Category Archives: The Middle East

medieval iconoclasm and modern prejudices

More than 1,000 years ago, the Christian world was consumed with a violent conflict over religious images: whether they should be venerated or destroyed as idols. That conflict, which brought down emperors, has resonances today. But even before the days of ISIS, modern historians were mining the obscure quarrels of medieval Christian iconoclasm for evidence of their own prejudices.

For instance, in this passage, John Julius Norwich (1929-) explains why iconoclasm declined during the 9th century:

The times, too, were changing. The mystical, metaphysical attitude to religion that had originally given birth to iconoclasm was becoming less fashionable every day. Of the eastern lands in which it had first taken root, some had already been lost to the Saracens; and the populations of those that remained, beleaguered and nervous, had developed an instinctive distrust of a doctrine that bore such obvious affinities with those of Islam. There was a new humanism in the air, a revised awareness of the old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity, and had no truck with the tortuous, introspective spiritualizings of the Oriental mind. At the same time a naturally artistic people, so long starved of beauty, were beginning to crave the old, familiar images that spoke to them of safer and more confident days. And when, on 20 January 842, the Emperor Theophilus died of dysentery at thirty-eight, the age of iconoclasm died with him.

I don’t like to speak evil of the living, but this is pretty bad. I can pass over the undocumented and surely exaggerated claims (“less fashionable every day”; “so long starved of beauty”). I can forgive the emphasis on royal biography and chronology as explanations for larger trends, because the medieval sources focus on affairs of court. It’s much harder to ignore Viscount Norwich’s view of “the Oriental mind” as irrational and mystical.

Edward Gibbon, although just as judgmental as Norwich, organized his prejudices differently. In the Decline and Fall, he associates the veneration of images with the “long night of superstition,” when Christians forgot the “simplicity of the Gospel” for the “worship of holy images.” The “holy ground was involved in a cloud of miracles and visions; and the nerves of the mind, curiosity and skepticism, were benumbed by habits of obedience and belief.”

He is talking about the centuries when Norwich’s “old, familiar images” were still venerated. But then Leo III began the iconoclastic era. Although the emperor was less learned than a classical Roman, “his education, his reason, and perhaps his intercourse with the Jews and Arabs” made him criticize images. Leo came from the East and may have been influenced by the still-further-eastern Muslims. Yet Gibbon has no hesitation in claiming that Leo’s movement showed “many symptoms of reason and piety.”

Ultimately, it was a female ruler who restored the “idols,” which were always “secretly cherished by the order and the sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and the females obtained a final victory over the reason and the authority of man.” A final victory, that is, until the “reformation of the sixteenth century, [when] freedom and knowledge had expanded all faculties of man: the thirst of innovation superseded the reverence of antiquity; and the vigor of Europe could disdain those phantoms which terrified the servile weakness of the Greeks.”

If you’re going to use medieval theological controversies to reinforce modern stereotypes, Gibbon’s version at least seems to make more sense that Norwich’s. Norwich tries to establish a spectrum from the iconoclastic East to the reasonable West. But consider the Pilgrim Fathers who founded New England. Surely they favored “tortuous, introspective spiritualizings”; and their churches were stripped of all images, even crosses. Their brethren in Cromwell’s England and Protestant Holland also smashed religious pictures, as did the later secular republicans of revolutionary France and civil war Spain. “According to Georg Kretschmar, ‘Calvin built up the most precise and radical position opposed to the icon theology of the 787 Council of Nicea.'” As a consequence [of Calvin’s iconoclastic writing] Protestant places of worship have a stark austerity in comparison to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.” Yet, according to Norwich, a starkly austere church is “oriental,” whereas one bedecked with sparkling icons recalls the “old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity.”

The moral of this post is not that historians are biased or that orientalism prevails. I have cited just two writers, one of them dead since 1794. Real professional historians work hard not to let such prejudices determine their views. But Gibbon and Norwich are influential authors–the first redeemed by his superb style and enlightened spirit; the second, a poor substitute.

Jesus was a person of color

As everyone knows by now, Fox News host Megyn Kelly said last week, “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure. That’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want kids to know that.”

In one sense, to say that a given historical figure was white cannot be a verifiable fact, because whiteness is not biological or otherwise scientific matter–it is a social construct that people have invented, have frequently adjusted, and can change again. On the other hand, constructs have real enough presence in the world. Race, for example, is a powerful scheme that we impose on reality. Average white American subjects classify a picture of a face as black or white within 30 milliseconds of viewing it.

So we can ask how the historical Jesus would be viewed if he walked into the room today. That is different from two other questions: how people of his day would have seen him and how people today choose to depict him:

  1. Although the status of race in antiquity is debated, at least some distinguished scholars argue that the ancients did not classify people by skin color or hair, as we are powerfully conditioned to do today. Thus the historical Jesus has a race today but he did not have one while he was alive. He was then neither white nor anything else.
  2. Today, Jesus is often shown as a blond man in America, but usually as a black man in Ethiopia. For a believer, Jesus transcends race and is naturally depicted as a familiar figure, a member of one’s own community.

A third question is how the historical Jesus would be perceived racially if people saw him today. I think Kelly believes that the answer is: White. Our only source, the New Testament, tells us that he was a Jew. That names a political/religious community that had a foundation story tracing all of its members to one ancestor: Abraham. But even according to the story, Abraham had many descendents who were not Jews, and Jews of Jesus’ time had many ancestors. Luke says that Jesus’ paternal ancestor 23 generations back had been Solomon, a Jew, who “loved many strange [foreign] women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. … And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (I Kings 11).  So, according to Luke, Jesus had a lot of diversity in his family tree–as we all do.

Members of Jesus’ religious/political community lived close by and mixed with members of other communities, such as, for example, the Ammonites, Samaritans, and Nabateans. Many of these communities also spoke Jesus’ daily language, Aramaic, which is an Afroasiatic tongue related to Hausa (spoken in Nigeria), ancient Egyptian, Arabic, and Hebrew. I presume that these neighbors would have been phenotypically as well as linguistically very similar to the ancient Jews. In other words, they would have looked and sounded like ancient Jews even though they believed in different things and fell under different laws. We see a little glimpse of the multicultural milieu in the tomb inscription of the poet Meleager of Gadara (near modern Umm Qais in Jordan): “If you are Syrian, Salam [which is Aramaic]; if you are Phoenician, Naidios; if you are Greek, Xaire; and say the same yourself.”

Once the Jewish religious/political community was smashed by the Romans, many Jews went into exile in the empire, where they retained their traditions and tried to marry endogamously (i.e., within the faith). But conversion was allowed, and intermarriage would have been inevitable. One recent estimate suggests that Ashkenazi Jews have 80% non-Jewish European maternal ancestors. That means that Jesus would look less European than today’s Jews whose ancestors resided in Europe, including many (not all) modern Israelis. Furthermore, most modern Jews outside of Israel cannot speak any Afroasiatic language.

But a lot of people who lived in Jesus’ vicinity and looked and talked like him stayed there after the Roman victories in 70 and 132 CE. I assume those who remained included some Jews; it certainly included groups like the Nabateans and the Philistines. Those groups would become largely Christian by the time that Caliph Umar captured the area from the Byzantine Christian empire around 637 CE. Some still remained Christian after the conquest, while most converted to Islam, but all gradually adopted an ethno-political-linguistic identity as Arabs as a result of being incorporated into the Caliphate and its flourishing culture.

Thus someone who looked at talked like Jesus might well be seen as an Arab today, albeit one who spoke a related language (Aramaic) instead of classical or modern Arabic. That raises another question directly related to Megyn Kelly’s claim: is an Arab white?

Again, this is a meaningless question in scientific terms, but perceptions and subjective classifications are important. So the question really means: Would most people perceive any ancient person who looked and talked somewhat like a modern Arab as white? In “Not Quite White: Race Classification and the Arab American Experience,” the author traces the many different ways in which Arab immigrants to the United States have been classified. For example, under a 1978 directive from the Office of Management and the Budget, Arabs were explicitly defined as white (“persons originating in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa”), but one advocacy group now urges Arab Americans to “Check it right — you ain’t white.” In short, the question is contested, and perceptions vary.

Meanwhile, the phrase “people of color” has become much more common in the last 30 years than it was before, and one reason is its breadth. It acknowledges the advantages that come from being perceived as white in the US. By implication, everyone who is not perceived as white has some commonality of experience, despite their vast diversity. By that definition, I think Jesus would pretty clearly be a person of color.

Note …

I am not saying that Jesus was an Arab, because that word developed its current sense centuries after his death.

I am not denying he was a Jew. He was: but that places him in a religious and juridical category, not an ethnic group. The religious community of world Jewry is ethnically diverse and has changed a great deal over two thousand years.

I am not saying that you are wrong to visualize him as white–or as black. You can visualize and depict him any way you want.

I am saying that if he walked into a US airport today, he would be subject to racial profiling on the basis of his color and features, not to mention clothes and language. That is perhaps theologically apt, but it should make a Fox News anchor uncomfortable.

an argument against intervening in Syria

The Syrian government appears to have violated the Geneva Protocol to the Hague Convention (1925). The Protocol, which Syria signed in 1968, begins: “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” And so it should be.

Citing this rule as a justification for a bombing campaign would be a classic example of legalistic reasoning. I do not mean “legalistic” in a pejorative sense. The best argument for intervening in Syria is to enforce the Geneva Protocol, and it is an example of legalistic reasoning for three reasons:

1. It draws a bright line in one particular place. Conventional bombs or even machetes could kill more innocent people than poison gas did in this case. Likewise, you may hurt someone worse by insulting him than by robbing his store. But a law establishes very general prohibitions in order to control evils, to prevent wrongs from escalating, to allow people the freedom to do things not expressly forbidden, and to create a structure of predictable norms and consequences. Robbery is forbidden; so is the use of chemical weapons. Neither rule guarantees justice or peace, but they do create a worthwhile structure.

2. Deciding whether the rule was violated is different from evaluating how much damage was done or how much good would be achieved by punishing the violator. Legal reasoning puts consequences and persons largely aside. The rule of law is honored when no one violates the law or when all violations are predictably punished.

3. The expressive aspect is important. Law is not just about making things better; it is about expressing norms. A jury exists in part to represent the community and express the community’s view in the form of a verdict stated in open court. Likewise, the Geneva Convention speaks of “the general opinion of the civilised world.”

I think the agreement to ban chemical weapons was an achievement, even though it did not prevent many other (or even worse) evils. Violating that agreement should bring condemnation and punishment. If Bashar Assad can use chemical weapons with impunity, that is a sad day. I don’t think a meaningful punishment would have to end Assad’s regime, any more than a punishment for robbery must so bad that no one ever robs again.

Nevertheless, a legalistic framework does not support the US and allies bombing Syrian military installations. That is because:

1. The punishment would not fall on the perpetrators. We talk about “bombing Syria” or even “bombing Assad.” We would actually kill individual human beings who were present in Syria when the bombs dropped. Bashar Assad is very unlikely to be one of those individuals, and “Syria” is not something that can suffer. Using these proper names is a disingenuous form of synecdoche. The more accurate sentence would be: “Assad ordered chemical weapons to be used, so we must kill some other people.” Put that way, it is a clear injustice.

2. The punishers would not have standing to judge. It is deeply unfortunate that the UN won’t decide to punish Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons. But it won’t, and unilateral action by the US would not restore the principle of rule of law. It is as if A robbed B’s store, the police did nothing, and so C beat up A. That is not an advance for justice. C’s beating up A could have positive consequences. For instance, it might cause A to cease robbing people. But once we are in the realm of weighing consequences, the calculus probably does not favor a US bombing campaign in Syria.

3. The expressive aspect of the case would be ambiguous. What norms would a US-led bombing campaign express? Never use poison gas? (Maybe.) Go ahead and use poison gas because the cost is not very high? (Perhaps.) The US and European countries that previously ruled the Middle East can bomb anyone they like? (Maybe.) The expressive function of the law requires very carefully designed expressive institutions, such as public jury trials in courts of law. Otherwise, the act of A punishing B just looks like violence.

In short, the best argument for a bombing campaign in Syria is legalistic, but it fails.

the Nehemiah story: on the pros and cons of walls

In writing yesterday about the Palestinian city, Rawabi, that is rising not far from Jerusalem, I thought of the Book of Nehemiah in the Bible. It tells a good and relevant story–but also a problematic one. It is a step-by-step primer in how to build a community, but also an illustration of how communities shut people out. It is about a wall–and walls can be both good and bad.

At the beginning of the chapter, the Jews are subjects of Persia; their own former capital lies in ruins. “The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (1:1).

Nehemiah interprets this situation as a just punishment for the Jews’ sins. He is a Jew himself, but he has found a role as a cup-bearer or eunuch to the Persian King Artaxerxes. He recalls:

I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.

Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid,

And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? (2:1-3)

Moved by Nehemiah’s plea, the king and queen allow and assist him to rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah organizes each of the clans and guilds to work on a section of the wall. The people labor for 52 days until the whole ring is complete. Much of the Book of Nehemiah records and honors the names of the builders and the sections of the wall they worked on.

While the work proceeds, divisions arise among the Jews, some of whom get rich at the expense of others. This makes Nehemiah “very angry,” and he institutes social reforms, including a ban on usury. Importantly, he personally eschews special treatment, “not eat[ing] the bread of the governor” (5:14), but working with his bare hands.

A wall benefits everyone inside it once it is whole and complete. The Jews sanctify this common good and the space it encloses. The sanctified and complete wall then becomes a framework within which individuals can construct private property. “Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded.” (7:4).  The people come with their servants and personal property (horses, mules, camels, asses), and some give gold and silver to the city for common purposes.

The community needs not only a framework and a mix of common and collective goods, but also rules to guide the interactions of its members. So the people gather and listen to the Law as narrated by Ezra. “The ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law” (8:3). Finally, they celebrate a common ritual that consists of each household’s building its own small booth of “live branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches” (8:15) until the whole city is a place of “mirth” (8:12) and “solemn assembly” (8:18).

All of this is exemplary of civic work:

  1. Nehemiah’s interactions with Persia and the local peoples are “political,” in the narrow sense of that word. He negotiates an arrangement favorable to his people. The deal may also benefit Artaxerxes by creating a loyal subject city near the frontier with Egypt. (Nehemiah’s enemies accuse him of plotting to rebel against Babylon, but he insists they are lying: “There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart.” [6:8])
  2. Next, Nehemiah concentrates on building an essential common resource, in this case, a wall.
  3. He is attentive to questions of justice within the group.
  4. He applies all restraints and restrictions to himself as well as others.
  5. He creates a space for individual initiative and freedom; but at the same time …
  6. He leads the people in shared rituals that reinforce their commonality.

But a wall also has another aspect. It shuts some people out even as it protects those within. The desire to distinguish between the Jews and their “heathen” enemies is a consistent theme throughout the book of Nehemiah. From the first time that the neighbors “Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard [about the plan to rebuild Jerusalem], they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? / Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (2:19-20).

Note that Geshem is an Arab/Arabian, which makes the story particularly problematic for the case of Rawabi. Later, the same people mentioned as scoffing at Nehemiah’s project become serious about it. They “conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it. /Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them. (3:9)” Indeed, the Jews must work with spears at the ready and on 24-hour guard. They are successful, nevertheless, in finishing the wall. “And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God” (6:16).

Then, once the wall is complete and the “heathen” are shut out, Nehemiah institutes legal reforms that separate Jews from gentiles. “And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.” (9:2) The people also tell a story of their own past that emphasizes their conquests. They recall that they “subduedst … the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites” and took “their hands, with their kings, and the people of the land, that they might do with them as they would. And they took strong cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods, wells digged, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees in abundance: so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat, and delighted themselves in thy great goodness”(9:24).

Here we see the two aspects of citizenship neatly combined. It is about building a safe and supportive common framework for a whole people–and about shutting other people out. It is about celebrating common bonds–and memorializing the enemies’ defeat.

But I would resist the idea that citizenship must always have losers as well as winners. Citizens can build bridges as well as walls, and even when they concentrate on walls, they can benefit the people who live on both sides. Although some read the poem differently, I take Robert Frost and his neighbor to be constructing a common good when they silently stack New Hampshire granite along their shared dividing line:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each. …

And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Rawabi, the planned Palestinian city

In yesterday’s New York Times, Isabel Kirshner reports from Rawabi, the planned city that’s rising on a hill between Jerusalem and Nablus. She describes Rawabi’s struggles with the Israelis over permits and water, limited support from the Palestinian Authority, and criticism from the “Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, which opposes any normal ties with Israel. The committee has accused Mr. [Bashar] Masri [Rawabi’s developer] of promoting his private interests at the expense of Palestinian rights and of whitewashing the Israeli occupation.”

I am not sure what to conclude about the politics. But I have been to Rawabi, where I received the official promotional tour, designed mainly for prospective investors and residents. One of my colleagues took this snapshot as we approached.

Rawabi is an impressive place from the perspective of planning and development. It is environmentally friendly, aligned with the new urbanism, and yet–at least to my naive eyes–also consistent with the traditions of the region. Terraces of stone houses will line the hill, creating streets and squares for pedestrian traffic and shopping. Many residents are likely to commute, and their cars will be accommodated in underground garages. Ample attention is being paid to common or public amenities, including the central mosque and a church.

The politics are complicated because this is a Palestinian project that does not challenge the Israeli occupation. Indeed, I think Rawabi is good for Israel, creating a nice new Palestinian town on land that Israel does not officially contest, and thus potentially relieving pressure on the Jerusalem area. The kind of state that it invokes–orderly, prosperous, high-tech–would be easy for Israelis to live next to. Rawabi also brings business to Israel, which provides the town’s only port and airport and supplies many of its materials.

The fact that Rawabi is good for Israel does not make it bad for Palestinian aspirations. I am confident that the motivations for building it are nationalistic. It is about creating autonomy and prosperity within the Palestinian territory. Bashar Masri is an international businessperson who could make more money in other countries, including the US, where he lived for 25 years. He sees himself as investing in the Palestinian nation.

But this a classic situation in which choosing a win/win strategy could possibly undermine your side’s bargaining position in the inevitable zero-sum struggle for finite resources (land and water). That is essentially what the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee seems to be saying–and I am not surprised by their view.

Meanwhile, the Israelis show only grudging tolerance for Rawabi. When we were there, the developers were struggling to get permits for an access road. Apparently, not all Israelis see this development as good for their side. I do not know whether that is because they hold a purely zero-sum view of the geopolitical conflict (anything good for the Palestinians must be bad for Israel), because some influential Israelis actually want the land on which Rawabi is built, or because red tape is just pervasive. In any event, the obstacles seem foolish to me.

Again, I do not know enough to make an overall judgment of Rawabi from a Palestinian perspective. But I have a bias in its favor, based on the general premise that building things confers power. I am fully aware of the radical disparities in the situation. The Israelis possess the main cities, all the ports, the contiguous population centers, access to water–and jets, tanks, and the bomb. The Palestinians do not. I would favor substantial changes in that balance. But the question is how to get a just outcome while also developing Palestinian nationhood.

On the same day that we visited Rawabi, we had met with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, who emphasized the many ways in which they were being victimized by Israel and misunderstood by Americans. I did not disagree with their position, but it was hard to be impressed or to see a path to success. It was very easy to be impressed by Bashar Masri in Rawabi. Maybe he is impressive because he is an international businessperson, hence a representative of the ascendent “neoliberal” order, whereas the Palestinian Authority is a Third World bureaucracy running on borrowed cash. In that case, ideologically, I should be more sympathetic to the PA than to Masri. But another interpretation is that Masri is creating a reality while the PA is asking for something akin to pity. Also, Masri has a strategy (offering a win/win opportunity for his side and the side that has the tanks), whereas I couldn’t detect a strategy in the PA office in Ramallah. Rawabi represents productive, constructive power that can only help the Palestinian cause.