Friday, February 25, 2005

Not Oslo Again

Originally published in The New York Jewish Week.

Back to Oslo? Yasir Arafat’s death, the election of a new Palestinian Authority president and the inclusion of the Labor Party in Israel’s governing coalition have led some in Israel and abroad to call for picking up where Oslo-style diplomacy foundered in 2000 at Camp David and Taba.

Oslo’s chief architect, Yossi Beilin, urged this path in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. Yet since the Palestinians launched their terror war against Israel in September 2000, many erstwhile Israeli supporters of the Oslo process have come to recognize it as a disaster that brought unprecedented carnage and suffering to Israel and potentially threatened the nation’s very existence.

Even at Oslo’s start there was overwhelming evidence it was a misconceived and profoundly dangerous path, and those who thought otherwise should have been quickly disabused of their wishful thinking. In the wake of the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians unleashed a wave of anti-Israel terror, and Arafat and his subordinates continued to assure Arab audiences the goal remained Israel’s annihilation. Israel’s response was additional concessions, as in the Oslo II accord of September 1995.

Why did Israeli leaders pursue their destructive path? Nissim Zvilli, a Labor member of Knesset and member the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time, said in 2002, “I remember myself lecturing in Paris and saying that Arafat’s double talk had to be understood. That was our thesis, proved [later] as nonsense. Arafat meant every word, and we were naive.”

But naivete hardly captures the self-delusions that underlay Oslo. In 1997, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, himself a former Oslo enthusiast, wrote of the course forged by Israel’s political elite and passionately embraced by its intellectual and cultural elites: “In the early ’90s ... we, the enlightened Israelis, were infected with a messianic craze ... All of a sudden, we believed that ... the end of the old Middle East was near. The end of history, the end of wars, the end of the conflict.”

Shavit went on: “We fooled ourselves with illusions. We were bedazzled into committing a collective act of messianic drunkenness.”

But while Shavit’s “messianism” gives a label to Oslo-era thinking, it does not explain it. The explanation lies in psychological responses common among chronically besieged populations, whether minorities subjected to defamation, discrimination and assault, or small nations under chronic attack by their neighbors. People living under such stressful conditions over which they have no real control often grasp at delusions of control. They choose to believe that if they were only to reform themselves in a manner consistent with the indictments of their enemies, then their tormentors would be placated. This phenomenon has been a staple of diaspora Jews’ responses to assaults over the centuries.

Israel is militarily strong and for the most part can defend its people, but its strength cannot force an end to the siege. The Arabs are by far the dominant party in the Middle East, and they will determine if and when peace comes. At present, the promotion of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and indeed broadly xenophobic opinion serves purposes of domestic and interstate politics in the Arab world, and there is scant evidence of this changing in the foreseeable future.

Many in Israel found this reality increasingly intolerable in the decades before Oslo, as the nation was unable to engage an Arab partner to whom it could safely hand off the populated areas of the territories while retaining locations vital for its defense — that negotiation of secure and recognized boundaries called for in UN Security Council Resolution 242. Growing numbers chose to embrace the delusions that underlay Oslo: That Arab enmity was really about Israel’s ongoing control of the territories, that the Palestinians would be satisfied with a state in the West Bank and Gaza, and all that was required for peace was for Israel to accept Arafat and the PLO as its partner and hand them the land.

But if the Palestinians’ terror war has disabused many Israelis of the delusions of Oslo, can this awakening be sustained? There is no end of the Arab siege in sight. Israel has an interest in separating itself from the Palestinian Arabs and good reason to pursue some path to separation that takes account of ongoing dangers and leaves the nation in a position to defend its population both from continued terror attacks and conventional assault.

Again, however, some in Israel are eager to resuscitate the delusions of Oslo and insist that peace is at hand if the nation will only make sufficient concessions.

The ongoing Arab siege does cast a shadow over the lives of Israelis. At the same time, they have created a free, vibrant, extraordinarily successful society. It remains to be seen whether they are prepared to go on nurturing what they have built as they await changes in the Arab world that will open it to genuine peace, or they will instead, in their eagerness for “normalcy” and an end to the siege, once more delude themselves into pursuing fantasies of peace that will threaten everything they have created.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Twin Fascisms and the Terror War

Originally published on

The world's media have covered Sudan's genocidal campaign of rape and murder in Darfur as an isolated story, but the terror is related to broader issues in the Middle East. Recently, Abu Khawla, a Tunisian human rights activist and rare liberal voice in the Arab world, noted: "A deafening silence was observed throughout the Arab world on the horrendous crime being committed by their fellow Arabs in Sudan. ... The Arab silence can only be explained once we understand the true nature of the twin fascisms of Islamism and Pan-Arabism."

Indeed, Darfur – not Iraq, not Israel – is today's most significant arena for gauging the challenge to the West posed by Muslim/Arab fascism and terror.

Militant Islam has targeted non-Muslims worldwide, but Muslim Arab militancy also has an ethnic, racist component expressed as intolerance as well toward some fellow Muslims. The victims in Darfur are Muslim but non-Arab, and the slaughter there is only the latest in a series of genocidal assaults by Arab regimes against their non-Arab Muslim populations.

The challenge posed to the rest of the international community lies in the militant ethnic as well as religious bigotry so rife in the Arab world. How are this challenge and its threats to be addressed? Whether or not military confrontation with parts of the Arab world will be inevitable, it will not be sufficient. Arab regimes have engaged in and lost numerous wars in the last half-century without those losses diminishing the fascist elements in modern Arab culture.

In looking at the terror that has emanated from the Muslim, particularly the Arab, world in recent years, some in the West have sought to rationalize it and diminish its significance by compartmentalizing it and ascribing it to specific grievances in the places hit by terror. Other voices have pointed to Saudi Arabia's dissemination of militant Wahhabi teachings, including the promotion of Jihad and denigration of non-Muslims, particularly Jews and Christians, as a central source of Islamic terrorism. (The Weekly Standard recently published excerpts from a Saudi edition of the Koran distributed throughout the world, including to Muslim communities in the West, in which the original Koranic text is altered to introduce attacks on Jews and Christians and to delete passages that speak positively of them.) Certainly, this Saudi/Wahhabi campaign suggests that the terror pursued by Muslim groups cannot be dismissed as simply the work of separate groups, each responding to its own local grievances.

But the roots of the Islamic/Arab war against outsiders run deeper than Wahhabi hate mongering and calls to Jihad. The Saudis' aggressive export of Wahhabi militancy began largely in the 1980s, in no small part as a competitive response to the Khomeini revolution in Iran and establishment of a Shia theocracy there. Yet anti-Jewish and anti-Christian hate mongering had been widespread earlier throughout the Arab Middle East and had been promoted in government-sponsored publications in states led by secular as well as religious regimes.

Bernard Lewis wrote in 1986, regarding anti-Semitism in the Arab world, "The volume of anti-Semitic books and articles published, the size and number of editions and impressions, the eminence and authority of those who write, publish, and sponsor them, their place in school and college curricula, their role in the mass media, would all seem to suggest that classical anti-Semitism is an essential part of Arab intellectual life at the present time – almost as much as happened in Nazi Germany."

At the same time, the Arab world was widely subjecting the Christian communities in its midst to intense pressures well before the Saudis' campaign of exporting Wahhabism. Egypt, the most cosmopolitan of Arab states and run by a secular government, has long required its large Coptic Christian community, numbering around ten million, to live with onerous restrictions; even renovation or addition to a church needs approval at the ministerial level. Pressures applied to Christian communities have led to high rates of Christian emigration from nations throughout the Arab world. Of course, in Saudi Arabia no citizen can be a Christian, Christian prayer is officially forbidden, and conversion from Islam to Christianity is punishable by death.

But the most horrendous assault on Christians in the Arab world has been the decades-long campaign of enslavement, rape and murder waged against the Christian blacks of the southern Sudan. Begun virtually with Sudan's independence in the 1950s, the attacks and the killing have proceeded under both secular and Islamist regimes and have claimed more than two million lives – one of the worst acts of genocide since World War II. Khartoum's murderous policies have consistently had the backing of its brother Arab states, none of which has voiced any criticism of the aggression and some of which have lent active support to Khartoum's assault on the south.

But even the longstanding denigration of and attacks upon Jews and Christians do not fully encompass the targeting of others by the Arab Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa; in addition to the assaults on non-Muslims, there is, again, a targeting of those who may be fellow Muslims but are also non-Arabs.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein pursued the forced expulsion and mass murder of Kurds living in Iraq's north – Iraqi citizens and fellow Muslims – killing some 200,000 before he was distracted by his adventure in Kuwait, and he did so without criticism from his fellow Arab leaders. In Algeria, the Muslim but non-Arab Berber population did more than its share of the fighting against the French in the war of independence; but, with independence won, the Arab-dominated government embarked on a campaign of forced "Arabization" of Berber communities. In addition, since the outbreak of an Islamist versus secular civil war in Algeria in 1994, the largely secularized Berbers have been particular targets not only of the Algerian government but also of the Islamist rebels, who have wrought widespread carnage in the country. The people of Darfur – Muslim, but black – now being raped and murdered by the Sudanese government with the support of other Arab nations are only the latest example of Arab assaults on non-Arab Muslim populations living within the Arab world.

This chronic pattern of Arab intolerance and aggression on both religious and ethnic levels has implications for all the local conflicts in the Middle East. It is noteworthy, for example, that none of the populations that have been subjected to murderous, at times genocidal, assault – not the Kurds, for example, nor the Algerian Berbers, nor the Christian blacks of southern Sudan, nor the Muslim blacks of Darfur – were sovereign communities or even enjoyed an autonomy to which the Arab regimes objected; although, in the face of the destruction wrought upon them, they have all come to aspire to at least some autonomy.

Yet many people assume that, with regard to Israel, reducing the areas under its control or even compromising its status as an independent state will satisfy Arab claims and reconcile the surrounding Arab world to the Jews' presence in its midst, that sufficient concessions will win Israel peace. Israel has an interest in separating itself from the Palestinian Arab population, but beyond this the truth regarding territorial and other concessions is the opposite. For all the conventional wars and terror campaigns waged against them, all the horrendous tolls taken of Israeli lives, the Jews of Israel have, in fact, suffered less at the hands of their Arab neighbors than have the Muslim Kurds and the Christian and Muslim blacks of the Sudan and other minorities in the Arab world. They have done so precisely because they have an independent state, which enables them to defend themselves as those others cannot.

How are the Muslim Arab world's twin militancies, religious and ethnic, to be understood? There has always been an ethnic component in the Arab comprehension of Islam. The Arabs were creators of the faith, the Koran is written in their language, their armies disseminated Islam and their empires made possible its early flourishing, and many among them have tended to see themselves as the natural nobility of the Islamic world. In the modern era, a self-perception promoted by the more militant among Arab religious and secular leaders, a message to which many Arabs have been receptive, is similar to that fostered in Germany between the world wars: the self-perception of being a superior people robbed by others of its rightful place in the sun and having to fight to regain the superior status that properly belongs to it.

In the case of Germany, the fascist perspective changed only with defeat in World War II, and that defeat did not suffice. Democratization was key to the Germans' rethinking their sense of themselves and their relation to their neighbors and the rest of the world. President Bush's talk of promoting democratization in the Arab world has been disparaged as naive, unrealistic and grandiose. But it is essentially pragmatic, more so than the supposed realpolitik that has guided the failed Western approach to the Arab world over much of the past century; and it is likely necessary as well if the world is to be made safe from Islamic/Arab fascism.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Pre-release Praise

"This remarkable work – part history, part psychology, part sociology, part burning prophecy – has the salubrious, cleansing, and transformative power to shame. It should shame Jews, it should shame Gentiles; it should shame Europe, America, and the Arab world. It should shame every individual and every nation that pretends to own a conscience or claims an instinct for honest insight. In these extraordinary pages, Kenneth Levin writes – with uncommon clarity and brilliance – not so much about the great outer wilderness of anti-Jewish perfidy as about the internal self-mystifications and self-denials that annihilate Jewish dignity and Jewish independence. The Oslo Syndrome may be the most important manifesto of our generation, an indispensable analysis that explains the present and may yet save the future."

— Cynthia Ozick

"That Arafat would honor what he undertook to do in the Oslo accords is but one false belief referenced in the commanding title of Kenneth Levin's new book. Levin traces many others, several influential throughout Jewish history, that are heir to the overarching delusion, namely, that Jews can control their destiny by behaving as their besiegers demand of them. It is this oxymoron, flowing through centuries of Jewish political theory, that Levin outlines so deftly. Levin's credentials are evident throughout this treatise; he is both an accomplished historian and a highly regarded psychiatrist. This is a scholarly and well-written work, appropriately provocative, that will inform those who are undecided, and encourage those it criticizes to rethink their assumptions."

— Fred Frankel, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

"Part political history of Israel and part study of the relationship of Jews to the Jewish state of Israel, this hugely interesting, highly informed, and very timely work is a must read for all those looking to understand the self-loathing that exists among some Jews when it comes to attitudes to Israel and wider Jewish issues."

— Professor Efraim Karsh, Head, Mediterranean Studies Programme, King's College, University of London

"Controversial and hard-hitting while avoiding rhetorical excess, The Oslo Syndrome is an indispensible contribution to understanding the roots of the Oslo process. With loving exasperation, Kenneth Levin helps us understand why some Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are incapable of identifying and resisting the current war against Jewish legitimacy. Whether or not one agrees with all its premises, this is a book that anyone who cares about Israel should read and re-read."

— Yossi Klein Halevi, Senior Fellow, the Shalem Center, and Israel correspondent for The New Republic

"As citizens of a country under perpetual siege, Israelis live with more stress than most and, like others subjected to chronic abuse, could benefit from the attention of an able and caring analyst. Dr. Kenneth Levin, who holds advanced degrees in both history and psychiatry, offers such scrutiny in THE OSLO SYNDROME, a broad-ranging study of Jewish responses to life under conditions of marginalization, denigration, and endless assault. The author's focus on delusional, self-denying thinking as a dominant Israeli response to the aggression directed against them will not win him friends everywhere, but no one interested in the welfare of the Jewish state should forego the challenge of this well-informed, forcefully argued, and highly provocative book."

— Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Professor of English and Jewish Studies and Director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts, Indiana University

"Ken Levin explains why so many Jews and Israelis delude themselves about the malevolent intentions of their enemies. His analysis is persuasive, insightful, illuminating. Readers of the Oslo Syndrome will better know how to prevent the recurrence of a perilous political process that endangered Israel and the world."
- Ruth Wisse, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University