From the B'nai B'rith World Center

The Jerusalam Address



Jerusalem (19, Febraury, 1996)- An audience of over 400 turned out yesterday evening to hear Prof. Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus, Princeton University, New Jersey, USA, deliver the ninth B'nai B'rith World Center "Jerusalem Address" on "The Middle East Towards the Year 2000 - Patterns of Change".

In his introduction, Mr. Uri Lubrani, Government Coordinator for Lebanese Affairs, described Prof. Lewis as a world-respected authority on Islamic and Middle East history and a man whose counsel has been sought by many chancelleries, royal and other, inside and outside this region.

The "Jerusalem Address" was held in memory of Menache H. Eliachar. Hon. Moshe Landau, President Supreme Court (ret.) presented reflections on the late Menache H. Eliachar.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a noted political scientist at Hebrew University, winner of the Israel Prize for 1996 and "Jerusalem Address" keynote speaker in 1989, presented a response to Prof. Lewis' address:

In a broad-ranging address, Prof. Lewis addressed some of the fundamental issues facing the region:

Opening with a historical perspective on the major changes which have occurred in the Middle East, Prof. Lewis said that the current decade has seen the end of an era which began in 1798 with the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt. The French occupation taught two sharp lessons to the peoples of this area: the first, that a west European power, using a small expeditionary force, could concur, occupy and rule one of the central provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The departure of the French a few years later taught them the second lesson: that only another European power - in this case the British - could get them out. Thus began a period during which the ultimate power in the Middle East resided elsewhere; when the basic theme of international relations and of much else in this region was the rivalries of outside, imperial powers contending for domination in the area. The most recent phase of this rivalry was the Cold War between United States and the Soviet Union which dictated their policy in the Middle East. In each case this rivalry went through several, discernible, stages: interference, intervention, penetration, domination and the final phase of reluctant departure. This phase has now ended. The collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, has brought the region back, in a sense, to 1797: for the first time in slightly less than 200 years, the peoples of the region need to take responsibility for their own affairs. For nearly two centuries decisions were made elsewhere, ultimate power lay in distant lands and the principal task of statesmanship and diplomacy was avoiding the dangers and exploiting the opportunities presented by this situation. It is difficult to forsake the set old habits of a whole era and to internalize their ramifications, Prof. Lewis said. With the end of the era of great power domination the new Middle East has returned to a very old Middle East in which regional powers have acquire an importance which they did not have for two centuries.

Prof. Lewis stated that of the two remaining great world powers, the U.S. and Russia, neither will play an imperial role in this region: Russia because it can't and the U.S. because it won't. With its ambitions, resources and population, Russia cannot remain on the sidelines of great international politics and it will return to the region. But it is unclear what kind of Russia it will be: what kind of policy, aims and objectives it will pursue. There are villaities eminating from Russia which indicate that it has some desire to play a part in Middle East affairs but it manifestly lacks the capacity to do so.

Focusing on the role the United States in the region, Prof. Lewis said that it withdraws from taking a dominant role in the region not due to lack of ability but because of a lack of will. During the Cold War, U.S. presence in the Middle East was part of its global strategy, designed to cope with a global confrontation. With the end of the confrontation, the strategy becomes unnecessary. The problem of American policy in this region is not American involvement, but American reluctance to become involved, Prof. Lewis maintained.

Regarding the charge leveled against the United States mainly by Arab states that its policies in the region are not evenhanded, Prof. Lewis offered that while evenhandedness is a desirable quality in agencies of law enforcement, it is irrelevant to the policies of a power pursing its interests as defined by its leadership. If evenhandedness means treating all alike, it is a manifestly suicidal policy for any government, American or other, to pursue.

Prof. Lewis described the advent of Israel - a separate power between the Nile Valley and the Tigris-Euphrates Valley which did not exist before - as a change with far reaching consequences for the region.

The Middle East has reverted back to history in another important respect in that it has been enlarged from its 1991 boundaries back to its 1798 boundaries. Whereas it became accustomed to think of the Middle East as a vaguely defined areas with its northernmost limit at the Soviet frontier, this is no longer the case. The various Middle East countries which were conquered by the Russia in the last 18th and mid-19th century and incorporated into the Russian empire are now reverting back to being part of the Middle East to which they historically belong. These countries were artificially separated from the Middle East by Russian conquest. Prof. Lewis described the remarkable parallel between what is happening in the Transcaucasia and Moslem republics to what happened in the former British and French dependencies in Southwest Asia and Northern Africa. With the independence of the Moslem and Transcaucasia republics from the former USSR. If these states can complete their disentanglement from the Russian empire as did the Arab countries of the Middle East from Britain and France, an important group of independent states with ever-closer links to the 'older' Middle East will emerge. The burgeoning relationship between five of these newly independent countries and Turkey which speak languages closely related to Turkish indicates the emergence of a 'Turkic world' - in the same sense that there exists and 'Arab world' - groping its way towards some sort of new unity, which Prof. Lewis described as one of the most interesting phenomena in the region..

Of the older states in the region, two stand out as being the most dynamic and important: Turkey and Iran. Here too, the region is reverting back to the realities of 1798 when there were only two main powers, Turkey and Persia, battling over the centuries for dominance in the region. With the departure of outside powers this rivalry has been renewed. Turkey and Iran present competing models for the future which represent the two most likely alternative futures for the whole region: Kamalist Turkey a model of secular democracy and post-revolutionary Iran a model of Islamic theocracy. Both though are manifestly under strain, as proven by the election showing of the Islamic party in Turkey.

Prof. Lewis noted that it is remarkable that in the entire region, not a single ruler or regime commands any influence or prestige outside his immediate area. Today rulers and regimes throughout the Arab world can command obedience either through repression at home or terror abroad but do not command the enormously wide support and popularity of a figure like Nasser. The old fashion autocratic and new style totalitarian dictatorships do not present an attractive model for the future, least of all for their own people.

Regarding the peace process, Prof. Lewis said that the advent of the peace process is a consequence of the ending of the Cold War. So long as there was an alternative patron whose support could be sought - French vs. British, Allies vs. Axis, Soviet vs. Americans etc. - there was a way of avoiding the prerogative of peace. Now there is no such game in town. The only alternative today is Iran, but while the people in the region didn't know much about Nazism or Communism and could therefore delude themselves into believing that in a world dominated by the Nazis or the Communists they would have an honored place, they have no such delusions about Iran or Islamic Fundamentalists which they understand. In this situation Israel finds itself elevated to the status of a lesser evil.

Negotiations and, ultimately, peace became possible because one side found itself in an extremely disadvantageous position. The Palestinian leadership made a series of bad decisions: during the World War they chose the Axis, during the Cold War they chose the Soviets, during the Gulf War they chose Sadam Hussein. After a series of miscalculations of such staggering magnitude, the Palestinian leadership understood that there would be a price to pay. For the Palestinians, Oslo and all it entailed was a lifesaver. Prof. Lewis termed 'very fortunate' the fact that there was a government in Israel which perceived this development as an opportunity for peace rather than an opportunity for victory. It would have been easy to make the other choice - to take advantage of the situation of utter powerlessness on the part of the Palestinians. The government made a statesmanlike choice and this made what followed possible.

Relating to the impediments to peace, Prof. Lewis noted that there are still powerful forces, factors and circumstances working against peace, including the rejectionist camp which rejects anything short of total victory. These camps are remarkably similar on both sides of the divide with both sides claiming divine support for their policies. The rejectionists remain a powerful force and have the capacity to delay the peace.

Another problem is the ignorance of the other side's point of view. While very few in Israel are aware of the sense of outrage that most Arabs feel over the very existence of Israel in the region, Arabs have very little knowledge about Jewish history or modern Zionism. Bookstores in the Arab carry, almost exclusively, leftovers from the Third Reich, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These kinds of books are all the Arabic reader has to chose from in order to learn about the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel although a number of books about Israel have been translated of late.

The level of mutual fear and distrust is immense and therefore difficult to overcome. The translation of these mutual fears creates very different perspectives: Israel perceives itself as a small country surrounded by countries with overwhelmingly large populations armed to the teeth waiting for an opportunity to destroy it while Arabs perceive it as a powerful, technologically advance, economically dominant country awaiting an opportunity to extend it imperial rule over the whole Arab world. There is a real fear that the old military menace which Israel posed is gone only to be replaced by an economic menace. Over-enthusiasm by Israelis has encouraged, rather than allayed these fears.

Yet there are factors in favor of peace: a changed regional and global situation which for the first time makes peace not only acceptable but even, in certain respects, desirable in Arab countries. The second is the realization by more rational elements on both sides that war in unwinable. A series of wars proved that the Arabs cannot conquer Israel whereas the Intifada proved to Israel that to continue indefinitely to rule over a resentful alien population could succeed only at an unacceptable cost involving the transformation of the very nature of society. Third, there is a growing realization on both sides that the alternatives to compromise are worse and entail unending war for both parties with no prospect of victory for either and no visible way of ending it. This is the ultimate reason for any optimism that one might have regarding the outcome of the peace process.

Regarding Egypt, the pessimists have been proven wrong time and again: peace outlived Saadat and strife, even war, between Israel and other Arab states. The negative side of the peace with Egypt is its 'arctic coldness'. The resentment towards peace with Israel stems from the fact that before Saadat's peace overture towards Israel, Egypt was the accepted leader of the Arab world. In every capital around the world, the Arab ambassadors formed a group and the Egyptian ambassador was their leader. With the initiation of the dialogue with Israel and signing of peace, followed by no other Arab country, the Egyptians became the outcasts and pariahs of the Arab world, and it was the Egyptian diplomatic corps which was the primary victim. When the new peace process began in Madrid and Oslo there was a surge of hope that now, at last, the rest of the Arab world had realized that Egypt was right and would its lead: Egypt would resume its role of leadership and the road of peace would lead through Cairo. This did not happen. The Palestinians, the Jordanians and many others preferred to deal with Israel directly and not through Cairo, leading the Egyptians to feel crowded out of their rightful role of leadership in the Middle East as a whole.

There are also differences in culture and way of life which divide Israelis and Arabs, particularly noticeable where two peoples who had been hermetically sealed from each other and whose only contact was hostile, were suddenly brought into close proximity and direct links. Prof. Lewis noted in this context the Casablanca conference: the overbearing Israeli presence was a terrify experience which caused resentment and alarm in the Arab world. Another example offered by Prof. Lewis is the difference in attitude toward human rights and human dignity: the Israeli concern for human rights is not greatly shared on the Arab side while the Arab concern for human dignity doesn't appear to command much attention among Israelis. Prof. Lewis suggested one might hope that each can learn from the other.

Regarding Syria, Prof. Lewis stated that the Israeli demand for normalization is either unreasonable or illogical. 'Normalization' is to become normal, but asking for open frontiers, free movement of tourists is asking not for normal treatment but rather for privileged treatment from Syria. None of Syria's other neighbors enjoy this: she is surrounded by countries which are suspicious and often openly hostile. For a country in this situation to accept open frontiers even as they exist between Israel and Jordan, seems totally unrealistic. Expressing admiration for Assad's diplomatic skill, Prof. Lewis noted that though isolated, impoverished, deprived of his super power patron, with his military growing antiquated and his economy in a shambles, Assad has managed to parlay himself into a position where he has interviews with two American presidents, 17 visits form an American Secretary of State and is clearly setting the tone of the discussions with the United States and Israe!.

Narrowing his perspective further to the domestic situation in Israel, Prof. Lewis said that the two options for the region are either democracy or theocracy. At first glance there are many reasons why democracy should not succeed in Israel, and few reasons why it should. Most Israelis come from countries in which democracy is either nonexistent or gravely flawed. Another factor is the neighborhood in which democracy generally does not flourish. The circumstances of perpetual war or military alert inevitably gives a major role to the military, a classical situation for a military take over. Yet there has never been a military takeover in Israel and it seem unlikely in the highest degree. Another impediment is the electoral system which must be one of the worst in the free world, made worse by the latest reform. Democracy not only survives but flourishes in Israel despite this. One obvious reason is that Israel had been virtually quarantined in the region, and has therefore become part of Western Europe, adopting its political mores.

In a final note, Prof. Lewis said that Israel shares with its Arab neighbors the problem of compatibility been religion and state. One of the remarkable successes of Israel is the cohabitation between Jews who hail from the countries of Christendom and Jews who came from Islamic countries. These Christian and Muslim backgrounds are particularly important regarding the relationship between religion and state. The lack of Jewish political culture - natural since Jews had been cut off from the exercise of coercive power and from sovereignty, with the memories of ancient Jewish sovereignty too remote to provide much in the way of guidance - has left the field open to the development of a political culture which is a derivative of existing political systems rather an a unique creation. The Christian solution to the compatibility between religion and state was to effect a separation between the two. Moslems and Jews are still seeking their solution.

Prof. Lewis ended by expressing the hope that they don't take too long in finding it.


Prof. Avineri opened his response by focusing on an aside by Prof. Lewis about which he did not elaborate: that Russia will return to the Middle East in some capacity. Prof. Avineri stressed that will be Russia, not the Soviet Union or Communism. The latter two formed the potent combination of a territorial state and a revolutionary ideology which had a universal message. This ideology was perceived by many in the East and in the developing world as the wave of the future. Therefore the Soviet Union was not only a major power with nuclear capability which threatened the West but a revolutionary, universalistic, messianic movement which sometimes managed to 'bamboozle the best and the brightest'. Today, though, regardless of the developments in Russia, nobody in the jungles of Bolivia will view it again as a model for emulation. Russia will no longer serve as a second homeland, as it did for many revolutionaries in the 50's and 60's. So even if there is going to be some sort of restoration of a Communist, nationalist, imperialist power in Russia, while it will be a territorial power, a major power and perhaps even a threatening power near to Israel, it will no longer pose this potent combination of military might and a revolutionary redemptive ideology which was the unusual combination of the Soviet Union: the Communist Manifesto in the one hand and the Gulag in the other. This powerful combination is dead, regardless of who is elected president in Russia.

The logic behind the peace process between Israel and the Arabs will ensure its continuation. One of the problems of living for fifty years in a condition of war and lack of peace is that the word 'peace' in Israeli parlance has taken on a messianic meaning. 'Peace' for Israelis never meant the kind of relationship which existed between the United States and the Soviet Union - they never went to war and therefore were always at peace - or the relation between West and East Germany who never went to war; Israelis meant peace as portrayed in Isaiah, chapter 2, verses 1-5 - a messianic peace. This explains the emotional response to Egyptian President Saadat's visit to Jerusalem. People really believed that peace, in its messianic sense, had broken out. Therefore when Israelis observe the Israel-Egyptian peace and simply see twenty years of armies no longer facing each other, they refer to it as a cold peace, and feel disappointed, even cheated. Prof. Avineri suggested that there are different kinds of peace: just as the U.S. is at peace with both Canada and Mexico the nature of this peace is different in each case. The alternative to making war is not making peace, but not making war and this is being achieved between Israel and Egypt, between Israel and the Palestinians and, with a greater degree of warmth, with Jordan. This has policy implications because one of the prerequisites of a peace achieved after so many years of enmity is that one has to tread very carefully and slowly. We do not do away with enmity simply by signing a peace of paper, despite its political and diplomatic importance. A treaty will not ensure an Isaiah peace.

Prof. Avineri advised that Israel should not aim to attract a great outpouring of love from the other side, but rather should aim to coexist honorably and decently and minimize fears and friction. He suggested that totally open borders not be the first step; not just for security reasons but because both peoples have been traumatized by each other and need some time to be with themselves and to feel secure in the knowledge that on the other side, while there might not be great friends, at least there is no enemy. Full integration, like in the EU or Benelux, is possible between more or less equal economies. Therefore the only type of integration possible between Israel and the Palestinian entity and perhaps other Arab countries is a vertical integration. This does not mean that peace is not possible, but rather that a certain peace is possible. Hopes should be realistic because if hopes are raised too high there is a feeling of being let down and of the souring of a promise if expctations are not met.

Prof. Avineri drew attention to the fact that the Middle East contains more than Arab countries - it includes countries with whom Israel does not have 50 years of enmity. Ben Gurion developed a strategy to develop relations with the non-Arab elements in the region. He advised that even today, Israel should place significant economic, political and intellectual focus on those countries and develop with them the close kind of relationship which it seeks, but perhaps cannot achieve, with Arab countries.

In response to Prof. Lewis' remarks about democracy in Israel, Prof. Avineri acceded to the point that most of Israel's citizens came from non-democratic traditions however he disagreed with Lewis' on its implications. Despite their countries of origin, most came with a political culture which knew how to deal with questions of elections, representation, voting, coalition building and of making compromises. This was the tradition of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. On the one hand the founding fathers of Zionism revolted against the Diasporic tradition, against rabbinical rules and against the disintegration of Jewish community life in the 18th and 19th century. At the same time, they understood the democratic process in community affairs. No church or Vatican dictated policy in the Jewish community - the community elected the rabbis and the minority who didn't like the decision broke away and formed their own synagogue. This is exemplified by the plethora of Jewish organizations in the Diaspora today and by the profusion of political parties in Israel - no political engineering can do away with this multiplicity because they do represent real and different interests.

Prof. Avineri also found that while Bernard Lewis was correct is his analysis that Jews in the Diaspora enjoyed but a derivative of sovereignty, the authority of this derivative structure was really very Jewish. Typically, Diaspora communities were a combination of solidarity, compromise and deep division. This is a very Jewish concoction - at times very dangerous - but it explains a lot about political life in Israel, Avineri said.

Prof. Avineri concluded by saying that it is this tradition that has made Israel's political system the kind of riddle which Bernard Lewis mentioned. Whether they came from the East or the West, political representatives knew, because of their tradition, how to form a political culture in which compromise, coalition making and elections were a major element. This is very much part of Israel's political achievement. The synagogue and shtetle served as the Jewish town meetings and polls. Out of the revolt against these traditions developed the political tradition in Israel today. As has happened so often in history, the target of the revolt, in this case the Diaspora Jewish culture, became ingrained in some ways into the results of the revolt itself.

Prof. Bernard Lewis, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton University, is a world renowned expert on the Middle East. He was Professor of History of the Near and Middle East in the school of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He joined the Near Eastern Studies Faculty at Princeton University in September 1974 and was named a long-term member of the Institute for Advanced Study in the same year. Professor Lewis has published monumental works on the Middle East and holds nine honorary doctorates.

The Jerusalem Address was established by the B'nai B'rith World Center in 1985 as its most prestigious forum for addressing fundamental issues pertaining to Israel, the Jewish people and the world at large. The Jerusalem Address has consistently hosted some of the most outstanding minds of our time including: Abba Eban ("Reflections on Heritage" - 1985), Prof. George Steiner ("The Dissent from Reason" - 1986), Rabbi Dr. Lord Immanuel Jakobovits ("Religious Response to the Holocaust" - 1987), Prof. Shlomo Avineri ("Glasnost, the Jews and Soviet Policy in the Middle East" - 1988), Seymour D. Reich ("The Challenge of Jewish Unity" - 1989), Bernard-Henry Levy ("The Intellectual and the Struggle for Liberty" - 1991), Ambassador Dr. Max M. Kampelman ("Negotiating Towards a New World: The Art of Conflict Resolution Through Diplomacy" - 1993) and Mr. Harvey M. Krueger ("Israel In A Global Economy As A Foundation Of A Transfigured World" - 1995).

For more information and a transcript of the Jerusalem Address please contact Alan Schneider, Director, B'nai B'rith World Center, Jerusalem. Tel: 02-251743, Fax: 02-258097.

Click here to return to the World Center home page.
Press here to return to B'nai B'rith Interactive's home page.