Both the opening and closing plenary sessions of the Presidential Conference included some of the most influential Israeli and Jewish leaders, including Shimon Peres, Nir Barkat, and Avigdor Liberman. In the opening plenary specifically, each of the four speakers seemed to represent an integral component of Israeli society, present and future. Gabi Ashkenazi, former chief of Staff of the IDF — military; Dennis Ross, former US Middle East peace envoy — Israeli-American relations; Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic — Diasporic Jewry; And Ayaan Hirsi Ali — who is she, again?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is neither Jewish nor Israeli, but is committed to the idea of Israel. “Israel,” Ali claimed, “is not only the only free country in the Middle East, but the only functioning country.” What titillated the audience, however, was the fact that this statement came from a proud “ex-Muslim,” a self-proclaimed insider to all things patriarchal, authoritarian and Islamic.
Influenced by these pervasive elements of control, Ali pursued a career in politics and policy, and made her way to Washington. She now works for the American Enterprise Institute and continues to write about her trials and tribulations with family and Islam.
“I grew up in a Muslim family, my father’s authority over our family was absolute,” she explained. “Couldn’t argue with him, didn’t discuss — we had to obey him. My relationship to my teachers was exactly the same.”
“On a national level,” she continued, “authority was absolute.”
Not only did the authoritarian nature of the family and country stifle dissent, but compromise itself was and still is considered shameful. “To compromise is to suffer shame, lose face,” Ali argued.
In that vein, conflicts can only breed winners and losers. Losers must then bide their time and wait for the moment when they can defeat their enemies.
What Ali didn’t say at the talk, but has said in interviews elsewhere, is that she considers Islam and religion to be “backward,” and the Quran, “terrible.” Were it not for her involvement in the short but controversial film “Submission,” she might have remained obscure. The film offended many, in the same way that a movie depicting a naked woman wearing tefillin and tattooed with Torah passages might offend religious Jews and others.
If Ali abhors the patriarchy and authoritarianism in the Quran and the Hadith (The Muslim counterparts of the Jewish Torah and Gemara et al), we shouldn’t expect her to fancy the Jewish texts or traditions, either. While some in the audience might have agreed with her views about Islam, her views about Judaism would be no less damning. Wisely, she failed to mention them. Indeed, her praise was for Israel’s secularism. Never once did she refer to Jewish values, Judaism or how religious-secular coexistence within democracy might function.
So the question remains: why was somebody who is so clearly anti-religious offered a prominent position at the Jewish State’s Presidential Conference?
Cleverly, and unlike her co-speakers Ashkenazi, Ross and Wieseltier, Ali didn’t mention the Palestinians once. Yet, her entire talk centered on the Palestinian issue. Only winners and losers? Principle of non-compromise? Islamists? Listening to her talk, it would be easy to believe that secularists readily compromise, and that talking to Islamists is useless, even though both of these ideas have proven false. If we replaced in Ali’s speech and terms “Muslim” and “Islamist” with “Jewish,” she would have been called anti-Semitic.
Ironically, at a conference dubbed “Tomorrow” and focused on Israel’s future and the need for communication within the region, we had a speaker hinting and miming that Muslims can’t be trusted unless they abandon their faith. While Ali’s talk focused on her challenges and inspiring triumphs, her broader message was nevertheless depressing, since it made sweeping and inaccurate generalizations not only about nearly half of the inhabitants of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, but about a sixth of the world’s population. Paradoxically, the liberating lessons Ali drew from her own struggle would, if applied to Israel’s case, reinforce a siege mentality and a paranoia that Israel cannot afford.
Luckily, Ross and Wieseltier, as well as the Egyptian, Jordanian and Turkish representatives who were part of the Arab Spring panel, reminded us that peace is possible — difficult, but possible — if we stick to facts on the ground and the pragmatic issues at hand, rather than assumptions and backlashes solely based on personal experiences.