Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Simplistic Similarities

The more I read Middle East history and philosophy, the more it strikes me that any real differences between Jewish and Muslim tradition are minimal. Ramadan begins with the New Moon on October 3rd this year. Rosh Hashanah begins at the same time. Both faiths follow a tradition based on lunar cycles. Both traditions developed in the same geographic area. Both trace their ancestry to Abraham, whose descendants, regardless of their faith, speak a Semitic language. Jews and Muslims lived together in relative harmony until the late 19th and early 20th Centuries; most centers of Islamic population and culture included a strong Jewish community which provided much administrative and mercantile acumen to their society..

Yet the differences throughout the past century are all too real. The two cultures have polarized into bitter enemies, each in its own way sworn to the destruction of the other. Arab nations have vowed to drive the Jews from Israel and reconquer the whole of Palestine. In the meantime, these nations have systematically persecuted and destroyed their indigenous Jewish communities. Israel, born of violence against Palestinian inhabitants, for its part, has waged unceasing war. Israel first fought for its survival against very real external threats from neighboring states for decades. More recently it has fought radicals incensed by expansionist Israeli policies.

So here we have two communities, both with long ties to the same land, both descended from the same traditions, at each others’ throats. Looking at their history and tradition with a 21st century sense of fairness, both have legitimate claims to the region. I became aware of their shared history and geography from reading Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran by Roya Hakakian. She was in high school during the 1979 revolution and writes enthusiastically about the event, about how it appealed to her as an Iranian, her nation asserting its own identity after decades of oppression from foreign backed monarchy. Later, when the new Iranian government turns on its Jewish community, she is shocked to think that her nation considers her anything other than a loyal Iranian. Edwin Black makes much the same point in Banking on Baghdad wherein he describes the systmatic expulsion of indigenous Jewish communities throughout the Middle East during the rise of Arab nationalism in the 20th century.

With just this little knowledge, it is clear to me that both Jews and Muslims belong to the region. I don’t pretend to have any solutions to offer. A century of posturing, hate, brutal war, oppression and geopolitics have so muddled the situation that, barring the second coming of Abraham himself, I’m not sure that any mortal can resolve the conflict. I do believe, however, that a necessary first step is for each community to acknowledge their common heritage, recognize the other’s right to exist and come to terms their brutal pasts. Without that step, at once so simple and so difficult, neither community will find peace or security.


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