Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, March 31, 2023

Book Review : A Concise History of the Middle East 

Let’s start with the Jews. Technically they don’t come first chronologically if we see the Jews as descendents of Isaac, and the Arabs as descendents of Ishamael, because Ishmael was born first. But they do come first as to promise. Abraham was promised a son, and while he waited, Sarah talked him into sleeping with her slave Hagar.

You may not have heard the expression if you did not come from an Evangelical Christian background, but it’s called, “creating an Ishmael,” and refers to a situation where you do things on your own to “help God out,” instead of waiting for God to do things his way. So the current Arab-Israeli conflict is actually used as an illustration of what happens when we don’t rely on God.

But is it really that simple? Are all Arab s descendents of Ishmael?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I said I was going to talk about the Jews first. So I will leave the Arabs for now, but don’t worry—I’ll be back soon.

In the beginning of this book is this statement:

Israel’s Jews are divided between those of European origin, called Ashkenazim, and those who came from Asian or African countries, called Mizrachim, or Orientals.
This statement is puzzling at first glance. What about the Sephardic Jews? The puzzlement is cleaned up if you go to the glossary at the end of the book.
Mizrachim (miz-ra-KHEEM): Jews whose ancestors came from Spain, Portugal, or the Muslim world; sometimes called Sephardim
But I still think the Mizarchim and Sephardim should be separate classifications even though there are similarities.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the matter:

The term Sephardim, derived from Hebrew Sefarad (lit. 'Spain'), also sometimes refers to the Mizrahi Jews of Western Asia and North Africa. Although the millennia-long established latter groups did not originally have ancestry from the Jewish communities of Iberia, the majority of them were influenced by the Sephardi style of liturgy, law, and customs from the influence of Maimonides; many Iberian Jewish exiles later sought refuge in those pre-existing Jewish communities over the course of the last few centuries, resulting in a conflation of terms.
Although the study of different Jewish groups is interesting from an anthropological point of view, the important thing to remember is what these variations tell us about the Jews as a people: Although they developed several varieties, they were all Jews. And they were all members of the original people group that marched from Egypt to the promised land—the same people who wrote the Bible. As such, they have a right and interest in returning to that Promised Land from which they were scattered. So to disregard their history by merely viewing them as intruders is unhistorical They have a right to be there.

But don’t the Palestinians have a right to be there too? Yes. Their right is more recent (in my opinion), but it is still a right. This is what makes the problem so complicated. In America, some people seem to think that if Israel would just behave herself, everyone would get along fine. Not even close to being true. For many people in the Middle East, Israel’s greatest offense is her very presence.

Some years ago, I was talking with a PhD student at Tsinghua University. I said to him, “If I went to the West Bank and asked ten people if they could accept the existence of Israel as a country, how many would say yes?”

He said, “Maybe one.” Our conversation continued for a few minutes, and then he said, “In Jordan it would be zero. The land cannot be shared.”

Some time after that, I was talking to a guy from Egypt. He was a very friendly, outgoing guy. I put pretty much the same question to him, asking him how many people on the streets of Cairo would respond positively if I asked them point blank if they could accept the existence of Israel as a country. He said, “Maybe point 5.” He continued talking, and then stopped to say, “I want you to know I’m from the 9.5, not the point 5.”

I do not say any of this to suggest that Israel has no fault in this situation. In fact, I have been very critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But at some point in the discussion it is usually important to point out that the dislike for Israel among the common people of her neighbors is not because of any specific thing Israel has done, but because of her existence as a nation in the region.

Several years ago, I was having coffee with a Muslim friend of mine at a coffee bar in Beijing, and he was telling now the current Israelis were interlopers. They weren’t real Jews. After talking for awhile, we went to another part of the coffee bar, and he saw a friend of his who was a Israeli. He introduced me, so I turned to the Israeli and said, “What percentage of the Jews now living in Israel are biological descendents of Abraham? He looked shocked. He said, “One hundred percent!” You see, sometimes people see things differently.

So let’s get to the Arabs. Who are the Arabs? Christian children are taught in Sunday school that the Jews are the descendents of Isaac and the Arabs are the descendants of Ishmael. But should the six sons of Keturah also be included? Here is what Wikipedia says about it (quoted from the Book of Jubilees):

And Ishmael and his sons, and the sons of Keturah and their sons, went together and dwelt from Paran to the entering in of Babylon in all the land towards the East facing the desert. And these mingled with each other, and their name was called Arabs, and Ishmaelites.
At any rate, let me just say that generally speaking, we can say that the Arabs and Jews are both descendants of Abraham and look to him as the father of their people. So why so much conflict between them? You see, the Arab-Israeli conflict is basically a family feud.

And then there is also the conflict between the Palestinians and the Arab nations. I remember watching a documentary on Al Jazeera one time about the Israeli bombing of Gaza (in retaliation for Hamaas rocket attacks), and one local Gaza resident was raging against the Arab nations, saying that they were “worse than Israel.” The Palestinians feel that they have been neglected by the Arab nations. But a few months ago I was sitting outside a coffee bar talking to a guy from Saudi Arabia, and when I mentioned that to him he said, “Yeah, after all we’ve done for them.” Mind you, this was one statement by one Saudi in China, but it does reflect, I think, the growing frustration Arab countries feel with Palestinians they see as incorrigible. Some of them are, of course. But many others are decent people who have been abused by a very unfair system.

The story I have always heard about the Palestinians is that the Arab nations told the Palestians that they should leave their homes and then when the Arab nations finished defeating the Israelis, the Palestinians could come and get their homes back. The authors of this book dispute that story, but not with any real evidence. But the story I heard never had any evidence either, so I, also, am skeptical. My personal belief is that the Palestinians fled because they were terrified. Whatever the case, what is beyond dispute is that they lost their homes. I once saw a sad documentary on Al Jazeera about a Palestinian who went back to visit his childhood home, now occupied by an Israeli family. He just wanted to see it. His family was not paid for that home. It was just taken from them. That’s so unfair. But here is the question: Should Palestinians like this man be entitled to take back the homes that had been in their family before 1948? If you say “no,” I would ask, then why are Israelis allowed to assume that they should be able to take back land that may have been theirs in some sense before 1948? Whatever the decision, both sides should be treated the same, right? What I am trying to get at is that the people we now call “Palestinians” have been treated unfairly. I don’t think anyone can deny that. Of course this does not justify the violent manner in which some Palestinians have responded to this unfairness. But it is unfairness.

But that brings up another point: the term “Palestinian” causes a lot of confusion because it changed it’s meaning after 1948, and people who don’t know that end up making fools of themselves on the internet. It is comical to see someone post a picture of a “Palestine” coin as proof that the Palestinians existed as a nation state before the founding of Israel. They obviously don’t realize that during the British mandate period, the Israelis referred to themselves as “Palestinians,” because there was no nation of Israel. So that Palestine coin was actually an Israeli coin. Pre-Israel Israeli, but Israeli nonetheless. And the Palestine pound note actually had "the land of Israel" written right on it.

Everything changed after 1948. In 1950, the Palestine Post changed it’s name to The Jerusalem Post. But when that happened, it didn’t suddenly become any more Zionist than it always been. But I don’t want to beat a dead horse. The simple point is that the term “Palestinian” meant very different things at various points during the 20th century. But this does not subtract in any way from the moral imperative to treat all people fairly, whether they are members of a large, respected nation state, or random Bedouins sprinkled across the desert.

So where should Christians stand on this question? It is understandable that the Jews would support Israel (although certainly not all of them do). And it is expected that Arabs would support the Palestinians (though, as I said, the Arab nations seem to be growing impatient with the Palestine State’s intransigence). But Christians have a moral obligation to support both sides in this conflict.

Christians must be unbending in their support of Israel’s right to exist as a nation in the Middle East. But they must also be unflinching in rebuke of Israel’s cruelty to her Palestinian neighbors. Mind you, it hasn't been easy for Israel. Kinda tough to get along with someone who doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist. But the balance must be maintained. Christians must support Israel’s right to exist. But at the same time, Christians must not turn a blind eye to the suffering of people who are the victims of Israel’s aggressive behavior. It is puzzling to see American Christians adamant in their defense of Israel’s right to exist, but completely silent about Israel’s abuse of her Arab neighbors, including Christian Arabs.

This book was not written by Israelis. It was written by left-wing American Jews. Arthur Goldschmidt taught Middle East history for 35 years at Penn State.

Lawrence Davidson who was one of the founding members of the Students for a Democratic Society when he was a grad student and Georgetown, is also listed as an author, but this book is the ninth edition of a book first published in 1979, and Wikipedia identifies Davidson’s first book as being published in 1990, so this book, at least originally, is clearly Arthur Goldschmidt’s brain child.

But while the book presents a left wing perspective, I do think it is quite useful as a starting point in getting to understand modern Israel. This partly because it is very thorough, but also because you cannot properly understand Israel today without somehow getting a grasp of both the left wing and right wing perspectives on Israel’s problems. Most people who know me would not identify me as left wing, but in fact, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, I often find the Israeli left to be more compassionate and sensitive to the plight of the common people than the right wing. When it comes to their visceral hatred for Netanyahu I depart from them. And while he may not succeed in reforming the judiciary the way he would like, he does at least have a point. A strong judiciary does tend to reign in tyranny. But it can also inhibit democracy.

But my point, I guess, is that the best approach to this whole thing is to read some ideas from both sides and then try to frame a perspective that is as fair as possible.

Since this book is a history of the Middle East and not merely a history of Arabs and Jews, it also makes some mention of Christian religions the the area. I did not choose to address that part in this review, because I mention the Nestorians elsewhere (mainly because they came to China), and I will probably deal with the Copts at a later date.

Actually, though, the strongest part of this book is not so much the perspective it shares about the relations between Arabs (including Palestinians and the Arab nations) and Israelis that we all hear so much about on the news. The strongest part of this book for me was the wealth of information it contains on the history of Islam, and of Muhammad as a person. The subject is dealt with delicately, as you can imagine, but is very useful in forming a mental construct of Islam in the modern world, and the nature of it’s origins in the pre-modern world. For that reason alone I would recommend this book as a useful source of information. It shouldn’t be your only source, but it will be helpful to you.

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