“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
– Leonard Cohen
Last week, at the 21st New York Sephardi Film Festival organized by the American Sephardi Federation, I watched the screening of one of the episodes of “The Syrian Jewish Community: Our Journey through History”. Episode 6 focused on the history of the community from 1930-1967. It was a heartwrenching story of a very successful and cultured community mostly in Damascus, Aleppo, and Qamishlo, which, with the creation of the State of Israel, came under suspicion in espionage and was in part forced out, and in part hounded by the Ba’athist Assad regime, preventing the remnants from leaving freely. The story of the events in Syria repeated in some variation in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, and other countries. It always went the same way: Jews were essentially accused of dual loyalties to the “Zionist Entity”, and even the practice of Judaism previously accepted and tolerated became a dirty word, and inherently suspect. Jews were eventually singled out, separated from the rest of the population and persecuted for the very fact of being Jewish.
In Syria, the slow unraveling of the community was particularly brutal and painful. Jews were relocated to ghettoes, assigned incessant surveillance, arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and tortured, sometimes even killed. Mob violence became common, and the government certainly whipped up the popular sentiments until it reached a boiling point. That is not to say, however, that everyone was complicit with these horrific abuses. On the contrary, the filmmakers made clear that many Arab neighbors protected the Jewish community from mob lynchings and would not give away their houses even with the possibility of facing reprisals. However, none of it was enough, and while one portion of the community fled when it could, the rest could not leave the country so as not to make the regime look bad.
The good citizens, who were helpful on an individual level, proved insufficient against the brutal government (which remains in place to this day) combined with the supporters of this senseless cruelty in the population. The story ultimately had an ending: the entire Syrian Jewish community eventually left the country, settling in Israel, the United States, and Europe, and becoming very successful everywhere it went. The ending was both tragic and happy. The tragedy, of course, was in all the suffering the community endured, in the confiscation and abandonment of property, and in the loss of the rich culture. Today, Syria is a devastated, failing state, torn apart by many wars. The Jews, however, are far away from it all. The same story has repeated throughout the centuries – evil regimes arose through machinations and demagoguery, duping uneducated or distracted population, and leading to dispacement of significant portions of populations, destruction, loss of lives, and unspeakable tragedies. Though some portion of the population resisted in various ways and tried to protect the innocent, even succeeding in saving individual lives, ultimately the government and the mobs held more power, and the devastation continued for extended periods of times before said regimes finally collapsed – frequently to give way to equally brutal governments.
As I watched the film with helpless fury, I battled a question: why must the bad guys always win? The righteous citizens who helped the Jews in Syria (or other countries)are not even remembered by name today, but everyone remembers the names of the oppressors. Furthermore, the countries which kicked out their Jews were then ravaged by terrible policies, hate-filled education, and extremist bigotry. Restoring them even to semblance of where they were prior to the creation of the State of Israel may take generations – and that’s with the best possible leadership at the top, and empowered grassroots activists among the people. Movements for change start with a few people. But what if “a few good men” just isn’t enough to make a difference? What is the critical mass that is needed to prevent a massacre or another atrocity? How many people does it take to move society in a better direction?
History shows us that not only good guys do not always win, but even with the best of intentions, the good people may have a very limited impact if any. Sure, it makes a diffference to the one person whose life was saved. But the 100 who were beaten up, arrested, or murdered would have benefited if more people stepped up to plate or were inspired by that one example. And yet the inspiration value of positive actions appears to also be limited. Can it be that societies who aren’t already liberal democracies are doomed to failure by being stuck with bad governments that simply refuse to go away? How realistic is the possibility of the change from within? And what if societies do not want to change and even with the best of leaders are resistant to imposed changes? What if sectarianism and chaos destabilize societies to the point that most people become dehumanized and desensitized to the suffering of others?
The people who were well off in Syria, Egypt and other places lost everything but thanks to determination and their move to better societies, they were able to relive. Egypt, Syria, and others remain extremely poor society plagued by various problems. There seems to be no way of breaking out of this cycle. And what is the impetus for the “good” people to keep doing the right thing when the cynicism of their own societies and the international communities is such that their fledgling efforts are doomed to defeat? What if one lives in a society with no good choices? What if there are no clear opportunities for right and wrong, what if you are stuck between warring factions that are determined to destroy everyone else and oppress whomever is left at the end?
There are several things that signal significant changes in 2018 from the period of time where Jews first enjoyed relative acceptance and then faced persecution. First, they are mostly gone from Middle Eastern countries. In some cases, retroactively, some of the governments are starting to realize the negative impact these expulsions have had on the economies and cultures of their states, and are taking tentative steps to build relations with the Jewish communities, particularly in the US, where they are thought to be more powerful and also in a position to advocate for these countries in Congress and with the administration.
Second, sectarianism in the Middle East is relatively highly in the open compared to the 1930 through 1960s, when change of power from one strongman to the next left the society overall intact. Muslim Brotherhood was starting to make inroads in Egypt, but much of the society under Nasser was opposed to the Ihwainies and they were imprisoned. And Syria was not yet plagued by a myriad of internal conflicts and divisions because the Ba’athist regime managed to placate the non-Jewish minorities while exercising a strong and oppressive hold over the country in general. The regimes were threats, and several of these countries engaged in multiple wars with the newly formed Israel over that period of time. The governments were the driving focus of policy and events at the time, as the insurgent groups and private actors have not had developed the reach they have today.
Third, Israel, which had a “periphery” policy of reaching out to various minorities and non-Arab states at the time, now has a much more assertive foreign policy of reaching even its former foes through humanitarian assistance, including providing urgent medical help to Syrian civilians injured in the war. It has also offered humanitarian assistance to outright adversaries such as Iran, after the earthquake. This outreach has changed hearts and minds among many of the locals who have previously been deeply suspicious of Israel thanks to the propaganda in the media and in schools. Perhaps with respect to one aspect of the situation, outreach efforts and authentic acts of kindness and friendships can reach people who otherwise would at the very least stayed out of it or inertly followed the crowd.
And there are other examples of similar efforts happening on the ground between different groups towards one another, but at the core of the problem is not so much differences in politics, tribalism, or religious disputes as the ultimate dehumanization of perceived adversaries as a result of these conflicts. Dehumanization can happen with or without the efforts of governments, but even if the governments cannot be changed or reformed at the moments, there are pathways towards independently reaching the public that should be done regardless of whatever the governments are doing.
It concerns me greatly that according to the polls the mistrust and anger between Israelis and Palestinians is at an all time low, because it shows that the efforts by the bad actors who have been in control of Palestinian society have succeeded, and at the same time Israelis are losing hope of reaching even individual Palestinians through people-to-people action and diplomacy. :Likewise, despite many previous news stories of Israeli-Palestinian relationship-building efforts through various cultural activities, and children’s groups, it appears that overall politics still controls the message, and there appears to be no equivalent response in trying to improve the relations by the Palestinian side aside from whatever is necessary to manage security or work-related necessities. All of this, ironically, comes at the time when other countries with equally if not more hostile governments – such as Iran and Syria, are opening up to genuine interest and human action.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Middle Eastern societies, even those whose leaderships are genuinely devoted to change, still have a long way too go. That said, Israeli already have good relations with some of the nations in the regions that go beyond symbolic steps and political posturing, such as with the Kurds, increasingly with the Yazidis, and others. Let’s also face it – for all the conspiracy theories and rhetorical grandstanding, Israel and Jews are a sort of forbidden fruit to many in the Middle East, though people would never admit to it in public. Jews who are no longer there but the stories or rumors of whom remain arouse curiosity; Israel, for all the political negativity thanks to the overhyped Israeli-Palestinian conflict is obviously very successful society, and when Israeli Arabs travel abroad, no matter what they say about Israel, it’s very clear that many are very successful and share in what Israel has to offer.
One can complain about “apartheid” all day long, but when someone is living in peace in a nice house, and has a job, food, on the table, and his children go to school, enjoy life and do not have to suffer from nightmares or ongoing attacks, or a possibility of an air strike at any given moment, that situation speaks for itself to people who have nothing left. I wonder how long the myth of Israeli anti-Arabism can continue to hold power over the fragmented Middle Eastern socieites, when you have groups such as ISIS terrorizing their own neighborhoods all day long, when their own governments deny integration to refugees who have been stuck in internment camps for generations, and when they themselves are struggling to survive. That may have worked in the past when the strongment had absolute control over the societies, when information was hard to get by, and when travel around the region was significantly more difficult.
With every generation there will be new battles, new challenges, new enemies. Perhaps there will come at a time when even regions devastated by a history of tragedies and bad decisions will go tired of looking for new people to blame, and will look for a path towards improving their own lives rather than looking somewhere far away for an escape for their intense emotions. Perhaps the outlook can shift that instead of looking for reasons to make new enemies, they will gradually come to understand that in order to live better, they have to find reasons to make new friends. Israel, though historically blamed for all the troubles in the region, has nothing to do with internecine feuds between various tribes and allegiances that have been plaguing the region for thousands of years before the modern State of Israel was ever established. Yet, at the core of it all, the inability to consider others as human beings worthy of respect, compassion, and kindness remains the central trouble. We can vanquish terrorist groups, change regimes, produce new textbooks with new histories. But unless the hearts of regular people on the street are touched with a new outlook on strangers around them, the conflicts, the bloodshed, and the blind hatred will continue unabated, and the few good people who will stand up to it will be doomed to lose.
“Everybody knows”\, the myth that the Middle East can never change, because its cultures have deep roots that prevent any sort of humanitarianism from taking root, is the sure way to keep the situation going in cycles. Perhaps the reality is nobody knows what happens today or tomorrow. Nobody knowns what happens if there is a concerted effort to not only lead by example but train and inspire others to follow you. Nobody knowns what happens if one day, someone decides to say “yes”, instead of “no”….