Many years back, I visited the Gaza Strip as part of a state delegation. We toured factories financed by American Jews and Gulf Arabs to manufacture goods for sale in Israel and abroad. Our guide, a well-known Palestinian politician, did hilarious impersonations of Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres, and spoke with pride of the “New Gaza,” soon to be the “Singapore of the Middle East.” It all looked so close, so very doable. Soon, Israelis and Egyptians would be meeting at luxury hotels on the Gaza coast.
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And then Yasser Arafat grew tired of playing statesman, Fatah drained the foreign investments into private bank accounts, and Hamas won an election with the promise to end the corruption. A few months later, Hamas members were throwing Fatah members to their deaths from rooftops, with worse to come. Gaza had rejoined the Arab world with a vengeance. The Palestinian politician who had accompanied our group went into exile in Israel.
Gaza’s deterioration is now playing out in the competition between Hamas and more extreme Islamist rivals, including Islamic Jihad, Al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, and Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis. What is happening in Gaza is not an isolated phenomenon. All across the region, Muslim states are coming apart at the seams.
The vast majority of states in the Middle East were imposed by force — the result of competition between European colonial powers over resources, rather than the organic product of the inhabitants’ political aspirations, so it’s no surprise that these states have proven less than entirely stable.
But it isn’t only the former colonial states that are in trouble. The older nations — organically evolved and deeply rooted — are also floundering, for different reasons. Egypt is facing an economic and ecological disaster, while Iran is facing a catastrophic demographic decline.
Meanwhile, Israel is, as usual, firmly in the middle of it all; while its sense of national identity is closer to that of historical states like Iran and Egypt, Israel’s bottom-up organizational dynamics has more in common with the Sunni states.
Is Israel immune to the centrifugal forces pulling colonial states apart, or to the centripetal forces threatening organic states?
It may be that Israel enjoys an unlikely advantage over its neighbors: it is a nation forged in defeat. In exile, the Jewish people gained what no Arab polity has ever experienced — the lessons of prolonged helplessness.
These lessons go a long way back. The Israel that was reborn from the Babylonian exile was very different from the scattered tribes that had gone into exile only 70 years earlier. Similarly, Israel today is a more cohesive, more resilient political entity that it was prior to the Roman exile.
Israel has gained more than merely the unifying effects of shared pain; it has gained experience in self-government unique in the history of nations. As a pariah people living on the periphery of “civilized nations,” Jewish communities developed a version of self-administration that combined parts of the older, consensus-based systems still seen in the Arab world, with situational constraints imposed from without.
The resulting Jewish institutions had to function with only “soft power” as a means of enforcement: government without an executive. Because the top position of power was left empty (since kingship belongs only to God), holders of the next level of power (the Parnassim and the Hakhamim) were seen as custodians and functionaries; they could achieve only so much power in the eyes of the people without overstepping the bounds imposed by society.
The only real spheres of control available to Jewish self-government were those that are an after-thought for most national governments — things usually left to lower-level functionaries, such as education, social welfare, local taxation and enforcement of market rules. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when your best political minds are limited to running a society — when the option of playing on the chessboard of high politics is non-existent.
These institutions — and the whole attitude toward the functions of government — stood us in good stead when it came time to set up the modern Jewish state. The lessons of exile among (mostly) well-run nation states have combined with our native bottom-up organizational culture to build a political entity that potentially has both the resilience of a horizontally networked structure and the efficiency of a top-down hierarchical structure.
So where does all this bring us? Interestingly enough, Israel’s hard-won institutions of government are uniquely adapted to the modern, information-centric world. This horizontally distributed model is exactly the model that is coming into vogue in many places in the world as the sovereignty of nation-states continues to erode. The decentralized Jewish political model, developed over 2,000 years of exile, is the wave of the future.
The challenge for Israel now is to grab these lessons with both hands and apply them on the ground to weather the storms gathering on its borders. It’s doable; the proof is in the fact that it’s what the Jewish people have been doing for thousands of years.
After a career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar now divides her time between researching trends in asymmetric conflict and learning Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” recently published by Kasva Press, and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish education and philosophy can be found at www.damaged-mirror.com.