A View From Jordan
Before Jean returned to the good ole’ US of A yesterday, she and I spent most of the weekend in Jordan. We toured Wadi Rum – the site of numerous movie sets that seek to evoke desolation (Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, The Martian.) It is a National Park and it is also the home to thousands of Bedouins. We met some of them, driving us around in their pick-ups, offering us tea in their tents. Their lives, while seemingly placid and unhurried, are no doubt filled with their own kind of hardships – though I’m not sure what those might be. Certainly they don’t have material goods nor have access to the finest modern medicines. But I wonder about their own sense of struggle and what that means and their own sense of living the good life.
We also walked into Petra, superficially famous in the West from Spielberg’s 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade movie, but certainly one of the world’s most important, ancient archaeological and cultural sites. As my sister Laurie intoned five years ago “the word awesome is overused in America but this place truly is awesome.” I agree.
Our Jordanian guide on this tour, Omar (not his real name and you’ll learn why soon), was a charismatic middle-aged Bedouin, who had served in Jordanian special forces during the second Iraq war alongside the Americans and almost lost his life in the fighting. He had lived for years in Wisconsin, had several academic degrees, and was a man of both varied experience and strongly held opinions – which he confidently and assertively shared with his captive tourists.
“I will now tell you the key to the past, present and future of the Middle East,” Omar enticed. “You need to know the three things that dominate this region’s economics and politics and then you will know everything.”
My skeptics nose was on full sniff mode, but my ears were perked.
“First you need to know that the Middle East is now, and has been since the beginning of civilization, a crossroads for trade and commerce. That was the role of Petra during the era of the Silk Road, and it remains so today for many commercial endeavors.
“Second, is religion,” Omar continued. “It is the geographic focus of three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Collectively most of the world’s people are adherents to one of those three religions. (Farber editors note: OK, Judaism is about 0.2% of the world’s population, but let’s not quibble with its “major” status since to a great extent the other two religions emerged from it.) And those three religions have been in evolving conflict with each other ever since they have been around. Sometimes it is Muslims fighting with Christians. Sometimes, Christians against Jews, etc.
“Third, is oil. Some countries have it and some don’t. But oil distorts each of the countries’ power and purpose, and functions as an impediment to shared and sustainable prosperity.”
OK. He’s on to something, I’m thinking. Pretty reasonable stuff. But then, it gets bleak.
“And that is why,” Omar says, “there will never be peace in the Middle East. Ever.”
Until… yep… you guessed it… the end days. The apocalypse. The second coming. The return of the messiah. Whatever language from one of the three religions you want to use, Omar went there with Islamic terminology.
“Well, that’s depressing,” I thought. And I also felt not a small bit trapped in a lecture I didn’t want to hear. Yet this all was an “experience,” so I went with it – as did Jean. But then it got worse. Way worse.
Jean and I ended up traipsing about Petra alone with Omar. The rest of the tour group were all young and vigorous hikers who marched off to more distant sites in Petra, while Omar gave us a personal tour – and went into more detail about his weltanschauung.
According to Omar, it was important to understand the future of the Middle East by understanding the Jews. “They are a people throughout history who have manipulated the powerful to get their way. Their periodic annihilations at the hands of others were because people caught on to what they were about. But notice the destruction was never absolute. They always found a way to come back. For example, now, they control Hollywood, control banking, control media. And Israel, will soon be taking over all of the West Bank, Gaza and more. The Jewish power will grow and grow until they are put back in their place – again.”
“But why is this?” I ask. “What is the point if this is all G-d’s will?”
“It is Allah’s way,” Omar replies. “And when the final judgment comes, only the true Muslims will go to heaven, and all others will go to hell.”
Jean’s view of Omar’s view, is that “this is what is holding them back. This is why progress in Arab lands is so difficult.”
A View from Mea Shearim
Earlier last week, Jean and I had lunch with the mother of a friend of ours near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. This is Israel’s most famous Haredi – also called Ultra Orthodox – neighborhood. She has lived there, after making aliyah from Berkeley, for 15 years. The lunch was at a restaurant called Shteisel, which is said to be the inspiration for the name of the terrific Israeli TV program on Netflix about the daily lives of the Haredi.
During today’s election, there were massive street protests occurring in Mea Shearim, with Haredim demonstrating against the “illegal Zionist State.” In many Haredi minds, a Jewish state is antithetical to their religious view that such a state may only be possible after the return of the messiah. The protesters are begging folks not to vote.
My own cousins, who live just outside of Jerusalem and are also Haredi, have given me a book to read: “The Final Resolution.” In it the author maintains that the messiah will not come until all Jews are observant. He does support the state of Israel. Just not the secular elements of that state.
For many other Jews in Israel, there is an absolute belief that G-d gave to the Jews all the land westward of the Jordan River. For various groups, the extent of “the land of Israel” has different geographies north, south and east. Some more extensive than others. But that G-d-given absolute right to all the land is sacrosanct.
A View from Evangelical Christians
Two weeks ago, Sybil and I spent time with Sybil’s friend Lindy who has, for the past 40 years, ran a tour service in Israel focused on servicing Evangelical Christians exploring the Holy Land. Like the Haredi and fundamentalist Muslims, there are a wide variety of views about the Second Coming and the role of the establishment of the state of Israel as a preliminary and necessary step toward that day. For some Christians, support for Israel is vital… until the Second Coming, when Jews and all others must decide to go with Jesus, or spend eternity in hell.
Jewish Israelis (about 75% of the country), for the most part, do not believe any of the above. The large majority (70% plus) are secular. They want to live their lives in safety. Raise their kids. Hang with their families and friends. Lead regular “western style” lives. But the nature of the political structure of Israel provides great power to minority voices. Not once in the history of the country has a single political party retained a majority of the votes in The Knesset (Israel’s parliament). So coalition governments must be formed and they always have been formed with the aid of Jewish religious parties. The apocalypse must have a vote!
Forecasting the results of today’s election for an outsider like me is pretty foolish. To begin to understand the extraordinary complexity of the politics of this country, one must dive into books and steep oneself with political analysis – which is EVERYWHERE on the internet and in bookstores. But I will share a few observations – as several of you have asked me to do – of the nature of political experience in Israel as distinct perhaps from the American experience.
Israelis openly talk about “right wing” and “left wing”parties. When the Israeli “right wing” label themselves, they do so with pride. When they label the “left wing” they mean everyone who isn’t them and it is meant as a pejorative. The actual Israeli left wing has been getting smaller and smaller over the decades. The socialist founding Labor Party leaders – Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres – have not only all passed, but their party heirs look to be only the 3rd, 4th or even 5th largest party in today’s election.
Here is my basic political analysis (they used to actually pay me pretty good money to give my political judgments on the Washington State Legislature, but my views now are worth precisely what you are paying me) of the current state of political life in Israel:
- The vast majority of Jewish Israelis (of the ones who vote) – 80 – 90% – do not believe that they have an effective partner in Palestinian leadership who have the interest and capacity to deliver peace through a two-state solution.
- The “Left” in Israel believe in treating the Palestinians at least with basic decency in hopes that they in the future will be able to rally themselves to become a capable partner. They also believe that Israel has been complicit in undermining Palestinian social, cultural and economic development.
- The “Right” in Israel believe either that Arabs are unworthy or incapable of self-governance or that there is not a reasonable future capability for Palestinian partnership and the best alternative is to – over time – simply crush the opposition and “win.” Winning means extending sovereignty over more and more of the land. It means demographically winning too, with more and more Jews and fewer non-Jews in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel).
- The 20% of Israelis who are Arab will continue to vote, but in all likelihood in lessor numbers with little or no influence in civic affairs.
- Whether a Rightest bloc – with Netanyahu as the leader – continues to rule, or a new Center-Left bloc with three former army general chiefs of staff in leadership roles eventually takes control is the key choice in the election. Benny Gantz would be the Prime Minister if the latter won. The polls say that Netanyahu will triumph again. This even though he is likely to be soon indicted on corruption charges and would need to stand trial. He is also likely – if he wins – to try to push through new legislation that would allow him to continue to serve even if he is indicted.
- We may not know the final outcome for many days if the election is close. The president (Rivlin) first asks one of the parties to try to form a coalition government, then negotiations between the different parties can take up to 45 days to complete. It might get very messy indeed.
- A fundamental issue seems, in my opinion, to revolve around the question of the future of the Jewish State, with the Center and Left still hoping for a democratic state for all its citizens, and the Right wanting a democratic theocracy for its Jewish citizens.
Historically, the power of the extremes on both the Arab and Israeli sides have been manifest since each can fairly easily resort to violence to make security the paramount issue. To the degree security takes precedence, the extremes tend to win. The movement to the right over the past 40 years seems inexorable. And with the average Jewish Israeli’s life pretty good right now, and the nation’s economy zooming forward, it’s a hard case to make that major changes are in order and major risks for peace are in the cards.