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.”
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.