The Arab Israeli Conflict and Modern Anti-semitism
The perspective developed above offers a wide-ranging analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here we have a virtual morality play of the conflict between civic and prime-divider values. On the one hand, the Zionist (i.e., modernized) Jews, who come to the area with the most developed sense of civil commitments, quite unlike the imperialist Europeans (British, French, German). Many came with radical social values of egalitarianism and justice for the in-group, and non-coercive attitudes for the outgroup. On the other, the Arab Muslims, inheritors of a long tradition of prime-divider politics, with wealthy and arbitrary elites dominating impoverished commoners, to whom they threw the bone of dhimmi inferiors, religious minorities legally impotent before the law, against whom they could always direct their frustration and rage.
On the one hand, we have a society in which the discourse of civil society has advanced so far in practice, that they launched the most successful experiments in radical communist egalitarianism in recorded history (kibbutzim). On the other, we have a prime divider society where the elite violently defend their right to distribute wealth as they see fit. On the one hand, a culture committed to values of impartial justice, free press, and vigorous self-criticism, on the other, a classic case of the Anthropologists’ “shame culture,” an honor society that held sacred the right of a man to shed the blood of another for the sake of his own honor. On the one hand, a culture in which a rigorous epistemology of skepticism and demand for honesty informs both the journalistic and academic standards; on the other, one in which lying, especially to outsiders, is an art.
Normally the results of such a culture clash, played out on the home turf of the prime-divider societies, and not accompanied by the massive use of military force, dooms the experiment in civil society. Only with great difficulty do civic (modern) cultures successfully resist the hostility of prime-divider societies, who try to destroy the civic experiments in their midst — as Walter Map put it, “if we let them in they will drive us out.” Characteristically, even predictably such pressures drive the leadership in these revolutionary experiments in egalitarianism to adopt techniques of totalitarian control in order to survive. The French, in a pattern we would see repeat with variants all over the world for the next two centuries, started in 1789 with a revolutionary enthusiasm for egalitarianism (liberté, égalité, fraternité) only to swing wildly towards a paranoid terror that maintained its purity by shedding the blood of anyone – even its own – who criticized the leadership. Under pressure the political pattern of revolutionary movements seems quite consistent: the older patterns of prime-divider culture resurface with a vengeance – the violent reaction to criticism, the remorseless grip on the mechanisms of power, the projection of blame onto enemies, real and designated. Prime divider values triumph, and the revolutionary movement subsides and the political culture returns to a different but recognizable prime divider – the restored monarchies, the “Third Republic.”
The common accusation against Israel – that it is not “really” a democracy, but rather an apartheid state – gets the story precisely wrong. Under conditions of enormous security and self-confidence, it took America centuries to stop committing genocide against natives, and grant African-Americans full civil rights. Under the conditions of radical insecurity and immense pressures of attack, no democracy has survived, even in terms of the rights of the “in” group, much less those of a hostile minority. Except Israel. The apartheid is about two different cultures with radically different atmospheric pressures — a prime divider society with a heavy, debilitating atmosphere that favors honor-sensitive alpha males, and a civil, open society in which women and beta males can also carry public weight. The more hostile the former, the more the latter must insulate itself from the atmospheric pressures of hostile prime divider societies. (The current “barrier” is actually a form of space-suit. — added RL)
Indeed, were people to have an historical perspective, the endurance and continuously expanding world of Israeli democracy over the last half-century – the free press, the academic revisionism, the multiple parties, the almost complete lack of assassination (except, tragically but exceptionally, Rabin), even the presence of Arab members of parliament (who continuously push the very limits of the system) – represents an anomaly almost as exceptional in the history of politics as the survival of Jewish communities under the crushing pressures of diaspora for millennia represents in the history of culture.
If societies that have advanced far enough to generate their own revolutionary forces (popular literacy, free press, rule of law) can rapidly regress into the paranoid conditions of the dominating imperative (e.g., France, Germany), societies that have civil rules thrust on them react even more violently. The Ottoman Empire had been under pressure from the Europeans for most of the 19th century to adopt the modern legal commitments to equality and rescind the dhimmi laws that made Christians and Jews legal inferiors. These efforts led to responses similar to those of the Ku Klux Klan in the US after the legal emancipation of the slaves. What official policy no longer enforced, the “self-help” community of those who needed inferiors whom they could dominate worked “extra-legally” to assure the status quo. The massacres of Jews and Christians (Armenians!) that punctuate the history of Ottoman lands throughout the 19th century, as well as the importing of the “blood libel” in Damascus in 1840, offer a classic insight into the ways in which commoners sometimes handle threats to their stake in the prime divider.
Among these pogroms against Jews that struck both eastern Europe and the Ottoman empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, the riots and massacres of 1936 a.k.a. The Great Uprising deserve particular attention, partly because of the role that nascent Arab nationalist ideologies adapted from Western cultures played, partly because the British Peel Commission investigated them so thoroughly. The British asked a key question which reveals the core of the culture clash I argue lies at the core of the longue durée of Antisemitism: “Why do you hate the Jews so much, given that this region has clearly prospered since they have begun to come?” The response embodies the zero-sum world of the dominating imperative, the choice of crabs to stay in the basket: “You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it.” (Weathered by Miracles, p. 207 (Palestine Royal Comission Report, p. 131). Sooner rule in misery than share in wealth; poke out one of my eyes. Note, this man is not a representative of all Arabs in Palestine; he comes from the specific pool of rioters, of the bully “street” where might makes right and wretched dominion rules the heart of men… the very Muslim Arabs who killed the largest number of their fellow Arab Muslims in the course of the same riots.
With Zionism, this challenge of civil society became far more disturbing, threatening even more fundamental fears of the prime-divider elites. As the Athenian general explained to the Melians before killing all their men and selling their women and children into slavery: “One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.” For Sparta, read the Christian West, for subjects, read Jews. A successful Zionism in the heart of the Islamic world represented not only an indignity, it represented a shame so staggering, that it could only herald the death of the dominant culture that allowed it to happen.
And the success of Zionism against all the “power” odds of traditional culture illustrated both the power of modernity (technology, democracy, mass education) and underlined the impotence of Islamic and Arabic culture in the modern world. For political and cultural reasons, Israel meant living death to elites of the Arab prime divider, and their allies on the “street,” below that divider, men who would kill their daughters for shaming their family, who had been taught by their culture that they could intimidate and kill certain target populations of economically and legally defenseless groups.
And if these political and cultural threats did not suffice, we must add the religious dimension to our understanding of Arab (Muslim and Christian) response to the Jews. For the entire history of Islam, the Jews had been a subject people. [Unlike Christianity, which formed during the waning decades of semi-autonomous Palestinian Judaism, Islam had come into a world where the Jews were a subject people, and who rapidly passed under Islamic subjection as a dhimmi people.] Howevermuch the Muslims treated the Jews in some 9th-12th century golden age of tolerance better than the Christians of the same period, the permanent dimension of Jews in Islam was that they needed to buy the good favor of their neighbors with distinct acknowledgment of the inferiority, of their subjection, and humiliation.
At no time do we find Muslim rulers and religious leaders invoking principles of religious equality, or of equal civil rights before the law.] Jewish (and Christian) subjection, formed an essential element of Islam’s image of itself, a pillar of Dar al Islam, the Islamic imperial realm of submission/peace where Sharia, Islamic law, prevailed. For Jews to act like citizens, to use the laws for protection, to thrive by the rules of an international market place of ideas, technology, and goods, posed inconceivable challenges to Muslim and Arab self-definition. For Jews to declare independence, to take a core territory out of the realm of dar al Islam, could not stand. Just as the Russians cannot permit the Chechens to become the first ethnic group to establish their freedom from Russian rule, so the Muslims could not allow the Jews to become the first dhimmi people to declare independence. They had to nip it in the bud.
Their failure to do so – collectively remembered in the Arab narrative as the Nakba – reveals all of the weaknesses of prime-divider society when confronted with a motivated civil society whose participants feel empowered rather than subjected by their elites. Unless cornered, no one begins a war they don’t think they’ll win, and the Arab league, fully certain of its superiority, declared a genocidal war on Israel in 1947.
Their previous sympathy for and alliance with the Nazis should not surprise us here. Arab political culture had every intention of resisting the cultural demands of modernity: the offending civil society must be removed, just like any other growth malignant to the health of the prime divider. The Arab campaign, which was supposed to be a walkover, turned into a catastrophe. The “allies” foundered in lack of coordination, corruption, competition, and incompetence. The loss proved a cultural and religious humiliation on a scale and of an intensity that few of us can imagine.
Nor did Arab political culture deal well with this self-induced catastrophe. They blamed everyone but themselves. The international Jewish conspiracy, the western imperialists, the vicious Israelis who chased out the Arabs with massacres. They made no effort to recognize the catastrophe they had brought on their own people, but rather engaged in venting their frustration of the Jewish populations at hand, still under their dhimmi control, driving many out to Israel in an orgy of ethnic cleansing. To all intents and purposes, the late 1940s and early 1950s saw an ethnic cleansing of Arab countries (especially neighboring “Jordan”). Once the Zionist Jews had thrown off their dhimmi status, even dhimmi Jews proved intolerable to Arab Muslim prime-divider societies. Their own Jews now represented fifth columns who had to be either further subdued (Syria) or driven out (Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and the rest of North Africa, etc.). At the same time, they redoubled their efforts to destroy this alien presence which they refused to recognize and referred to not as Israel, but the “Zionist entity.”
And for a prime-divider goal, they adopted a prime-divider tactic: sacrifice Arab commoners. As one member of the Arab League said: “If it takes ten million of the 50 million Arabs to destroy Israel, it would be a worthy sacrifice” (cited in Israel in the Arab World, p. 477f). True to their values, they despised the weak, including their own weak, and thought nothing of using them as cannon fodder. Thus, in the five years following the Nakba we find the emergence of a pattern, partly improvisational, partly systematic, to enclose the poor Arabs who fled Palestine in “refugee” camps, while allowing the better-connected to arrange a more comfortable exile.
But exile it must be: the refugees were assigned an identity through a kind of secular dhimmitude, a systematic subordination before the law. Depending on the country that took them in, they could not become citizens, they had inferior political rights, no rights to buy and sell property, to leave the camps, even to build more permanent housing in the camps. The refugee poor became the sacrificial victims on the altar of Arab Muslim irredentism: they must suffer, and they must believe that the Zionists caused that suffering, that only with the destruction of the “Zionist entity” could their lives return to “normal.”
Initially, the Arab refugees were quite clear in the aftermath of 1948 who was responsible for the Nakba. As Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East office in Cairo (and no friend of Israel or the Jews), noted with some surprise that the refugees
express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterenesss of the Egyptians and other Arab states. “We know who our enemies are,” they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes…. I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over. (quoted in Islamic Imperialism, p. 141).
(It took decades of oppression and propaganda — another generation who could be brainwashed with demonizing the Israelis — for these memories to turn into the Israeli crimes — a state born in sin — that sear the souls of people like Tony Judt.)
In the aftermath of 1948, in the immediate and irredentist response to the Nakba (i.e., to the establishment of a civil society in the midst of Arab Muslim prime divider societies), we have the outline of medieval anti-Semitism under transitional conditions. The Arab resistance to modernity confronted a dual situation – the inability to eliminate the civil enclave (“Zionist entity”) on the one hand, and the threat to their prime divider control outside the enclave on the other. Thus, the refugees become pawns in a ruthless struggle: the camps impose an especially oppressive prime divider with the blame directed at the demonized, but unsubdued, scapegoat.
One could not ask for a more transparent example of elites conspiring against their own commoners to assure their hold on power. The elites carrying out this conspiracy against their own people then mobilize all the classic products of European anti-modern, anti-Semitism – the conspiracy theories of the Protocols, the demonizing of the blood-libels, the hysterical rage of humiliated warriors, unable to bear the shame, unable to shrug off the offending presence. To paraphrase Churchill’s famous remark about the Arabs as the fathers, rather than the sons of the desert, the Arab League and the PLO are the creators of the terror-generating swamp of misery and poverty, not the passive victims of it.
Normally this tactic of beleaguering Israel and driving her to militarism and beyond, however ruthless, should have worked, at least to eliminate the civil dimensions of the Zionist entity. When the European monarchies threatened to invade revolutionary France and Russia, the revolutions turned to cannibalistic totalitarianism and eventually a restored prime divider, and when they realized that their armies were superior to their neighbors, they turned into empires (Napoleon, USSR). Under the threat not only of the death of the revolution, but a genocidal threat to the very people, history suggests that the ruling elites of Israel should have gone both authoritarian/totalitarian (at the least a semi-permanent martial law), and, given their vast military superiority, imperialist (respond to the open and avowed efforts of their neighbors to conquer them by conquering and subduing them).
Instead, under conditions that no other revolutionary movement has tolerated, the Israelis turned to building a democratic society in which free press and academic institutions could publish virtually at will, in which positive-sum relations and educational institutions addressing the entire population’s needs produced a rapid rate of economic development. Rather than ethnically cleanse their Arab minority (20% and growing) or reduce them to dhimmi status, the Israelis felt guilty for not doing enough to make them equal both in principle and in practice.
The Arabs found such developments still more humiliating, still more intolerable. Not only did the Israelis not succumb at least to the moral swamp of Middle Eastern politics, they continued to modernize. The rage of impotence that seized upon Arab elites under these conditions has produced a restless search for the right political formula to achieve the elimination of this standing affront, this thorn in the Arab eye – from monarchy to secular nationalist regime, to religious theocracy. And with each shift, the rhetoric became increasingly apocalyptic, replete with conspiracy theories on a cosmic scale, and now, with the revival of an anti-modern “fundamentalist” Islam, we enter the full-fledged realm of cataclysmic apocalyptic millennialism – the world must pass through a devastating destruction before it can enter the millennium of a global Dar al Islam.
And, just as the Christians of medieval Europe put the Jews at the heart of their apocalyptic fears, so now have the Muslims. Half a century of frustration in attempting to eliminate the offending Zionist presence has now produced suicide terrorism on an ever-increasing scale, from restaurants to the WTC. “Destroying the world to save it.” Nothing, not even nuclear bombs detonated in major cities, can give pause to such apocalyptic hatreds.
This is by no means intended to portray Israel as some perfect incarnation of civil, egalitarian society, nor the Arabs, and especially their designated victims, the Palestinian people, as the incarnation of evil. No one in this world, and certainly no polity, can behave with perfect moral consistency, and in the neighborhood in which they live, the Israelis cannot afford the exquisitely nuanced and generous concerns that mark the most progressive polities of a relatively peaceful post-war Western world — “Moral Europe.” But if we grade on the curve, taking into account the conditions under which the Israelis have built their democracy, no other culture even approaches the resistance of the Zionist revolution to melting down in its commitments to civil values and the empathic imperative. As for the Palestinians, questionable polls and the behavior of their testosteronic male youths in the “street” aside, we have yet to hear from them. Their elites do all the talking.
The simple and deeply embarrassing fact remains that while the Arab world became Judenrein (and it is a supposition of the demand that Israel dismantle the settlements that the Palestinian state has a right to be so), the Israelis not only learned to live with a (silently but clearly) hostile Arab population in its midst, but to grant them a degree of political and civil autonomy that no Arab nation has granted to its own Arab commoners. Israel has proven an ability to live at peace with its minority populations, and the lack of an exodus of Arabs in the aftermath of the state’s establishment, including the reluctance of Arab-Israeli villages and towns to get transferred to a hypothetical Palestinian state, tacitly acknowledges that their demonizing rhetoric has little relationship to the social realities.
Still more significantly, Arabs, even members of the elite, did not all line up in favor of the irredentist, genocidal policies of their frustrated and imperiled elites. Indeed many of the Arabs in Israel refused to join the forces of war against Israel, and even refused to cooperate with the “volunteer army” of Arabs who came to fight. One of the most striking elements of the Zionist experience, one that occurred largely unintentionally, was that many Arabs and Jews had learned to live and prosper together in Palestine despite the violence, and, like the burgers of the Rhineland of 1096, some of them tried to protect the Jews from the imported violence of thuggish warriors who threatened everyone’s prospering way of life (while others, more covetous of their neighbor’s goods, helped the marauders). These populations of Arabs who really do want peace are still there, although they are terrorized (and have their honor besmirched) by the same people who try, with less success, to terrorize the Israelis. The tragedy, as we shall see, lies in the fact that those outsiders who sympathize with the Palestinians strengthen the vicious grip of their elites on them, rather than helping their designated victim-charity case.
If this analysis of the political culture of the Arabs and the Israelis seems overly simplistic, it is because the Arab-Israeli conflict represents a virtual caricature of a modern drama, and only so “simplistic” (read: clear) analysis can explain the exceptional anomalies on both sides:
• Zionism is the only revolutionary movement to take power, institute egalitarian reforms, be attacked from the outside, and not turn into a totalitarian party autocracy (proof of their commitment to civil society).
• Israel is the only nation to go from third world status to first world status in the course of the 20th century. Few countries have even made the move from third to second, or second to first (proof of their commitment to positive-sum interactions).
• Arab refugees are the only refugees not to find repatriation among a host population that shared the same language, religion, and culture as they (proof of the willingness of the elites to sacrifice the commoners for their own gains).
• Arab League countries, despite drawing on trillions of petro-dollars, still have the classic lineaments of prime-divider society: widespread poverty, uneducated commoners, and virtually non-existent production capacities (proof of the elites’ commitment to zero-sum interactions focused on dominion).
In this analysis, Abba Eban’s famous quip – “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” – actually misses two key points. First, it is not the Palestinians, but their “prime-divider” leadership that makes these choices at the expense of the Palestinian people, most recently in 2000. And second, they turn down these occasions precisely because they offer not the opportunity sought, namely destroy the subversive and humiliating Zionist entity, but to do something for which these elites have never prepared either themselves or their commoners, namely build an autonomous, well regulated, and just state and allow Israel also to win.
In the hard zero-sum world of honor humiliated, “if you win, I lose.” And in their enraged response to perpetual (if self-inflicted) humiliation, the Arab world has chosen to poke out both their eyes if only they can get one of the Israelis. Again, this is not the place to explore these issues in detail, but most of the anomalies of the conflict, including staggeringly depraved policy of suicide terrorism attacks on both sides of the green line, make most sense when viewed as a clash, not of civilizations, but of a humiliated honor culture enraged by its impotence in the face of a smaller but highly effective civil society.
Nor do I think this conflict means that Palestinians, more generally Arabs, and even more broadly, Muslims, are incapable of establishing civil societies. On the contrary, I think that they have ample resources – both religious and secular – to accomplish this. Indeed the Quran has passages that suit such an endeavor admirably. But right now, these cultures are dominated by prime-divider elites in full reaction against modernity, who mine their religious texts for justifications of sacred violence, and feed a demonizing conspiracy narrative about Zionist victimization to their oppressed masses as a drug to kill the pain inflicted by their own leadership.
Note how virtually all public voices in the Islamic world subscribe to this victim narrative and scapegoat the Israelis – feudal, revolutionary, religious, secular, “moderate”, extremist, Arab, non-Arab. As Taguieff put it, “if all the fishes are swimming in the same direction, it’s because they’re dead.” I would offer the variant: if everyone is toeing the same line it’s because, as in the Emperor’s New Clothes, fear of appearing shameful rules a culture too worried about what other’s think to acknowledge what’s right in front of their eyes.
One might be tempted to ask, “is it possible that they are all wrong in this demonization and Israel is innocent of most of the consequences of their failure with which they blame Israel?” One could certainly suggest that until they kick the addiction of scapegoating and demonization, they will continue to illustrate textbook case of the “poverty of nations.” Those who curse the Jews in this manner, curse themselves.