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My Talk with the Saudis, and What I Learned from Them

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I had expected the World Conference on Dialogue convened by the King of Saudi Arabia to be little more than a photo op for the King, a cheap way to buy good public relations for a regime that has refused to increase production of oil as a way to reduce the current surge in the price, provided haven and support for the Wahabist form of Islam that has fostered extremists like Saudi-born and raised Osama bin Ladin and many others, and has done far too little with its wealth to alleviate the poverty and suffering of many in the Middle East.

Imagine my surprise, then, to hear the Saudi King in a language that, as one Muslim observer pointed out to me, sounded more like the New Bottom Line of the Network of Spiritual Progressives than it did like a speech of a self-absorbed monarch.

King Abdullah started with a strong affirmation of the goal of a new kind of tolerance between religions. Religions have not caused wars, said the king, but rather extremists who have misused religion in a hurtful and harmful way. A truly religious person would not resort to war, the King reminded us. But why do people respond to the extremists? Because there is a deep spiritual crisis in the world, and it is that crisis which creates the conditions in which exploitation, crime, drugs, family breakdown and extremism flourish.

The king went on to explain that it should be the task of the various religious communities of the world to work together to overcome that spiritual crisis. But that will require religious cooperation, which must begin with mutual respect and tolerance. We need to emphasize what all religions have in common -- the ethical message that permeates every major religion. That message is that hatred can be overcome through love. We in the religious world need to choose love to overcome hatred, justice over oppression, peace over wars, universal brotherhood over racism.

To me, this didn't sound like the King I had come to expect from Western media. Just as the media has frequently distorted our message of Spiritual Progressives, and the Jewish community media has for 22 years consistently represented me and the peace-oriented position of Tikkun as anti-Israel or as New Age posturing, so the Western media has portrayed the Saudis as backward reactionaries. I can't remember hearing either Bush or Carter speaking like this or, for that matter, any Israeli Prime Minister including Rabin.

The overwhelming majority of people in the room were leaders from Muslim countries around the world. It appeared as if they were the King's primary audience. He was introducing a new language into the Islamic religious discourse, and it was a language that has in the past largely been rooted in Western humanism and human rights. Many Muslims in the room mentioned to me or to others that they felt that this speech was actually a significant breakthrough, because the King is one of the more influential figures in Islam, since his role as "Protector of the Two Mosques" (in Mecca and Medina) gives him immense influence in the Islamic world.

The Saudi King was followed by the King of Spain who talked about tolerance as an old Spanish tradition, presumably referencing the period when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in Spain in the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. He made no mention of (or apology for) the Spanish expulsion of all Jews in 1492, nor the forced conversions and expulsions of Muslims in the following decades. He made a point of stressing, however, that today Spain is a democracy (presumably to acknowledge that unlike the King of the Saudis, the King of Spain no longer rules Spain in the way that the King of the Saudis actually does rule Saudi Arabia).

Next, the leader of the Muslim World League spoke about the common values held by all humanity that should be a foundation for transcending our political differences. Instead of rejoicing at the possibility of a clash of civilizations, as some right-wingers in America have preached (like Norman Podhoretz in his most recent book World War IV), we actually need to be seeking cooperation between the various global civilizations. Islam, he insisted, believes in the equality of all. There is no legal foundation for the prevalence of any given community or race within Islam.

Here too was an incredibly hopeful message. It wasn't relevant, really, whether this is an accurate description of Muslim practice. It was, as was the King's talk, an obvious attempt to change the thinking in his own community, a change that could have profound political effects if it is taken as seriously as the people here seem prone to do.

After hearing the King of Saudi Arabia speak, there was a reception line in which each of us was to give our name and shake the hand of the King. I was in one of my more irrepressible moods, so when it was my time I broke protocol and said to King Abdullah "I represent the many Jews in the world who wish to see cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians and a peace that provides security and justice for both sides (and I pointed to the Tikkun pin I was wearing which has the Israeli flag and the Palestinian flag both with the words Peace, Justice, Life, TIKKUN). I hope that you will use some of your huge oil-generated billions of dollars to help Palestinians build decent housing and plumbing in the refugee camps." By this point the people surrounding the King were moving to push me forward, and the King merely gave me a big smile (it was being translated for him by his US Ambassador) and I moved on into the dining area.

To my surprise, I was seated at a table with eight members of the King's cabinet and his closest associates (I was the only non-Muslim or non-Saudi at the table). I sat next to the Secretary of Labor, and next to him was the Secretary of Finance, and then the others I remember included the Secretary of Communications and one person who was introduced as the King's main counsel and another as a close personal friend of the King and another was one of the major corporation heads in Saudi Arabia. To my surprise, several people knew about Tikkun and it turned out that these men had mostly been educated in the US or England, several at Oxford, some at the University of Southern California or at University of California. Whereas at almost all of the other tables in the huge dining room there were several conversations going on at the same time, these people stopped their separate conversations and focused on me and wanted to know my perspective on American politics and on Israel/Palestine. I told them the Tikkun perspective, particularly the need for a new consciousness based on open-heartedness, mutual repentance, and compassion.

A few embraced this, others argued that certainly I couldn't ask for equal repentance given that the Palestinians had been made homeless by the 1947-49 conflict and were living in terrible conditions. I said that it was a shame that the Saudis with all their wealth had not done more to help the Palestinians. The Finance Minister smiled and said that that was simply not true, but that Israel was not letting their aid come through. I pointed out that Palestinian refugees lived in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon and particularly in Lebanon their conditions were appalling and that the Saudis could rectify that. He responded by saying that they had done more than was known, but that the particulars he was not going to discuss. I then pointed out that Gaza and the West Bank were in the hands of the Arabs from 1948-1967 and that their Arab hosts and the Saudis had done nothing to improve their slum-like conditions. Several people pointed out to me that the Palestinian leadership that existed at that time (prior to the emergence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization) did not want to accept that the expulsion from their homes was permanent, and hence did not want to begin anything that would appear to be a resettling in the refugee camps. Didn't I agree that the refugees had suffered a huge humanitarian disaster? Yes, I said I did agree with that, but that Israelis were fearful that if Palestinians were to return now with their millions of people, that would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. And I referenced my article on 'Israel at 60' in Tikkun in which I had analyzed the situation in terms of the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome facing both Jews from our long history of oppression culminating in the Holocaust and the Palestinian people as a result of their displacement for the past sixty years.

My even-handedness was challenged by some who said that certainly the suffering of the Palestinian people couldn't be excused by reference to the suffering of Jews in Europe, since it was not the Palestinians who had participated in the Holocaust. I replied that the Palestinians had played an important role, along with the Saudis and other Arab states in convincing the British to cut off immigration of Jews to Palestine. They responded that this policy was understandable, given the explicitly stated goal of the Zionist movement leaders to create a Jewish state in Palestine, and thus, Palestinians feared, to exclude or evict Palestinian settlers (and as several pointed out, Israeli revisionist historians had uncovered documents and letters from Zionist leaders saying indeed that their intent in accepting the UN resolution of 1947 to partition Palestine was only a first step in their larger intent to eventually take over all of Palestine--and that goal was clear to the Arabs as well as to the Zionist movement and accounted for their resistance to the partition agreement). I pointed out that whatever their fears, the reality was that they had chosen an immoral path in pushing the British to close immigration to Jews, and that a majority of my larger family had died in Europe during the Holocaust and might have been saved had there been a place to escape to, and that Palestine was the nearest place in which Jews had some historical claim.

At this point the Saudis challenged my contention that the Palestinians or Arabs had had much of an impact on the British in their decisions. I argued that the British in the 30s and 40s were following policies shaped by their concern for steady oil supplies for their coming war (either with Hitler or Stalin). The Saudis responded by telling me that they (the Saudis) were not a major source of oil for the British and that in any event the British were a colonial power that was shaping the policies of other Arab states, and not vice versa. I was not sure that that was true, but then switched my line to point out that wherever colonial authorities ruled, they always tried to set the native populations against their minority groups, and that this is what had happened in Palestine and more generally in the Middle East. The Jews, I argued, were the minority in Palestine at that time, and the potential Arab revolt against colonialism had been weakened by the distraction onto opposing Zionism.

But was it a distraction or were the Zionists really agents of colonial rule? The Saudis pointed to the Balfour Declaration in 1917 proclaiming Britain's commitment to supporting the Jews in establishing a state in Palestine. I argued that a. the British had no right to determine the future of the area, since it wasn't theirs in the first place (a point that showed the Saudis that there were indeed Jews who did not identify with the colonialist perspective) and b. that most Jews coming to Palestine were fleeing oppression, most form Europe but some from Arab countries. They responded that Jews had lived in harmony with their Arab hosts until the colonial period and the rise of Zionism.

At that point, rather than pursue that argument (I disagreed with them and would have pointed out that the conditions were akin to apartheid for Jews in most of those countries through much of that history), I turned instead to the larger frame of our discussion and said, "Wouldn't it be better if we really wish to build a future of peace that we stop trying to get a triumph on the issue of guilt? There are two national discourses here, and each has lots of facts to back it up, but it is futile and destructive to follow the path now being followed in which each side tells the story as though they are the righteous victims and the other side are the evil oppressors! Let's move beyond that to ask what we can do to build peace now, and start by each side acknowledging that the other has a legitimate though partial view, and that each side has sinned and gone off course." I then explained the Jewish view of "sin" as similar to an arrow going off course, implying that the sinner was fundamentally good, not evil, but had lost his or her way. They seemed happy with that notion.

But then they turned to the current situation and told me how surprised and outraged they were that the Saudi proposal to end the struggle and create peace based on a return to the 1967 borders, a proposal offered to Israel several years ago, had gotten zero response from Israel. I responded that if they really thought that there would be a full return to those borders, they were mistaken, because no Jew would ever agree to give up access to the Western Wall, which was part of Jordan before the 67 war. They thought that could be negotiated, but the point, they said, was that they had gotten exactly ZERO RESPONSE to a gesture which they felt should have been perceived by Israel as giving Israel the recognition that Israel always claimed to be central to its needs. I could not justify the Israeli government's behavior, but said that I opposed the current and past Israeli governments since the death of Rabin precisely because they had given up on peace and seemed more interested in holding on to the West Bank. But, I argued, most American Jews and a large number of Israelis would accept major territorial compromises if they really believed that peace was possible. The Saudis said that it seemed impossible to believe that when the Saudis had made it clear that peace was indeed possible. I responded by pointing to the PTSD thesis coupled with the continuing fear of Israelis that they might be wiped out by a combination of the Iranians plus the sourrounding Arab states. Incredulously, they asked if any Jews in the US believed that that was possible. I responded that such fears were frequently voiced in the organized Jewish community, though many younger Jews did not share that fear.

At this point, the Saudis were so astounded they almost lost interest in the conversation. They found it impossible to believe that anyone could believe that Israel was in any danger of destruction. Israel, they pointed out to me, had close to two hundred nuclear bombs--no state would dare seek to destroy Israel for fear of being wiped off the face of the earth. Similarly, they perceived Iranian threats from Ahmadinejad to be a joke, since everyone knew that Iran did not have any nuclear capacity whatsoever and was unlikely to have anything in the next decade. Many of the Saudis at the table felt that at this point they were listening to a typical Israeli propagandist (me) and that there was no point in continuing to talk since they believed that I knew and all Israelis and Jews knew that there was no possibility of Israel ever getting destroyed by the weak Arab or Islamic world, and that taking such concerns seriously were about as rational as thinking that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In any event, they asked what I thought they should do--was there anyone among Israelis leaders who had the power and inclination to build peace. When I talked about Yossi Beilin they said I had misunderstood--they wanted to know about anyone who was likely to actually have the power to implement a peace agreement, and I was not sure whom to suggest.

They then asked me about Obama and particularly his seeming capitulation to AIPAC immediately after securing the Democratic nomination. I told them about the divisions in the Jewish world, the way that the peace forces represented a majority of American Jews but were largely without the finances or access to media to make their presence known, and that the pro-AIPAC Democrats would likely make it difficult for Obama to provide strong leadership on Israel/Palestine unless there emerged a powerful grassroots force in the Jewish world and in the Christian world that would push in a different direction. Many of them asked if that was not in part the role of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and I affirmed that but pointed out major problems we faced: a. lack of finances b. media power of the Jewish right and the willingness of the liberals in the media to assume that AIPAC and the Jewish establishment spoke for most if not all American Jews. c. turf battles that made groups like Brit Tzedeck unwilling to cosponsor Washington lobbying with NSP and Jewish Voices for Peace or any groups that were interfaith, the unwillingness of Christians for Middle East Peace to align in their lobbying with Jewish groups, the unwillingness of Jim Wallis' Sojo group to work with the Network of Spiritual Progressives on Israel/Palestine issues, the fear that J Street people seemed to have about getting involved with any group that might appear too critical of Israel or even too explicitly critical of AIPAC, and the contrast with the Jewish right which had been willing to all work together to support AIPAC for the sake of maximizing their political power. I also discussed the lack of political coherence of the Christian Left and their inability to join in any effective public political action with other groups with whom they disagreed theologically (so, for example, it was rare to see progressive Catholics joining with progressive Protestants on Middle East issues, or even on issues like the Global Marshall Plan), much less with Jewish groups, except in the narrow frame of specific legislative issues on Capitol Hill (but not in challenging the dominant political ideas that shaped American thought on the Middle East and made Obama reluctant to challenge the willingness of the American government to follow the lead of whoever happened to be in power in Israel).

But I also told them that all this could change. I pointed out that Obama had been close to Tikkun for many years, that his ideas on many issues closely aligned with the Tikkun perspective, and that he had signaled 8 years ago to our Chicago chapter of the Tikkun community that he was very sympathetic to our position on reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Still, I pointed out that the Clintons had been aligned with Tikkun before they took office, but our failure to mobilize enough public pressure on them had made it possible for AIPAC insiders in the White House and the Democratic Party to push them far from me or Tikkun perspectives, and the same danger existed for Obama unless the progressive forces in all the religious and secular communities could organize a serious and systematic alternative in every Congressional district.

But how could that help, the Saudis wanted to know. What could change the discourse in America or Israel. I then discussed the Global Marshall Plan. Many were very positive about it, but insisted that the initiative would have to come from the United States in the first instance. If that happened, they felt sure that Saudi Arabia and many others would join such an effort. They hoped that the Global Marshall Plan would gain traction, and they fully embraced the view that security would come through generosity more than through military domination.

That was my discussion with the Saudis. I consciously held myself back on several fronts. I felt it pointless to argue with them about the deficiencies of this conference--the fact that, though it was centered on the notion of "dialogue," in fact the sessions were a series of presentations in which there was zero opportunity for dialogue with others in the room. I several times tried to raise the issue of the de facto exclusion of women from the dialogue, though there were some women in attendance, but I got zero response or understanding on that. I got nowhere in pointing out the contradiction of holding an interfaith dialogue in Spain at a time when the Saudis themselves prohibit the practice of any other faith but Islam inside Saudi Arabia. Many of these sessions seem empty to me precisely because they are mere preaching about tolerance and dialogue, though the reality in Saudi Arabia provides so little dialogue or tolerance of other religions.

And yet, I realized that that point, though righteous, somehow missed the significance of this gathering, which was in fact more about advancing the idea of tolerance, peace, non-violence, mutual understanding and dialogue in the Islamic world and in particular in the religious community in the Islamic world. The handful of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others who were in attendance here were props for this discussion, but what the King of Saudi Arabia was doing was nevertheless of historic significance. In a previous meeting in Mecca with Islamic religious leaders, he faced considerable opposition to his proposal for an interfaith conference around dialogue and mutual understanding. He had used his power and authority as the Guardian of the Sacred Mosques of Mecca and Medina to override opposition and go forward with this conference. Precisely because Saudi forms of Islam are perceived as the most conservative, taking this step is certain to reverberate for decades through the Islamic world and to be an historical marker in the process of modernization in Islam.

And there is also another dimension. The Saudis are implicitly taking religious leadership in the struggle with a reactionary version of Islam that has emerged in Iran. Though Iran was never mentioned, this gathering, plus the actions of the Prince of Jordan in calling for an Islam that works in cooperation with the Western world and with other religious communities, renouncing the "conflict of civilizations," appears to be a major challenge to the growing appeal of Iranian forms of Islam among young Muslims who are filled with righteous indignation against the West in light of the devastation brought to Iraq by the US and the UK.

Finally, a word about the media. As I listened to the Saudis at my table I realized once again what I've known for four decades--how completely the media misrepresents who the people are with whom the powerful in the US are at odds. I have long known that about the Jewish media as well--I'm portrayed often as an enemy of Israel or a self-hating Jew! And ever since the Clintons embraced my Politics of Meaning, the American media has represented me as a New Agey thinker rather than as someone deeply rooted in Judaism, psychology, philosophy and still learning from all the other religious and spiritual traditions of the human race through its history. Still, with all that, I was amazed to find myself amazed at the humanity, intelligence, and shared commitment to rationality among all these leaders of the Saudi regime. NO, I'm not giving up my skepticism, and no, I have not forgotten the barbarism of some Saudi legal practices, the strong misogyny of their culture, and the profound anti-Semitism that exists in their society. (I want to be clear that I am not surprised that I would find brilliant or loving people in the Islamic world. We print such people with regularity in Tikkun. The surprise is to find them in the leadership of a country that is reported to be the most reactionary, feudal and religiously fanatical country in the Islamic world.) But what I was discovering at lunch is that there is a modernizing elite that sees those reactionary aspects of their own society as equally problematic, and hopes to change that (indicated to me in many comments made during the two hours we sat together and which I've only partially summarized here).

I am not an advocate for the Saudi regime, but I now see its humanity, the fundamental decency of some who are engaged in an effort to "reform from within," and am reminded once again of how ridiculous it is to talk about a whole society as though it represented a single perspective or shared a single worldview, the need to work with the most progressive elements, and the need to avoid "Othering the Other." Another point about the media: this conference is a front page story in most of the world, but is being largely ignored in the US media who were notably absent from the hundreds of media covering this event. This is a willed ignorance about the world fostered by the US media establishment.

What was also clear to me in this conversation was that these very enlightened Saudis had NEVER met or been in a conversation with Jews who held progressive values and took those values seriously. For them, it was an exciting revelation, just as it was exciting to them to learn about the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives. They too had fallen for the media distortions and for believing that the American elites with whom they have had contact represent the democratic will of the American people, so they were happy to be disabused of that notion. I came away with the distinct impression that I had helped foster more positive notions about who Americans are, who Jews are, and what Israelis are about. For that, as for many other aspects of this set of conversations, I give thanks to God for the opportunity that I have had to serve the causes of peace and reconciliation!

Returning to the rest of the conference would be a downer in comparison with this conversation, but I soon realized that that too was a premature judgment. I felt richly rewarded by the opportunities to meet and chat with many other Muslims, and to realize how safe the place felt for us Jews even though we were a tiny minority in a hall filled with Muslims. But the actual formal presentations also raised some important issues and even a rather encouraging vision of the future, which I'll translate somewhat into my frame.

I mentioned above that this conference is a significant step in the process of modernization in the Islamic world. But of course, modernization in the West has been deeply linked to a process of "de-mystification of the world" that we at Tikkun call "scientism," the triumph of the worldview that the only things that count are those that can be measured or empirically verified, and that everything else is literally "non-sense." The result is the empty public square, a public life devoid of values. And as I've showed in our empirical research at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, and explained more fully in The Politics of Meaning and in Spirit Matters and The Left Hand of God, this has created a spiritual crisis that is at the root of family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, narcissism and alienation, loneliness and a sense of the meaninglessness of one's life that has grown to monumental proportions. While the poverty in the under-developed world is itself a major source of pain, one of the aspects of the West that is most resented and feared is the power of Western culture to uproot traditional cultures to replace them with the values of the marketplace and the demystification and scientism that is central to capitalist enterprise. Watching the spiritual suffering and degradation that we in the West take for granted and never connect with the values generated by a society that measures "success" primarily in material terms and encourages a world view of "looking out for number one" and "me-firstism" and "values that are kept out of our professions and out of our work world and only have a place on a weekend religious moment but not in daily life," people in the Muslim world are particularly concerned about this aspect of Western imperialism and are committed to fighting it.

So what was said by some of the speakers was that the kind of modernization that should be welcomed into Islam, and the kind of tolerance that should be an important element of Islamic culture, should not include a tolerance for those kinds of values that shape the culture of capitalist imperialism and are reflected in the pop culture it has fostered. Instead, they envision a modernization that is respectful, inclusive, and based on affirming the value of spiritual and religious diversity, but that does not accept the secularism and the scientism of the modern world.

That, of course, is a vision closely aligned with ours. We do not at Tikkun or in the Network of Spiritual Progressives affirm any particular religious tradition, nor do we believe that one must be part of some religious tradition in order to deserve our respect or connection. But we do affirm that there is something in the spiritual worldview, even the "spiritual but NOT religious" worldview, that is an essential part of a fulfilled life. While that spiritual element may manifest as play, art, music, dance, or even study of the wonders of the universe as experienced through the study of science, it is an irreducible element that cannot be accessed solely by scientism (though it could be by scientific investigation). What the advanced-consciousness Muslims whose wisdom was in full flower at this conference seem to be promising us is that the coming spiritual renaissance of Islam may provide a foundation for precisely this kind of tolerant, loving, and generous form of religion that becomes a beacon for future generations who may be experiencing the crisis of spiritual emptiness of the contemporary world but are not willing to embrace fundamentalisms of any sort or give space to worldviews that do not include tolerance, mutual respect for others, and a true spirit of generosity. It may be hard for many of us to imagine a world in which Islam becomes identified with these values of love, generosity, kindness, tolerance, social justice and peace; it would certainly be an incredibly wonderful development. For those of us who despair about Christianity or Judaism having gone astray so far from the loving elements in their founders' visions that they now embody, in at least part of their practice, exactly the opposite values from those that made these religions catch fire in the hearts of their adherents (that may be what it means to see the Burning Bush), the notion that Islam might be the spark that generates a new religious revival based on mutual respect and spiritual intensity could dramatically expand our understanding of the endless potential for God to surprise us, un-do our conceptual certainties, and open our hearts to each other.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, July 17, 2008 Madrid, Spain
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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
 

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