Next Week in Jerusalem
Next week on February 7th I arrive in Israel for a five month stay as a Lady Davis Fellow associated with Hebrew University. The inaugural definition of this blog was devoted to the Middle East and Israel and even though it remains that way I do admit to adjusting course after Donald Trump floated to the top of the pool of presidential candidates. His candidacy and his victory as President is so unnerving and shocking that I could not help but devote more time to try and understand what happened. Trump has to be the crudest and least prepared president in history and I’ve been warning that this is going to be a wild ride. The first 10 days of his presidency certainly has lived up to my expectation.
But over the next few months I’ll post more about Israel – even though there are probably more readers interested in Trump – and I will try to provide some sort of real-time value-added insight as a result of my presence on the ground. Still, I’m sure there will be times when I simply will not be able to shake Trump from the tangle of international relations, identity politics, his oppressive populism, or my tolerances for outrage.
Israel is not quite the same country or culture it once was. The Israeli founding narrative (an invincible democratic and moral Jewish state–holding a righteous sword– and mightily reasserting itself in the face of historic anti-Semitism to reclaim its ancient homeland) has broken up and does not echo the emotional and historical resonances it once did. The long and corrosive battle with the Arabs has depressed the nation and unleashed an unhealthy tribalism and nationalism. Much of the talk between Arabs and Jews is we-they talk that treats the other as a member of a binary opposite group along with attributions that explain deficiencies and problems in the culture by referring them to the particular “nature” of the culture. Still, Israel is a complex multicultural society full of the old and the new.
Listen to Bret Stephens explain the political and social conditions of the Arab world. I might not hold such analysis against lesser journalists but Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Stephens is familiar with Israel, bright and knowledgeable about the issues but he remains committed to various prejudices and distortions when it comes to Israel. In the video Stephens explains how it is anti-Semitism that prevents Arab economic and political progress. He has teamed up with one of the most agenda-driven conservatives (Dennis Prager) to produce this short video, which has some defensible claims, but is so overstated and exaggerated as to render it unusable. The video capitalizes on the racist assumption that Jews are intellectually superior because when they were driven from Spain, or Germany, or Czarist Russia there was a decline in these cultures. A simplistic analysis if there ever was one. It is of course beyond the confines of this posting to offer more comprehensive historical and economic analysis but the notion that the loss of Jews in these populations is responsible for their decline sounds like just the sort of thinking he claims characterize Arab countries. I certainly don’t deny that a preoccupation with anti-Semitism is real enough and an unproductive distraction but is only one affect among an entire nexus of effects that explain problems in the Arab world.
Moreover, most Arabs critical of Israel would tell you that is Zionism and not Judaism that they object to. This may be a modern form of anti-Semitism – and I believe that argument can be made – but it still challenges the centrality of anti-Semitism as Stephens explains it. Israel is changing because it lives in an environment of constant threat that it has been unable to untangle itself from. 70 years of violence and aggression hasn’t worked very well for either side. Maybe it’s time both sides extend their hands palm down. I will explore the various possibilities in the next few months.