The Talmud is a pillar of Jewish law, containing dialectical opinions from thousands of rabbis debating law, philosophy, history, theology, and myriad other topics. By displaying argumentation by many minds, a page of Talmud enshrines dissent.
Unfortunately, the Talmudic spirit has been almost entirely absent from the Middle East. Except for Israel, the region has suffered for decades from autocratic regimes that rule by force – repressing freedom of the press, political rights, and dissent. The marketplace of ideas is desolate: the 2002 Arab Human Development Report claimed that only about 330 books are annually translated into Arabic. Estimates for 2010 improved but are still under 3,000 books annually for about 400 million people. The figures for books written in Arabic were not much better. According to Kitab – a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Frankfurt Book Fair – an estimated 5,910 books were written in Arabic and published across the Arab world in 2008 (more recent statistics could not be found). Israel, with under eight million people, in 2011 translated about 700 books into Hebrew and produced another 5,600 homegrown books.
The Arab Spring was supposed to usher in an era of greater freedom. Instead, autocratic and corrupt secular rule has been supplanted with Islamist regimes no more liberal than the ones they replaced. If Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s greatest diplomatic achievement during his first seven months in office was to host an Iranian president for the first time since Islamists revolutionized Iran into a brutal theocracy in 1979, Egyptians should be worried.
Just as troubling, dissension is met with ruthless violence. The most glaring example is Syria, where almost 70,000 have died in under two years. In Egypt, soccer riots killed about 80 people in 2012, and the judicial response last month was to kill more people (21 death sentences), which sparked more riots, killing dozens more. In Tunisia, opposition leader Chokri Belaid was recently assassinated, and violence between police and mourners erupted at his funeral. A few weeks earlier, the Tunisian army deployed to fight demonstrators demanding to know why, two years after their revolution, their lives had not improved. Tunisians (like Egyptians) are learning that Islamists know little about today’s global economy. In Libya, the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi’s cruel dictatorship has been followed mostly by chaos, with armed Islamists violently challenging the central government.
The region sorely lacks a Talmudic appreciation of debate, questioning, persuasion, negotiation, and other non-violent means of exploring and resolving conflicts. But the tradition of intellectually challenging authority goes back to Abraham, the first Jew (and, as the father of Ishmael, a patriarch to Muslims as well): Abraham dared to negotiate with God over the number of righteous needed to spare Sodom.
The “Talmudic spirit” helped Israel to develop into the only true democracy in the Middle East: 17 political parties, including a meaningful government opposition; over 20 diverse, independent newspapers; outspoken human rights groups; legal protection of minorities; an independent judiciary; and free and fair elections that have peacefully transferred power over 30 times in 65 years of statehood. Israeli democracy applies the rule of law even to the most powerful: violence against women is punished, even when perpetrated by the President (Katsav), and corruption is exposed and prosecuted, even if by the Prime Minister (Olmert). Of course, Israel is far from perfect, as evidenced by Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and persistent political, social, and economic problems; but it’s still a paragon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
Lord Acton’s insightful observation (power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) is as true today as it was in 1887, and therein lies the genius of democracy and divided government with a balance of powers. Democracy minimizes not just corruption but also inept governance. A monopoly on power rarely includes a monopoly on wisdom; au contraire: autocracies breed incompetence because their policies aren’t regularly subjected to rigorous scrutiny.
Institutionalized freedom doesn’t only promote good government and human dignity: Free thought and debate are also powerful engines for innovation, which brings huge economic rewards, as Israel, a country without oil, has proven. Known as the “Startup Nation,” tiny Israel has ten Nobel prizes and, in 2011, over 60 companies listed on the NASDAQ (more than any country after the USA and China), despite having to devote disproportionate resources to national defense because of the innumerable security threats targeting its citizens since 1948. Israel’s culture of questioning and freethinking has also helped it to develop arguably the best air force in the world, whose most senior pilot can be critiqued by the most junior airman; nobody is above error.
Another Talmudic principle for the Arab Spring is the sanctity of life. As the Sanhedrin 37a notes, “to save one life is tantamount to saving a whole world.” Section 5:32 of Surat Al-Mā’idah in the Quran echoes the same concept. But that seems to have been ignored in much of the Middle East, where people can be killed over an offensive cartoon. In the Arab world (and Europe), there have been countless hateful cartoons demonizing Jews and Israel, yet nobody ever dies as a result.
Indeed, Arab regimes have incessantly scapegoated Israel to distract their subjects from domestic discontent. For decades, Israel has been so vilified that the idea of emulating anything about it is unthinkable. But maybe – as the Arab world introspects, seeking a better future – the taboo against anything Israeli can be a post-revolution opportunity to question and debate indoctrinated “wisdom.”
Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, a geopolitical thriller about the Iranian nuclear threat and current Middle East developments.