My thoughts return to a brief e-mail dialogue I had a year or so ago with a Jewish radical who claimed a working relationship with Alexander Cockburn’s “Counterpunch” Web site. He mentioned that he had influence in modifying some views on this far-left site, which had veered from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism.
After a while, he and I realized that we did not see the world, and Israel in particular, in the same way. We debated in the way that the wonderful world of e-mail makes possible, until I said something that totally stopped him. With his silence, I could virtually hear his condemnation of me as some sort of anti-Arab bigot or racist.
Insofar as I can recall, my conversation stopper was in two parts: that Israel has been callous with regard to the Palestinian Arabs’ realistic fear of losing more in rights and property to an expansive Israel (he clearly didn’t object to this), while Arabs have a problem with an all-too-quick and repeated pattern of resorting to violence. I see the latter in the Palestinian-Arab war to destroy the Yishuv in 1947-48, instead of accepting the UN Partition Plan, and in the Intifada that began in 2000, instead of moving toward compromise during the government of Ehud Barak.
This is not about how “generous” Barak’s positions were at Camp David, or that Barak was a wonderful negotiator– he was not. Yet their recourse to violence at both times destroyed all possibility of the flowering of a negotiating process that would have given them a sovereign state and a far better reality than war has left them.
I do not believe that Arabs or Muslims in general have an inherent propensity toward violence. That would be a bigoted belief. But Arab and Islamic societies are in a bad place right now, where mob violence and hatred trumps negotiation and compromise. I don’t know if this is inherent in Islam, but doubt that it is.
Still, we are reminded of this problem but again by the world-wide conflagration having to do with the publication of some satirical cartoons in a few European newspapers. As of this moment, at least 11 lives have been lost, buildings have been burned and international relations have been incredibly riled. (For a rational Muslim perspective on this issue, see a recent article by Irshad Manji.)
It’s as clear to me as day, however, that certain governments benefit by playing the religion card, promoting external enemies and scapegoating others. (It is not an accident, for example, that embassies have been burned by a marauding mob in the tightly-controlled dictatorship of Syria.) And guess who falls conveniently into place as their favorite scapegoat? (See a fair- minded article in NY Jewish Week, “Cartoons and Carnage: Jews dragged into Muhammad controversy….”)
So an Iranian newspaper thinks it’s fair play, since Christian Europe has dumped on Muslim sensibilities, to sponsor a contest that invites cartoons lampooning the Holocaust! To add insult to insult, the Danish newspaper that started this mess by publishing these cartoons months ago, wants to freshly assert the right to a free press by also publishing these cartoons insulting to Jews. What a world! (For a somewhat more acerbic discussion, see Ami Isseroff’s piece in the Middle East Web.)