The Missing Mahatma: Searching for a Palestinian Gandhi

Gershom Gorenberg

If Palestinians adopted a Gandhian nonviolent strategy, could they reshape the entire conflict with Israel and finally realize a two-state solution? If so, why haven’t they done so? Or perhaps they really have at certain times and places, and Israel has broken that form of resistance as well?

Those questions have been asked for years, in variations of tone and wording, by moderate Israelis and Palestinians and by concerned outsiders. A while back, a colleague suggested that I investigate the issue in depth.

The question lead to a intellectual journey. My essay on that journey of exploration has at last appeared.

Here’s the opening:

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Reading Maimonides Through Islamic Glasses

Haim Watzman

statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
In his introduction to the Mishna, Maimonides (known as “the Rambam” in Jewish tradition) tells a story about the revelation and transmission of the Torah. Reading this story in light of Islamic doctrines about sacred revelation and transmission reveals that Maimonides, who lived in an Islamic society, sought to ground the written and oral law of the Jews in a way commensurable with the standards set by Islam.

This view of Maimonides, the foremost medieval Jewish philosopher in the Islamic world, is offered by Yoav Phillips, who is offering a series of classes in the new beit midrash (study hall) sponsored jointly by Kehilat Yedidya and a group of graduates of the recently-closed Religious Kibbutz Movement yeshiva at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim.

The third chapter of Maimonides’ introduction relates, Phillips showed, how the Torah given to Moshe (Moses) on Mt. Sinai was transmitted to the Israelites in the desert and to Joshua, who then transmitted it to the elders and prophets, who then transmitted it to the rabbis.

As Westerners, Phillips pointed out, we accept our culture’s unstated assumption that the transmission of written texts is more reliable than that of oral texts. Jewish rabbinic tradition also differentiates between the written and the oral law; both were given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, but the written law nevertheless has a higher status.

So it is surprising to see that in Maimonides’ account of the revelation, Moshe does not write the Torah down.

Read moreReading Maimonides Through Islamic Glasses

The Progressive Imam

When I told my son that I was going to Cape Town, he told he had a friend there who belonged to a mosque committed to including women in worship, a community under the leadership of a progressive imam. It happened that my commitments to teach at Limmud, the South African version of the British festival of Jewish study, began late Friday afternoon. So I called Imam A. Rashied Omar and arranged to visit the Claremont Main Road Mosque for Friday prayers and an interview.

My new article on the mosque and the imam is now up at the American Prospect. A personal preface: The fact that I wrote about this particular community and its leader doesn’t mean they are unique. Indeed, friends who have already seen the article have already sent me names of other Islamic teachers working in similar veins. I’m writing about Omar because he’s the one I had the opportunity to meet.

I don’t know what portion of Muslims he or his community represent. But I don’t think that the essence of a faith is determined by majority vote. In 1665, the majority of Jews believed Shabtai Tzvi was messiah and that Nathan of Gaza was his prophet. The dissidents who understood that their community was in the midst of mass hysteria had a stronger grasp of Judaism. Today the majority of Orthodox Zionists in Israel are caught up in a warped version of Judaism, originally promoted by that latter-day Nathan of Gaza, Tzvi Yehudah Kook, that sanctifies land, power and Jewish exclusivism. I firmly believe that the majority is deeply mistaken.

This is a statement that can be made from within a tradition. Looking at Islam from the outside I can only note that there is a debate within it. Most writers from the outside who assert what Islam “really” is do

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Revelation and Law: Elijah and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

Haim Watzman

When do religions based on text and revelation turn fundamentalist and extreme? When their adherents take their holy books and divine messages to be sources of infallible wisdom that needs no human mediation. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other creeds can all inspire their adherents to take individual responsibility for weighing competing moral values, but this requires that the community of believers understand that the practical application of religious values “is not in heaven.” In other words, they must realize that revelation and holy texts cannot be understood and used without placing them in dialogue with the real world that we confront in our everyday experience.

At his weekly Shabbat afternoon lecture last Saturday, Rabbi Binyamin Lau cited an aggadah—a rabbinic homily—from the Jerusalem Talmud (Chapter 8, page 5d). (The following thoughts are my own, not Rabbi Lau’s.)

A man named Ula Bar Kushav was sought by the Roman authorities for some unnamed crime. He fled to Lod, then (the early third century CE) an important city in Judea with a large Jewish population. The Romans surrounded the city and demanded that the Jewish community turn over Bar Kushav. If he were not turned over, the Romans would raze the entire city.

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All The Conspiracy Theorists Are Out To Get Us–More On The Crusade Against Islam

Haim Watzman

Y. Ben-David, South Jerusalem’s most intrepid commenter, writes, in response to my previous post on anti-Semitism in Islam, that a significant part of the Muslim world today subscribes to theologies that demonize the Jews, as well as to outlandish conspiracy theories. I’d like to declare here, on the front page of this left-wing peacenik accommodationist blog, that Y. Ben-David (hereinafter YBD) is correct.

However, YBD is, like Benny Morris, wearing blinders that make his correct observation nearly useless–indeed dangerous–as a basis for creating good policies to confront such bigoted Muslims and their political-theological movements.

Let’s start with the conspiracy theories. Perhaps YBD has forgotten how popular they are pretty much everywhere and anywhere, including in the enlightened West. Large numbers of Israelis, in particular in the religious-Zionist sector, believe that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered on the orders of the Shabak or Mossad. A large number of Americans also believe in a variety of conspiracy theories regarding the 9/11 attacks. According to a Gallup poll in 1999, six percent of Americans are sure that the Apollo moon landing was faked by a shadowy conspiracy and another five percent think that might be true. That’s far from a majority but it’s a lot of supposedly enlightened Americans.

Read moreAll The Conspiracy Theorists Are Out To Get Us–More On The Crusade Against Islam

Old-Time Religion, Newly Manufactured. Or: The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be.

An afterword to Haim’s post on screeds about anti-Jewish attitudes in Islam: A few months ago I wrote an article about anti-Muslim and anti-Christian prayers in Judaism. The anti-Christian prayers are medieval (I urged excising them.) The anti-Muslim prayer I cited is apparently a fake antique: It’s written in a medieval style, and it follows the midrashic convention of using “Ishmael” as a name for Muslims or Arabs. But it’s a product of the contemporary Israeli-Arab conflict, and it shows up in the liturgy of the Israeli religious right, which has dressed up militant modern nationalism as ancient theology.

There are several lessons to be learned:

First, attacks on Islam in authentic medieval Jewish prayers are almost impossible to find, as a leading historian explained to me:

Hebrew University historian Israel Yuval says that traditional liturgical attacks “are always against Christianity,” and are found in Ashkenazi prayers, not Sephardi ones. The rage reflects theological battles with Christianity, which claimed the Bible as its own and argued that Jews suffered in exile because God had ended the covenant with them. The Jewish response was a stress on “vengeful redemption”-looking forward to a conclusion of history in which the power relations were reversed, the Christians destroyed.

There was obviously theological conflict between Judaism and Islam from the time the latter began. But Jews themselves did not perceive Islam as trying to displace and disinherit Judaism in the same way,

Read moreOld-Time Religion, Newly Manufactured. Or: The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be.

Anti-Semitism in Islam–Not Decreed By Heaven

Haim Watzman

There he goes again—Benny Morris is giving the battle against Islamic anti-Semitism a bad name.

But then he’s not alone in fray. Nearly every passionate participant in the battle—Pipes, Horowitz, you name it—would make the angelically tolerant Roger Williams, the great American founder of religious toleration, go apoplectic.

In one of the perverse juxtapositions for which it is famous, the previous issue of The New Republic (the back section of which I just got around to reading last weekend) offers us a wonderful essay on Roger Williams by Martha Nussbaum, and then follows a few pages later with an embarrassing and ugly screed against Islam by Morris called “The Darker Side.”

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More Anti-Semitism, or Just More Fear?

Everyone knows that Europe has grown more anti-Semitic, as Avi Primor writes in the new issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Like many things that everyone “knows,” the facts are different, writes Primor, who’s the former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and now head of the Center for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Only bits of the journal, I’m sorry to say, are online, and Primor’s article isn’t one of those bits. If you want to read it, you’ll need to find a hard copy. But here are a couple of key points:

Read moreMore Anti-Semitism, or Just More Fear?

Nonsense Detector: Obama and Islam; Orthodoxy of the Apostate; Hagee and Riskin

Gershom Gorenberg


Last month, military historian Edward Luttwack used the pulpit of the New York Times op-ed page to offer a solution to the American right’s burning problem: How can Barack Obama be attacked as both a dangerous Muslim and as the follower of a dangerous black pastor? (As I wrote , this is difficult even for those used to believing six impossible things before breakfast.) Luttwack argued that Obama is really an apostate Muslim, subject to the death penalty in Islam.

The Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, has now reached the judgment that the article should never have appeared. Here’s his basic standard:

Op-Ed writers are entitled to emphasize facts that support their arguments and minimize others that don’t. But they are not entitled to get the facts wrong or to so mangle them that they present a false picture.

Hoyt interviewed five scholars of Islam;

Read moreNonsense Detector: Obama and Islam; Orthodoxy of the Apostate; Hagee and Riskin

Update: Pipes harms cranks’ image

At the Wonk Room , Matt Duss discusses attempts by the National Review to prove that Barack Obama might actually be a closet Muslim who (gasp!) studied Quran as a child in Indonesia. And here I thought the unhinged right was busy sliming Obama for his connections to his pastor.  What an interesting man that Obama is, what a religious innovator: A Muslim, a follower of a controversial black pastor, and a Marxist too. A one-man repertory theater, as talented as the Jews who were once accused of being bankers, communists, zionists and cosmopolitans all at once.

As prooftext for the Obama-is-Muslim attack, NR’s writer brings articles by none other than Pipes. "We don’t know if he is [Muslim], but we know Daniel Pipes is no crank," says NR’s Lisa Schiffren.

Matt agrees: Labeling Pipes a crank would libel all those harmless folks

Read moreUpdate: Pipes harms cranks’ image

Swimsuit extras: Pipes Dreams

Reading your last post , Haim, I suspected that you’ve been hacking into my thoughts. Not about swimsuits per se , but about Daniel Pipes’s curious belief that swimming in mixed company is a democratic duty.

Strangely, I spent a day once with Pipes. A dovish friend of mine with an interest in the Middle East was then active in the Middle East Forum (MEF), Pipes’s organization. I’d recently published my book, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount , and my friend arranged for me to give two talks for the MEF – a lunch in New York, a dinner in Philadelphia. We took the train together between the two cities. Pipes was polite, energetic, intense. His eyes moved quickly when he talked. Did I say he was intense? He reminded me, strangely, of Bassam Jirrar, a Hamas-linked sheikh whom I’d interviewed for the book, and who’d been amazingly hospitable while explaining numerological hints in the Quran that Israel will be destroyed in 2022.

Sometime during the day, as I remember, Pipes gave me an article of his to read,

Read moreSwimsuit extras: Pipes Dreams

Southern Exposure: Telling Jerusalem Differently

“Ancient Jerusalem Safari” said the sign on the side of the open-sided bus. It was parked this morning in the lot at the end of the promenade that stretches from UN Hill almost to Hebron Road. The promenade is an arc of stone walkways and stairs, of lawns and landscaping with a view northward of the Old City walls and the Dome of the Rock, which appear just close enough to be reachable, just far enough off to still be the double-page color illustration of the city at the end of the quest that I read about in a childhood book whose name I’ve forgotten but whose story I think I’ve remembered for a moment when I wake from a dream.

The promenade may be my favorite spot in South Jerusalem, partly because of the view and the quiet, partly because both Palestinians and Israelis spend time there. Riding my bike there on a weekday, I’ll pass Israeli joggers and women from Jebal Mukkaber in ankle-length dresses and sneakers out for their health walk. On one park bench I’ll see a young Orthodox couple, on another a young Palestinian couple – both having found a place public enough that it’s not immodest to be meeting there, private enough that they can really talk. In the morning, I usually pass several Jews praying by themselves, facing northward. In the afternoon, I’ll see a Muslim or three, kneeling toward the south. On Saturday afternoons, families from both sides of towns are picnicking and playing soccer. Whole congregations – especially ones that give women a role – come here to pray on the night of Tisha Be’av or at dawn on Shavuot instead of walking to the Western Wall, where the crowds of ultra-Orthodox brook no innovations in worship.

But on the middle days of Pesah and Sukkot, the promenade sprouts moveable police barriers and private security guards.

Read moreSouthern Exposure: Telling Jerusalem Differently