Worse Than Coal

December 6, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

American Interest:

In the mid-1970s, an unusual book was published in Egypt under the title After the Guns Fall Silent (“Ba‘d an taskut al-madafi”). Written by the Egyptian left-wing intellectual and journalist Muhammad Sid-Ahmed, the book featured the first explicit Arab vision of accommodation with Israel and the first Arab effort to spell out what the Middle East might look like after the establishment of Arab-Israeli peace. Roundly criticized in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, this bold, pioneering work broke a taboo by endorsing a peaceful accommodation with Israel. That taboo held strong despite the signing in 1974 of the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreements, and two Arab summit conferences that redefined the Arab consensus to embrace the principle of a political settlement with Israel. But a full-fledged vision of Arab-Israeli peace written by a major Egyptian intellectual still angered those who remained ideologically and emotionally committed to the struggle against Israel.

Sid-Ahmed clearly had difficulties with his own proposals. Ambivalence and vacillation inhabited the very core of his book. He had not completely overcome the deep-rooted conviction in the Arab psyche that any conceivable settlement would be tantamount to surrender. Nevertheless, he grasped that the psychological leveling effect of the October 1973 Middle East War had midwifed a change in the Arab view of a political settlement. The Arab world had decided to settle, he argued, but Israel would not believe it until “a settlement with Israel and the future of peace in the region were embodied in a clearly defined vision.” That “clearly defined vision” is what Sid-Ahmed determined to set out in his book.

As Sid-Ahmed saw it, an enduring peace would require Israel to play a “functional role” in the Middle East, comparable to but different from that of Lebanon. “There is . . . more or less tacit acknowledgement that the existence of Israel within secure and recognized borders is unavoidable after the Arabs recover their occupied territories and after the establishment of some Palestinian entity.” Then, once a settlement is achieved along these lines, the chief psychological barrier to Israel’s integration into the region could be addressed: “The stumbling block has always been the Arabs’ fear of Israel’s technological superiority and her ability, if peace came to the region, to dominate the Arabs economically and to prevent them from becoming masters of their own fate.”

But Arabs after the October War, emboldened by the “oil weapon” and having accumulated huge revenues, had, Sid-Ahmed argued,

acquired a new confidence that Israeli superiority could no longer deprive them of their freedom of decision—even in the case of peace. . . . Israeli quality could no longer neutralize Arab quantity. . . . For the first time some kind of match between Israeli technological know-how and Arab capital can be envisaged in certain quarters

Moreover, in the spirit of “complementarity”, there need be no contradiction between security arrangements and economic interests. Security arrangements do not necessarily have to rely on “negative sanctions” (like demilitarized zones or areas policed by UN forces) but can go hand in hand with “positive incentives” to “promote the interest of the protagonists to abstain from war.” Sid-Ahmed foresaw joint industrial projects in Sinai, the Negev, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, in various parts of a Palestinian state and even on the borders separating Israel from Syria and Lebanon. Petrochemical plants in some of these regions would enable more exported crude oil to stay in the region in the form of finished and semi-finished products.

Sid-Ahmed saw several advantages in matching security arrangements with economic development schemes. Capital could be mobilized for projects that might not be feasible otherwise. Countries like Egypt would benefit by shifting part of their population from densely populated regions to desert areas. Advanced industries in the Sinai could also include “nuclear plants to desalinize sea water for irrigating wide areas of the desert to meet growing food requirements.” Industrial projects “erected inside the Palestinian state will invalidate the argument that this state is not viable.”

After a first phase of this kind, during which Israel would be reluctantly but inevitably absorbed into the life of the Middle East, a second phase could develop in which Arabs “could use Israeli human and technological assets to achieve a Middle East conglomerate able to stand up to the big geopolitical conglomerates expected to coalesce at the turn of the century.” This would make the peace durable and its political settlement final.

Curiously, some of Sid-Ahmed’s paragraphs read like the vision of Arab-Jewish coexistence that T. E. Lawrence had sketched out more than half a century earlier. Some also resembled private Hashemite-Zionist Agency conversations from the 1920s. Most of the time Sid-Ahmed wrote and thought, or thought he thought, as a Marxist, which is to say dialectically: The course of events would be determined by the interplay between “contradictions.” So it is fully in character, and redolent of his own ambivalence, that Sid-Ahmed presented his impressive ideas about Arab-Israeli peace only to conclude that inherent obstacles made implementation unlikely. He predicted another Arab-Israeli war instead.

Most of the obstacles Sid-Ahmed identified had to do with Israel. Even though he had come to advocate accommodation with Israel, he retained a critical, not to say negative, attitude toward the Jewish state. He anticipated Israeli attempts to break up the settlement into a number of separate agreements in the hope of getting better terms than could be had from dealing with the Arab parties together as an equal. But even the achievement of a total political-diplomatic settlement, Sid-Ahmed believed, could not solve the larger problem. The only justification for Israel’s existence, he argued, is as the embodiment of the Zionist design, and it would lose its raison d’être if it were reduced to an economic instrument that the Arab environment would use for its own development.

Furthermore, Sid-Ahmed predicted, “If a settlement is reached, many Arab Jews will eventually return to their original homelands as Israeli emissaries or end up by resettling. Israel has always derived its strength by claiming that its very existence was at stake. Can it continue to obtain foreign aid once this argument loses credibility?” (Sid-Ahmed held a view common in Egypt that Jews of Middle Eastern extraction are “Arab Jews” whose ultimate identity has yet to crystallize.) He concluded on a pessimistic note: “For all these reasons Israel will resist being absorbed into the region with all the means at its disposal. That is why a fifth war is likely…”

Read it all.


The current stand-off, such as it is, between the West and Iran seems more than a little unreal.

Yes, a US spy-drone really was shot down over the weekend, to the barely disguised glee of the Iranian authorities on the one hand, and the ‘we wondered where it had got to’ embarrassment of the US on the other. And yes, a student stage-army really did break into the British Embassy in Tehran last week and smash a portrait of the British head of state, Elizabeth II, much to the manufactured glee of a few hundred Iranian protesters and manufactured outrage of the British foreign secretary, William Hague.

Yet despite the contemporary reality of the stand-off, it appears a little too rich in political nostalgia. It’s as if both sides are desperate to fight old battles, desperate to reinvent older certainties in the midst of so much contemporary uncertainty.

So, the ransacking of the British Embassy has been eagerly compared by some commentators to the 1979 storming of the US Embassy in Tehran, when supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini held US staff in captivity for 444 days. Likewise, Britain’s response to the embassy attack, with Hague puffing his tiny chest out and ‘expelling’ Iranian diplomats from London, seemed like an excited attempt to pose once again as an important player on the world stage.

On the part of the Iranian state, the whiff of wilful historical re-enactment is also difficult to dispel. ‘Death to Britain’ was reportedly one of the chants in the Iranian parliament last week, following the announcement of further Western sanctions against Iran. As the BBC’s John Simpson reports: ‘The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Ardashir Larijani, said the attack on the embassy was Britain’s fault for interfering in Iran’s affairs and trying to dominate it over the decades.’

If Hague and Co would like to imagine Britain as an important world power, it seems their Iranian counterparts are only too happy to help out. The attack on the British Embassy, allegedly encouraged by parts of the Iranian regime, can be seen then as an attempt to reinvent Britain as the imperial enemy of yore. This is not 2011 anymore, when Britain’s impotence in the Middle East has been apparent throughout the tumult in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. It is 1913, when Britain really was confident enough a power to draw up a contract which made Iran’s oil fields British property. Or perhaps it’s 1919, when still-imperial Britain annexed the Iranian treasury and army. Or even the 1950s, when the decision of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh to nationalise the oil industry and rid Iran of Anglo influence prompted Britain and the US effectively to engineer Mossadegh’s downfall.

So although Britain has not been an imperial power proper for at least 50 years, parts of the Iranian state, beset by considerable internal problems both economic and political, are only too keen to portray it as such. On both sides of this stand-off, then, there is mutual gain. The West, with Britain to the fore, can act tough and moral towards that one-time pivot in then-President George W Bush’s ‘axis of evil’; and conservative elements in Iran, striving to hang on to and justify their power, can act tough and moral towards various sizes of Satan.

Of course, this current, barely diplomatic dispute has occurred within the broader narrative of the West’s recently revamped crusade to rid the world of nuclear weapons. And, like the current stand-off, this broader narrative has provided Western leaders with the chance to pose as forces for good, as leaders with moral purpose. Indeed, in April 2009, US president Barack Obama announced to the world that it was his ‘agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons’. This, he said, was a ‘moral responsibility’…

Read it all.


The earliest disciples of Jesus were observant Jews, but the story of these Jewish Christians and their distinctive doctrines has been obscured by the Gentile church that supplanted them

The combined expression “Jewish Christian”, made up of two seemingly contradictory concepts, must strike readers not specially trained in theology or religious history as an oxymoron. For how can someone simultaneously be a follower of both Moses and Jesus? Yet at the beginning of the Christian movement, in the first hundred years of the post-Jesus era, encounters with Jewish Christians distinguishable from Gentile Christians were a daily occurrence both in the Holy Land and in the diaspora.

To understand the genesis of these notions, the first point to note is that during his days of preaching, Jesus of Nazareth addressed only Jews, “the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 10:5; 15:24). His disciples were even expressly instructed not to approach Gentiles or Samaritans (Mt 10:5). On the few occasions that Jesus ventured beyond the boundaries of his homeland, he never proclaimed his gospel to pagans, nor did his disciples do so during his lifetime. The mission of the 11 apostles to “all the nations” (Mt 28:19) is a “post-Resurrection” idea. It appears to be of Pauline inspiration and is nowhere found in the Gospels apart from the spurious longer ending of Mark (Mk 16:15), which is missing from all the older manuscripts. Jesus’s own perspective was exclusively Jewish; he was concerned only with Jews.

Indeed, we learn from the Acts of the Apostles that the primitive community of Jesus followers consisted of 120 Jewish persons, including the 11 apostles and the mother and brothers of Jesus (Acts 1:14-5). This is incidentally the last reference to Mary in the New Testament, although there are further allusions to the male siblings of Jesus in the Acts and in Paul. James, “the brother of the Lord” as Paul refers to him, is presented as the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:19; Gal 1:19) and according to another Pauline passage, the married brothers of Jesus also acted as missionaries of the Gospel (1 Cor 9:5).

On the feast of Pentecost that followed the crucifixion, Peter and the rest of the apostles were metamorphosed under the influence of the divine Spirit from a group of gutless fugitives into born-again champions of the faith in Jesus, the risen Messiah, and their charismatic proclamation to the Jerusalem crowds instantaneously increased the original nucleus of 120 Jesus followers by 3,000 new Jewish converts. All they were asked to do was to believe in Peter’s teaching about Jesus and be baptised in his name.

The individual members of the Jerusalem Jesus party did not call themselves by any specific name, but their religious movement was known as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 24:14), short for “the Way of God”. Only at a later date, after the establishment of a community in Antioch in northern Syria, do we encounter in the Acts of the Apostles 11:26 the specific designation Christianoi (“Christians” or Messianists), applied to the members of that particular church.

How did the original Judaeo-Christians of Jerusalem compare to their Jewish neighbours? In some essential ways they did not differ from them at all. The Judaeo-Christians considered themselves Jews and their outward behaviour and dietary customs were Jewish. In fact, they faithfully observed all the rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law. In particular, the apostles and their followers continued to frequent the religious centre of Judaism, the Temple of Jerusalem, for private and public worship, and it was there that they performed charismatic healings (Acts 3:1-10; 5:12, 20, 25, 42). According to the Acts, the entire Jesus party assembled for prayer in the sanctuary every day (Acts 2:46). Even Paul, the chief opponent of the obligatory performance of Jewish customs in his churches, turned out to be a temple-goer on his occasional visits to Jerusalem. He once fell into a trance in the course of his prayer in the House of God (Acts 22:17) and on a later occasion he underwent the prescribed purification rituals before commissioning the priests to offer sacrifice on his behalf (Acts 21:24-6).

In addition to their attachment to the Law of Moses, including worship in the Temple, the religious practice of the first Jewish Christians also included the “breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:46). This breaking of the bread was not a purely symbolical cultic act, but a real meal. It had the double purpose of feeding the participants and symbolically uniting them with one another as well as with their Master Jesus, and with God. The frequency of the rite is not immediately specified, but the initial impression is that it took place daily, not unlike the sacred dinner of the fully initiated Essenes, described by the Jewish writers Philo, Flavius Josephus and the Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous heart” (Acts 2:46). On the other hand, according to Acts 20:7, Paul in Troas broke the bread on the first day of the week, and the Didache, the earliest Christian treatise (late first century CE), also orders that the bread should be broken and thanksgiving (Eucharist) performed each Sunday (Did. 14:1).

Another distinguishing mark of the Jerusalem Jewish Christians was religious communism. “No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). They were not formally obliged to divest themselves of their property and goods, as was the case with the Essenes, but there was strong moral pressure and not to do so would have been judged improper…

Read it all.

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

America To The Rescue

December 6, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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