Analysis from Israel

One surprising side effect of Syria’s civil war is that it’s causing a few people in the Arab world to question their society’s accepted view of Israel as evil incarnate. These people are still very much a minority: The majority’s attitude is exemplified by the Syrian rebel commander who, without batting an eyelash, last month espoused the delusional theory that “Iran and Hezbollah are cooperating with Israel” to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, two notable examples of a rethink have surfaced recently.

One involved a seriously wounded Syrian treated at an Israeli hospital this month. He isn’t the first Syrian to be treated in Israel, but he was the first to arrive with a note from the Syrian doctor who treated him initially. “To the honorable doctor, hello,” it began, before launching into a description of his symptoms, his treatment to date and suggestions for further treatment. “Please do what you think needs to be done,” it concluded. “Thanks in advance.”

The Syrian doctor who wrote that note clearly didn’t view Israelis as enemies, but as colleagues who could be trusted to give his patient the care he himself couldn’t provide. It indicates that word has filtered out to at least parts of Syria: Good medical care is available in Israel, and patients who need it can safely be sent there.

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, was a Friday sermon given earlier this month by a cleric in Qatif, a Shi’ite-majority city in Saudi Arabia. Discussing the conflict in Syria, Sheikh Abdullah Ahmed al-Youssef informed his congregants that more Muslims have been killed by fellow Muslims than were ever killed by Israel.

That isn’t news to anyone familiar with the facts. As I noted last month, the Syrian conflict alone has killed more than five times as many people in just two years as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in all of Israel’s 65 years of existence. And that’s without even mentioning the ongoing Muslim-on-Muslim carnage in places like Iraq (almost 2,000 killed in the last three months) or Pakistan, much less historical events like the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which killed more than one million people.

But most Arabs aren’t familiar with the facts, having been fed delusional atrocity tales about Israel for decades by their media and their political, religious, cultural and intellectual leaders. Thus for a cleric to stand up in the mosque and tell his congregants this home truth borders on the revolutionary.

If this attitude spreads, it would benefit not just Israel, or even the elusive quest for Mideast peace, but above all, the Arabs themselves. This isn’t merely because Israel has much to offer Arab countries on a practical level (like water management technologies essential for agriculture in a drought-stricken region), but mainly because Arab society’s biggest problem has always been its habit of blaming outsiders–Israel and the West–for all its ills. By so doing, they not only absolve themselves of responsibility, but also nourish the belief that these ills are beyond their control, and hence beyond their own power to fix.

By recognizing that Israel is not the monster of their own imagining, Arabs can begin the process of recognizing that their problems are of their own making rather than the product of malign outside intervention. And only then can they begin the long, hard work of fixing them.

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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