Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    First English-Language Trailer Debuts for Natalie Portman’s Hebrew Film ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ Based on Amos Oz’s Memoir (VIDEO)

    The first English-language trailer for Natalie Portman’s directorial debut — A Tale of Love and Darkness — based on Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir, was released on Thursday. The movie, originally filmed in Hebrew, tells the story of Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem at the end of the British Mandate and the early years of Israel’s independence. Portman, who was born in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew, plays the lead role of Fania, the author’s mother. She struggles to raise her son as she deals with inner demons, a […]

    Read more →
  • Features As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    As Berlin Prices Rise, Israelis Turn East for German Real-Estate Bargains

    JNS.org – Sonnenallee, a street in Berlin’s Neukölln district, looks like it comes straight out of an Arab city — so much so that it goes by the nickname “Gaza Strip.” Kebab and bakery shops are advertised in Arabic; men sit in men-only coffee shops; and bridal shop windows showcase glittery, not-so-stylish gowns. But take a random turn, and you’ll find a swath of bars, burger joints, and Indian restaurants where hip Berliners announce that they have arrived to urban coolness. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Slays in ‘Wonder Woman’ Trailer (VIDEO)

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot engages in fierce action sequences in the new Wonder Woman trailer, which Warner Bros. premiered during the San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. The nearly 3-minute trailer, the first to debut for the superhero film, shows scenes of Diana, princess of the Amazons, fighting alongside men in the battle against the world’s toughest enemies. The first shot of the video shows Wonder Woman discovering a man, Steve Trevor (played by actor Chris Pine), washed ashore. The clip then takes viewers to the all-female island where Wonder Woman was born. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    Is diplomacy worthwhile, even if the end result isn’t what we hoped for? That is the question, among many others, posed by the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Making its New York debut at Lincoln Center, the play examines the secret diplomatic process that led to the historic 1993 peace accords. The character of Shimon Peres makes an appearance onstage — and he, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, tower over the proceedings. But they mainly do so in absentia. Instead, […]

    Read more →
  • Spirituality/Tradition Sports Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    JNS.org – Other than being part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Sandy Koufax and Dean Kremer have something else in common: a respect for Jewish tradition. Koufax — who was recently ranked by ESPN as the best left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) history — decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur. “I would do the same,” Kremer said in an interview. Last month, the 20-year-old Kremer became […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    The famed lead guitarist of British rock band Queen, Brian May, encouraged Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Lambert to perform in Hebrew during their upcoming joint concert in Israel, an entertainment industry advocacy organization reported on Tuesday. During a recent interview with Israeli television personality Assi Azar, May was played a 2005 video of Lambert singing the popular song Shir L’Shalom, (Song for Peace). May was so impressed by Lambert’s singing of the Hebrew track that he told the American singer, “We have to do that. Let’s […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    JNS.org – Kenyan-born marathoner Lonah Chemtai is expected to compete for Israel at the Olympics Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil next month after gaining a last minute approval. “I am very proud [to represent Israel] and I hope to achieve a new personal best time,” Chemtai told Reuters. Chemtai, who grew up a rural village in western Kenya, first came to Israel in 2009 to care of the children of her country’s ambassador to Israel. The 27-year-old runner recently gained […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    To date or not to date? That is not the question for most Modern Orthodox singles in New York. The question is when will they find their future spouses, and when will their families stop nagging them about having babies? Inspired by the success of the Israeli show “Srugim,” Leah Gottfried, 25, decided she would create and star in her own show, “Soon By You.” “Dating is so serious already,” Gottfried said. “We wanted to take a lighter approach and laugh at the […]

    Read more →