Idolatry in the Middle East

Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg is a superior reporter and Middle East analyst, who writes for Bloomberg. He provides an intelligent and refreshingly balanced perspective on Middle-Eastern politics, especially with regard to Israel/Palestine—which means that he gets hate mail from both sides.

He riles American left-liberals with his insistence that Hamas’ mission statement calling for Israel’s extinction not be glossed over—and that Israel, surrounded by many hostile regimes, has legitimate concerns regarding security.

He riles Israeli ultra-nationalists with his insistence that Israel is making a serious strategic mistake, and losing much-needed support in the international community, by continuing its policy of building settlements  on land that will need to become part of Palestine when (if) a two-state solution is accomplished.

In a recent piece, Goldberg referred to elements of the current Israeli ruling coalition as “idol worshippers, and their idol is land.” Zionism, Goldberg explains, once viewed the Biblical lands as the means to achieve the more important goal of a Jewish homeland. Possessing all of the land was not necessary: it was necessary only to have enough land for a Jewish state.

Now, however, an increasingly powerful segment of Jewish (and we might as well add, Christian) fundamentalists sees possession of the whole of the ancient Davidic Kingdom, from sea (Mediterranean) to river (Jordan), as essential.  It is this uncompromising essentialism that leads Goldberg to use the “i” word:  idolatry.

Idol-worship is something we do. It’s the human tendency to mistake an image of God for the Real Thing; or to elevate something of lesser and relative power, to the status of absolute. The world is full of idols, and they always lead us away from the Kingdom that Isaiah imagined: the Kingdom where swords are turned to plowshares, and where the lion lies down with the lamb.

via Jeffrey Goldberg: Articles & Columns – Bloomberg.

Helpful Context for Understanding Egypt

Dr. Larbi Sadiki, Exeter University (UK)

We send $1.3 billion to Egypt annually. Here is some helpful context as we attempt to understand what is happening at the other end of our far-flung foreign aid. (The full interview is available at the link at the bottom):

Jacob Powell: Do you think Egypt is ready for democracy?

Larbi Sadiki: I think the question is not really answerable. The question should be: “where is the infrastructure in place to facilitate democracy?” Democracy is an open-ended game that gets developed over a long time. What we have seen since 2011, – the Egyptian people have the building blocks of democracy enacted through mostly peaceful people’s power displays. We should not engage the question through ‘exceptionalism’, relegating Egypt or Arabs to the realm of ‘non-democracy’, whatever that might be. For example, Chile had its setbacks and Pinochet toppled a democratically elected government in the mid 1970s – mostly with Western backing especially from the US. Several Latin American countries had similar experiences of democratic breakdown with the generals intervening to scupper democratic processes and purge democratic opposition. We cannot forget the Chavista and anti-Chavista in Venezuela. During 2002, Chavez was temporarily ousted by the army, and there were people protesting for and against him.

Closer to home, we cannot forget Algeria 1991-92 and the Palestinian elections of 2006. The common thread is that Islamists choosing the ballot box keep being toppled. The route to democracy is not linear (emphasis added). It is long, complex and fraught with obstacles, embracing both highs and lows. The journey to democracy, past and present, affirms this. I don’t really think Egyptians have something in their character that lends itself to inhospitality to democracy and democratisation. Definitely, what has happened in Egypt has stunted a fledgling democratisation process. I’m pretty sure that the Egyptian people have the means to reclaim their power and restore the democratisation process. However, we cannot massage words about what has happened: a coup is a coup is a coup – be it one which, for now, has been triggered by massive public backing. It is naïve to think Arab uprisings have been solely popular affairs – armies are very much part of the machinations driving ousters of unwanted regimes and presidents, especially in Egypt.

via Q&A: What next for Arab democracy? – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Tension and Violence in Gaza– Beyond Redemption?

Traveling by bicycle through what was then Yugoslavia in December of 1983, my Midwestern American naivete about the world was shaken as I experienced the “Second World”– Cold War parlance for the industrial, communist-socialist countries– for the first time. I wasn’t in Ohio anymore. On the road near Mostar, toothless old women led mules laden with loosely-piled hay. They stared at my fair hair and my Raleigh 12-speed– both marvelously out of place, there and then.

The impression that marks my memory of that Yugoslavia? Crumbly, shabby, dirty, poor– and full of guns: guns on soldiers, pictures of guns, children playing with toy guns, and guns in shopfronts. It seemed like a place that had the tools to become violent, and none of wealth’s satiating, anesthetizing effect to buffer against carrying it out.

It looked like a place ready to fight. And, as it turns out, that’s what it did– all through the 1990s.

Gaza is similar, in that the weapons are plentiful (or, if depleted, have many willing suppliers), and the economic prospects are poor for a different future for its people. It doesn’t help that Hamas seems increasingly irrational (rockets towards Jerusalem? Really?) Gaza, for the foreseeable future, will continue to look like a place ready to fight. The current ceasefire may last for weeks or months, but it will not last long.

Redemption is always possible, but never probable, and certainly not inevitable. In this world–in whatever hemisphere or continent — great destruction and the suffering of innocents are more likely. The wounds and pains that people carry are deep. To see the wounds and pains of the other is the beginning step that might, perhaps, one day lead to the courage for longstanding ceasefire and peace.

GAZA CITY Reuters — With gunshots, sweets and cries of victory, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip poured into the streets to celebrate a ceasefire deal on Wednesday which ended eight days of deadly fighting.

After being stuck at home for days for fear of Israeli airstrikes, tens of thousands of Palestinians crowded into cars and doubled up on motorcycles, waving flags and chanting for Hamas, Israel’s main adversary and rulers of the Gaza Strip.

Women leaned over balconies ululating with joy as children stuffed four-abreast in the open trunks of cars clapped and sent out hoarse screams of “God is Great!”.

via Jubilant Palestinians mob Gaza streets | Maan News Agency.

In Solidarity: Sharing Suffering

Aziz Abu Sarah co-directs The Center for World Religions, Citizen Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, blogs at +972 (, and appears periodically on CNN to offer opinion on current events in Israel/Palestine. We welcomed Aziz here in New Hampshire in the fall of 2010, along with Kobi Skolnick, for their presentation “From Revenge to Reconciliation.”

Below, Aziz tells the story of being stopped and searched, recently, at a checkpoint near Gaza. He was co-leading a tour group of 36 American students and professors; at the checkpoint, he and the other Palestinian in the group– the bus driver– were asked to step off the bus for extra checks. What followed was a conversation between the head of security at the checkpoint, and Aziz’s colleague and tour co-leader, Shira Nesher, an Israeli:

“Shira, our Israeli guide, asked the soldiers about the details and reasoning behind this selective treatment…

Security: We need to check Aziz and the driver. Both of you, take off your shoes, jackets, belts, and bring your bags.

Shira: Fine. [Starts taking off her shoes and belt]

Security: What do you think you are doing?

Shira: I am going through the same security checks they are going through. Is there a problem with that?

Security: What reality are you living in? You wouldn’t have done this if you were in a New York airport and the security pulled a Muslim guy in front of you for extra checking, would you?

Shira: My reality is different than your reality. These are not strangers in the airport. They are my coworkers. I didn’t ask you not to check them; I will not interfere with your work. However, you should check me too. I don’t accept you racially profiling my colleagues. We are one team, we spend 15 hours together every day, we work together, eat together and at checkpoints we should be treated similarly. We are equal in everything we do, why not here?

Shira then underwent the same security checks that me and the bus driver had to undergo.”

I love this story because it is a picture of what solidarity looks like: a person with relatively more power and higher standing (Shira, the Israeli), volunteers to stand with those with relatively less power and lower standing (Aziz and the bus driver, the Palestinians). As a Christian minister working for a renewed understanding of Christ’s healing power, this is it: Christ heals the world by consenting, out of an extravagantly generous love, to be in solidarity with suffering humanity.

Below is the rest of Aziz’s entry:

What she [Shira] did was a brilliant way to force the security officer to reconsider his actions. She could have yelled at him and spilled tons of accusations that would have made him angrier, but she chose a different path. She decided to force him to think about the objectives and practices of his work. Why did he racially profile the Palestinians? She showed him that she considers herself equal to the Palestinians in every way, and that there is no difference between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one can lose sight of what this struggle boils down to. It is not about what solution will work at the end – one state, two states or a bi-national state. Eventually, one of these options will be implemented. But what’s more important is the relational aspect of any solution. All these potential solutions will fail if they are not built on the notion of equality and human rights.

Shira Nesher demonstrated a new way to struggle for justice, human rights and equality. She didn’t just demand better treatment of Palestinians from afar, which is an easy thing to do. Preaching ethics and morality to others is not costly. When Shira couldn’t guarantee that her Palestinian colleagues would be treated equally, she gave up her privileges in a show of equality. That’s how this struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine can be won.

via Aziz Abu Sarah.

The Middle East, the End of History, and the God Who Makes All Things New

No one knows what will happen in Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain. Interested parties– in-country nationals, foreign governments, journalists and observers, international businesses, and non-governmental organizations (to name a few)– prepare for different scenarios, assess risks and opportunities, seek analogies to the past in order to make some sense of the present, and wait.

At a surface level it seems incongruous to bring what we know of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures to bear on the popular upheavals in these countries. The populations are predominately Arab and Muslim, not Jewish or Christian; current commentary on religion with regard to these uprisings is limited to the question of whether the overthrow of these authoritarian regimes will lead to Islamists obtaining power.

According to the Biblical account, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures acts in history. If that is so, how would we know today? Is it helpful to seek signs of God’s presence in events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the protests in Tahrir Square? What if God’s involvement in history is quiet and anonymous, undetectable by the daily reports of the  BBC or of Al Jazeera?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama advanced the idea of the “end of history”: with the fall of Soviet-style communism, obviously Western democracy was the final goal of the evolution of governance. That’s a quasi-theological notion, because it deals with ultimate outcomes– in this case, the ultimate outcome of the evolution of human arrangements of political power.

If it is too soon to discern whether, where, or how the God Who Makes All Things New is acting in the Middle East (and it is too soon), one thing that the Biblical account makes clear is that God’s involvement in history is surprising, disruptive of human totalistic schemes of domination and uniformity, and biased toward the weak and powerless.

We should watch for these things in the Arab world; we should watch for them in the United States, too, as history continues.

The Peace of Jerusalem– Direct Talks Begin Today

When I was in Jerusalem last January, one evening we heard an Israeli Jew give an Israeli perspective on the peace process; on another evening we heard a Palestinian Arab Muslim give a Palestinian perspective on the peace process. After the second presentation, my friend Rich said to me, “That was depressing.” I asked him why? He said, “The two guys we’ve heard are moderate, intelligent, articulate people– and if we put them in a room together to figure this out, EVEN THEY wouldn’t be able to come to an agreement.”

Add people to the mix– extremists on both sides who are not interested in co-existence– and you get a snarl of conflicting desires and stoked passions. And you get violence; and vengeance– and the vicious cycle of pain for pain. That’s what happened near Hebron last night.

The Middle East can seem very far away from us, but it’s not. What happens there affects us: as has been observed, the world is closer and hotter than it has ever been. A viable Palestinian state, side-by-side and at peace with Israel, is in our interest. It wouldn’t be a cure-all for the challenges in that part of the world, but it would be helpful.

Hopelessness is easy: the experience of the last 120-or-so years  suggests– and it is utterly reasonable to conclude– that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will not issue from the direct talks starting today in Washington. Faith, however, holds to a hope that the world does not know– that the world cannot know– because it is a hope grounded in God’s nature to break open new possibilities for life. Despair puts limits on what God can do; despair says, “I know the darkness, and the darkness cannot be overcome.” Hope says, for a start: “I don’t know. Maybe.” Sometimes that’s enough.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Holy Ground