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 Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →