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The Arab Spring, the Jews and the End of History: Ruminations for the New Year

Judaism offers an answer to what the Arabs (along with everyone else) really want: to be able to shop AND pray

So who are we rooting for in Syria? What about in Egypt or Turkey? Truth be told, I must admit a certain satisfaction when I see people confused. Satisfaction, since these are the types of quandaries that can shake Westerners (including us Israelis) out of a world-view that is far too smug.

Such a complacency was expressed by famed US political thinker, Francis Fukuyama when claiming that history was coming to its happy (though, he admitted, boring) conclusion, now that liberal capitalist democracy was asserting itself all over the world and – thereby – showing itself to be the best of all possible regimes. It would soon just be a question of fine tuning for people to live their lives in the best aggregate circumstances that they could create. And when the Arab Spring seemed to finally bring such a socio-political arrangement to the Middle East as well, Fukuyama’s thesis appeared even more appealing still.

That was about two years ago. Since then, the complexity of the Arab world has shown that a universal world order is not just yet around the corner and that there is much more than Western democracy that Arabs want. You see, Arabs are used to meaning in their lives and cannot accept a system based on novelist Ian MacEwan’s “commitment to realizable pleasures…sated in this world” which he summarizes as “Rather shop than pray.”

Instead, they are used to the human solidarity of an essentially non-capitalist culture and resultantly can’t live by the watchword that “time is money.” Accordingly, the Egyptian-American Jewish writer, Lucette Lagnado, describes how her former Egyptian neighbors would show a concern and compassion that she would never encounter again in her new life in the West.

Understandably, the Arabs do not want to lose all of this. Yet they also admire the respect and fairness Western states show their citizens. Arabs also admire the general prosperity that these states have engendered. They do so because these things are genuinely admirable. In short, they understandably would like to reap the benefits of capitalist liberalism but not suffer its costs.

In fact, this is not only true of Arabs. The Catholic Church’s recent pronouncements about capitalism show to what extent religious Christians have not made peace with the Western socio-political order either. Nor are other Americans (and many Europeans) as comfortable with their society as might first appear. The instant (though short-lived) success of the US communitarian movement not so long ago shows that many Americans are looking for something better. For one does not have to be religious to realize that a community that has no consensual vision, as is increasingly the case in the West, is ultimately no community at all. And how many people are really fine with the loss of community?

Make no mistake about it, the wealth and political stability of the West hides a culture that is actually in even greater trouble than the Arab world. Declining birth rates, lack of moral consensus and dissolution of community are trends that will continue to grow worse, absent a new vision to pick that society up out of its doldrums.

And here, I humbly suggest, is where the Jews could come in. The Jews have always lived in a thought world of paradox. Hence even if strong communitarian religion and a liberal political order have been ultimately incompatible in other cultures, the Jewish tradition may show a way out.

This type of thinking is partially rooted in the Biblical treatment of Avraham’s final test. In that story (read on the second day of Rosh haShanah), Avraham responds hineni (I am here and ready) three different times. This is how he responds to God when he is first called “Avraham” and then told to kill his son; is also how he responds to that son, Yitzchak, who calls to him, “my father;” and it is how he finally responds to the angel who calls out “Avraham, Avraham” in order to stop him from sacrificing his son. In essence, Avraham’s first two hinenis have him split to the breaking point. He is called upon to be a completely religious man by God and then called to be a completely social man by his son. At that point, it appears that the two Avrahams cannot co-exist. And yet neither Avraham can be pushed away!

The final revelation of the angel, however, is to call out Avraham’s name twice. The message is that there are two Avrahams and they can both paradoxically live together. It is to this call that Avraham responds with a final hineni of tremendous relief. For it is not only Yitzchak that is spared with this call but Avraham himself. He can now be who he knew that he was all along, both completely religious and completely social; that there is room – no, even a necessity – for two identities. (That this knowledge was ultimately intuitive all along also explains why Avraham listens to an angel when that angel contradicts the charge of God Himself, an issue that has troubled many.)

How does this acceptance of duality resolve the impasse of religion and state? We don’t yet know because we are not yet thinking like the descendents of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael. (On the latter, see my  “What’s in a Name.”)

The sound of the Shofar on Rosh haShanah is understood as a wake-up call. We need to wake up and realize that for the Jewish people to come back to its own state comes with a responsibility to the rest of mankind as well as to ourselves. To make this contribution, however, we must begin to think completely differently than others once again.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.