By Barry Rubin
President Barack Obama’s view of Judaism, Zionism, and Israel was very much shaped by his liberal and left-wing Jewish contacts in Chicago, some of whom became key members of his entourage. Among these influential acquaintances was Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf.
Wolf was of a type familiar in American Jewish circles. While in principle pro-Israel, he had certain views that made him highly critical. As what I would call a moral perfectionist, Wolf could not view Israel as good enough to live up to Jewish values that had been honed during a long galut during which Jews had no political responsibility and did not have to meet the real world demands of political power. At the same time, he was more attuned to Israel’s reputedly more idealistic era of Labor Party hegemony.
For Wolf, Israel was arrogant, not nice to the Palestinian Arabs, obsessed with the Holocaust, and thus simultaneously paranoid and over-confident. Not understanding the realities of Israel’s strategic situation, the compromises necessary in having a state, the actual facts on the ground, and other factors, Wolf thought that he and those who thought as he did knew better how to protect and morally improve Israel more than did its voters and leaders. One can glimpse many of these themes in Obama’s thinking today.
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I’m not writing this article, however, to criticize Wolf, who was a serious and sincere thinker who tried to apply his standards consistently and does not deserve to be stereotyped in a negative fashion. Indeed, Wolf had some fascinating insights that deserve to be recalled today. Indeed, it would be wonderful if his most famous non-Jewish “disciple” was to understand them.
In the April 13, 1979, issue of Sh`ma, a tiny but then influential liberal Jewish newsletter, Wolf wrote an article entitled, “Islam in Power.” At the time, Wolf was arguing that the PLO was ready to make peace with Israel and should be engaged in dialogue. Yet his arguably naïve optimism in that direction—a thesis only disproven retroactively when it would be put to the test more than a dozen years later—by no means blinded him when he was directly confronted with evidence to the contrary on a related issue.
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Wolf wrote in that article about his participation in an interfaith dialogue along with Professor Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago and Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Muslim World League. Wolf recounted:
“They lectured us brilliantly on the world significance of the ummah (Muslim nation) and unashamedly asserted that world peace depends finally on Islam’s ability to impose its system of justice on all mankind….Carefully distinguishing themselves from the Saudi [version of Islam] and from any desire to suppress other religious communities, they nevertheless gave no place to pluralist schemes or social democratic options. Islam, they said, is, of course, the only way.”
In short, they spoke about their views with far more candor than Muslim clerics employ today, especially in that kind of meeting.
“I asked Professor Rahman, a subtle and genial scholar, if he meant, for example, that Egyptian Muslims would forever be willing to die for the return of Jerusalem to Islamic control and he answered yes. I demurred that it seems to me that President Sadat was riding a wave of pacifist sentiment from among his war-weary people and that they had no more heart to make war for Palestinians. He did not agree. He said that the Muslim view of death was still very powerful and that no Muslim fears to die in a jihad, a holy war.
“Jerusalem is and always will be, he said, such a sacred cause. Muslims, he insisted, are not really like other people.”
Note that Wolf’s reaction to hearing these things—like many Westerners today—was to assert that he knew more about Islam than did his Muslim interlocutors. Of course, Wolf was right that the example of Sadat and of Egyptian policy at that time showed that the Islamist or harder-line traditionalist interpretation was not the only one. Still, of course, the power of that radicalism so deeply rooted in normative Islam, should never be underestimated. The Islamist revolution in Iran, that achieved power only a few days before the meetings Wolf describes, proved to reignite such ideas and the world has been living—and often dying—with them ever since.
Wolf was no apologist. He reflects on what the two clerics had said as follows:
“That sounds like racism to me, and surely would be if a Jew made the assertion. But the Muslim group was high from the successful Iranian revolution against Modernism and the West. They know that only Islam among the great religions is growing in size and prestige from year to year. They believe that they are destined for mastery, exactly as their scripture promises. By contrast, the World Council of Churches looks feeble, the Catholic Church in disarray and Gush Emunim simply ridiculous. Only Islam has both dreams of glory and the power to make their dreams come true.
“There is no reason to believe that a Muslim world would be less attractive than one under Christian hegemony, not to say Communist or Fascist. But there is something in the grim assuredness of these Muslim thinkers, learned and gifted in Western scholarship, powerful, forthright in expression and in ideal[s] that makes my blood run cold.”
That comparison of Islamic political rule to that of authoritarian Christian, Communist, and Fascist government may sound at first like the kind of moral equivalence we are used to hearing today. But remember that all of these are repugnant for Wolf. He understood the threat of radical Islam or, if you wish, political Islam far better than do his counterparts one-third of a century later, despite the fact that they’ve had far more compelling evidence to show them the truth during those years.
It’s a pity that Obama did not learn this conclusion from Wolf. For while Obama, like Wolf, exaggerates and takes out of context Israel’s behavior he does not, unlike Wolf, deal with the real threat and problem in the region. In fact, the administration is helping Islamism toward power in Egypt and Syria, as well as not mobilizing and leading against it elsewhere. Yet for many who understand better—including a lot of Middle East Muslims as well as Israel—it makes our “blood run cold,” too. And in many cases, it makes people’s blood run in rivers.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports,http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com