Rajab 27 passes without Iranian attack on Israel

C’mon Bernard, don’t you think they’re just waiting for Yom Kippur? Baruch Kimmerling writes for Haartez, Sept. 25:

Thus spoke Bernard Lewis
On September 22, 2006, Iran was supposed to attack Israel and perhaps the entire Western world. And why precisely on this specific day? Because it is the 27th day of the month of Rajab (in the year 1427, according to the Muslim calendar), the same day Mohammed ascended to heaven on his legendary horse Buraq. And why attack on this day? Because this is what the well-known Orientalist Bernard Lewis said. One could have dismissed this prophecy with a grin had it not aroused a dispute among a number of renowned scholars, had respected newspapers (like the Wall Street Journal) not published it prominently and had statesmen not regarded it as intelligence requiring study.

Lewis, 90, “the prophet from Princeton,” is considered the founding father of the scientific field that engaged in the study of Islam and the Arab world, and most Orientalists, their students and their students’ students are in one way or another considered the bearers of his legacy. Lewis still enjoys great prestige, and his influence is felt in the White House. There would be no reason to address this baseless forecast by Lewis if it were not for the great importance in understanding the intellectual world of those engaged in the study of the Orient or in the culture of “the other” in general. This is because these people are very influential on the policies of many states, including Israel, and sometimes their words even become self-fulfilling prophecies. There are also other schools, but in regard to Islamic studies the Lewis school is very dominant, and it is worthwhile examining some of its overt and hidden assumptions.

One of these assumptions is that the culture of “the other,” like “our” culture, is unique and cannot be compared to another culture. Thus, the scholars who engage in the study of Islam and the Arab world are exempt from the need to familiarize themselves with the cultural and political knowledge that has accumulated in the social sciences during the past generations, and their analyses and explanations are made within closed bubbles. For example, in this discipline there is almost no research comparing Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism. Thus, we forget that one of the first people to define the current “global” conflict as a war of religion was President George W. Bush, who even used the Christian expression “crusade.”

Another assumption characterizing the approach of these experts is that they ignore the lack of uniformity in the Muslim world. The Orientalists know very well that among the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, there are hundreds of sects and streams that disagree on almost everything and wage cultural wars. But these experts guard this like a secret within the fraternity. There are at most Sunnis and Shi’ites, and Islam is otherwise portrayed as a homogenous entity wholly interested in wiping out the West, and especially the Jews.

Among other rifts, Arabs are divided between secularists, religious fundamentalists and ordinary believers who keep the tradition at various levels of strictness and in accordance with the interpretation of the local religious authority. In recent decades, most of the religious wars have been waged between Muslims demanding an Islamic state and secular regimes such as those in Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq. It is strange, for example, that when President Bush named the Saddam Hussein-bin Laden connection as one of the reasons for invading Iraq, the Arabists did not remind him that the Ba’ath regime in Iraq (and Syria) is the sworn enemy of fundamentalists like al-Qaida, and vice versa. Collaboration between Syria and Iran in their support for Hezbollah is limited in time and place, and stemmed from Syrian policy against Israel.

Most of those studying Islam and Arab cultures come from the field of classical history, which emphasizes texts way more than the contexts in which these texts were written or spoken, or how they were interpreted in different periods. In every religion and ideology one can find terrible expressions about the “other” as well as the opposite, and gaps between ideology and practice. In short, we must be wary of uncritically adopting the views of experts, even if they are professors at Princeton.

This fairly extraordinary opinion piece by Elliot Jager in the Aug. 20 Jerusalem Post places Rajab 27 on August 22, making the continued existence of the state of Israel old news by this point. But what is truly amazing about this piece is that it begins to approach an anti-Zionist position—and not from the usual perspective that Zionism has been bad for the Palestinians (which is a no-brainer), but that it’s been bad for the Jews. Emphasis added…

Herzl and Rajab 27

It’s been a hard, tense summer and many of us share a lingering sense that our troubles are not over yet. The indecisive war with Hizbullah has revived existential worries that are never far from the surface.

It doesn’t help that the renowned Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis recently raised the possibility that Shi’ite Islamists in Iran will do something nasty on the 27th day of the Muslim month of Rajab – which this year falls on August 22 – because the date is religiously propitious in the struggle against infidels.

While I’m hopeful we’ll all make it to August 23, this sort of gloomy talk makes me think maybe we Jews shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. Maybe – for lots of reasons – Theodor Herzl was wrong in advocating the negation of the Diaspora.

The longer I’m in Israel, the more appreciative I become of the Diaspora. It’s not just the extraordinary outpouring of emotional and financial support we’ve received in the course of the war with Hizbullah; it’s also a recognition that Israeli society needs the cross-pollination offered by a healthy relationship with a pluralistic Jewish world.

And it’s not just the warning from Bernard Lewis that got me thinking along these lines. This week also marks the first Jewish settlement in Manhattan, in 1654, as well as Herzl’s arrival in Basle to prepare for the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.

The Diaspora came to North America when Jacob Barsimson of Holland arrived on the Pear Tree precisely 352 years ago tomorrow, August 22. In September 1654 an additional 23 Jewish settlers arrived in New Netherlands, probably from the West Indies, on a ship called the Saint Catarina.

The “diversification” of Jewish civilization to the New World had begun in earnest, and a golden era of American Jewry was on the horizon. Whatever the many challenges faced by US Jews today, they do not detract from the community’s unique contribution to the larger Jewish narrative.

AS FOR Theodor Herzl, he arrived in Basle on August 25 to prepare for the Congress (which opened on August 29) and brought together some 200 delegates from 20 countries, including the United States. The Congress proclaimed that “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured, home in Palestine.”

It is sobering that 58 years after Israeli independence what we thought was “publicly recognized” and “legally secured” apparently isn’t; that assurances offered by the “international community” don’t seem to have much of a shelf-life.

In his address to the Congress, Herzl forecast that once the Jewish state was established world Jewry would be transplanted to Israel, and the Diaspora would wither away: “Those who are able or who wish to be assimilated will remain behind and be absorbed.”

In this way, anti-Semitism (caused, Herzl was certain, by Jewish statelessness) would gradually decrease as Jews either assimilated or immigrated to Palestine.

“Thus it is,” he said, “that we understand and anticipate the solution of the Jewish problem.”

Not quite.

Far from putting an end to Jew-hatred, Israel has tragically – and metaphysically – become a lightening-rod for Jew-haters.

Over the years we’ve had no luck in fighting – or talking – our way out of the existential conundrum we find ourselves in. And all the while, an amalgamation of well-meaning friends, deceitful allies and intransigent enemies urge us to withdraw to vulnerable armistice lines that are even more dangerous today than they were when established in 1949.

ALL THIS makes it hard to be sanguine about Israel’s future. Herzl, for all his genius, misjudged the nature of the Jewish problem as well as the utility of the Diaspora.

It turns out that one of his critics, Asher Zvi Ginsberg – better known as Ahad Ha’am – was in some respects a better prognosticator than Herzl.

Ahad Ha’am, the father of “cultural Zionism,” envisioned the Zionist state as the spiritual home of Jewish civilization. But he accepted that there would always be a Diaspora, which was fine by him so long as it maintained firm Jewish values.

Ahad Ha’am was no wimp. He favored Jewish self-defense and actively opposed efforts to establish the Jewish homeland in any place but Zion. Yet he was by nature a pragmatic pessimist with little faith in the political promises of the international community.

Moreover, where Herzl was oblivious, Ahad Ha’am anticipated that the aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs would have to be addressed.

In a sense, the man was also an elitist. He didn’t want just anybody making aliya. He wanted immigrants to be adequately prepared intellectually for the sacrifices life in the Jewish state would demand. He himself came here in 1922.

For him, creating a Jewish state was not an end in itself. He expected it would help Judaism in its encounter with modernity. As opposed to the Jewishly illiterate Herzl, Ahad Ha’am was identified with Jewish tradition, though also ambivalent about it.

I’M STILL sentimentally attached to Herzl. But especially after the summer we’ve been through, and the likely troubles ahead, don’t we Jews need to reduce our risk and diversify – demographically, culturally and politically? After all, ideological purity isn’t much use to a country at risk of annihilation.

Looking beyond Rajab 27, the pragmatic pessimism championed by Ahad Ha’am may well serve strategic Jewish interests better than the messianic optimism of Herzl.

See our last posts on Iran, anti-Semitism and Israel/Palestine.

  1. Ahad Ha’am on early Zionists, 1891
    ” ….[the Zionist pioneers believed that] the only language the Arabs understand is that of force ….. [They] behave towards the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and even brag about it, and nobody stands to check this contemptible and dangerous tendency.” (Expulsion Of The Palestinians, p. 7)

  2. Lewis said August 22
    Here’s his original piece, from the Wall Street Journal opinion page, Aug. 8:

    August 22:
    Does Iran have something in store?

    by Bernard Lewis

    During the Cold War, both sides possessed weapons of mass destruction, but neither side used them, deterred by what was known as MAD, mutual assured destruction. Similar constraints have no doubt prevented their use in the confrontation between India and Pakistan. In our own day a new such confrontation seems to be looming between a nuclear-armed Iran and its favorite enemies, named by the late Ayatollah Khomeini as the Great Satan and the Little Satan, i.e., the United States and Israel. Against the U.S. the bombs might be delivered by terrorists, a method having the advantage of bearing no return address. Against Israel, the target is small enough to attempt obliteration by direct bombardment.

    It seems increasingly likely that the Iranians either have or very soon will have nuclear weapons at their disposal, thanks to their own researches (which began some 15 years ago), to some of their obliging neighbors, and to the ever-helpful rulers of North Korea. The language used by Iranian President Ahmadinejad would seem to indicate the reality and indeed the imminence of this threat.

    Would the same constraints, the same fear of mutual assured destruction, restrain a nuclear-armed Iran from using such weapons against the U.S. or against Israel?

    There is a radical difference between the Islamic Republic of Iran and other governments with nuclear weapons. This difference is expressed in what can only be described as the apocalyptic worldview of Iran’s present rulers. This worldview and expectation, vividly expressed in speeches, articles and even schoolbooks, clearly shape the perception and therefore the policies of Ahmadinejad and his disciples.

    Even in the past it was clear that terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam had no compunction in slaughtering large numbers of fellow Muslims. A notable example was the blowing up of the American embassies in East Africa in 1998, killing a few American diplomats and a much larger number of uninvolved local passersby, many of them Muslims. There were numerous other Muslim victims in the various terrorist attacks of the last 15 years.

    The phrase “Allah will know his own” is usually used to explain such apparently callous unconcern; it means that while infidel, i.e., non-Muslim, victims will go to a well-deserved punishment in hell, Muslims will be sent straight to heaven. According to this view, the bombers are in fact doing their Muslim victims a favor by giving them a quick pass to heaven and its delights–the rewards without the struggles of martyrdom. School textbooks tell young Iranians to be ready for a final global struggle against an evil enemy, named as the U.S., and to prepare themselves for the privileges of martyrdom.

    A direct attack on the U.S., though possible, is less likely in the immediate future. Israel is a nearer and easier target, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has given indication of thinking along these lines. The Western observer would immediately think of two possible deterrents. The first is that an attack that wipes out Israel would almost certainly wipe out the Palestinians too. The second is that such an attack would evoke a devastating reprisal from Israel against Iran, since one may surely assume that the Israelis have made the necessary arrangements for a counterstrike even after a nuclear holocaust in Israel.

    The first of these possible deterrents might well be of concern to the Palestinians–but not apparently to their fanatical champions in the Iranian government. The second deterrent–the threat of direct retaliation on Iran–is, as noted, already weakened by the suicide or martyrdom complex that plagues parts of the Islamic world today, without parallel in other religions, or for that matter in the Islamic past. This complex has become even more important at the present day, because of this new apocalyptic vision.

    In Islam, as in Judaism and Christianity, there are certain beliefs concerning the cosmic struggle at the end of time–Gog and Magog, anti-Christ, Armageddon, and for Shiite Muslims, the long awaited return of the Hidden Imam, ending in the final victory of the forces of good over evil, however these may be defined. Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers clearly believe that this time is now, and that the terminal struggle has already begun and is indeed well advanced. It may even have a date, indicated by several references by the Iranian president to giving his final answer to the U.S. about nuclear development by Aug. 22. This was at first reported as “by the end of August,” but Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statement was more precise.

    What is the significance of Aug. 22? This year, Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to “the farthest mosque,” usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back (cf Koran XVII.1). This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world. It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for Aug. 22. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind.

    A passage from the Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted in an 11th-grade Iranian schoolbook, is revealing. “I am decisively announcing to the whole world that if the world-devourers [i.e., the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against their whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all them. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom which is martyrdom. Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.”

    In this context, mutual assured destruction, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, would have no meaning. At the end of time, there will be general destruction anyway. What will matter will be the final destination of the dead–hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement.

    How then can one confront such an enemy, with such a view of life and death? Some immediate precautions are obviously possible and necessary. In the long term, it would seem that the best, perhaps the only hope is to appeal to those Muslims, Iranians, Arabs and others who do not share these apocalyptic perceptions and aspirations, and feel as much threatened, indeed even more threatened, than we are. There must be many such, probably even a majority in the lands of Islam. Now is the time for them to save their countries, their societies and their religion from the madness of MAD.

    Mr. Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East” (Oxford University Press, 2004).

  3. ‘anti semitism’
    Could you all pls stop this nonsense about ‘anti semitism’?

    I’ve lived and worked for ten years in N-Africa and the Mideast too, and can certify that the following definition is fully correct:

    DEFINITION OF SEMITES – from the 1986 Collins English Dictionary – [http://tinyurl.com/zj9y4] – “Semitic: a member of the group of Caucasoid people who speak a Semitic language, including the Jews and Arabs as well as the Ancient Babylonians (Iraqis), the Assyrians (Syria), and the Phoenicians (the Lebanese of today).

    Semitic: a branch or sub-family of languages that includes Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew.” [ ]

    Palestinians and Lebanese for instance, are semites. The centuries old JDL gutter-cliché: “anti semitism” has always been a fake accusation, abused globally to kill discussions. Not anymore: Never again!

    What the US/Israeli war machine is doing, is anti-semitism on a global scale.

    And when you have stopped talking about that, you can think about and write a column on the Holodomor for instance. There even was an American denier of this Holocust who got a Pulitzer Prize for his compliant silence…

    Take care, we’ll all need it.

    Henk Ruyssenaars


    1. Aw, zip it already
      Boy, do we ever get tired of answering this predictable, endless and vile claptrap. Hilariously ironic that you would cite an outdated dictionary from 20 years ago which refers to Semites as “Caucasoid.” No contemporary dictionary would commit such an anachronism, especially for a people who do not speak a “Caucasian” (Indo-European) language. But more to the point, if you would take the time to consult your dictionary about the meaning of “anti-Semitism,” you would find that it denotes “Hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism.” Yes, Jews and Arabs alike are Semites, but anti-Semitism is a word of 19th-century European origin which specifically refers to hatred of Jews. Don’t blame me, I didn’t coin the word; the notorious anti-Semite Wilhelm Marr did, to describe his own ideology. Yes, anti-Semitism and hatred of other Semities—the current plague of anti-Arab racism—are closely related phenomena, as we have always argued. But it does not serve clarity to merely conflate them, or, worse, to deny the former.

      And what a vile insult to the memory of the Ukranians to use the Ukrainian genocide as a mere distraction from other persecutions you prefer people not to look at! Disgraceful.

      Why is anti-Semitism the only form of ethnic hatred which routinely provokes such responses?