Scholars agree Israel benefitingfrom political weakness in the Arab world

Two prominent Middle Eastern scholars delivered a jolt of optimism last month on Israel’s future while acknowledging a political landscape rife with challenges.

Professors Efraim Inbar and Eyal Zisser gave a part paean to Israel, and part withering critique of the Arab world’s political and cultural situation, at a Nov. 22 lecture at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“The strategic environment for Israel is better than ever before,” said Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

He cited a variety of factors that contributed to his assessment: the relative decline of Arab military power, Israel’s success in “targeted killings” of political opponents and the “emergence of the USA as a hegemonic power.”

“There is a window of opportunity here,” he said. “The question is should we jump out of it?”

According to Inbar, Israel should not. In fact, given the full context of his speech, one might have concluded that the “window of opportunity” was merely generating a bunch of hot air.

“It’s good to be on the winning side,” Inbar said, while adding that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has also benefited Israel by giving jihadists a more prominent target for their venom.

“America is the Big Satan, and we’re just the Small Satan,” Inbar said, laughing.

The yarmulke-clad professor also echoed the sentiments of the Bush administration when asked to comment on Israel’s international isolation.

“I don’t think the question is a valid one,” Inbar responded, and then ticked off a litany of countries that Israel enjoyed good relationships with, including most of Europe, India, Turkey, South Korea and Australia.

Zisser, the chair of the department of Middle East and African history at Tel Aviv University, also brought a broad international outlook to the discussion.

Commenting on the decline of Arab prestige and culture — a theme he sounded throughout the evening — Zisser noted that the Arab world was missing icons such as Gamel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

“Currently, the biggest players in the Middle East are Turkey, Iran, Israel and President Bush, and none of them are of Arab extraction,” said Zisser.

But, according to the soft-spoken professor, the dearth of Arab leaders in the new millennium could be traced to a much larger issue.

Citing an annual report on human development that was written by Arab scholars, Zisser noted that Greek scholars have translated more books into their native tongue than the entire Arab world has done for itself in the past decade — a willful ignorance that has led the region down a path where its chief export is terrorism.

He was also less than sanguine about chances for a grassroots democratic movement in the Arab world, saying that the number of religious tractates far exceed any books on Western-style democracy.

“You know a similar argument can be made about the Orthodox Jews in Israel,” Zisser continued. “You know, many Orthodox Jews vote solely on the basis of what their rabbi says. Is that the height of democracy? I don’t think so. They don’t think democratically. The same can be said of most countries in the Arab world. They need to be exposed to Western ideals before they can practice true democracy.”

Despite the often bombastic nature of the professors’ comments, there were several moments of levity in the discussion.

When an audience member, decrying the grip the Orthodox rabbinate has on Israel’s cultural institutions, said the only way a non-Orthodox Jew can have an officially sanctioned marriage was by going to Paraguay, Inbar hastily corrected the speaker.

“That’s just not true, he said. “You can go to Cyprus, too.”