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A previous version of the blog entry misspelled author Vishal Mangalwadi’s and Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s name.
I could see Anwar Sadat’s silhouette through the bulletproof window as his limousine approached Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Seconds later, the Israeli police, who weren’t taking any chances, sprayed me, and those around me, with tear gas.
Four years later, in 1981, the Egyptians should have teargased their own soldiers to protect Sadat. The Middle East hasn’t changed much through the centuries, let alone the past three decades. Cultures clash, infighting abounds, and internal violence plagues many regions. Yet, in Israel one shared hope remains—a majority of all groups wants their children to be safe.
Zvi Hauser, Israel’s general secretary, told me as much as we spoke in the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hauser’s relentless advocacy for Israel’s youth was magnetic, and his love for his kids magnanimous. The same love came through in meetings with Islamic businessmen in houses they built, often with each floor for a different son.
My visit with Hauser was not long after the third U.S. presidential debate. I watched President Obama and Mitt Romney’s exchange at the National Press Club, where the room’s eerie silence spoke volumes. No euphoria. No condescending bayonet jabs around tables. Underpinning the foreign policy exchange was the reality of clashes between Islamic and Western cultures. Perhaps we would have been better served to hear the candidates discuss Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and the lesser known thesis of Vishal Mangalwadi’s “The Book that Made Your World.” There was a second elephant in the room, diametrically opposed worldviews and their manifestation in cultures.
Huntington defines civilization as “a cultural entity” and claims that “villages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, [and] religious groups, all have distinct cultures at different levels of cultural heterogeneity.” His familiar thesis is that “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. . . . The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.” This thesis, though much-debated and trite classroom fodder, still begs the question about aligning with (or placing hope in) a culture antithetical to our own.
While meeting with Rabbi Daniel Sperber, recipient of the Israel Prize and president of Bar-Ilan University, he commented on our elections. “Your leaders tend to forget that the Holy Land and the Middle East are indeed ‘holy’ places.” A nod to Huntington’s notions.
Mangalwadi argues that Christianity’s triumph in the West aligned nations not only around religion, but rational thought and humanitarian notions. Islamic civilization stalled a millennium ago; “the Islamic civilization had surpassed Europe in nearly every respect. . . Now, the people of Spain translate as many books in Spanish each year as Arabs have translated into Arabic in the last thousand years. If you take oil out of the equation, then the 5 million people of Finland export more goods and services each year than the 165 million of the Arab world.”
Complementing rational thought, the Biblical suppositions of human dignity and the sanctity of life remain significant forces in a more civil West. Mangalwadi argues, “Its failure to appreciate the value and dignity of human beings prevented Islamic civilization from developing the full potential of its people. It trapped the masses without the fundamental rights and liberties that made it possible for the West to overtake Islamic civilization.”
The Israeli defense directive for us to wear seat belts as my flight to Jerusalem entered Israeli airspace was a subtle reminder that I’ll likely not witness another Egyptian presidential visit anytime soon. I’m not hearing any hope here for a sudden change in Arabic or Israeli worldviews, or a resolution of Huntington’s clashes. I suppose I’ll need to listen to Western political debates for such ideas, and Islamic and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem trying to comfort their children while standing in their homes’ bomb shelters.
One sobering reminder of the long cultural clash came from businessman, William Gross. As we left the home of a parent who had lost two children in separate suicide bombings, he commented about the “unprovoked” war, “You’d think that one thing the world learned from 135 CE [the brutal Bar Kochba Revolt] is that wars of choice are not good ones.”