NORTHAMPTON – A full-to-capacity crowd turned out at Northampton’s Congregation Bnai Israel last Sunday to hear a wide-ranging talk by Dr. Moshe Ma’oz, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ma’oz, a noted historian, author, lecturer and long-time specialist on Arab-Israel affairs, spoke on “The Arab Spring and its Aftermath: Political Islam, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Israel.”
Ma’oz’s expertise in this area is renowned throughout Europe and the United States, as well as the Middle East. He served for many years as director of the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and has advised several Israeli Prime Ministers, including David Ben Gurion in the 1960s and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. A veteran of four wars, he is also a Tat Aluf (Colonel, retired) in the Israel Defense Forces.
Ma’oz began his talk with the question: “Can the Arab world change?” noting that to many people the words “Arab” and “democracy” are incompatible. “I beg to disagree,” he said. He cited Tunisia – the font of the Arab Spring – as a country where the beginnings of a democracy, and increasing empowerment of women, are stirring. He mentioned Indonesia, Albania and Turkey in this context; these countries have elected national leaders and a separation of powers. “They may not be Jeffersonian democracies, but they are their own kind of democracy,” Ma’oz said.
He expressed cautious optimism regarding a possible resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, which he regards as crucial to peace in the Middle East. “Don’t wait for the Arabs to become Zionists,” he joked, “but remember that ultimately everyone’s biggest motivator is self-interest.” Egypt’s now-overthrown President Morsi, who repeatedly called Jews “apes and pigs,” did not abandon Egypt’s peace treaty when he and the Muslim Brotherhood took power. Sadat “was an anti-Semite, but he made peace with Israel. He was a pragmatist; what he did was based on a strategy, not an ideology.”
Ma’oz spoke at length regarding the current horrific situation in Syria, citing three different approaches that he has seen Israeli politicians and citizens advocate. “One is ‘Let them kill each other’, which is morally reprehensible and also ineffective. Another is that ‘the devil we know (Bashar al-Assad) is better than the one we don’t,’ but what’s going on there is a massacre, so Israel cannot stay aloof and not express its sympathies with the killed.”
While acknowledging that the Syrian opposition is splintered, he supports a third alternative. “Israel should not intervene militarily for the time being, but I think it should offer some humanitarian aid to the refugees because Syria is our next-door neighbor. Israel quickly helped out in Haiti and Indonesia – I don’t know how many other countries, when they had calamities – why not help the next-door neighbor? The refugees Israel would help might one day become leaders, and they would carry a positive image of Israel. We should begin to tell Syrians that whatever happens, we sympathize with the freedom fighters, and would like to discuss peaceful relations with the next government. Let’s partner.”
When the topic moved to Iran, Ma’oz was less sanguine. He believes that one way or another, the Iranians will get the nuclear bomb, and they will justify its development in the name of deterrence. “Israel has the bomb, India has the bomb, so why not us?” He said that this issue deeply concerns not only Israel, but also Sunni-majority countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Many countries in the region are gravely concerned, but “of course, they want Israel to take action for them.”
Ma’oz concluded his speech by exhorting American Jews to make their feelings and opinions known. He noted “I am a Zionist, and I have fought in four wars, but I don’t necessarily rubber-stamp every idea my government comes up with … Perhaps I’ve focused my studies on Arabic and Muslim history because Jewish issues are just too complicated!”
Dr. Ma’oz’ talk was sponsored by a consortium of Jewish groups in the Pioneer Valley: the Israel Committee of CBI, the World Jewish Action and Concerns Committee of JCA (Amherst), the Northampton-Amherst Chapter of Hadassah, the Israel Desk of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass (Springfield) and the Western Mass Chapter of J Street.
Judy Polan (judypolan.com) is a freelance writer in Northampton.