Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Palestinians: More Jewish (and Less Muslim) than the Jews of the Middle East?!

I have always been interested in what tends to lie hidden beneath the pretty words and other absurdities that has constituted the multi-generational participatory theatre of the Middle East and a significant diversion for politicians, academics, religious communities, lawyers and others from around the globe with many axes to grind and many agendas (hidden or otherwise) to further. In the midst of the usual banalities, strident absurdities and general hatred mongering masquerading as social, political, religious and economic theory (or worse--advice) comes a perverse glimmer of an insight that is both brief and extremely rich. The context was a short interview with Jehan Sadat, the widow of the former leader of Egypt, Anwar el-Sadat, and "Egypt's First Lady of the World," published in the New York Times Magazine, The War Widow: Questions for Jehan Sadat, The New York Times Magazine, March 15, 2009 (interview conducted, condensed and edited by Deborah Solomon).

Earlier this year, I was surprised to read about violent clashes between the Egyptian border police and Palestinians who were trying to flee Gaza and buy food and supplies in your country.
That’s right. When you want to cross into Egypt, there are rules. But the Palestinians want to cross and come without anything, just like that. There were thousands and thousands and thousands who wanted to cross, which is not legal.

Why can’t the Palestinians, your fellow Muslims, be part of your country?
Because they are not Egyptian. Gaza is their land, and they have the right to have their own state.

I’ve heard the Palestinians characterized as being very smart and fond of argument, not unlike Israelis.
Believe me, they are more like the Jews than us. By the way, most of the Palestinians are very well educated. Because they are a minority, they are like the Jews. They are intellectuals. The War Widow, supra.
Well, there you have it. I suspect that Mrs. Sadat, as learned as she is, is more likely to reflect the common sense of the Muslim conventional classes (at least in Egypt) than the screaming intellectuals, religious, and others who poison our minds. But what she thinks, if that is conventional wisdom among the educated classes of Egypt (and other places within the conflict zone), is certainly explosive.

So, it appears that the Palestinians are the Muslim Jews of the Middle East. They cannot be assimilated into the body of Egyptian Muslim society--they are too alien for that. They are the Muslim "other" among Muslims. And their essential Jewishness is bound up in their eternal status as a minority within states controlled by others--and their dangerousness: they are educated, intellectuals. They belong with the Jews, who they resemble, rather than with the rest of the Muslims in the dar al-Islam. They may cross into the dar al-Islam, but only under controlled circumstances. If the Jews won't take responsibilities for keeping the Palestinians within their space, then the Egyptians, naturally, ought to undertake this task. They appear unable to assert that self control themselves. But it also suggests part of the reason why after over fifty years large unassimilated "camps" of Muslims continue to be suffered within the dar al-Islam, why the Palestinians have been kept apart from other Muslims--because these Palestinians are the brothers of the Jews, not of the Muslims into whose territory they had fled. These Jewish Muslims can be tolerated--because they are smart and well educated, useful (like the Jews in Europe a century ago), but they are certainly unassimilable outside of Palestine, proper. And even there, Palestinians did best under the tutelage of others, from Syrians, to Egyptians to ultimately, the Ottoman Turks.

I suspect that Mrs. Sadat's views are not novel. But they do not play well to advance the agendas of the various actors to this drama that is the ethno-religious war that is the Middle East. For all that, Mrs. Sadat certainly offers a novel solution to the problems of Israel and Palestine. The Muslim and Christian Palestinians, it seems, might solve their problems by the simple expedient of embracing the religious aspects of their national character and perhaps return to their roots--become Jews in faith as well as fact. Rather than build a wall, the Israelis ought to be establishing schools and foundations for the conversion of the faithful, much like the Wahhabi Sunnis established similar institutions all over the globe. See Natana J. Delong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Consider the possibilities: if the majority of Palestinians embrace their Jewishness in faith as well as culture, the problems of the Middle East evaporate--at least with respect to the national character of Israel-Palestine. But of course, that presents a problem of a wholly different sort for the dar al-Islam. Could Jerusalem again become the chief city of the Palestinian Jews? Perhaps they might even build the Third Temple to share space next to Al-Aqsa Mosque. But this is fantasy, of course. But it suggests the separateness of Palestinian identity from that of mainstream nation bound Muslim perception, at least among a certain influential class within Islam.

And more perversely still, beyond the implausibility lie older and more insidious ideas--ideas that constitute the greatest political peril for both Israel as a majority Jewish State and Palestine as a Muslim-Christian state: the idea that neither people are worthy of statehood in part because they are both the same. And while the Jewish character might tolerate education and a certain utility for others, it cannot support a separate sovereignty. And so, of necessity, the conflict within the Middle East continues.

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