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Minority Report

By establishing a Jewish majority in Palestine, Israel distinguished itself from other Middle East minority groups, which suffer physical fear and intellectual confusion, even if they hold power

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(Collage: Tablet Magazine; black and white photos: Library of Congress; color photos: AFP/Getty Images.)

At a recent event in Dearborn, Mich., a crowd welcomed Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, who led a rally on behalf of his country’s President Bashar al-Assad. The scene was outrageous for a number of reasons, including that these were American citizens gathered in support of a regime responsible for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. But perhaps even more notable was the tragedy at the heart of the scene: These Syrian-Americans—Christians and members of Muslim minority sects like the Alawites, Druze, and Ismailis—are still writhing from their emotional experience as Middle Eastern minorities. No matter how far they get from the region, they are plagued with a vulnerability that leaves them terrified, angry, and often crazy.

And what they throw into sharp relief is a larger lesson: Among all the minorities of the Middle East, only the Jews have escaped this unhealthy condition, thanks to the fact that for over 60 years now they have had their own state and can defend themselves against their adversaries. Theodor Herzl asserted that Israel would allow the Jews to live like normal people, and as it turns out—contrary to what nearly all Arabs, most Europeans, and many Israelis believe—he has largely been proven right.

But to understand why he was right, we have to put aside Herzl and Europe and look at Israel in a Middle Eastern context, as a refuge for a religious minority: the Jews of the Middle East. Many people, including many Jews, still see Israel as the end product of a European ideological movement that found an awful but undeniable justification in the Holocaust. Yet, as many Arabs argue, that narrative is unconnected to the Middle East. No matter how many Arab ideologues collaborated with the Nazis or adopted Nazi ideas about Jews, there is no reason that the Palestinians should have to pay for a European crime. It makes more sense, then, to look at minorities in the Middle East generally, the Jews specifically, and to evaluate the success or failure of Zionism by the standards of the region.

***

Anyone who previously wrote off as a right-wing Zionist myth the idea that Middle Eastern minorities are oppressed by the regional Sunni majority needs only consider the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt over the last few months. Even many observers who did acknowledge the reality in Egypt are surprised now in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution to note the uptick in violence against Christians—the kidnappings of Coptic girls and the burning of churches, among other incidents. After all, it was commonly believed before the revolution that sectarian violence was the fault of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who, in this view, had empowered the Islamist movement and thus animosity against non-Muslim communities. But Egypt’s Muslim-Christian divide was not about Mubarak, any more than the United States was responsible for the murder of Christians in Iraq or Israel is responsible for the flight of Christians from Bethlehem and other towns in the West Bank.

Nor did sectarianism begin, as many believe it did, with the age of European colonialism, or with the Ottomans. While the French, the British, and the Ottomans hardly played constructive roles in taming the region’s sectarian furies, the problem goes back much further, at least to the Arab conquest of what we have come to call the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

The pact of Omar, named for Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph after Muhammad, stipulated the various laws and restrictions under which non-Muslims would be allowed to conduct their affairs. Their relative freedom, or burden, depended on the disposition of the particular caliph or the local authorities, but their legal status was never equal to that of Muslims. They were protected people, known as dhimmis.

Some regional minorities, by dint of their temperament and accidents of geography, were able to defend themselves with some success. Lebanon’s Maronite and Druze communities, for instance, made their strongholds in the mountains where they could cut intruders to ribbons. It is well known that the Druze community tends to align itself with the local power regardless of whether they’re based in Lebanon, Syria, or Israel. Historically the Maronites are somewhat more stubborn, and perhaps one of the great tragedies of the Lebanese civil war is that in its aftermath large parts of this proud community under the leadership of Gen. Michel Aoun have aligned themselves with the country’s Shia militia, Hezbollah. Part of the reason for that is the Maronites’ historical fear and hatred of the Sunnis and the wish, as Aoun has explained, to be protected against them by the Shia. This is the same reason why those Syrian-Americans in Michigan rallied in support of Assad: They feared what the Sunnis might do to their relatives.

The price of being a dhimmi is not just physical fear but intellectual confusion and moral corruption. Arab nationalism is largely the work of ideologues drawn from Middle Eastern minorities like the Syrian theorist of Baathism Michel ’Aflaq, who was Greek Orthodox. Arab identity, at least in its earliest iterations, was largely a product of the minorities’ desire to hide their sectarian identities from the Sunni majority. The minorities believed they had a better chance of blending in as part of one massive super-tribe, the Arabs, when as Christians or members of heterodox Shia sects like Alawites they were vulnerable. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and Syria’s former president, embraced Arab nationalism in order to legitimize his rule over Syria’s Sunni majority and protect his Alawite community. The present uprising in Syria shows that the thread is starting to become undone—sectarianism is starting to rear its head, and the minorities are terrified of the mostly Sunni opposition in the streets of Syrian cities.

It is hard not to sympathize with the regional minorities and their fear. However, it is also difficult not to be appalled by their support for a regime that is slaughtering children. One picture from the Dearborn event shows three Christian clergymen in the front row, all of them evidently supporters of Bashar al-Assad, which is unfortunately a common position among Syria’s Christian clergy, Catholics, and the Orthodox. “Definitely the Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad,” Yohana Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo told Reuters last month. “They hope that this storm will not spread.” The rather inconvenient fact for the archbishop is that Assad is trying to quell that storm by torturing and murdering people. The question is: What can be the point of preserving a Christian community if its values have been so thoroughly perverted? Or how many Sunni corpses is a church worth?

It’s not just Christians and Muslim minority sects who are afflicted with this moral sickness, but Jews as well. Jack Avital, head of the Sephardic National Alliance and a leader of the Syrian-Jewish community of North America, has been in touch with Syrian officials in Damascus and in the United States and seems to think Assad is an “honest guy” who is “protecting the minute Jewish community still in place in Damascus.” Avital thinks a regime that buries its opponents in mass graves is OK because in Syria “the Jewish community is doing well.” Compare this repugnant calculation to the position of all of Israel’s senior officials, from the prime minister and president to the defense and foreign ministers, who have condemned Assad’s massacre.

How did the Middle East’s Jewish minority escape this sickness? The state of Israel. Of all the Middle Eastern states carved up in the aftermath of World War I, Israel is the sole success story—politically, economically, socially, and technologically. Moreover, it has safeguarded the lives of a regional minority with minimal oppression of and maximum participation by other groups who are also citizens of the state. By establishing a Jewish majority in Palestine, Israel distinguished itself from other regional minority groups that succeeded in gaining control of a state while remaining minorities, like the Alawites in Syria, whose record has been one of stagnation, oppression, and plunder.

So, when it comes to the Holocaust, maybe the Arabs are right: The crimes of Europe need not justify the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. There is plenty of justification to be found in the Middle East. Without Israel, the region would lose its one success story—and the Jews of the Middle East would be yet another group of fearful, oppressed, and vulnerable dhimmis.

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Lee Smith is always an informative read. It is about time that we stopped accepting the false narrative that the Jews lived happily as dhimmis in the Arab world. It is time that we spoke up on behalf of the Jewish refugees who fled the Arab world after Israel was created. Almost one million Jews fled their homes to escape oppression. Thankfully they finally had Israel to run to.It is time for the Jews to set the narrative.

Carl says:

Great article. If I could point to 1 issue that shows how the media distorts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I think it would be their almost total failure to even mention the ethnic cleansing of 1 million Jews from Arab countries .

Charles says:

I love how the phrase ‘established a Jewish majority’ is used euphemistically for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Adam says:

Considering the Palestinian population has increased manifold in the territories since the founding of the State of Israel…worst..ethnic…cleansing…ever.

Maayan says:

Lee Smith says that Israel has made the Jews of the middle east a success story compared to the other ethnic minorities in the region. He’s right about that…but this has been done in part by dint of creating our own class of ‘dhimmis’. Jewsish identity and politics in Israel certainly isn’t defined by distracting the masses from their minority status, but it is defined by massive conflict with their fellow arab citizens and neighbors. Whatever the demographic situation is, this conflict is the major problem that needs to be solved, not the number of people on either side.

guest says:

Interesting article. I’d be interested in seeing an article by Smith on the Apartheid State system of discrimination against the Shia majority by the Sunni minority in Bahrain.

Gene says:

To every narrow-minded person, who whines about the “mistreatment” of Arab citizens and demographic problem they present, I want to tell that Israel’s democracy faces much bigger (much bigger!) challenge in the sense of the treatment of minorities and this challenge comes not from Arabs but from Jews; ultra-orthodox Jews, to be precise. It is easy to deal with Arab population: just accept Lieberman plan and more than half of Israeli Arabs will happily change their status from Israeli “dhimies” to the cheerful “ruling majority” under Palestinian authority. Ultra-orthodox Jews, who, for the most part are indifferent to the Zionist enterprise, don’t want to defend it nor bringing anything useful to the society, however, will continue to be Israeli citizens. Their population in Israel grows at much faster rate than Arabs, their economical situation is much worse than Arabs and they already represent significant minority with the right to vote and with the demands that contradict secular principles of the modern democracy. Right now their children represent more than 80% of total population but in few years when those will obtain the right to vote situation may become drastic. Arabs have no chance to effect Israel but ultra-orthodox Jews do.

This article is mostly nonsense – as are some of the comments. The Maronite Christians had a state in Lebanon and only lost their control of it recently. The Alawites who rule Syria (and are struggling to keep control) are also a minority (%10 of the population), albeit a Moslem minority, though some Moslems may disagree. The Sunni-Arabs who ruled Iraq under Saddam were also a minority who struggled to keep control. In Jordan the Beduin rulers are becoming a minority.

The French debated creating a Druze state in Syria but refrained. Both the religious-minority states, Israel and Lebanon were created by the European empires. The Maronites paid for their short-sighted grasp of territory by rapidly becoming a minority. Which may yet happen to the Jews.

The Dhimmi thing is a red herring. How many religious minorities have that status in the Middle-East now?

Treatment of minorities is not easily judged in my experience. How do you judge it? By wealth? Education? Legal impediments? Effort?

Claiming Israel is wonderful in this department is just dumb when there is much that needs to be done, acknowledgement of problems implies a willingness to deal with the issues.
Israel’s prejudiced critics refusal to acknowledge its (perhaps too few) achievements (and challenges) is no better.

Binyamin in O says:

A few quotes from a recent interview with one of the most influential architects of modern Zionism, (his name is Benzion Netanyahu, yes, that Netanyahu), will suffice to show what nonsense Mr. Smith is spouting today:
Q: You don’t like the Arabs, to say the least.
A: The bible finds no worse image than this of the man from the desert. And why? Because he has no respect for any law. Because in the desert he can do as he pleases.
The tendency towards conflict is in the essence of the Arab. He is an enemy by essence.
Q: Is there any hope of peace?
A: Out of agreement? No. the other side might stay in peace if it understands that doing anything [else] will cause it enormous pain.
Q: So what’s the solution?
A: No solution but force… strong military rule. Any outbreak will bring upon the Arabs enormous suffering. We shouldn’t wait for a big mutiny to start, but rather act immediately with great force to prevent them from going on….We don’t have a real partnership with [the Arab citizens of Israel]. The Arab citizens’ goal is to destroy us. They don’t deny that they want to destroy us…..I think we should speak to the Israeli Arabs in the language they understand and admire – the language of force.
From Maariv, April 3, 2009.
(English translation from the web site: http://www.promisedlandblog.com/?p=803)

Barry says:

LOL

And the Obama administration is feverishly trying to import more of these fascist, subhuman Mohammedans.

Note also, that Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of the Ikhwan al Shaytaniyya and the most prominent Mohammedan Nazi, was responsible for designing the death camps according to Shari’ah law. Mohammedans in general, and the “Palestinians” in particular are responsible for the Holocaust.

Amer says:

I’m sorry but as a Syrian who have lived in Syria his entire life this article is a weak attempt to justify the massacre of people by regional regimes and not to mention America’s war of “Liberation” in Iraq. You draw a black and white picture of the situation of miniorities in the region while ignoring the wider geo political situation over the past 80 years. I challenge you and those regime sympathizers who whole heartedly welcomed the Syrian ambassador to point out one incident in Syria where miniorities were targeted because of their religion. We have lived side by side with Christians and the other 35 different sects for centuries with no problems, this is fact that you can’t distort no matter how hard you try. Lebanon was carved out of Greater Syria because the French wanted to create a Christian state in the heart of the Middle East similar to what was done with Palestine. The only difference is that a significant part of the Lebanese poplutation with CHRISTIANS at the forefront refused to live in a state that was allied to Israel and the West as the French intended and as a result Lebanon was caught between Western ambitions and regional realities.

I suggest that you go back and read your facts or at least visit this region to see the reality.

To Charles:

An “established Jewish majority” already existed in the partition of Palestine that was considered a Jewish state by the UN. There is no euphemism. The Jewish majority occurred through immigration, legal and illegal, of mostly European (but also Turkish, Yemenite and other Middle Eastern Jews.) Since the bulk of European Jewry was murdered after this immigration occurred in the 1910s-1930s, it is hard to fault the European Jews.

The displacement of the Arabs of the Palestine mandate occurred during the war that followed the partition. The latter war was started by the Arab leaders. It was an unfortunate outcome of the war, but no less unfortunate than the displacement of 800,000 to 1,000,000 Jews who lived in lands dominated by Arab/Muslims.

Since that time, the Arabs have tried several times to re-run the war. They have failed, and in the process, lost more land. They are welcome to try again. But no telling what happens when one starts a war.

jzsnake says:

Great article! So true unfortunately.

jzsnake says:

I love how someone who is Anti-Israel picks out what one person says and that is suppose to mean something. It’s kind of like they always have to go back to Baruch Goldstein to find an example of a Jewish terrorist.

Asherz says:

As to the respondants who continue with the myth that the Israeli Arabs are being mistreated by the Jews, ask an Arab resident living in East Jerusalem or in Umm al-Fahm if he would like to be part of the land swap that would put him in Palestine instead of Israel.

Amer:

“We have lived side by side with Christians and the other 35 different sects for centuries with no problems, this is fact that you can’t distort no matter how hard you try.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1947_Aleppo_pogrom

Muslims have pushed out the Jews and now you are pushing out the Christians. It is only a matter of time.

The bigger question, is why Syria, and the ME in general, is such a sxxxhole.

Just yesterday I chatted with a fellow bagging groceries at my local market in a Jewish town in Judean Israel. He’s a member of the Arab minority…working his way through University in Beit Lechem. He was pleased to practice his English with me and my kids. He talked about how he’s studying Marketing and how much he enjoys it. The minority on the street seems pretty content to me…

Now, when hate against Israel grow up, articles like this one are fresh breeze.

Binyamin in O says:

Michal, I wonder if you realize how reminiscent your comment is of the attitude of white southerners here in the U.S. when confronted by the civil right movement. “Our n*gg**s are happy n*gg**s; its all the outside agitators fault.”

From the NY Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/09/storm-over-syria/?pagination=false):

“In 1936, six Alawi notables sent a memorandum to Leon Blum, head of France’s Popular Front government, expressing their loyalty to France and their concern at negotiations leading to independence in a parliamentary system dominated by the Sunni majority. The memorandum includes the following points:

• We can sense today how the Muslim citizens of Damascus force the Jews who live among them to sign a document pledging that they will not send provisions to their ill-fated brethren in Palestine. The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis-à-vis those who do not belong to Islam. These good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children, despite the presence of England in Palestine and France in Syria. Therefore a dark fate awaits the Jews and other minorities in case the Mandate is abolished and Muslim Syria is united with Muslim Palestine…the ultimate goal of the Muslim Arabs.”

One of these notables was Assad’s father.

Binyamin in O says:

You left out a few (highly relevant) portions of the NY Review article, Benjamin. Here they are:

“While [the Syrian regime's] massacre in Hama was horrendous and it has an abysmal record on human rights, engaging in torture and severe political repression, it had a good, even excellent one when it came to protecting the pluralism of the religious culture that is one of Syria’s most enduring and attractive qualities.”

“Having been in Aleppo recently, I can vouch for the accuracy of [the author's] descriptions. Visiting several mosques, churches, and shrines, she provides impressive testimony of the country’s religious diversity and the regime’s commitment to religious freedom. It would be tragic if the pursuit of democracy led to the shredding of this bright human canopy, where religious and cultural differences seem to have flourished under the iron grip of a minority sectarian regime.”

The author of the NY Review article is by Malise Ruthven, an eminent scholar of Islam, and a forceful critic of Muslim fundamentalism.

Carl says:

To Binyamin: Are you aware that in 1947 howling Arab mobs burned the homes of every Jew in Allepo. Of the tens of thousands of Jews who once lived there once none are left. These are historical facts.

Shosh says:

To say that Israel allows “Jews to live like normal people” is laughable. The irony is that the diaspora today provides Jews with a normal life totally unavailable in Israel. Unless constant violence is considered normal? Now that’s a depressing thought.

Liel says:

The miraculous success of Israel is due to the one who created her, revealed Himself in her and through her and is now busy wrapping up History in her. We ignore this at our peril.

Mike says:

Israel’s Legal Right to Judea and Samaria is enshrined in International Law!

A cold, hard look at the law reveals an undeniable if inconvenient (for some) truth: Israel and the Jewish People have full sovereign rights to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), as per various post-WWI decisions and treaties.

See the “Legal Rights to Samaria” section of the Shomron Central blog.

You can find it here: http://shomroncentral.blogspot.com/

Borg says:

Binyamin in O and Shosh. Have you considered moving to Syria? It seems like such a paradise. Adds the blind ophthalmologist could pay you handsomely for propaganga points. It beats cheating your employers to blog all day. As loyal Syrians, you could hate Israel for a living

Bupi says:

For the writer/readers: please do research about ashkenazi verus sephardic; even japan killed most ainu people; white usa versus latino/africian americians; french/italy against roma miniority; muslims are no different; hindus against sikhs;

main culprit is european’s division of ME/Africa drawing artifical
straight border lines (just look at the maps)

tribalism is worldwide

Wise Man Tel Aviv says:

It is about time the truth not only be told – but shouted! –
1. The Jewish People are one of the many indigenous non-Arab peoples of the Middle East. These peoples include the Kurds, Copts, Assyrians, Turks, Iranians, Berbers and Armenians.
2. The non-Muslim non-Arab peoples have always been particularly oppressed.
3. The Jewish People have had a continuous presence in what the Arabs call Palestine; a majority in Jerusalem for most of the period in which they were allowed to live there (and especially since 1700).
4. The artifical division between “European” and “Sephardi” Jews was never absolute; Ashkanazi Jews represented a significant part of the Jewish population of Jerusalem and Z’fat long before Zionism, and the Jewish People functioned as a singled demographic/cultural unit from Yemen to Britain for most of the Middle Ages. Many – some even say most – of Polish Jewish are refugees from the Spanish Inquisition.
5. Israel is a beacon to the non-Arab peoples of the region, as attested by the support of Berbers, Kurds and democratic Iranians for Israel.
6. The false, foreign and colonisalist “narrative” is that of the anti-Israel pan-Arab forces: that of Israel as a “European colonialist” enclave. This false narrative serves only pan-Arab interests but shows total lack of knowlege of history – and more importantly of deep regional dynamics which for some strrange reason are not reported in the MSM.
7. The peoples on the side of historical dynamic in the Region are the Jews and the other non-Arab peoples, who are slowly reversing the Arab conquest and suppression of non-Arab peoples for the last 1000 years.

Beatrix says:

What an interesting article with an original viewpoint.

The Persians are another indigenous minority like the Jews, which may be why they want to keep the focus on Israel and off themselves. “As Persians we’re different, but since we share the same enemy with you, we must be your friend.”

Iran is such a backward country to be fooling around with nuclear power. Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor, and informal supporter of Obama has suggested that if Iran and Israel have a battle over nuclear weapons, America should send it’s planes to attack—Israel.

ben says:

Shosh
“Unless constant violence is considered normal?”

You speak about the USA right ? Because the violence rate in the US is way higher than in Israel. You know, you have 10 times more chance of getting assassinated in your “normal” country than in Israel.

But I doubt you care about facts anyway.

Of course, this article is the usual hasbarah that tries to conflate Eastern European invaders with indigenous Jewish Arab populations or with Jewish populations of other ethnicities.

The indigenous ME non-ethnic Ashkenazi Jewish populations generally had no interest in Zionism.

Cynic says:

A pity that some of the commenters won’t be reading this and considering the current situation in Syria (now almost a month and a half later).

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Minority Report

By establishing a Jewish majority in Palestine, Israel distinguished itself from other Middle East minority groups, which suffer physical fear and intellectual confusion, even if they hold power

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