Category Archives: Israel

An Iraqi Jewish Voice on Zionism in 1938

[This is a newspaper editorial I assign in my Modern Middle East class.  The Iraq Times was an English-language newspaper in the British Mandate of Iraq and afterward, and the author of this editorial was a Jewish lawyer in Baghdad, part of what was then a large Jewish community.  Before World War II, the British Mandate of Palestine was charged with setting up a self-governing state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but instead created rising tensions between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the region.  These tensions led to the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the Jewish militias’ participation in World War II, the subsequent Jewish terrorism to drive England out of Palestine, the Intercommunal War, the foundation of the State of Israel, and the first Arab-Israeli War.  I have not edited the letter other than changing the indent style and adding links to explain his allusions.  I am not endorsing his arguments, but the editorial presents an interesting viewpoint which is easily forgotten in the landscape of today’s ongoing debate on the subject.]

The Iraq Times, November 5, 1938

CORRESPONDENCE: America and the Problem of Palestine

To the Editor.

Sir, – May I be permitted a word of comment on the recent announcement in your columns that a certain number of American Senators, Representatives, and State Governors have petitioned in favour of the National Home in Palestine? Continue reading

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Louis Sako on Middle Eastern Christians

A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon.  Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country.  In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law.  It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.

Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading.  In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself.  An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.  When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East?  The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century.  There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula).  Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.

One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war.  When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000).  A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt.  When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto.  The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.

And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East.  Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam.  On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists.  After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police.  That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law.  But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.

What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society.  They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society.  Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past.  And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous.  (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.)  I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.

Do airstrikes serve Israeli interests?

Despite official silence, it is reasonably clear that the Israeli Air Force bombed targets in Syria twice since late Thursday night.  The putative reason for the attack was to prevent the transfer of Iranian long-range missiles to the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime, and which started the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel.  This weekend Israeli fighter jets flew over Lebanon to shoot missiles into targets outside of Damascus, the capital of Syria.  Syrian State News reported the strikes and threatened retribution.  When US President Obama was asked about the Israeli strikes, he responded that Israel is entitled to defend itself by preventing the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, serving Israeli national security interests.

Leaving aside questions of international legality and morality, which rarely trouble militarily superior countries in relation to what they identify as national security issues, were Israeli interests served by these airstrikes?  The attacks were not subtle, and there is no pretense that anyone else carried them out.  The Assad government responded by interpreting the attack as a declaration of war, as Israel itself would have done if Syrian jets had used Jordanian airspace to bomb Israeli military installations near Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.  Syria’s Information Minister al-Zu’bi said the attack “opens the door wide open for all possibilities” in terms of retaliation.  Heads of most Arab states condemned the Israeli airstrikes, as did the Syrian National Coalition, which could gain from the weakening of Assad’s forces by the Israeli attacks.  Israel is perhaps hoping that this preemptive strike, like the one in Khartoum last October, will blow over in the international community.  Hezbollah certainly isn’t going to profit from whatever was destroyed in the attacks, and Assad is unlikely to expend energy on a retaliatory strike when he has his hands full with domestic troubles.

But in striking Mount Qasyun above Damascus, Israel has dramatically made the point that it can bomb the Syrian capital at any time.  This detail is unlikely to be forgotten by whoever emerges as the last force standing in the Syrian Civil War.  The number of Syrians who blame all the casualties of war on Assad personally mean that there can probably be no place for Bashar al-Assad in a post-war Syria.  Since he has vowed to “live and die” in Syria, the best possible outcome for Israel might be a partitioning of Syria between regions loyal to Assad and regions which elect a new government.  This would prevent any one government from mustering Syria’s full military power against Israel, as they would likely jealously watch each other first and foremost.  But instead of one Lebanon north of its border, Syria would have several Lebanons to keep track of.  But a stably partitioned Syria also seems to be a fabulously unlikely possibility.

Whatever government might replace Assad is likely to be worse for Israel.  If the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra takes over the country, they are unlikely to preserve the uneasy ceasefire between Syria and Israel which the Assad dynasty has observed for the last few decades, and might declare the Israeli government their next target.  A war between Israel and a newly radicalized “Syrian Islamic Republic” could draw in regional support from Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia as well, leading to a new Arab-Israeli war which could damage Israel more than the rockets destroyed this weekend.

A Western-backed secularist Arab government in Syria may be more inclined to be circumspect with regard to Israel, given shared allies in Western Europe and North America.  But there is unlikely to be any love lost between such a government and Israel, and it is more likely to work closely with the Arab League to oppose Israel in international politics, which Assad’s relative diplomatic isolation prevented.  The threat of a future Israeli preemptive strike on Damascus could encourage moving the capital of Syria further north to Aleppo (or what’s left of it after the war ends), and might encourage Syria and other Arab states to strike first and lethally in any future conflict.  The increased paranoia on both sides of the border is unlikely to facilitate regional stability and peace.

A failed state environment, similar to Somalia after 1991, might resemble the outcome of an al-Qa’ida controlled Syria with the advantage of reduced firepower but the disadvantage of less readily identifiable targets, and greater difficulty distinguishing which group may decided to target Israel at any time.

Given the potential long-term costs, I wonder whether Israel’s decision to conduct airstrikes in the region around Damascus will push their enemies towards more brutal violence, and thus whether Israel’s airstrikes have sacrificed long-term interests for short-term tactical goals.