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June 05, 2004

Bernard Lewis Agrees With Me

When I spent a backpacking month in Morocco in the early '70s, the thing that surprised me most was how obsessed everyday Moroccans were with Israel. I was amazed by how much of Morocco's mental energy the topic of Israel (and its nefariousness) seemed to consume.

After all, here the Moroccans were, leading miserable lives. And there was Israel, nearly 2000 miles off in the distance and, really, such a little-bitty thing. (Israel is barely larger than New Jersey.) I couldn't discern any connection at all between the daily fates of Moroccans and the existence of Israel. Yet as far as many Moroccans seemed concerned, Israel was the source of everything evil in their lives.

How to explain why their preoccupation with Israel should be so whackily out of proportion with Israel's actual importance in their lives? Avoiding all questions here but the one about the (to my mind absurd) magnitude of the obsession, I found myself thinking along these lines:

Well, conditions here in Morocco are pretty rotten and not getting much better. Officials seem corrupt, as well as unable to manage anything resembling a modern state. Hmm: how convenient Israel's existence is for Morocco's leaders, really. With Israel around, Morocco's leaders get to have 1) something to distract their subjects' attention with, and 2) a devil figure to blame all difficulties on.

Even I -- as naive a teen as any other -- found myself thinking, hmm, in fact Morocco's leaders really need Israel. It seemed to me that the last thing an Arab ruler would really want to do would be to destroy Israel. Without it, how would he retain his hold over his people?

Thinking along these lines, I was surprised to find myself pitying the Palestinians, who now appeared to me to be dupes of their fellow Arabs. Why? Well, if Arab leaders really weren't serious about destroying Israel, then it seemed clear that Arab leaders were in fact using the Palestinians, and doing so ultra-cynically. Evidence of the devil's nefariousness is needed, after all, and the Palestinians' frustrations provide that. It seemed likely to me that Arab leaders, far from caring about the Palestinians, were happy to sacrifice them -- casting them as suffering puppets in a stage-managed play whose point had nothing to do with the liberation of "Palestine" and everything to do with perpetuating the rule of corrupt elites.

I don't submit any of these thoughts as serious political argument, by the way. I relate them as examples of the rails a visit to Morocco made my mind run along. It's striking how dramatically a visit to the mideast can affect your thought processes; here I was, a mid-American know-nothing, yet even so I was reading tea leaves and looking back over my shoulder. So I confess that I was tickled to read the following passage from an Atlantic Unbound q&a with the mideastern scholar Bernard Lewis, who (kinda-sorta) confirms my teenaged hunch:

You mention that the reason that the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be the central preoccupation in the Arab world is that it's the only local political grievance that people can discuss freely in the open forum.

It is the licensed grievance. In countries where people are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated at all the difficulties under which they live—the poverty, unemployment, oppression—having a grievance which they can express freely is an enormous psychological advantage.

Do you think that if freedom of speech were introduced in the region the popular preoccupation with Israel would fade?

It would become less exclusive and less important. Obviously, like everyone else in the world, these people are most concerned with their own immediate problems. For the Palestinians, of course, the main problem is the Arab-Israel thing, but people in other countries would, I think, be more concerned with their problems at home if they were allowed to discuss them, which they are not.

Far from being just another paranoid hippie fantasist, my 1974 self was evidently a shrewd political analyst.

The interview can be read here.

posted by Michael at June 5, 2004


Without disputing the validity of your insights, or those of Bernard Lewis, the fact is that there really is no satisfying explanation for anti-semitism. I say anti-semitism rather than anti-Israelism because the continuous obsessing on Israel as the fount and focus of all the ills in the world combined with the demand that it be held to a standard of conduct recquired of no other nation is a dead giveaway. It's THE JEWS, baby! If only we could get rid of THE JEWS everything would be alright.
I'm an American Jew. I have experienced no, zero, nada anti-semitism in my own life. That is not to say that I am so naive that I don't realize there are sectors of American society in which Jews are, shall we say, viewed with distaste. But that is not anti-semitism. And, by and large, America has been singularly blessedly free of it.
But how to explain the virulence of it in the Arab world? Well, to some extent, it comes right out of passages in the Koran in which Jews are described as not just infidels but as the infidels of infidels, apes and pigs.
But anti-semitism also thrives in large swaths of Europe's political/cultural elites. These people are overwhelmingly adamantly secularist. And isn't Europe now in large measure Judenrein? So what's their excuse?
For God's sake, there are even Japanese anti-semites -- in Japan!
What am I getting at? There is no explanation.
Calling it what it is helps; and then fighting back.

Posted by: ricpic on June 6, 2004 1:43 PM

I'm sure you could extend this reasoning to explain other bogey men that people become peculiarly obsessed with. The USA, the IMF and World Bank, McDonalds, "globalisation", the Bildeberg group, 12 foot tall blood drinking lizards, the elders of Zion, and one hundred other things all develop powers far exceeding their actual reach (or indeed existence) in the imaginations of people looking for scapegoats.

I'm sure the lack of political freedom in the Arab world makes this kind of conspiracy theory seem more attractive and credible, but thats hardly the only environment in which it thrives.

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on June 6, 2004 2:47 PM

Well...I agree other bogeymen have been created, besides Israel, although I believe to an extent it is always for the reasons you have noted. It does seem to me that the Arabs have used the Palestinians quite cynically, particularly since they lost their land when---who was it, Jordan?--attacked Israel and lost in '67. Jordan didn't exactly relocate the refugees to their soil, did they? There aren't that many Palestinians and there's plenty of empty space in the Middle East. Although, I also realize, everyone is always accusing the US of forgetting about everybody else's nationalism but our own, and getting into repeated trouble because we can't remember that, and so moving to Jordan may not have solved the problem from the Palestinian side. But you're right---what possible difference would it make in Morocco? And Morocco hadn't exactly offered the Palestinians a new home, had they?

Posted by: annette on June 6, 2004 6:15 PM

How to explain why their preoccupation with Israel should be so whackily out of proportion with Israel's actual importance in their lives?

Huh. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Israel is filled with Jews?

Posted by: David Sucher on June 17, 2004 10:34 PM

"Far from being just another paranoid hippie fantasist, my 1974 self was evidently a shrewd political analyst. "

Obviously true; so the current question might be:

"Why no political element (except in the broadest sense of 'culture is political') on your blog?"

Posted by: David Sucher on June 17, 2004 11:42 PM

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