Jewish World Review
May 25, 2011
/ 21 Iyar, 5771
The Scapegoat Syndrome
The separate but equal annual rituals are well established in the Middle East by now:
First the Israelis observe a day of mourning for those who have fallen in their country's defense. For a little country, Israel has had a lot of wars, which means it has the mourners to match. Then a siren sounds, the solemn commemorations are done, and the country's Independence Day festivities begin. This was Israel's 63rd such celebration; the first was punctuated by air raid sirens even as its declaration of independence was being proclaimed -- against the advice of all the old Middle East hands in the U.S. State Department.
The foreign-policy establishment of 1948, backed by dignitaries like James V. Forrestal, George C. Marshall and all the expertise the oil lobby could muster, would have been surprised if this newborn state had lasted 63 days, let alone 63 years. Seven Arab armies were converging on its fragile borders to join the motley groups of irregulars already in the field. The history of this Jewish state was going to be over before it had a chance to begin. Things turned out differently.
But there is a counter-narrative of those events, a whole counter-myth with a counter-language of its own. What the Israelis celebrate as independence, Arabs mourn as the Nakba, the Catastrophe. Americans should know all about counter-narratives and counter-myths. Our own Civil War, aka The Rock From Which We Were Hewn, was called The War of the Rebellion in the Union's official records, while in Southern latitudes it might be referred to as The War of Northern Aggression.
To this day there are some still refighting The War. Passions fade only slowly over the years, over the centuries. Few things are more persistent than legends of the Lost Cause.
It's taken a century and more for us Americans -- well, most of us Americans -- to be reconciled. Whatever our ethnic, religious or cultural differences, we live under one government, without a geographic line separating us. In the Middle East the lines are fortified. Every year there are speeches and demonstrations, maybe even the occasional riot, in observance of the Catastrophe. Then the day is past, all rites on both sides having been observed in full. And an uneasy peace is resumed.
This year was different. This year the Syrian troops that usually guard the frontier opened the gates and let busloads of protesters cross the border into Israel, not just shouting slogans but throwing rocks and bottles at the surprised Israeli troops.
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The soldiers held their fire -- at first. But then the rioters began tearing down the border fence on their way to the nearest Israeli village. It was like an amateurish historical re-enactment. But all too real. In the volley that followed, many of the demonstrators would be wounded and 15 would die. Hundreds of infiltrators would be rounded up and sent back to Syria before the day was concluded. The annual demonstration had turned into a bloodbath.
What a waste of young lives. And for what? A headline in the morning papers, a gesture that is already forgotten, more martyrs for the Lost Cause? The incident was one more indictment of the "leadership" the Arabs of Palestine have chosen over the years -- from the Grand Mufti to Yasser Arafat to whoever is not in charge of their affairs today. Is it Fatah? Hamas? The Arab states? Who knows? Just whom are the Israelis supposed to negotiate with, and about what besides their very existence?
And why was the demonstration this year on Israel's northern border different from all other years? Not because anything had changed in Israel's negotiating position but because everything was changing in Syria. The whirlwind sweeping through the Arab world, aka the Arab Spring, had finally reached even that police state, perhaps the most repressive in the whole region. (I say perhaps because there are so many nominees for that dishonor.)
Syria's ruling dynasty, the Assad family, is feeling the pressure. Every day seems to bring another report of demonstrators being mowed down. What better way to deflect the popular uprising against Assad & Son, the iron-fisted firm that has run Syria for 40 years, than by busing protesters to the border and turning them loose on the Arab world's -- indeed, the world's -- traditional scapegoats?
It's a familiar historical pattern, whether the dynasty under pressure is Czarist Russia or a defeated Germany emerging from the First World War and looking for some conspicuous minority to blame for its defeat. Think of the Armenian massacres in Turkey as the sultan's empire tottered. Like defeat in war, the threat of revolution at home is rich soil for conspiracy theories. Which soon enough produce pogroms. Or, as in the Germany of 1933-45, some things even worse. Far worse.
The revolutionary outbursts known as the Arab Spring came as a shock. Revolutions are impossible, Leon Trotsky once said, until they become inevitable. What's easily predictable is that those struggling to hold onto their power should try to blame the revolution on some sinister conspiracy.
Call it the Scapegoat Syndrome. It emerges with some regularity wherever dictatorships are challenged -- or after the dictator has fled and power is up for grabs.
Those seeking to retain power in Egypt could scarcely blame the popular unrest there on the Jews, the Egyptians having expelled their ancient Jewish community half a century ago. Now that country's Christians may serve much the same purpose, which explains the church burnings, threats, riots and killings now being visited on Egypt's Copts.
A sad-eyed Egyptian gentleman, who was made a refugee long ago, once explained me how these things work. He summed up the order of victimhood in Egypt in a pithy phrase that has stuck with me: First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.
Nor are Muslim minorities exempt from persecution as one wave of revolution succeeds another. Egypt's Sufis and Shi'a are coming under attack, too.
This country's Commission on International Religious Freedom -- yes, there is such a group, we were happy to learn -- has now declared Egypt a "country of particular concern" on the basis of escalating violence "against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities."
Things may get worse in Egypt before they get better, which is all the more reason such attacks need to be noted -- and protested. To remain silent, or minimize the danger, would only encourage the Scapegoat Syndrome.
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