border town of Taba in 2001. However many more years the stalemate and conflict persists, the endgame will remain mostly the same. It will just come at increasing Palestinian deprivation and loss, and at increasingly higher costs to Israel. There are two fundamental principles that must be conceded by both sides, and all their supporters.

1. There can never be peace without a fundamental acceptance of Jewish national rights.

The principle is less axiomatic as it is pragmatic. Nearly 2600 years ago, the kingdom Israel lost its monarchy and its land, and then transformed itself into a people capable of transcending both. The land, however, remained vitally important. One can only speculate whether the exiled Jews could hold on a generation or two longer if Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonia did not fall to the Persians so quickly. In the first century C.E., the land was lost once more, and this time the people were prepared to continue indefinitely without the land. It was never severed from Jewish identity, but rather relegated to a messianic future.

In the late 19th century, however, the circumstances for the Jews, at least in the minds of some, had changed, and the assertion of a Jewish national entity on the historic land of Israel was revived. In 1948, a fifty-year-old task in state building was complete. At that point, and for the 63 years since, a reality has been established for which there is no going back. Jews have determined to be a free people “in Zion and Jerusalem” (as it is expressed in Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem).

For the 2600 years since the fall of Solomon’s Temple, Jews were mostly willing to accept an existence constrained by the whims of dominating powers. They negotiated their survival — with greater or lesser success — under Babylonia, Persia, the Greeks and Romans, and then in far-flung communities within Christian and Muslim worlds. That era is irrevocably over. No amount of romanticizing an ecumenical past, or attempting to shoehorn the Jews as being merely a confession of faith, will change the uncompromising reality of the present.

Any attempt, particularly on the part of Palestinians, and however liberal, secular and progressive sounding it might be, to deny Israeli Jews fundamental authority over their own lives, is going to be resisted. Too much effort has gone into developing and protecting Jewish sovereignty for it to be negotiated away. Further, there is no reason for the even the most egalitarian and secular Israeli Jew to have any trust that a predominantly Arab entity would actually protect their freedom and rights. The “one-state” solution is not only a fantasy, it is a dangerous fantasy.

2. There can be no security for Israel until there is peace.

Israel is a tiny country. Even at its largest, following the 1967 Six-Day War, its total landmass was roughly comparable to that of Jordan or Syria, and a good deal smaller than Egypt, Turkey or Iran. The 1949 Armistice Lines (the so-called Green Line that still tends to delineate the Jewish State and its “occupied territories”) encompass an area about the size of New Jersey, and only larger than Lebanon among its closer neighbors.

Much is said about the indefensibility of the pre-1967 borders, but the post-War boundaries, and especially the current functional lines (minus all of the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip) hardly provide that much more security. When it comes to security, size can be overrated. Russia, from the time of the czars through the reign of the Communist lords, constantly sought to push the western border further west. The reason is obvious when one looks at a map of Europe. The continent is shaped mostly like a triangle with its base in the east and its vertex in the west. Thus, the further west Russia (and the Soviet Union) could control, the shorter its border. The USSR nonetheless fell apart in 1989-91. The acquisition of satellite nations running from Poland to Yugoslavia, actually increased instability, and therefore insecurity.

The organization Peace Now, founded by Israeli reservists in the late 1970s, had a slogan, Peace is greater than Greater Israel. As with the first principle above, this is no platitude. There are no conceivable border lines that the State of Israel can draw — the Jordan River, Mt. Hermon, all of the Sinai Peninsula — that can give its population a sense of stability and security, if there is not also peace.

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Let me add a few more principles that strike me as significant.

Israel and the Palestinians are essentially alone in the matter of peace and conflict.

Isreal-Palestine is on the docket of most Foreign Ministries around the world. Every nation would like to have a hand in solving this chronic foreign policy headache. Rhetoric flies, mostly around Israeli imperialism and Arab terrorism. Resolutions are offered in the U.N., and road maps are drawn up. When push comes to shove, however, no country is going to commit its troops in support or defense of either side.

History, I believe, is a sure guide. Armies from Arab nations sought to invade and destroy the Jewish State in 1948. In 1967, they pushed the possibility of invasion past the brink of war. In 1973, Egypt and Syria coordinated an effort that was designed mostly to recapture the territory lost in 1967. That was the last time the standing armies of any Arab nation have participated in a military confrontation with Israel. In 1982, 2006 and 2008, Israel carried out massed military activity in Lebanon and Gaza. In 1988-89, and again in 2001-3, Israeli troops responded to Palestinian uprisings, the intifadas. Only the battle with Hizb’allah militia in 2006 involved armed opponents who were not Palestinian. It is possible to argue that at no time in Israel’s rather bloody history has any external armed force actually come to the aid of the Palestinians.

Israel, for its part, has never asked for such military support. Tellingly, it withdrew troops from the Suez Canal in 1957, along with France and the United Kingdom, when it received assurances from Eisenhower that the U.S. would protect Israel’s use of shipping lanes through the Straights of Tiran and into the Red Sea. When, in May 1967, Egyptian President Nasser blockaded that waterway, President Johnson decided to ignore Eisenhower’s promises. Israeli governments since, liberal or conservative, have determined that the most they can expect from even their closest allies is financial and materiel aid; no troops.

From the start, as a natural repercussion of the fundamental Zionist attitude of Jewish self-determination, Israel has been prepared to fend for itself. Unfortunately, too many Palestinians harbor a notion that others — fellow Arabs or Muslims — will lay down their lives for their cause. It is a dangerous and self-defeating fantasy. Palestinians will ultimately only succeed in acquiring a viable state for themselves, when they fully accept that they are ultimately on their own.

And finally,

It is not our responsibility to solve the conflict.

Most of my posts over the past ten years on the Israel and Middle East have consisted of reasonably informed commentary regarding the political realities of the region. They have been exercises in attempting to frame the conflict, to recognize and articulate social, economic, political and — above all — religious forces that affect the present situation. I have tried to stay away from being prescriptive, at least in the sense of propositions of how the Israeli and U.S. Governments, or the Palestinian Authority should proceed. Oh, I have my ideas, but in the final analysis, I am not the U.S. Secretary of State, or Israel’s or the PA’s Foreign Minister.

Ultimately, only Israel and the PA can work out the deal that substantially ends the war that began before 1948. I mean by this, the Israelis and Palestinians (in both Gaza and West Bank) supporting a government who makes the territorial concessions that are necessary. External governments, like the U.S., can help or hinder the process. They can help by voicing their support for the solution whose general outlines have already been established. They can hinder by indulging either (or both) sides into believing that they can or deserve more from the deal than is reasonably possible.

Some governments are weak; some strong. Currently neither Israel nor the PA is particularly strong. Indeed, it is quite likely their mutual weakness reinforces each other, prolonging the stalemate. Until the situation improves, the U.S. can only patiently wait, and try not to make the situation worse.

And as for us who are not Israelis or high-ranking State Department officials, our task is to transcend the daily news. The Zionist enterprise has already been around for over a century. There is a long future to envision. There have been extraordinary statesmen in Israel’s past, as well as a number of knaves and fools (occasionally the same person at different times.) In 1989, as bombings and counterattacks presaged greater enmity between Israelis and Palestinians, who could imagine Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands just a few years later? Our responsibility is not to bemoan the present, but be steadfast in our hopes for the future. An Arab Spring may yet bring on an Israel-Palestine dawn.

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Every year since 2001, I have written an essay on the Middle East with the expectation that I will take the following year off. Every year has rather brought about significant events that seem to require comment and response. I truly hope and pray that another essay is not required in 2012, unless it is to extol the conclusion of a successful peace.