Blogs > HNN > When Your Enemy is Your Only Friend: The Middle East's Dilemma

Mar 16, 2005 8:49 pm


When Your Enemy is Your Only Friend: The Middle East's Dilemma



Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948.

Regular readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the fact that I'm not a big fan of President Bush's democracy agenda--not because I don't want democracy in the region, but because I don't think the Bush Administration wants something that the people of the region would reasonably call democracy to develop there.

But whatever one's view, it's undeniable that we're living in a baffling time in the Middle East; particularly for people used to blaming the United States for all their problems.

However tenuous the results remain, within the space of a month we've seen the surprise announcement of multi-party elections in Egypt and mass tit-for-tat street protests in Lebanon. And these are on the heels of elections in Afghanistan, Palestine and now Iraq.

So even someone as cynical as I am has to wonder what we're to make of the United States -- intentionally or not -- shaking up an oppressive and autocratic regional system until recently it had worked diligently to sustain? What's equally as interesting to me as a historian is whether the dynamic produced by the sea-change in US foreign policy really unprecedented?

It's perhaps too early to answer the first question; but historical parallels to the situation today are already discernable. One particularly powerful example comes from the relationship between Palestinian workers and the Zionist movement in the three decades of British rule of Palestine, between 1917 and 1948.

During this period an increasingly zero-sum contest was being waged between the Zionist and Palestinian national movements at the political level. But for many Palestinian workers the situation was less black and white. While the larger Zionist policy of "Hebrew labor" sought to exclude them from the burgeoning Jewish and mixed economies, the socialist roots of the Zionist movement's leadership--along with the perception that improving Palestinian wages and work conditions would benefit Jewish workers and provide important propaganda for the movement's political wing-- led them to advocate on behalf of Palestinian workers even during times of heightened intercommunal tension.

The schizophrenic situation led one Palestinian worker-activist to ask exasperatedly, "Who's responsible for this comedy?" Similar to criticisms of American intentions today, Palestinian newspapers and nationalist politicians claimed that Jews wanted to "rule" or even "kill" the country and its economic institutions.

But however politically incorrect, it was undeniable that the same Zionist unions that tried to take Palestinian jobs were often the only force willing to fight for their rights against what another worker called "the oppression of our bosses." With a cash-strapped British government having little impetus to agree to their demands, Palestinian workers regularly sought the help of the Zionist movement, becoming at the same time "comrades and enemies" of their Jewish counterparts.

This dynamic was epitomized by a 1944 meeting between Jewish labor officials and the Palestinian Jaffa Municipality that one could imagine occurring today between President Bush and any one of a dozen Middle Eastern leaders. After grudgingly agreeing to the labor official's demands to increase wages for Palestinian municipal workers, the Deputy Mayor of Jaffa asked angrily: "Why do you bother us and meddle every day in the interests of the workers?" The Jewish representative replied, "Times change, there is democracy, there is freedom to organize, justly and honestly."

The Deputy Mayor answered, "What democracy? We don't have democracy, we scorn democracy... We only understand one thing: the worker that puts forth demands to us is a worker that wants to be lord over us and this we will not suffer." Another Palestinian official in the room agreed, declaring that the union only wanted to "upset our order" and make it harder to have a united front against the Zionist movement as a whole.

The similarities between the roles of the Zionist movement over sixty years ago and America's today, between the plight of struggling Arab working and middle classes then and now, are striking. The United States might be sitting aggressively astride the heartland of the Muslim world and cementing its hold on the region's oil supplies, but for the first time in fifty years an American President is actually doing something about democracy in the region. However mixed the results and suspicious his intentions, President Bush's forceful--if selective--promotion of democratic change is a marked improvement over the policies of his Republican and Democratic predecessors, who rarely bothered to fake an interest in democracy.

And so a strange but historically familiar dynamic has emerged in which most Muslims do not trust the rhetoric and policies of the Bush administration; yet many have as little (and perhaps even less) faith in their leaders to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to the region.

The leaders of the emerging Muslim "independence intifadas" are unlikely to look directly to the US for moral and political support the way Eastern Europeans did a generation ago. But few won't use the space created by President Bush's democracy rhetoric to advance their communal or national interests when possible.

But this leads to the most crucial dynamic the region yet faces: the Bush Administration's reaction to the whole dynamic unfolding before them--a situation in which the people of the region themselves could well demand the kind of full democracy and social justice that Bush & Co have worked so hard to roll back at home. What President Bush does when their interests conflict with those of his Administration will determine whether he is remembered as the godfather of Middle Eastern democracy or just another American President willing to sacrifice lofty rhetoric at the altar of realpolitik.




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Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 4/3/2005

sorry to not have replied till so long after the original posting, but to answer your question as to whether the jewish unions materially benefited palestinian workers there is no one answer. in some cases they absolutely did, in other cases they didn't have much success despite trying, and in other cases nationalist concerns outweighed labor solidarity. the best discussion of this is zachary lockmans' 'comrades and enemies.' i also have parts of several chapters devoted to this issue in my new book 'overthrowing geography.'


N. Friedman - 3/25/2005

Vernon,

Regarding the actual topic, it is certainly possible - perhaps likely - that LeVine's goal is to drag Bush down by any possible analogy or argument, valid or otherwise. I do not know him well enough to agree or disagree although his above argument, which is invalid as an argument, is exhibit A for the prosecution.


Vernon Clayson - 3/24/2005

Of course the professor wrote a nonsense piece, that is what he does, but it encourages argument, much like anything that involves the middle east, which is also what the denizens of that bewildering world do - it almost seems for entertainment. All of mankind argues, witness our own politicians, especially Ted Kennedy, even next door neigbors do, to say nothing about the current silly arguments about the Schiavo woman and the health of the Pope. On the latter, I think he may be gone, dead like Bernie in the movie Weekend at Bernies, and there are Cardinals or Bishops, or maybe a Swiss Guard, propping him up and manipulating his arms to look like he is waving at or signing the crowd. That's "cynical" nonsense, of course, no more or no less than the professor's nonsense (but mine is funny). The professor obviously doesn't like the "Bushies" but his yelp of anguish is nothing compared to the good will being engendered by Governor Jeb, which will not be forgotten by 2012, the most logical time for him to run for president; whichever patsy wins in 2008 will be facing this "Bushie" then.


E Leon - 3/23/2005

Interesting idea - should elaborate on the end results of Jewish Union intervention in Palestinian Labor practices. Did wages & working conditions end up improving?


E Leon - 3/23/2005

Interesting idea - should elaborate on the end results of Jewish Union intervention in Palestinian Labor practices. Did wages & working conditions end up improving?


N. Friedman - 3/22/2005

Michael,

Cancel my last post which had typos. It should have read:

All fair points. I suspect that even the best intentions - whether or not the Bushies have them - do not necessarily lead in a straight line to democracy or any other destination.

My main point was directed toward Professor LeVine who, in my view, wrote a nonsense piece.


N. Friedman - 3/22/2005

Michael,

A fair points. I suspect that even the best intentions - whether or not the Bushies have them - do not necessarily lead in a straight line to democracy or any other destination.

My main point was directed toward Professor LeVine who, in my view, wrote a nonsense piece.


Michael Barnes Thomin - 3/21/2005

"I simply attempted to clarify why the author, as well as hordes of others, feels cynical about the "progress" being made in the Mid East as a result of U.S. intervention."

I should have said where the results of the intervention is headed in the future, and what Bush's true agenda, if it is in fact not what we are being told, is.


Michael Barnes Thomin - 3/21/2005

Mr. Friedman,
All fine points, but I must interject by retorting that my post was directed towards the response by Mr. Lederer, and not to the contents of the entire article. You will note, his response was centered around this statement:

"So even someone as cynical as I am has to wonder what we're to make of the United States -- intentionally or not -- shaking up an oppressive and autocratic regional system until recently it had worked diligently to sustain?"

I simply attempted to clarify why the author, as well as hordes of others, feels cynical about the "progress" being made in the Mid East as a result of U.S. intervention. Speaking only for myself, I hold this particular stance because the U.S. Government whther it was Left, Right, or inbetween has, as far as I am personally concerned, given me absolutely no reason to take its rhetoric at face value, as has been exemplified by its historical involvements pertaining to intervention. That being expounded, I agree that “history should not be allowed to choke the future,” (an insightful statement) but, as aforementionaed, by nature I see eye to eye with Murphy’s Law: “Everything takes longer than you think; Anything that can go wrong will go wrong; If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”


Regards,
Michael


N. Friedman - 3/21/2005

Michael,

You are too harsh on John. In any event, at what point is any current president released from the misdeeds of his predecessors? On your view, the past must always haunt us. Nietzsche, you will note, wrote a rather good essay/book on the topic and noted that memory/the past should not be allowed to choke the future.

I think that LeVine did not make much of a point. On the surface, he compares the Israelis to the US with reference to getting along with Arabs - an amorphous sort of comparison, to say the least -. In fact, the comparison involves two different eras and unrelated cultural phenomena.

In short, the comparison does not even appear to be a valid method of historical analysis. Properly, you should make a comparison diachronically (i.e. by examining the same cultural or institutional phenomena over the course of time) or you can make a comparison in a synchronic sort of fashion, (that is, by comparing institutions or cultural phenomena at the same time).

LeVine's comparison is, in reality, neither. He is not really comparing the same cultural phenomena - unless the phenomena is made so broad as to be meaningless such as a comparison of how Arabs, in the broadest sense, behave when exposed to entirely different, inconsistent and unrelated sorts of behavior over the course of time -.

Instead, he is really comparing very different phenomena regarding Arabs under very different circumstances. In essence, what he is saying is that the US, for political reasons, is not trusted in Iraq while Jews, having to do with their alleged labor practices, also were not trusted by Arabs in historic Palestine. That tells me nothing at all other than Jews had one set of problems getting along with Arabs and Americans have another set of problems getting along with Arabs. I suppose he is saying that it is difficult to get along with Arabs which may perhaps be true but is rather trivial.

In any event, Jews were not trusted in historic Palestine for reasons going far beyond the distribution of labor. There was a political dispute regarding how to rule the land, who would rule the land and what to do about the British, among other issues. So, the analogy is not even sound assuming, rather incorrectly, that LeVine's comparison is valid - which I do not believe it to be -.


Michael Barnes Thomin - 3/21/2005

Mr. Lederer,
The same lines of promoting democracy by U.S. presidents in Latin America have been blared for over one hundred years. In the end, we find that these U.S. presidents were not so concerned with a bona fide democracy, but more or less a top-bottom democracy (the Banana Wars were more or less about protecting business). In fact, some of the same people in the Bush cabinet were these same figures in the 1980s that were pulling the democracy card. This, in a large part, accounts for a great deal of distrust for the current administrations motivations and ultimate plans for the Mid East. Nonetheless, perhaps these politicians have had a change of heart and are in fact seeking out a legitimate bottom-top democracy throughout the world. In short, even as it seems things are turning for the better, historically speaking, it is much too soon to tell. Being part Irish, I tend to follow Murphy's Law until all is well. That message, at least as far as I can tell, is what this article is really about.

Best Regards,
Michael


John H. Lederer - 3/21/2005

"So even someone as cynical as I am has to wonder what we're to make of the United States -- intentionally or not -- shaking up an oppressive and autocratic regional system until recently it had worked diligently to sustain?"
=============
Let's see:

Bush says he is going to shake up the region and push democracy repeatedly.

He claims he is doing so.

He does so.

He says that the U.S. will stand with democratic forces.

You conclude that it might be unintentional.

OK. Maybe if he changed his name you would conclude it was intentional? How about if he switched parties?