Is it possible to get beyond a lack of trust to find commonalities and hope in the Middle East?
I spent half a year in Israel with my parents in my teens. Then I earned a degree from UCLA in Middle Eastern Studies and married a Lebanese Christian Arab, probably for spite (don't ask; I was young). I've long since stopped believing that my opinions might affect the course of anything. Still, as a secular atheist with Zionist (and Arab) relatives, I remain curious about that part of the world.
I recently read a book that is somewhat counter-intuitive, especially with so much chatter about the Middle East being stuck in the same tired rut.
Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea by Reuven Firestone, Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College, is a fascinating narrative of Jewish history through the centuries, focused especially on the holy wars so many of us never learned much about. Certainly not in those terms. We get a history of the various factions in Zionism, too, from the secular to the religious fundamentalists, two groups that found a way to work together to form a nation in spite of the angry Arabs surrounding them.
Firestone had already written a book called Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (both are published by Oxford). In addition to being a rabbi and a scholar of history, he founded the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at USC.
Here Firestone kindly responds to my questions:
Q: Your academic life and your founding of the Center for Muslim-Jewish engagement seem unique to me. The genesis of all that?
A. The short story of it is that when I was barely 18 I suddenly found that some of the basic prejudgments about Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians that I had grown up with in my community (in all fairness, not from my own family) were proven false when I went to Israel on my own in 1970 and traveled around for some months living on a kibbutz, living in a Muslim area of the Old City of Jerusalem before Jews lived there, and traveling extensively among Jews and Arabs in the country and in areas conquered in the 1967 War.
My experiences were at the same time so wonderful and so troubling that I found myself constantly coming back to the question of Jews and Muslims (or Jews and Arabs) and Judaism and Islam, the Middle East, the meaning of religious and national identity, and relationships. There seemed to be so much in common between the two communities and religions, and yet the seemingly insurmountable clash. I never tire of learning more about both sides of the divide.
Q: I read online that in 2007 a lecture of yours in Egypt got some organizers in trouble for asking you to speak, seeing as how you're a rabbi and couldn't (they assumed) be balanced in your presentation of history. How did that kerfuffle end up?
A. I had lived in Egypt with family on sabbatical the year before so I thought I was pretty savvy about the country. But the brouhaha caught pretty much everybody by surprise. As is usually the case, it seems, it was connected to particular political and personal clashes. The acting president of the university was the son of a former minister who had enemies in Parliament, and that enabled the issue to become a parliamentary debate! It all ended suddenly less than a week later after some other crisis set everybody off in a new tizzy.
Q: Do you have a tough skin? I mean to be able to deal with criticism from all sides for taking on such controversial issues.
A. I don’t have tough skin. But I also know that people are really doing the best they can and most people really want to do the right thing. Many of us are deeply fearful and very frustrated, and that combination can cause a lot of strife both to the persons with that experience and to others around them. Sometimes I get clobbered, but the point is to respect everybody and keep on slogging (not slugging – slogging).
I know that I’m not going to resolve the issues, but my work is moving a very heavy object in a positive direction. The more we accomplish to help people learn to understand themselves and their neighbors better, the happier and safer we and the world will be.
Q: Only at the very end of the book did I discover your own views on modern-day "holy war" attitudes and actions in Israel. Would it be accurate to say that you believe Zionists (and/or Israelis, not necessarily all Jews) have no genuine option to military action so long as their neighbors behave the way they do?
A. I am not a pacifist. Every individual and every human collective has the right and the responsibility to protect themselves, and violence is sometimes necessary in order to do that. But there are no “good guys” vs. “bad guys” in this as in most conflicts. Unfortunately, each side has been so successful at demonizing the other that there is virtually no trust on either side.
The problems between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs/Muslims, are resolvable, but resolution of conflict requires a minimal level of trust that one’s partners/opponents will do what they promise. That trust has eroded away, and nobody seems to know how to restore it right now. But nothing is static, and there is always hope.
Q: I learned a lot from your book. Do you think many diaspora Jews and/or casual Zionists realize how deeply Bible-based their love for Israel is? And how well Jewish Messianism and Redemption mesh with Christian Fundamentalist views? The only difference, it seems to me, is who gets lifted to heaven when End Times arrive.
A. Faith is a beautiful thing, and faith in one’s religion and religious tradition is powerful and usually positive. The problem seems to be the extraordinary level of arrogance that sometimes comes along with faith. It’s almost as if one must not let a feather-weight of doubt show because of fear that a crack of doubt will cause the entire tower of faith to collapse. But faith is not based on proof. It is only based on faith. We need to trust in ourselves, in our faith and intuition, and in our personal theology and religious teachings.
But if we are honest we must also admit that nobody has a handle on truth. If it were so clear, then everybody would agree. And there are a lot of people much smarter than me who are believers in other religious traditions. I take a very big lesson from that. A little uncertainty is a good thing. A lot more humility in our faith would go a long way to helping resolve issues.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.