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Rosh Hashanah 5767 — Will There Ever Be Peace in the Middle East?

Dovenuke Will there ever be peace in the Middle East?

A few weeks ago I met with this year’s confirmation class for the first time.  The Jewish tradition encourages asking questions, so I like to start the year having the 10th graders come up with a list of questions they’d like answered. And they come up with great questions—like “How do we know there’s a God?” or “Does God answer more if you pray more?”

But when one of the students asked that opening question – “will there ever be peace in the Middle East?” – I have to admit that for a moment I felt, “oy, you couldn’t ask an easier question?”

It’s been five years since the September 11 attacks.  We’ve been fighting what President Bush calls a “War on Terror” for longer than we were engaged in World War II.  We still have troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan;  Iraq is heading toward civil war, with over a thousand people, soldiers and civilians, dying every month in sectarian violence;  the Gaza Strip is disintegrating into abject poverty and lawlessness;  and Israel just had a major war, as it has had every decade since its foundation.  In recent years Lebanon suffered through a terrible civil war, the Iran-Iraq war  killed a million people, and Iraq, Jordan, and Syria have all killed thousand of their own citizens in rounds of brutal repression.  And then there are the assassinations, including those of the leaders and past leaders of Israel, Egypt, and Lebanon.

So asking whether there will ever be peace in the Middle East is a very good, and very daunting question.

To answer the question it is important to understand why there is so much fighting in the Middle East.

There are those who say the problems in the Middle East are about real estate.  This is in keeping with a teaching of the Hasidic Rabbi Abraham, who said “Our sages say: “And there is not a thing that has not its place.’  And so man too has his own place.  Then why do people sometimes feel so crowded?” …“Because each wants to occupy … the place of the other.”

But real estate isn’t the reason why there’s violence in the Middle East.  If it really was about real estate, Israel should have had peace with the Palestinians of Gaza after the withdrawal last year, and there should have been peace with Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s departure in 2000. Instead, this summer’s battles show that “land for peace” now seems to be a very flawed idea. 

There are those who say the problem is a legacy of colonialism.  For hundreds of years the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, under the Turks.  For a long time, other than the occasional outside threat – such as Napoleon’s invasion in 1798 — things were relatively quiet.  That changed with World War I, when the British and French defeated the Ottoman Empire and carved up the Middle East to suit themselves.  The colonialist argument says that when the European powers organized their territories, they did it in a way that suited their own geopolitical purposes and totally ignored the nature of the local populations.  The most striking example is perhaps Iraq, which did not exist as a country until the British created it out of what had been three separate administrative regions of the Ottoman Empire.  The British combined three very different ethnic groups – Shiite Muslims in the south, Sunni Muslims in the center, and Kurds in the north, creating – according to the colonialists —   the strife that torments Iraq today.

To be sure, the problems in Iraq have been exacerbated by the way the British drew the borders.  However, colonialism does not begin to explain all the problems.  Other multi-ethnic former colonies such as India and Botswana are not continually self-destructing.  In fact, a recent study by James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, reported in the NY Times, made a startling finding: “it appears NOT to be true that a greater degree of ethnic or religious diversity — or indeed any particular cultural demography — by itself makes a country more prone to civil war.”   

We can see the proof of this by looking out our windows:  America is as multi-ethnic as they come, and we get along pretty well.  America has had only one civil war in its 230-year history, and it was neither a racial nor a religious conflict, although, to be sure, there was race mixed up with the economics.

If we look at former colonies, we see an extraordinarily mixed track record in how they fared after independence, and it has nothing to do with how diverse they are.  Some multi-ethnic former colonies, like India, are prosperous democracies.  Other homogeneous former colonies, like Haiti, are mired in violence and poverty. 

Fearon and Laitin say that the causes of violence and civil war are poverty and oppression, not multi-ethnicity.  Thomas Friedman points out that no two countries with a McDonalds have ever gone to war against each other.

But that only raises a further question.  Why is it that some former colonies are developing rapidly, with McDonalds and Starbucks opening on every corner, whereas others are dependent on international handouts for survival?  Why have so many countries, especially since the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet Union, become thriving democracies, whereas others are run by warlords and corrupt plutocrats?

There are many factors, but one dominates – and that one is culture.

People of my generation may feel uncomfortable with that statement.  It seems politically incorrect.  We grew up in an age when we were taught to respect all cultures.  Some anthropologists said that “progress” was a Western idea we were trying to impose on other cultures.  However, as Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington put it in their book “Culture Matters,” the vast majority of the planet’s people would probably agree with the following assertions:

Life is better than death.
Health is better than sickness.
Liberty is better than slavery.
Prosperity is better than poverty.
Education is better than ignorance.
Justice is better than injustice.

And the truth is some cultures do a much better job of creating societies where those values flourish than others.
One of the clearest examples of the influence of culture is to compare the Dominican Republic with Haiti.  The two countries share one island, Hispaniola, so they have the same natural resources and climate.  Both countries were largely populated by slaves from Africa overseen by a European ruling class.  But today one country is democratic and prospering, the other has been suffering for years from violence and poverty.

Two hundred years ago Haiti was wealthier and more powerful than the Dominican Republic; today, it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  The two countries have very different cultures.  Over half of the Haitians still practice an animist religion, voodoo.  As Lawrence Harrison points out in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” voodoo has a lot of features that resist progress.  Voodoo does not concern itself with ethics, and practitioners believe their fates, good or bad, are controlled by
capricious spirits.  Lawrence says “Voodoo discourages initiative, rationality, achievement, education.” 

The people of the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, abandoned paganism and  adopted the religion, values, and culture of the Spanish colonialists.  Haiti’s economy and government resemble those of the worst-off African countries, while the Dominican Republic resembles the more prosperous Latin American countries.  Maybe Judaism’s rejection of paganism was one of our greatest contributions to the economic development of Mankind.

Culture also explains why Israel is an island of democracy in the Middle East.  But it’s not so much because of anything in Judaism – it’s because Israel is basically an island of European culture that was plopped into the Middle East.  The Jews who first returned to Israel from the Diaspora were largely from European countries, and they had the work ethic and sense of individual responsibility and empowerment that are essential for a functioning democracy.  They set up the basic institutions of government long before the British left – under the British protectorate from 1918-1948, the Jewish Agency functioned in many ways as a “quasi-government,” taking care of the needs of the Jews.  So when the British left, there was no vacuum – organizations like the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, Histradut, were all long-established and able to change and adapt their role, and provide trained people to run the government.

When we look at the former colonies of the world, it is striking that none of the Arab Muslim countries in the Middle East is a prosperous democracy.  The paucity of democracies in the Middle East is all the more striking when we consider how democracy has broken out all over in the rest of the world.  In the 1970s there were only 40 democracies in the world; today there are over 120!  That’s a 300% increase in less than 40 years.  The world has never before seen such a huge political shift in such a short time

When the colonial powers left the Middle East, they tried to set up several countries, like Egypt, as democracies.  Yet a few years later, the countries that started out democratic had turned autocratic.  As Bernard Lewis teaches in his book The Middle East, political democracy is a good custom, but it is not a universal law of nature.  In a book written 40 years ago, he points out “In the Middle East a serious attempt was made to introduce and to operate liberal democracy, with written constitutions, elected, sovereign parliaments, judicial safeguards, a multitude of parties, and a free Press.  With few and atypical exceptions, these experiments have failed; in some countries democratic institutions are in a state of disrepair or collapse; in others they have already been abandoned, and the search begun for other paths to the pursuit of happiness.”  That was written in 1964!  Over 40 years later, democracy has still not taken hold in the Middle East.  The problem is that democracy was installed by decree in a culture not ready for it.  “A political system taken over ready made not merely from another country but from another civilization, imposed by Western or Westernized rulers from above and from without, could not respond adequately to the strains and stresses of Islamic, Middle Eastern society.”

Lewis points out that England’s Parliament developed over centuries until it was at the apex of a pyramid of self-governing institutions.  Similarly, in America, democracy evolved out of low-level democratic institutions like the town hall meeting. 

When the British left Egypt in 1922, they left behind a Parliament and Constitution.  But the government of Cairo was imported in a box, as it were, and without instructions, and not in response to a demand or need of the Egyptian people.  One of the first things the Egyptian Parliament did was bring back the king!  Then the king was deposed by a military coup in 1952.  The Egyptians are still waiting for true democracy; Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, mostly by being elected in referendums without a competitor.  2005 finally saw a multi-party election, although the deck was still stacked with Mubarak controlling the vast majority of the media outlets.  It’s rumored he’s grooming his son to be his successor – though of course there’s nothing inherently un-democratic about a family political dynasty. 

Iran provides another example.  I lived in Iran in the late 1970s, during the reign of the Shah.  My colleagues and I sometimes debated whether the Iranians were ready for democracy.  I was troubled by asking the question.  I felt “isn’t that sort of arrogant? Who are we to say whether people are ready for democracy or not?”

But looked what happened in Iran.  When the Shah left, sick and under fire, he left behind a democratic government as a sort of lovely parting gift.  Within a few months, the Mullahs took over and turned Iran into a theocracy with a democratic fig leaf.  They hold elections, but any candidates must be approved by the religious authorities.  In elections a few years ago, hundreds of reform minded politicians were removed from the ballots.  Any decisions taken by the democratically-elected Parliament can be vetoed by the self-selected religious leaders.  Not exactly a free and open society.

Mark Plattner wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs back in 1998 that “the lessons of empire, then, include a caution to democratizing optimists. Western economic and political habits are not simply waiting to be unleashed by a few simple legal reforms.”

As Bernard Lewis pointed out, “The ending of foreign rule, when it came, did not solve but merely revealed the fundamental economic, social, and political problems of the Arab lands.”

What are these fundamental problems?

There are those who would say the problems in the Middle East are because Muslims are inherently violent.  They point to the recent Muslim outrage over Pope Benedict’s remarks as “proof” of this.  It is, of course, ironic that the protests arose when the Pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said that the problem with Islam was that the Muslims are violent.  “How dare you say we’re violent!” said the protestors — as they burned down churches in Gaza.

But Muslim Arab society is NOT in general violent.  The homicide rate in the Arab Muslim countries is far lower than it is in America.  The Arab country with the highest homicide rate, Yemen, is about 25% safer than America.  The safest Arab countries , like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are very safe indeed – comparable to Japan in terms of homicide rates – and MUCH less violent than the United States.

What’s different between America and the Arab countries is why we kill.  In America homicides are overwhelmingly linked to crime and arguments – in bars and at home.  And most murders in Arab countries are also linked to arguments or crime.  But what gets media attention in the West is a phenomenon relatively unknown here: murder linked to honor as in the so-called “honor killings” of young women who have “disgraced” their families by getting divorced, or who have simply been seen in restaurants with men.  Which is why the Muslims were outraged over the Pope’s remarks – they saw it as an offense to the honor of the prophet Muhammed.

Hoover Institute Fellow Victor Davis Hanson wrote an editorial in which he asked “whence arises the elemental desire to destroy Israel?”

He contends “The answer boils down to Islamists feeling their reputation
is at stake. Words like "honor" and "pride" are evoked — in the sense that they need to be regained — by every insecure radical in the Islamic world, from al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden to Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran ‘s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fist-shaking crowds, fiery mullahs and terrorists all boast of not giving an inch to infidels and of the restoration of the now sullied honor of the Islamic people.”

But an exaggerated sense of pride can lead to a denial of reality.  Egypt observes the anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel—which by any rational measure, they lost—as a holiday.  Hezbollah claims victory over Israel even as parts of Lebanon are ruins, foreign UN troops – most of them “infidels” — occupy the south, and Nasrallah’s afraid to leave his bunker.  If that’s victory, what does defeat look like?

Hanson points out “Rather than make the necessary structural changes that might end cultural impediments to progress and modernity — such as tribalism, patriarchy, gender apartheid, polygamy, autocracy, statism and fundamentalism — too many Middle Easterners have preferred to embrace the reactionary past and the cult of victimization.”

The cult of victimization – it’s all the fault of the British, or the Americans, or the Jews, or the “Crusaders”  – allows those obsessed with honor to maintain their pride.  They tell themselves, “it’s not something wrong with us, we’re perfect – rather, it’s what “they” did to us.”

Pride can be a huge barrier to progress, materially or spiritually.  The Jewish tradition teaches that humility is an important virtue.  Madregat HaAdam teaches that the reason Moses was the greatest leader we ever had was because he was so humble.  He felt himself unworthy of the great responsibility, so he made a great effort to learn from others and to improve himself.  It’s very difficult to make progress if you think you’re already perfect.

When the colonialist powers left the Middle East over 50 years ago, the region was certainly in a difficult time, and there was a lot wrong.  The countries of the Middle East were impoverished, their citizens were largely illiterate, they had no industry to speak of.  Bernard Lewis, an eminent historian of the Middle East, observed “when people realize that things are going wrong, there are two questions they can ask.  One is, ‘What did we do wrong?’  And the other is ‘Who did this to us?’  The latter leads to conspiracy theories and paranoia.  The first question leads to another line of thinking: ‘How do we put it right?’”

Japan is an example of a culture which asked first question, starting in the mid-19th century when they decided to catch up with the West after centuries of self-imposed isolation.  They studied the West, they learned from the West, and they did a remarkable job of emulating the West, growing from a medieval backwater in the mid 1800s to a world power less than 100 years later. 

The Islamic cultures of the Middle East, on the other hand, chose the route of asking “Who did this to us?”

Some Muslims adopted Christian anti-Semites as role models:  when things are going wrong, blame the Jews.  The Germans blamed the Jews for their loss of World War I and for the economic collapse that followed.  It was a lie, but it was a useful lie, for it allowed the Nazis to appeal to German pride and unite the so-called Aryans against a common foe, sweeping away complex social problems with a simplistic “us versus them.”

Similar hateful rhetoric from the Middle East abounds; to give but one example, Sheik Muhammad Saleh Al-Munajjid in Saudi Arabia said in a sermon “The Jews are the cause of the misery of the human race, together with the infidels and the other polytheists.  Satan leads them to Hell and to a miserable fate.  The Jews are our enemies and hatred of them is in our hearts.”  And of course we’ve all heard the vitriol coming from Iran’s president Ahmadinajad.

But at least some in the Arab world recognize that they’re not doing themselves any favors by pointing fingers.  As Abdul Rahman Al-Habib writes in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, "When we, Arabs and Muslims, ask ourselves why we are behind in development, the answer is always satisfactory: because of the West and its agents, of course! And when we ask ourselves why the West is developed and advanced, the answer is always satisfactory: because the West stole the sciences of our ancestors and they are still plundering us to advance themselves!”

Al Habib points out that blaming America is a favorite pastime of Arab politicians and journalists.  He says "Never mind entering the difficult path of hard research and analysis of problems in our society, or in their society, or problems shared by both societies. Forget about it. It’s too easy to toss out some hackneyed diatribe against America.”

The problem is NOT that Islam is incompatible with democracy.  As President Bush has pointed out, over half the Muslims in the world live in democratic societies.  But for democracy to flourish in the Middle East will require some cultural adaptations, and some time for liberal democratic institutions to take root:  things like a free press, political parties, police and military loyal to the state, not an individual, and a proper system of justice.

Turkey and Indonesia are two Muslim countries that are adapting to the demands of democracy.  In Turkey, the cultural and institutional changes came about thanks to the personal force of one man: Kemal Ataturk.  After having been defeated by the Western powers in World War I, Ataturk was determined to bring Turkey into the 20th century.  In a 1927 speech, he said “We are going to advance our country to the level of the most prosperous and the most civilized countries of the world…. We shall attempt to raise our national culture above the level of contemporary civilization. Therefore, we think and shall continue to think not according to the lethargic mentality of past centuries, but according to the concepts of speed and action of our century.”  While Ataturk was clearly proud of Turkey’s long history and accomplishments, he was also humble enough to realize that he could learn from the West.

In Turkey, the drive toward democracy came from within –the nationalists under Ataturk forced the end of the caliphate and rule by a sultan.  Having been a colonizer, not a colony, Turkey had the trained bureaucrats necessary to run a country.  The Western powers did not come into Turkey as occupiers; rather, they provided support for the self-led economic and political development of Turkey.

The changes necessary to foster democracy in the Arab Muslim countries cannot be imposed from the outside. The changes must come from within.

As Osama El-Ghazali Harb, an Egyptian journalist writes “We stand at a unique historical moment when mounting social pressure for reform from within societies in the Middle East coincides with international pressure, particularly from the US, to implement reform in order to combat the forces of extremism and terrorism. The respective role of internal forces and external pressure must, however, be made abundantly clear. It is first and foremost up to domestic social forces to define and implement reform. No external pressure, however intense, can produce true democratic transformation on its own.”

There are Muslims, such as Lafif Lakhdar, a Tunisian intellectual living in Paris, who understand how to bring about cultural reform within Islam.  His plan is “that instead of the violent verses, schoolchildren will be taught the universal verses of peace…For example, Verse 62 of the Surah of the Heifer, which says [Koran 2:62] ‘Those who believe [in the Koran], and those who follow the Jewish [Scriptures], and the Christia
ns and …any who believe in Allah and the Last Day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.’ ‘”

In the meanwhile, what are we in the West to do?  Thomas Friedman points out that “Lebanon and the Palestinians don’t have their act together enough yet to control border areas when Israel leaves — either by agreement (Oslo) or by just unilaterally withdrawing and throwing the keys over the fence. As a result, the peace process has not been ‘land for peace,’ but ‘land for war.’” 

But Friedman says bringing in the UN forces introduces a new model—‘land for Nato.’  By making it more difficult for Hezbollah to act as an independent army, the UN troops may give the fragile democracy of Lebanon the time to grow strong.  Especially after a non-violent democratic uprising drove the Syrians out of Lebanon last year, the country was well on its way to becoming democratic and prosperous – a trend which  lasted until the Syrian-backed Hezbollah derailed it in July.

And this, I believe, will be the model for bringing peace to the Middle East.  We in the US and Israel cannot bomb our way to peace, and we cannot give away enough land, nor go far enough away, to get real peace with those who now hate us and want us dead.  Don’t get me wrong – this does not mean we should be pacifists.  A year from now, God willing, my family and I will be residents of Israel.  It is absolutely intolerable that Hezbollah should be able to send Katyusha rockets raining down in the north, and that Hamas should be able to send Qassam rockets to endanger people in the south.  Israel must respond forcefully, powerfully, to people who would try to kill us.  But any military action, no matter how successful, can only buy a few years of calm.  Until there is real peace, Iran will send more weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas will build more bombs, and Israel will again have to withstand violent assaults.

The West needs to act with greater wisdom.  Too often in the past we have supported unpopular dictators, like the Shah in Iran, or Saddam Hussein, who we actually supported at one time—because of our short-term financial interests, to the long-term detriment of both ourselves and the people of the Middle East.  Too often we have tried to airlift in a solution in a box without considering the conditions on the ground. 

To go back to our original question, “will there ever be peace in the Middle East?” I say yes, there will.  Progress is real, if unsteady.  We have peace with Egypt and Jordan.  Unlike in 1973 and 1967, other Arab countries have stayed out of the latest round of fighting against Israel.  Saudi Arabia, much to my surprise, condemned Hezbollah for starting the recent Lebanon War.  And it may be two steps forward, one step back, but Lebanon is definitely moving in the right direction.  Egypt is very slowly become more open, and the ruling party is tolerating more dissent and open discussion.  Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, and Kuwait have all taken steps toward democracy, introducing Constitutions or electing Parliaments in recent years.

Lasting peace will depend on stability in the region, and that will depend on Israel’s neighbors becoming prosperous democracies by their own will, and by their own efforts.  Perhaps this is why there is a teaching in Ezekiel chapter 43 which says the Messiah will come from the East, in context meaning east of the Temple…and east of the Temple is Arab East Jerusalem.  And when peace does come from the east with an outstretched hand, we need leaders who are ready to grasp it.

So is there anything we here in Toledo can do?  That may sound like a silly question, but in fact there ARE things we can do.

Just as the Jews here in Toledo have many connections to Israel, the Muslims in Toledo have many connections to the Islamic world.  If they have positive encounters with Jews in America they will bring that message back to the Middle East—which could perhaps be one more drop in the bucket of water dousing the fires of hate.  As Pirkei Avot charges us, we are each responsible to contribute to the improvement of the world, even if we are not responsible for finishing the job ourselves.

The first thing we need to start with is our own attitudes.  We need to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of thinking “all Muslims are terrorists.”  The Torah teaches us that every person is responsible for his or own crimes – we don’t punish the sons for the sins of the father, and vice verse.  There are Muslim groups and religious leaders who vigorously speak out against terrorism and anti-Semitism.  We don’t read about them in the newspapers so much because it makes for less exciting reading than Ahmadinajad’s ranting.  Many Muslims are actively fighting terrorism.  The son of a former president of the Islamic Center serves in the US Marines, and he was honored for his service in Iraq.  Three local men with terrorist ties were arrested because Muslims in the Toledo community turned them in.

Get to know your Arab and Muslim neighbors.  Invite them over for a Shabbat dinner.  Patronize their businesses and let them know you’re a Jew.  Where else are you going to find a falafel in Toledo, anyway?  In a few weeks, on the second day of Sukkot, we are hosting a very unusual event here at B’nai Israel.  The Muslim holy month of Ramadan falls during Sukkot this year.  During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.  We have invited people from the Islamic Center to join us for a break the fast meal and program in our Sukkah on the evening of Sunday, October 8.  Imam Farooq, Father Michael Billian, and myself will each share some teachings about peace from our respective traditions, we will have time for discussion, and at sundown we will break bread together.  It would be wonderful if we could make this a big event – please come, and invite any Muslims you might know from work or elsewhere.

Another thing we can do is to support organizations like Seeds for Peace, which brings together Jewish and Muslim kids from Israel and the Palestinian Territories to a camp experience in the US, where they learn conflict resolution skills and have a chance to interact with each other as people.

Ribono shel olam, please strengthen our efforts, and the efforts of those in our government and the efforts of our brethren in the state of Israel to work for real redemption, real renewal, and real peace.  Help us to reach out to the Muslims dedicated to peace while we condemn those committed to violence.  Let us remember that we are all the children of Abraham and our ancestors grew up together in the same tent.  Help us bring about the day when war and bloodshed cease, when mankind will not know war anymore,


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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