The Tragedy of the Middle East
• During the Holocaust a very pious Jew was told by his friends to run into the woods and hide from the Nazis. He replied, I rely on the hashgocheh (Divine Providence). He stayed home and was taken to Auschwitz.
• The house of an old Arab in Morocco was destroyed by a storm. He continued to dwell in the ruins. When asked why he did not rebuild his house he replied, because it was the will of Allah that I live in a destroyed house.
These are true stories I heard over the years. The moral of the two stories is that in Europe during the Holocaust the piety of the Jews did not save their lives, and the sense of fatalism in the Arab world, also based on deep faith, has been preventing this part of the world from keeping up with human progress.
When the early Zionist pioneers turned their backs on the piety of their pious life back in Europe, and went to build their homeland in the Middle East, they were fulfilling the Western dictum that “God helps those who help themselves.” The Arab world is yet to learn this lesson. Many Arab scholars and activists today have been pointing this out. Herein lies the tragedy of the Middle East.
Greatness and tragedy seem to go hand in hand. The Middle East is the cradle of human civilization, which started in places like Egypt and Babylonia, Persia and Greece, the last being situated on the western edge of the Middle East. Yet today we often hear people refer to this part of the world as a “bad neighborhood.” In recent times it has given the world perhaps more headaches than any other part of the world.
When Israel was born, it was born out of the greatest national tragedy of all time, namely, the Holocaust. But to compound the Jewish tragedy, Israel was born in one of the most tragic corners of the world, namely, the Middle East, the venue of what might be called the Arab Tragedy.
What is the Arab Tragedy?
Many in the West today believe that most Arabs support Islamic terrorists. This is simply not true. Islamic terrorism has killed far more Muslims than Westerners, and has been wreaking havoc in the Muslim word, all the way from Afghanistan to Morocco. I have traveled extensively in the Arab world in recent years and I have found this to be true. I have learned an essential lesson: The vast majority of Muslims want to live and let live. But because of political instability and widespread poverty in the Arab world, relatively small extremist organizations are able to intimidate entire populations and stand in the way of progress in their own countries by distorting the teachings of their religion and by turning what was meant to be a compassionate and caring faith into a lethal weapon.
The Middle East, and particularly what is known to many around the world as the Holy Land, have known more war than perhaps any other part of the world. One way to take a close look at those holy and not so holy wars is to drive the length of the small country of Jordan from Aqaba in the south to Jerash in the north, which I once did. I saw remains of Roman conquest, Crusaders’ castles, Mameluke monuments, Nabatean remains—the list goes on and on.
The Middle East is, for one thing, the cradle of Islamic civilization, which was born in the Arabian Peninsula. During the past four centuries of Ottoman or Turkish rule, the Islamic Middle East went into decline from which it is yet to recover. The Turks were not enlightened rulers. They did not bring another Golden Age to the Middle East, similar to the age of the Caliphates, which lasted for several centuries after the birth of Islam in the seventh century, gave rise to great philosophers and scientists, and saw collaboration between Muslim, Jewish and Christian thinkers, particularly in Moorish or Muslim Spain prior to the sixteenth century. Instead, the Turks impoverished their Arab subjects, deprived them of education, and deforested and laid waste their lands.
In recent years, the region has known civil wars and inter-Arab wars which have claimed the lives of millions. In the Iran-Iraq War alone, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, in which Muslims killed Muslims, over one million lives were lost. The carnage has been ongoing, with countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and currently Syria continuing to bleed on a daily basis because of internal and external conflicts. Finally, one of the more recent tragic chapters of this ghastly conflict has been the recent struggle in the Arab world known as the Arab Spring, which for a while raised great hopes, but which quickly turned into the “Arab Winter,” changing little of the grim reality of life in Muslim lands, and leaving most of the old problems in place.
But the longest conflict in the Middle East has been the Arab-Israeli conflict, which started nearly one hundred years ago when the first Jewish pioneers arrived in Palestine, and which resulted in several full-scale wars from 1947 to 1982. This conflict continues today with no end in sight.
This epic conflict, as was pointed out by the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua, is not a conflict between right and wrong, but rather between two rights. It is a conflict between two oppressed people who have been fighting for a national home on a land they have either inhabited or came back to, and where, when I was a child, they lived side by side, but have not been able to accommodate each other once the world offered them a plan in 1947 known as the Partition Plan.
To make this tragic story even more tragic, those Jews who arrived in what officially was known at the time as Palestine-Land of Israel, experienced in the middle of the twentieth century the greatest tragedy in their long tragic history, namely, the Holocaust. To the tourist visiting Israel today, it is a thriving dynamic country of rare beauty and a heroic and deeply spiritual history. But as the Israeli novelist Amos Oz has pointed out, it is a society full of Holocaust survivors who do not sleep well at night; of bereaved mothers and fathers who lost a son in one of the Arab-Israeli wars; of families who lost a loved one in terrorist attacks which have plagued Israel since the day it was born. There is much sadness and bereavement behind the dynamic façade of this remarkable democracy surrounded by a sea of totalitarian regimes.
When all is said and done, there are really no winners in the Middle East, only losers. How can I, who lost all my grandparents, all my uncles and aunts except one, nieces and nephews and cousins in the great catastrophe in Europe, and whose parents sacrificed for years to make Israel happen, and who has lost friends in Israel’s wars, how can I consider myself a winner?
And because I have lost so much, I am not unaware of the tragedy of the other side. At least I have had the great good fortune of seeing the dream of generations come true, namely, the establishment of the State of Israel. The Arab boys I played with in my native Haifa ended, for the most part, in refugee camps in Gaza and Jordan and Lebanon. Many of their children and grandchildren still live in those camps, which I have seen in places like Amman, Jordan, and in Gaza. Who knows better than a Jew what it means to be stateless? My forebears have been stateless for centuries, so I should know.
The fondest wish of our leaders and of all of us has always been, and still is, peace. We all learned early on that, unfortunately, anyone who wants peace in the Middle East must also be prepared for war. In our case, facing numerically superior adversaries, being prepared has always meant being a few steps ahead of our adversaries, and having superior striking capabilities. From the beginning, we knew that our margin of error in warfare was zero. The Arab countries could lose many wars and survive. We only had to lose one war and be wiped off the map. Germany, Italy, and Japan lost World War Two, but they did not cease to exist. The same cannot be said about Israel, which has and continues to live under an existential threat.
Israel has now endured for seventy years, which is not a long time in the history of nations, but which has shown that it has gone through its trial period, so to speak, and is ready to move on to the next phase of its existence as a nation. Israelis are deeply aware of having risen from the ashes of the Holocaust. But in order to achieve its most hoped for goal, which is peace, Israel has to begin taking full cognizance not only of its own tragedy, but also of the tragedy of the region it lives in, which is being played out on the local and the world media day after day. Israel cannot take care of the entire Arab and Muslim world. No one can, least of all the protagonists themselves. But it has a peace treaty in place with two of its key neighbors, namely, Egypt and Jordan, and it has been talking now for the past quarter century with the Palestinian leadership who is also looking for peace. Once both sides become fully cognizant of the tragic past of the other side, there will be hope for a peaceful settlement which will benefit both sides, the entire Middle East, and the entire world.
Mordecai Schreiber is rabbi and author. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Three Founders of Israel.