Sunday, October 26, 2003

Richard Just on Mahathir & "root causes"

An intelligent piece from the American Prospect on-line website (Tapped), October 16, 2003. It ends by pointing our something important that should be obvious, but often seems to get missed:
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All this comes on the heels of an announcement that a team of liberal Israelis, led by one-time Prospect contributor Yossi Beilin, has negotiated an unofficial framework for peace with a team of Palestinians. You could say the plan is a step forward -- I want it to be a step forward -- but it won't be much of a step unless the majority of Israelis look favorably on it. So the operative question is this: Will Israelis rush to back a peace plan at a time when a pretty nutty anti-Semite can still get a standing ovation from a conference of Islamic nations for calling on them to continue their struggle against Jews? Those who truly want peace should ask themselves why Israelis feel so insecure in the world that they keep eschewing the Beilins of their political system in favor of tough guys like Sharon. I suggest they consider Mahathir's speech, and the reaction it received, as Exhibit A.
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The whole thing is well worth reading. (And for the complete text of Mahathir's speech, see here or here.)

Cheers,
Jeff Weintraub
====================
American Prospect Online (Tapped)
October 16, 2003

THE MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: CLASSY GUY. At this point, it can hardly count as noteworthy when Mahathir Mohamad, the long-time ruler of Malaysia, opens his mouth and something anti-Semitic comes out. The prime minister has been peddling anti-Semitism for a long time -- most famously when he tried to pin the 1997 Asian economic meltdown on Jews -- and today he's at it again, telling delegates from 57 nations at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit that "Jews rule the world by proxy."

That phrase will grab headlines briefly, and every sane person -- left, right, center -- will condemn it as bigotry, which it is. The problem is that the rest of the speech -- in which Mahathir condemned suicide bombings and called on the Muslim world to stop blaming outsiders for its problems -- will be understood by many in the West as moderate, or even courageous. But the truth is that these parts of the speech were perhaps even more chilling than the out-and-out anti-Semitic sections, because they sounded suspiciously like a blueprint for targeting Jews by other, more subtle means. "We cannot fight them through brawn alone. We must use our brains also," Mahathir said of Jews. He also encouraged Palestinians to negotiate, noting that the Prophet Muhammad did -- and "in the end, he triumphed." Plus, he implored Muslims to devote themselves to technology, which sounded like a call for education reform in the Muslim world, and qualified as that . . . well, sort of -- if you count an exhortation to would-be Muslim scientists that "we need guns and rockets, bombs and warplanes, tanks and warships for our defense" as a call to reform.

Why is this so disturbing? Because most people understand the statement "Jews rule the world by proxy" as anti-Semitism, but many will miss the fact that Mahathir denounced suicide bombings, while pointedly not denouncing -- and indeed, amplifying -- hatred of Jews. To give an example: Here's how one reporter, covering the speech for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, described it:

Yes, it's nothing new for him to attack Jews and Europeans and pinpoint them for the blame for many of the ails of the Muslim world. But at the same time, his rhetoric was going the other way, and to a large extent he was saying that the Muslim world are the architects of their own problems.

And much of what he said in the rest of the speech was a rallying call, trying to get Muslims to stop blaming other people and to start confronting their own economic and social problems in order to develop and get themselves out of the poverty trap.

I suspect this reporter's analysis will be shared by news outlets in much of the western world. What they'll ignore was that Mahathir was only calling on those who hate Jews to reform their tactics, not their goals. To borrow a phrase that Palestinian partisans are fond of using, Mahathir wasn't addressing the "root causes" of the Muslim world's conflict with Israel.

And what are those root causes? Obviously, they're many and they're complex and no one can quite agree on what they are and if we could things would be a lot easier. But no one -- especially those of us who supported Oslo and still hope for peace -- should deny that one of the very central, ongoing root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the enduring, and, I would argue, in many ways justified, Israeli fear that even if the Palestinians someday go back to the bargaining table, they will be negotiating not for a two-state solution but rather for the destruction of Israel by other means. When career anti-Semites like Mahathir give speeches in which they basically come out and say that Muslims need to go on fighting Jews, only through the more brainy, less gruesome tactics of non-violence and negotiation, they lend a lot of credence to the long-held Israeli suspicion that Muslim countries are not seeking peace in good faith. What other conclusion can Israelis possibly draw from a speech that implores Muslims to give up suicide bombings but notes that "1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews," calls on Muslims to achieve a "final victory" in the struggle against Jews, is delivered by the ruler of a country that could have no possible legitimate beef with Israel, is awarded a standing ovation by representatives from 57 Muslim nations, and is praised by the foreign minister of Egypt, which is ostensibly at peace with Israel?

All this comes on the heels of an announcement that a team of liberal Israelis, led by one-time Prospect contributor Yossi Beilin, has negotiated an unofficial framework for peace with a team of Palestinians. You could say the plan is a step forward -- I want it to be a step forward -- but it won't be much of a step unless the majority of Israelis look favorably on it. So the operative question is this: Will Israelis rush to back a peace plan at a time when a pretty nutty anti-Semite can still get a standing ovation from a conference of Islamic nations for calling on them to continue their struggle against Jews? Those who truly want peace should ask themselves why Israelis feel so insecure in the world that they keep eschewing the Beilins of their political system in favor of tough guys like Sharon. I suggest they consider Mahathir's speech, and the reaction it received, as Exhibit A.

--Richard Just

Posted at 05:07 PM

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