Bubbles, Trouble, Oil and Rubble

1 05 2011

e all live in bubbles, often of our own making.  But other bubbles are imposed on us.  Some random observations.

Almost four months in Israel and I see some of these bubbles.  One is my Jewish bubble.  Hanaton is a small community of about 120 families, all Jewish.  Only a few miles from our house, and clearly visible (and audible) across the valley, is the Israeli Arab village of Kafar Manda.  A Muslim bubble.  At night the green lights from its five mosques shine brightly; and from those five mosques five times a day we hear five different muezzins’ calling the faithful to prayer in the adhan:  “Allah hu akbar!” God is great!  Sometimes our neighbors’ prayer calls mingle with our prayers during our own services.  “Shma’ Yisra’el… Allah hu akbar!” enters the worshiper’s mind in a fusion of liturgy and Semitic linguistics: “Hear, O Israel… God is great!”

Their bubble, our bubble: a momentary merging.

Thinking about it a little further, adhan (pronounced “azan” or “ezan”) is the linguistic cognate of the Hebrew ozen meaning “ear.”  Jews and Muslims “giving ear” to the oneness of God.  Two bubbles, one God.

A mosque in Kafar Manda as seen from our front yard. (Taken with a telephoto lens.)

Sometimes at night, I look across the valley at those green lights.  How permeable are our mutual bubbles?  What are the obstacles?  A few immediate, and perhaps challenging, answers: language, religion, history.  Trying to overcome some of these obstacles we already made some friends in Kafar Manda, Anat having taken a Galilean Arabic cooking class from a woman named Razala whose husband, Ali, is an organic farmer.  We now buy most of our produce from Ali.  We’ve been to each others’ homes.  They are a faithful Muslim family, and as in traditional Arab culture, their grown children live quite nearby: upstairs in a third floor built specifically for his “son the doctor,” or next door for his other son and daughter.

We sometimes shop in Kafar Manda for various household items and I often gas up my car there.  Also, leaving Hanaton northward requires going through Kafar Manda, and by dozens more Arab villages, each with its own character.  My daughter’s school bus goes through the relatively prosperous Bedouin village of Zarzir to get to her school in Giva’at Elah.  A dozen or so Bedouin children from Zarzir attend her school.

(Indulge me a moment for a political aside: Some of our worst critics call Israel an “apartheid state.”  I humbly invite them to my daughter’s school to witness this “apartheid,” but I know facts won’t stand in the way of an entrenched narrative.  This is not to say there are no inequalities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, there are many.  But “apartheid”?  The state of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel is complex, multi-layered and does not resemble the one-dimensional picture some are trying to paint of Israel.  In future blogs I will explore this topic in-depth.)


nother bubble: I live in what often seems like an Anglo ghetto.  There are quite a few Americans (they all seem to come from New Jersey!) plus an assortment of Brits and South Africans.  If you so choose, you can go through an entire day without speaking a word of Hebrew.  Speaking Hebrew is bloody hard!   But, if I’m going to make it here then this is one bubble I must break through.  So, getting off to ulpan (intensive Hebrew course) in Haifa everyday is what I do.  I hitch a ride with an Israeli Hanatonian who works in Haifa, and take the bus home.  When I’m “out there” beyond my Anglo bubble there is no escaping the need to speak Hebrew.

The other day, I went to a hardware store and even managed to ask about, and buy, wall anchors, a step-down electrical converter, and batteries — all in Hebrew!  Woo-hoo!  (Or, perhaps I should say “Walla!”)

ere’s yet another bubble, this one quite serious: some fifty miles from here, about the distance between San Francisco and San Jose, is the town of Dara’a.  It is closer to us than Tel Aviv.   The catch?  Tel Aviv is in Israel, Dara’a is in Syria and has been the center of the Syrian rebellion against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad.   The Syrian army is killing its own people in the streets of Dara’a (as well as Homs, Baniyas and other Syrian cities).  Assad’s army has already killed over 100 of its citizens in Dara’a, and hundreds more elsewhere in the country.

Just down the road a bit... a revolution.

Israel is its own bubble.  It is the only democracy (to date) in the Middle East, a place where its citizens take for granted all the freedoms enjoyed in the West.  The rebellions in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain — and the protests in Jordan, Morocco and Algeria — may (repeat may) bring democracy to the Arab world.  Ironically, Israeli Arab citizens enjoy more civil and human rights than in any Arab country.

ll is quiet here in Hanaton, and Israel.  But, we also know this is a bubble.  Life is going on here quite normally, but there is talk in the international media about a looming civil war in Syria, similar to what is happening in Libya.  My daughter Nittany, the IDF medic, lives in Kibbutz Shamir, right on the border with the Golan Heights, which Syria wants returned.  With the uncertainty over who will be ruling Syria in the long-term, with the possibility that the “pro-democracy” protesters may bring down Assad, and replace him with a radical Islamist dictatorship (like in Iran) or with another uber-nationalist regime, leaves me, and I would venture most of my fellow Israelis, cold regarding any return of the Golan.  We may very well need that strategically vital piece of real estate to keep the Syrian army out of Tiberias, where we had dinner a few nights ago at a restaurant that sported a panoramic view of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the looming Golan Heights on the opposite shore.

Religious, ethnic and linguistic boundaries.  Petroleum wealth distorting the politics of the region.  Destruction in Libya, trouble in Syria, Hamas and Fatah kissing and making up and unrest in the rest of the Arab world all point to a very uncertain new regional order.

Bubbles, trouble, oil and rubble.

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Ch-ch-ch changes?

10 03 2011

The recent revolutions in the Arab world bring to mind two thoughtful, but opposite, observations by Isaac Asimov and Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.  First Asimov:

The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today.  No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.

And here is Karr:

The more things change, the more they remain the same. (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)

Much of the debate over the significance of the revolutions in the Arab world seems to revolve around these two poles.

My position on all this is solidly on the fence.  The evidence of change in human society is clear: many more democracies exist, or are emerging, than even just a generation ago.  Yet, while humans are capable of change, as individuals and as a species, my caveat is simple: nothing is preordained.  While change does come it often arrives in fits and spurts and can be very painful for many millions of people.

It is far too early to foretell the outcome of the Arab revolutions any time soon.  Democracy in the Arab world may take years.  This has nothing to do with a belief that Arabs somehow are intrinsically incapable of democracy.  There is no such thing as a “democracy gene” in the human genome and to believe in some genetic anti-democratic trait within Arabs is, quite frankly, racist.  There just hasn’t been a democratic tradition in Arab society.  Yet.

In general the history of human civilization is strikingly undemocratic.  Monarchy has been more the norm of human governance for thousands of years than any other form of government.  Modern democracy is just scarcely over two centuries old.

Europeans, like Arabs, are not intrinsically democratic or non-democratic.  The last two hundred plus years of European history should convince anybody of that.  The dawn of modern European democracy began with the French Revolution of 1789, which overthrew the tyranny of French monarchy and feudalism.  The fall of another tyranny, Communism, took place fully two hundred years later in 1989.  These two centuries in Europe saw bloody revolutions and counter-revolutions, numerous wars (including two world wars), dictators, totalitarianism, racism and genocide, concentration and death camps, gulags and colonialism.  Yes, a largely democratic Europe eventually did emerge, but look what it took to get there.

Europe’s history is not deterministic for other emerging democratic societies.  The birth pangs of democracy in the Arab world may not be so traumatic as they were in Europe.  I cite Europe’s history only as a guidepost of what may come.  Hopefully, the Arab peoples will succeed in avoiding a similar history.

For most of the protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, democracy seemed to be a prime motivation.  But, a democratic outcome is not guaranteed.  Furthermore, each Arab revolution is different.  The Egyptians and Tunisians staged largely non-violent revolutions, while the uprising in Libya is a full fledged armed insurrection that may fail and leave Qadaffi in power.  Meanwhile, the Shi’ite majority’s revolt against the minority Saudi-backed Sunni king in Bahrain (is this a form of apartheid?) is vulnerable to Iranian intervention.  With the law of unintended consequences at play, this may result in direct hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Not likely, but still possible.

Throughout all this upheaval, one population of Arabs has remained largely quiet: the Palestinians.  Palestinians may take away from these nonviolent revolutions throughout the Arab world that, in place of negotiations, this is the way to achieve statehood.  A negotiated path is preferable, of course, but Palestinians may reach the conclusion that a truly non-violent mass movement for independence may force a situation in which Israel’s options would be severely limited.  A Palestinian uprising that had the discipline to abstain from suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings of Israeli civilians would be truly revolutionary for Palestinian politics.  The big question looming over all this is whether or not all Palestinian factions, from Fatah to Hamas to Islamic Jihad, would be able to muster enough discipline among their respective rank-and-file to actually stage a non-violent uprising — assuming of course that non-violence is what they would  want in the first place.

Whether we ever get to this point, however, is debatable.  There is much evidence that the Palestinian population is exhausted from the last decade of violent confrontation, which in fact netted hem little.  Furthermore, Hamas’ popularity in Gaza is waning, and there is hope among Palestinians that the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to build state institutions, while naming a target date for a unilateral declaration of statehood (September 2011), may actually produce something important and historic.  Ideally, such unilateralism will be avoided and a negotiated final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will be the result.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

The history of revolutions should give pause.  The French peasantry that stormed the Bastille in 1789 did so without a clue that Robespierre would hijack the Revolution and institute the Jacobin Terror with its Revolutionary Tribunals and guillotines.  Nor did the Russian peasants who overthrew the Czar in 1917 do so in order to bring on decades of Stalinist repression with his firing squads, purges and gulags into which millions entered never to be seen again.

I’m not being pessimistic, rather we just don’t know what will happen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain or Yemen.  Revolutions are by definition chaotic.  Who will emerge as leaders in these countries?  Another Robespierre, or more hopefully, another Vaclav Havel whose 1989 Velvet Revolution led to democracy in Central Europe?  Will Sheikh Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood hijack Egypt’s revolution?  Even if democratic elections are instituted, could we end up with one person, one vote, one time?  Perhaps a re-rereading of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is in order!

Or, not.  Maybe the amazing energy of the street will keep the politicians and would-be revolution hijackers at bay, and an open democratic society, with institutionalized checks and balances, will actually emerge.  We really have no choice but to wait and see.

The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.







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