By Oren Rawls

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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Sensible Anti-Zionism: “There is a legitimate ground for taking a moral and sensible stand against Zionism,” firebrand Israeli-Arab politician Azmi Bishara writes in the July 3 issue of the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly. “We can retain our anti-Zionist cultural stand without being enemies of the Jews or to coexistence.”

Bishara’s own anti-Zionist cultural stand was put on trial earlier this year when his outspoken criticism of the Israeli government led to a temporary ban on his running for reelection to the Knesset. But simply opposing Zionism, he admonishes, does not an Arab ideology make.

“I, for one, believe that opposition to normalization with Israel is good, but I don’t want people to use it as a moral alibi,” he declares. “One cannot act despicably all around — collaborate with the authorities against fellow intellectuals, support undemocratic regimes — and then seek redemption by opposing normalization.”

The litmus test for the Arab intelligentsia, Bishara proposes, should be adherence to democratic values. In “a very particular political culture” that is apprehensive about both demagoguery and public criticism, he says, it is incumbent upon intellectuals to judge political positions by deeds rather than words.

Furthermore, he argues, in order to address the ills that ail many Middle Eastern societies, Arab intellectual thought must go beyond the “clash of civilizations” debate.

“Such simplification makes it easier to mobilize the masses against an external enemy, or against internal enemies suspected of collaboration with outsiders,” Bishara writes. “By doing so, one can turn the domestic scene into one of conflict between nationalists and collaborators. As a result, the actual conflicts in Arab society, the actual differences over social justice, equality and civic rights, would be overruled, pending the outcome of the result of the conflict with the foreign enemy.”

Such a myopic intellectualism, he derides, is nothing more than dead-end Arabism. “The definition of identity as something opposed to the outside world, as a negation of something else, is the last resort of nationalist and Islamist forces that have no political and national project of their own, and have no desire to formulate one.”

* * *

Whistle Blowers: For the Middle East optimists who have been watching recent peace moves with bated breath, Ofer Shelach of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot offers an earful of resigned pessimism.

“The noise that you hear now is not the sound of an orchestra accompanying the ceremony [in Aqaba],” he writes in a June 9 article translated and reprinted in the August issue of World Press Review. “It’s just a bunch of terrified people who are whistling in the dark.”

Israelis and Palestinians are dead-set on victory, Shelach inveighs, but “nobody, on our side or theirs, can define this victory.”

“We’re all blowing whistles, not really against the prime minister or against Arafat, but mostly because that is what one does if one walks in the dark and doesn’t know which way to go; he whistles, if not to get rid of the fear, then to pretend that he’s not alone.”

* * *

Theological Alchemy: Too liberal to be Orthodox, too traditional to be Reform, Conservative Judaism is firmly positioned, well, somewhere in between Judaism’s other two mainstream movements.

Rather than being a hindrance, Neil Gillman writes in the June 26 issue of the German-English bilingual weekly Aufbau, the Conservative movement’s ambiguously defined position at the center of Judaism is the secret to its theological success. The movement’s raison d’être, he argues, is its ability to combine “a conservative stance toward changing traditional forms” with “an openness to modern scholarship.”

“Conservative Judaism has always found itself in a state of tension as it attempts to adjudicate the relative claims of both tradition and modernity,” professes Gillman, who teaches Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the movement’s main rabbinical school. “But tension is always a source of vitality. By this criterion, the Conservative movement has vitality to spare!”

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