No Sympathy for the Devils
By A.D. Freudenheim

13 April 2003

Well, isn’t this just perfect: after weeks of skepticism on top of years and years of inaction, repression, and political stagnation, the Arab world professes itself shocked – shocked! - by the very sudden collapse of the Iraqi regime after the attack by “coalition” forces. In the last week, with the fall of Baghdad, there have been a number of articles about exactly how surprised some of the other Arab governments (and their citizens) are these days, including on the front page of The New York Times’ “Week in Review” section today. All of these articles notwithstanding, I cannot help but wonder if their professed astonishment simply has more to do with an awakening to reality – the reality that Hussein represented the worst of the belligerent Arab nationalism that has been so phenomenally unsuccessful in building strong, vibrant countries in the Middle East – than anything close to surprise at Iraq’s military losses.

Say what one will about the war itself, whether you were/are for it, against it, or indifferent to it, but Saddam Hussein’s loss was a foregone conclusion. (The cost of victory to the U.S., or the scope of damage to the Iraqis, was not easy to pin down, but in my mind there was no question we would win in the end.) Where have these Arab politicos been? They travel, many of them have visited the U.S. and met with President Bush, and surely had opportunities to hear exactly how certain was this Administration that it would be fighting this war, eventually.

Where does the surprise come from? It is difficult to think that they actually believed all the verbiage of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information, with his crazy statements about how Saddam’s armies were slaughtering U.S. troops with abandon. Nor does it seem likely that Al Jazeera was their source for reassurance; from an American perspective the Al Jazeera network may have been showing gratuitous images of the Iraqi dead, and emphasizing civilian casualties but I have seen nothing, anywhere, suggesting that the network was in denial about the overall strength of the American military. If anything, the network seemed anxious to show just how powerful the U.S. was, and how much damage it was inflicting.

Things are getting a little shaken up over there. If you’re in the Wolfowitz/Perle camp, you think this is a good thing; if you belong to a less belligerent school of thought, you are perhaps worried about the stability of these regimes and what their collapse – or a broadening of the war – might do to other peoples in the region. No doubt this is exactly why the other Arab nations are dazed and confused about the situation. What is more disturbing is that seem not to have figured out that their days were numbered anyway: with Islamic fundamentalism on the rise across the region, and with overall populations that are exceedingly young (and therefore more likely to take political risks), it strikes me that all this war did is speed up an already-inevitable process of change. I cannot quite call it “reform,” since in the case of some of these countries (Egypt, for example) whatever government comes next could be worse than what is there now, while in the case of Iran there is evidence that reforms will come in the form of a push towards a better, less-religiously-based democracy.

The Arabs are not the only ones feeling a bit of a rumble under their feet. In a related news story about political awakenings, Ariel Sharon apparently acknowledged in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper that it would be necessary for Israel to give up some of the settlements in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Remarking on this, Sharon said, in part, “then I would definitely say that we will have to take steps that are painful for every Jew and painful for me personally.”[1]

That Sharon said this at all is an impressive leap forward – maybe. While Israel is surely happy at the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq, and probably hoping that the Syrians will very soon be next in line ... the loss of Hussein as a foil could place greater pressure on Israel to make concessions. Iraq was a distraction, and the last few weeks of war have been even more so, enabling the Israelis to initiate large-scale actions in the Occupied Territories with hardly a mention in the U.S. news media. So, with Hussein gone, Sharon may find himself once again the center of attention in the region (unless Arafat’s foolish friends and minions launch a string of suicide bombing attacks, in order to effectively recapture the headlines for themselves).

However, since Mr. Sharon included in his remarks a reference to “every Jew,” I feel (as a Jew) a certain sense of entitlement in responding to his comments and suggesting that he might be better off speaking only for himself or, if broader remarks are necessary, for no group larger than the political party he currently leads. The steps he referred to are not painful to me; rather they are very much the opposite of painful, which is to say joyous in the possibility that they might help to bring about a long-overdue, very necessary peace.

As a Jew, speaking only for myself, I will say instead that if there is pain to be found in this situation, it is in Israel’s continued occupation of these lands and brutal acts against the Palestinian people, and the long-standing denial of Palestinian human rights by Sharon and other Israeli leaders over the last thirty-plus years. [Additional disclaimer statement for those readers obsessed with making sure the Palestinians receive their fair share of blame: yes, the Palestinians suffer from serious mistakes and leadership failures, not to mention the total moral unacceptability of their violent actions and terrorist tactics. Satisfied?]

The Passover holiday is almost here, a holiday that celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, and their arrival in the Promised Land. The holiday has its bittersweet notes, since the Jews first spent 40 years wandering in the desert, since they briefly lost their faith and made a golden idol to replace a god they could not see, and since their leader, Moses, died without entering these new lands. All these years later, the biggest bitter pill for those who believe in the literal, fundamental version of the Exodus story must be that the Promised Land has, itself, been won and lost and won again many times since, and that we Jews are not the only ones who lay claim to it as holy; the strength of this promise might seem, at times, questionable.

Right now, however, there is another aspect of the story that we can celebrate: the universal value and importance of freedom and liberty. The ends may not justify the means, but the people of Iraq have now been freed; we should hope that they will be able to put this freedom to good use. The other nations in the region are on high alert, the most repressive of them more so than the others; their populations also deserve freedom. And Israel and the Palestinians still have many miles to go before peace can be achieved, but perhaps there is some small reason to hope that they are closer than they have been in several years.

The story of Jewish freedom is a story of human freedom, which is why the face of Jewish oppression appears so ugly to me. But the oppression of people’s rights is oppression, period, regardless of who inflicts it, and this seems like a good time to reflect on this point.

Mr. Ashcroft, are you listening?

[1] "PM to Haaretz: Iraq war has created chance with
Palestinians," by Ari Shavit, Haaretz, 13 April 2003.
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