Two Years On, the Arab Spring Could Use Some Talmud

February 19, 2013 1:35 am 3 comments

Over 700,000 protesters gather in Al-Assy Square in Hama on July 22. Photo: Syriana2011.

The Talmud is a pillar of Jewish law, containing dialectical opinions from thousands of rabbis debating law, philosophy, history, theology, and myriad other topics. By displaying argumentation by many minds, a page of Talmud enshrines dissent.

Unfortunately, the Talmudic spirit has been almost entirely absent from the Middle East. Except for Israel, the region has suffered for decades from autocratic regimes that rule by force – repressing freedom of the press, political rights, and dissent. The marketplace of ideas is desolate: the 2002 Arab Human Development Report claimed that only about 330 books are annually translated into Arabic. Estimates for 2010 improved but are still under 3,000 books annually for about 400 million people. The figures for books written in Arabic were not much better. According to Kitab – a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Frankfurt Book Fair – an estimated 5,910 books were written in Arabic and published across the Arab world in 2008 (more recent statistics could not be found). Israel, with under eight million people, in 2011 translated about 700 books into Hebrew and produced another 5,600 homegrown books.

The Arab Spring was supposed to usher in an era of greater freedom. Instead, autocratic and corrupt secular rule has been supplanted with Islamist regimes no more liberal than the ones they replaced. If Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s greatest diplomatic achievement during his first seven months in office was to host an Iranian president for the first time since Islamists revolutionized Iran into a brutal theocracy in 1979, Egyptians should be worried.

Just as troubling, dissension is met with ruthless violence. The most glaring example is Syria, where almost 70,000 have died in under two years. In Egypt, soccer riots killed about 80 people in 2012, and the judicial response last month was to kill more people (21 death sentences), which sparked more riots, killing dozens more. In Tunisia, opposition leader Chokri Belaid was recently assassinated, and violence between police and mourners erupted at his funeral. A few weeks earlier, the Tunisian army deployed to fight demonstrators demanding to know why, two years after their revolution, their lives had not improved. Tunisians (like Egyptians) are learning that Islamists know little about today’s global economy. In Libya, the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi’s cruel dictatorship has been followed mostly by chaos, with armed Islamists violently challenging the central government.

The region sorely lacks a Talmudic appreciation of debate, questioning, persuasion, negotiation, and other non-violent means of exploring and resolving conflicts. But the tradition of intellectually challenging authority goes back to Abraham, the first Jew (and, as the father of Ishmael, a patriarch to Muslims as well): Abraham dared to negotiate with God over the number of righteous needed to spare Sodom.

The “Talmudic spirit” helped Israel to develop into the only true democracy in the Middle East: 17 political parties, including a meaningful government opposition; over 20 diverse, independent newspapers; outspoken human rights groups; legal protection of minorities; an independent judiciary; and free and fair elections that have peacefully transferred power over 30 times in 65 years of statehood. Israeli democracy applies the rule of law even to the most powerful: violence against women is punished, even when perpetrated by the President (Katsav), and corruption is exposed and prosecuted, even if by the Prime Minister (Olmert). Of course, Israel is far from perfect, as evidenced by Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and persistent political, social, and economic problems; but it’s still a paragon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Lord Acton’s insightful observation (power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) is as true today as it was in 1887, and therein lies the genius of democracy and divided government with a balance of powers. Democracy minimizes not just corruption but also inept governance. A monopoly on power rarely includes a monopoly on wisdom; au contraire: autocracies breed incompetence because their policies aren’t regularly subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

Institutionalized freedom doesn’t only promote good government and human dignity: Free thought and debate are also powerful engines for innovation, which brings huge economic rewards, as Israel, a country without oil, has proven. Known as the “Startup Nation,” tiny Israel has ten Nobel prizes and, in 2011, over 60 companies listed on the NASDAQ (more than any country after the USA and China), despite having to devote disproportionate resources to national defense because of the innumerable security threats targeting its citizens since 1948. Israel’s culture of questioning and freethinking has also helped it to develop arguably the best air force in the world, whose most senior pilot can be critiqued by the most junior airman; nobody is above error.

Another Talmudic principle for the Arab Spring is the sanctity of life. As the Sanhedrin 37a notes, “to save one life is tantamount to saving a whole world.” Section 5:32 of Surat Al-Mā’idah in the Quran echoes the same concept. But that seems to have been ignored in much of the Middle East, where people can be killed over an offensive cartoon. In the Arab world (and Europe), there have been countless hateful cartoons demonizing Jews and Israel, yet nobody ever dies as a result.

Indeed, Arab regimes have incessantly scapegoated Israel to distract their subjects from domestic discontent. For decades, Israel has been so vilified that the idea of emulating anything about it is unthinkable. But maybe – as the Arab world introspects, seeking a better future – the taboo against anything Israeli can be a post-revolution opportunity to question and debate indoctrinated “wisdom.”

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, a geopolitical thriller about the Iranian nuclear threat and current Middle East developments.

3 Comments

  • Christopher Ellis

    These half-wits who call themselves Islamic are but the politics of National-Socialism recast as either Arab nationalism or some fantasy based on the Koran, in the style of the Marxist Theory of History; which, I think, is on a par with “chant Hare Krishna”. Wishful thinking is not a good foundation for any venture,especially that which perverts everything to its own perceived benefit.

  • Your point regarding how to develop critical thinking, Talmudic discussion habits (“kias” and other disagreement and interpretation technics were common accepted practices in Arab environment in the middle age) is certainly a crucial question. if your claim is that Talmudic practice contributed to the Israeli thriving, write it and we may discuss that. I understand your pride of israel successes but your comparisons with israel and your militant israel advocacy discourse may be counterproductive if your goal is to encourage Talmudic like practices in the Arab world that is dealing with a completely different existential dilemmas.

  • There has been no Arab spring..just a Muslim Brotherhood winter…Everyone of these so-called Muslim elections is identical to the 1933 election in Germany..The winners do not believe in democracy because Islam is a totalitarian philosophy that detests democracy..so if you loved the result of the 1933 German elections you will love the “Arab spring”.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Theater Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    Hollywood’s Revisiting of Passover’s Exodus Story a Part of Throwback ‘Year of the Bible’

    JNS.org – In a throwback to the golden age of cinema, Hollywood has declared 2014 the “Year of the Bible.” From Ridley Scott’s Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses, to Russell Crowe playing Noah, Hollywood is gambling on new innovations in technology and star power to revisit some of the most popular stories ever told. “It’s definitely a throwback to the 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Stephen J. Whitfield, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, told JNS.org. Starting with The [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    ‘Jewish Giant’ Headlines New York Jewish Museum Exhibit

    Eddie Carmel, dubbed “The Jewish Giant” by American photographer Diane Arbus, is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening April 11 at The Jewish Museum in New York. Arbus met Carmel, who was billed “The World’s Tallest Man,” at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in 1959 but waited until 1970 to photograph him at his parents’ home in the Bronx, according to the museum. The son of immigrants from Tel Aviv, Carmel posed for Arbus with his head bowed to [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    Disney Hit ‘Frozen’ Gets Passover Themed Makeover With ‘Chozen’ (VIDEO)

    A Passover themed cover of hit songs Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from Disney’s Frozen has attracted tons of media buzz and a cool 65,ooo views on YouTube within days of going online. The work of Jewish a capella group Six13, the track is aptly named Chozen. We are celebrating “our freedom, our favorite festival, our fabulous fans, and aspiring Disney princesses everywhere” the group said. The Chozen music video tells the story of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    Retreat Gives Young Artists New Platform to Engage With Jewish Ideas

    JNS.org – Many young Jewish artists struggle to define who they are personally, artistically, and religiously. Against the backdrop of that struggle, the recent Asylum Arts International Jewish Artists Retreat provided a space for some 70 young Jewish artists to explore Jewish ideas, to build community and a culture of reciprocity, and to learn skills to assist their career development. “We are trying to encourage and excite people to engage in Jewish themes,” says Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts. [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    Darren Aronofsky Adds Psychological Depth, Little Else to ‘Noah’

    JNS.org – Has the era of large-scale biblical epics returned? Not since “The Ten Commandments” has there been so much torrential water on the big screen (not counting weather-related disaster films such as “The Impossible”) than in “Noah,” the latest blockbuster from writer and director Darren Aronofsky. “Noah” takes the traditional tale and splices it in an eco-friendly and psychologically driven plot. After Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden of Eden and after Cain killed Abel, mankind [...]

    Read more →
  • Food Israel Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    Israeli Arab Microbiologist Wins on Israel’s ‘MasterChef’ Reality Show

    JNS.org – An Israeli-Arab microbiologist and mother of three won the fourth season of Israel’s most popular reality TV show, “MasterChef.” Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, 32, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is from the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, described winning as the “the most exciting moment in her life.” She said she plans to use the prize money to open up an Arab-Jewish cooking school. MasterChef is a popular reality TV show that originated in the U.K. It is [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Theater Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Play About Muslim Man Who Discovers His Parents Are Jewish Seeking Funds

    Jewish comedian and writer David Baddiel is seeking public support to help produce a musical based on his film about a British Muslim man who discovers his parents are Jewish. London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East is in development to premiere The Infidel in October, London’s Evening Standard reported on Wednesday. However, the theater needs another £55,000 on top of around £200,000 already raised in order to produce the show. Baddiel, 49, retained the stage rights to the story when he wrote the [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Relationships Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    Love Guru Says Kaballah Practitioners Tend to Have ‘Less Satisfactory’ Relationships

    British relationship expert Andrew Wallas said Kaballah practitioners are likely to be less satisfied in their personal relationships than other couples, Britain’s Daily Mail reported Wednesday. “All the research is that individuals who have an interest in psychology or spirituality or who practice something like Kaballah (the branch of Jewish mysticism popularized by Madonna) are less likely to have satisfactory relationships,” he said. “A lifetime spent doing self-improvement workshops can just be a case of someone running away from reality.” [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.