‘Aman,” the Talmud teaches us, “envies everyone but his son and his student.” In all the talk surrounding the war in Iraq, the pervasiveness of envy and a related emotion, shame, has gotten far less attention than it deserves.
We may wish to think that leaders and nations are driven by visions of the future, whether for good or evil, but the truth is that jealousy plays no less powerful a part in guiding the most significant choices people make. Fortunately, a couple of shrewd observers have directed our attention to the role this seemingly mundane emotion plays in world affairs.
Check out, for example, the cover story in National Review, where former White House speechwriter David Frum deftly explicates the resentments of a group of isolationist, anti-war pseudo-conservatives who gather around the standard of Pat Buchanan and violently object to the present war in Iraq. This so-called “paleo-conservative” sub-movement was born during the late 1980s, soon discovering a rallying issue in the first Gulf War, which Buchanan famously denounced on the grounds that it was supported above all by “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.”
Frum’s contribution here lies in the area of psychoanalysis. Being a “paleo-con” is defined mainly by hating “neo-cons.” As Frum makes clear, the paleos are united at bottom by professional resentment — in other words, envy. Because, unlike the talented Buchanan himself, they are for the most part the least interesting, least creative persons on the right. In the contest for preferment — jobs and foundation funding — they have tended to lose out to so-called “neo-conservatives,” who happen disproportionately to be Jews.
Frum quotes one prominent paleo who praises France: “I respect and admire the French, who have been a far greater nation than we shall ever be, that is, if greatness means anything loftier than money and bombs.” This is appropriate since the French, like the Germans, present a case study in how views about the gravest matters can be driven on by the trumpets of smarting egos. Does anyone doubt that these nations of Old Europe, in opposing the war on Iraq to the bitter, futile end, were motivated by resentment at the decline their national glory has suffered, compared to America’s?
A related psychodynamic drives Arab sentiment about the war. Even in countries where the drift of opinion has always been to loathe Saddam Hussein, intellectuals and common folk cheer on the Iraqi tyrant. As one Saudi journalist explained to The New York Times, from Algeria to Yemen, “Arab pride is at stake here.”
This comes as no surprise to those who have studied one of the principal mechanisms that guide Arab culture: an all-pervasive dread of shame — and nothing could be more shameful than losing a war. Sociologists provide the data on this, but the fact was recognized long ago by Biblical tradition.
Ishmael, the patriarch Abraham’s first son, is seen by Jews and Muslims alike as the spiritual ancestor of the Arabic peoples. In the Bible, he is depicted as suffering one indignity after another. Abraham’s wife Sarah drove Ishmael’s mother out of the patriarch’s community, twice. Finally Sarah succeeds in depriving Ishmael of what he had taken to be his inheritance: leadership of the nascent monotheistic movement, which God directs Abraham to bequeath instead to his second son, Isaac.
The shame and envy of Ishmael are reflected in an ambiguity in the Talmud and Midrash. On one hand, it’s said that at the end of Abraham’s life Ishmael acknowledged Isaac’s supremacy, walking behind him at the patriarch’s funeral. On the other hand, it is also said that he was a lifelong rashah, a wicked person.
Which is it? As always, tradition wants us to reconcile the apparently conflicting views. We are supposed to understand that Ishmael was two-faced: outwardly submitting to Isaac, but inwardly boiling with envy and rage.
In his new book, “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror,” Bernard Lewis tries to explain how it is that Palestinians and other Arabs dance for joy when the United States suffers a defeat, most disgracefully following the September 11 terrorist attacks. His answer is envy — of American prosperity juxtaposed with the impoverishment of the Arab world.
The point is obvious when you think about it, and troubling when you consider the future of Iraq. One may wonder if, at war’s end, the Iraqi people will go as peaceably into the future that America plans for them as the Japanese and Germans did half a century ago. The only hope lies in the possibility that, post-Saddam, Iraqis will somehow transcend the culture of envy. One recalls, with concern, that their spiritual ancestor Ishmael never did.
David Klinghoffer’s new book is “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism,” just out from Doubleday.