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Three Intractable Dilemmas

Tarek Heggy
tarekheggy@gmail.com
2011 / 9 / 16

For the last four decades I have been on a journey of discovery, travelling along the highways and side streets of three cultural/political/historical worlds. First, the world of western culture, its history, philosophies, literature, achievements and current reality. Second, the world of Arabic-speaking societies, their history, traditions, religious heritage, factions, literature and current reality. Third, the world of Judaism, which took me on an extensive journey through Jewish scriptures – the Torah, Talmud and other books of the Old Testament; the history of the Jews in general and of German and East European Jews in particular; how the project to establish the modern state of Israel unfolded, from the Dreyfuss affair to the Partition Plan of 29 November 1947, which divided historical Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state; and, finally, the history of Israel from May 1948 to the present day.
One of the conclusions I drew from my journey through these three worlds is that each is living a dilemma that needs to be addressed and resolved. If we are to avoid the negative fallout from the continued existence of these dilemmas, researchers and scholars from around the world should embark on an in-depth study of their underlying causes in order to come up with means of overcoming them.
- The first dilemma concerns the societies of western civilization, specifically the societies of Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, and is represented by the sharp contradiction between the way they ferociously defend their values on the one hand and their failure to defend these same values outside their geographical borders on the other. For example, while the United States stringently defends its interests and values within its society, it is strangely tolerant of practices outside its borders that are in total opposition to the values it upholds on its domestic front. There are countless examples of this dichotomy but it is sufficient to cite just one of the most glaring. American society, which calls its political leaders to account for any transgression, big or small, has no qualms about dealing with, indeed, befriending, regimes that ride roughshod over values developed over the course of human progress. Thus American society, a vociferous advocate of human rights, women’s rights, transparency and accountability, turns a blind eye to the excesses perpetrated by the rulers of regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who violate these values a thousand times a day. I believe that this contradiction is the source of the hatred felt by most Arab societies towards the United States and other western nations. I also believe that it could become a major threat to the very existence of western civilization.

- The second dilemma concerns modern-day Jews. I would like to begin this section by acknowledging certain facts. One, the Jews suffered a great deal over the last two centuries, in ghettos and death camps, from persecution and genocide. Two, their victimization served to energize Jewish men and women scattered throughout the countries of the world and stimulated them to develop remarkable talents. Three, their historical experience led to a dynamic sense of enterprise and allowed them to score great achievements in many fields. But while their collective experience may have equipped them with the tools necessary for survival and preeminence, it has also placed them in a historical impasse. I am talking here of the legacy of fear it has generated. Although I understand the fear, this does not prevent me from realizing that it is one of the main factors preventing the Jews from achieving a genuine peace with the peoples of the region in which they want to live in a state of security. While aspiring to reach a settlement with its geographical surroundings, the legacy of Jewish fear makes Israel insist on achieving all or most of its demands to guarantee the security it craves. This all-or-nothing approach is self-defeating: a negotiator who will settle for nothing less than the fulfillment of all his demands will end up achieving none of them.

Nothing illustrates this attitude better than Golda Meir’s words to Henry Kissinger in 1973, when she told him that it made her very angry if, when she asked Washington for something, she got only 90% of what she wanted!

- As to the third and final dilemma, it concerns the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Middle East. The culture, legacy and traditions of these societies rest on a number of pillars, most notably a strong sense of pride in self, in ones ancestors, legacy and traditions. For the most part, this pride is grossly exaggerated, not to say unfounded. The poetry written in the vernacular of the Arabian peninsula is filled with hyperbole, with overblown rhetoric and excessive self-praise, overstating past and present glories (which are mainly imaginary). At the same time, however, this pride is offset by the awareness of the peoples of the region that their contribution to contemporary science and progress is virtually nil. In modern times, the Arabs have made no contributions whatsoever in the fields of medicine, pharmaceuticals, engineering, communication technology, space, arms manufacture or any field of scientific research or technology. Even as they constantly boast of their past and present achievements and heroic exploits, the Arabs know full well that they are forced to buy the fruits of human progress without participating in their creation. This contradiction between an instinctive tendency to brag and the awareness of their modest, not to say non-existent, contribution to the march of human progress creates an unhealthy mental condition in which they exhibit external signs of superiority and grandiosity while in reality suffering from a sense of inadequacy and inferiority. It is a condition that can give rise to fanaticism, violence, terrorism and paranoia – a feeling that world is conspiring against them. It also creates feelings of animosity towards humanity at large, of alienation from reality and a sense that there are no solutions to the massive problems they are facing and no hope of catching up with the march of human progress.




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