Review of “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas Friedman

The problem with liberals is that, although they may have bleeding hearts, they are unwilling to confront or even denounce the existing realities of power. They search for redemption within realpolitik, rather than taking sides against it. And while they bemoan the injustices of the past, they are condemned to repeat them by constructing futures that overcome the stalemates of history simply by diverting our gaze towards the future. These perhaps overly boisterous claims express my sentiment after finishing Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, a journalist’s chronicle of two of the middle-east’s most contested cities over the course of the 1980s. I do not mean to denounce the book, to claim that it is simply a poor book, a book by a biased pro-Israeli journalist giving his straight-forward, communitarian take on the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflicts. This is in fact a book of many virtues, a book which for the most part demonstrates honesty and sobriety in a region plunged into the quicksand of multiple myths. The problem with this book is not “bias” at all, because for the most part the bias of the author is his passion, his resolute commitment to understanding and truth – he recognizes that Israelis do themselves no favours by clinging to myth over fact. But in the end he remains trapped within his own kind of myth – not the myth of zionism, or the myth of Israeli idolatry, but rather the myth that we all live inside of in our normal political cultures: the myth that the elites can solve our problems for us.

Friedman’s story begins with the beginning of his infatuation with Israel, which was for him as for many American Jews, the Israeli victory of the six day war. While he had taken Hebrew classes as a child, Israel had never interested him much until news of the “miraculous” victory of June 1967 gave him an Israel to be proud of – an Israel of strength, and he celebrated it by giving slide show presentations on how Israel won the six day war, and by becoming an outspoken pro-Israeli activist in his high-school and later in college. He spent time in Israel in 1968 and encountered Arabs in Nazareth that he befriended, which sparked an interest in Arabic. He took courses in Arabic during university, and studied in Egypt in 1974, becoming increasingly infatuated with the Arab world and its culture. After graduate school he scored a job with a press agency writing on middle eastern oil, and in ’79 got his first placement in Beirut.


The story of Friedman’s early life is not the average one for an American jew who becomes infatuated with Israel at a young age – Egypt had no peace treaty with Israel at the time, and certainly neither did Lebanon. What brought Friedman to be interested in the Arab language, culture, and to take a placement in Beirut after most Jews had left the country? Friedman speaks little of his interest in Arab culture, but it there in the background across book, although much more so in the chapters on Beirut than Jerusalem. Perhaps the most straightforward statement on  his attitude towards Arab culture appears in his description of his first visit to Egypt:


“In 1972, my sophomore year, I spent two weeks in Cairo on my way to Jerusalem for a semester abroad at the Hebrew University. Cairo was crowded, filthy, exotic, impossible, and I loved it. I loved the pita bread one could buy hot out of the oven. I loved the easy way Egyptians smiled. I loved the mosques and the minarets that gave Cairo’s skyline its distinctive profile, and I even loved my caddy at the Gezira Sporting club, who offered to sell me both golf balls and hashish…”(6)


Friedman’s attraction to Arabs is first and foremost a cultural attraction, one that harbours more than a slight racist overtone of the “noble savage”. He sees Arabs as primarily tribal people and peoples, people living in an earlier time. He wants to see Jews and Arabs live in peace in the middle east, but a peace which affirms Zionism, re enforces the dispossession of the refugees, and which grants the Palestinians only the most limited of autonomy on a fragmented Gaza and West Bank. But I will get to his prescriptions on a peace settlement later (they are undoubtedly the least interesting part of the book). One might say that living in Beirut, Friedman had plenty of evidence of Arab tribalism, of political hypocricy, and of brutality on all sides (Israelis included). But what is lacking from Friedman’s analysis is an analysis of the ongoing effects of colonization, or even any willingness to confront colonization as a root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the disorder of politics in the Arab world in general, preferring to characterize the Arab world as immature, un-modern, not willing to face up to the realities of power in the region.


This is not to dismiss Friedman’s analysis of Beirut. Living inside what seems to the reader more like an extended civil war than a country, Friedman’s lack of identification with any of the clans makes him a refreshingly sober voice in the conflict. While he may be Jewish, Friedman is anything but pro-Israeli in Lebanon. Living on the front lines, he saw Israeli jets bomb a building full of Palestinian refugees, and watched it collapse killing most  if not all of its inhabitants instantly. Harbouring no illusions about a righteous side to the conflict (although considering himself pro-Palestinian), and perhaps motivated by his slightly problematic infatuation with Arab culture, Friedman develops a much more sophisticated understanding of the myriad sides of the ongoing struggle in Lebanon. Unlike the Israelis, who did not know the difference between Sunni and Shiite when they arrived in 1982, Friedman appears to be quite the expert on the multiplous conflict for power and privilege in Beirut. Since I am not myself an expert, I can’t comment on the quality of his depictions of different political forces, there is nothing overtly problematic about his analysis.


However, while Friedman does not need to paint any specific group in Lebanon with a clean brush, and therefore can afford apparent honesty in his criticisms of everyone, on a higher level his political analysis is characterized by a brutal anti-humanism. It arrives in a chapter on the 1982 uprising in Syria and the Syrian crackdown on the town of Hama. This event is of particular significance today, because of how it prefigures and informs the war which is ongoing in Syria today. As Friedman describes it, the Muslim Brotherhood was becoming strong and popular, demanding free elections, and when they are refused, carrying out bombing attacks against Ba’ath headquarters. The regime’s solution to the obviously unacceptable situation was to flatten the town of Hama, killing about 40,000 Syrians in the process. Rather than denounce the regime, however, Friedman express sympathy with the massacre – asserting (without any evidence) that most Syrians if asked would support such a brutal crackdown to prevent Syria from becoming another Lebanon. Friedman articulates the redemptive features of a such a massacre in logic of “Hama Rules”, which are at the first level, simple the rules that allow the nearly unlimited slaughter and torture of any enemy or non-compliant population in order to maintain an existing political order. While these rules may seem Brutal, Friedman has no reservations about supporting “playing by these rules” when the alternative is “regression” to muslim fundamentalism. At a more sophisticated level, “Hama Rules” is Friedman’s analysis of modern Arab politics as a combination of tribalism, authoritarianism, and colonialism/modern nationalism. For those interested in political theory, you might limit your reading of this book to the pages that treat “Hama Rules” directly (87-105). This page reference should, however, be in no way read as an endorsement. I will devote a future piece to a more close reading of these pages because they constitute the core of Friedman’s political analysis, but for now I merely want to comment that his approach to Arab politics reveals something deep not simply about his racist tendencies, but about the relationship between liberal politics and power. Friedman’s attitude towards Hama rules reveal that it is not simply in the case of a modern democracy’s use of brutal force that liberals acquiesce to the realities of power, but even in the case of authoritarian dictatorships. Liberals need to find something redemptive in the realities of the existing annals of power, even if that means supporting crimes against humanity to save Syria from a fundamentalist religious uprising. Throughout the rest of the book, Friedman will use the concept of “Hama Rules” to understand the more brutal tendencies in Israeli policy towards the Arabs, and it even informs his prescriptions on how to deal with the Palestinians. Rather than denounce the use of brutality by leaders who fail to meet the basic needs of their population (after all, he does say elsewhere in the book that he believes Islamic fundamentalism is primarily a socio economic problem), he considers torture and mass killing of civilians to simply be part of the nature of middle eastern politics.


It’s easy to see how someone who thinks it appropriate for Arabs to treat each other according to “Hama Rules” might have an equally brutal prescription for Israel’s treatment towards Arabs, and more specifically, Palestinians. When prescribing how Israel ought withdraw from South Lebanon, he claims that the peace should be unilaterally imposed by Israel without negotiations, that they should not withdraw to the border but to a line in South Lebanon, and that the ceasefire should be enforced by deterrence – deterrence of the type, “if they put one of yours in hospital, you put 200 of theirs in the morgue”. This logic of peace through unilateral action and brutal deterrence is the logic of Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza, and is still Israel’s means of dealing with Hamas. It is predicated on the inequality of the value of life between your side and the enemy – the only thing of value is your security. And it is difficult to see why it is an attitude held by liberals, until you recognize that liberalism is not a commitment to liberal values, but a commitment to finding an avenue towards them in the existing realities of power.


Friedman’s liberalism comes through all the more clearly when he moves to Jerusalem. Once inside Israel he does not lose his affection for Arabs – tales of many evenings spent in living rooms of the Kalandia refugee camp attest to his seriousness with respect to seeking out radical Palestinian voices. But however empathetic his account of the uprising, the intifada, Friedman’s primary allegiance once in Israel is to the Israeli community – he does not see any way of moving forward towards peace that does not include the democratic support of a majority of Israelis. And since Israelis reject Palestinian rights, and are willing to tolerate Palestinian autonomy only if it improves their security and does not require obeying international law – which would mean relinquishing sovereignty over the holiest site in Judaism, the Kotel or Western Wall – this means he can advocate a solution not based on rights but on pragmatics. In effect, he advocates Israel play a toned down version of Hama Rules with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank – and toned down only because the TV cameras will not accept a brutal Hama style military repression against the non lethal stone throwers of the intifada. Friedman’s liberal perspective means he can see redemption for the Palestinians only insofar as they can appease the Israelis – offer full recognition of the Israeli state in exchange for partial national sovereignty, a de-militarized state in part of Gaza and the West Bank.


The alternative to liberalism, then as today, is radicalism. Radicalism insists that one focus on responding to the root of a problem in order to find the proper and enduring solution. ‘Radical’ is etymologically related to the Latin word radix, which means root, and which is also the root of the English word “radish”. It is not that liberals are opposed to finding the roots of problems – Friedman’s analysis of “Hama Rules” is just such an attempt to go to the root. But while liberals are content to observe the roots of problems to better understand how we might push the real existent power structures in slightly more humanitarian directions, radicals insist on becoming involved in the roots, on challenging the roots, on changing historical directions. A radical looks at the tribal, authoritarian, and post colonial national structure of middle eastern politics and asks “how can we overcome not only the deadlocks that our politics has led us to, but the fundamentally inhumane assumptions that lead us to these deadlocks”. This is why radicals don’t only describe political ideologies that exist, but ones that people try to bring into existence, like socialism and anti-colonialism. They refuse to accept the world merely as it is, with those sets of shared motivations which require atrocities like the massacre at Hama to move forward to more genuine forms of peace, freedom and co-existence, but demand that the values of liberalism be instituted against those forces which would reject them as “politically impossible”. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman’s attitude is the opposite of the correct one: rights should be ignored for pragmatic considerations, and in place of them unilateral Israeli disengagements backed by brutal deterrence will lead to co-existence based on selfish self-interest. The last twenty years of failed peace processes speaks loud and clear that self-interest and unilateral actions is not a source of stable peace because not because Palestinians can not be paid off until the resistance looks more like Israeli police in different uniforms, but mostly because Israel has continued to build settlements throughout the West Bank and continued to pummel Gaza with its “deterrence”. These selfish tactics, almost the very tactics that Friedman recommends, do not build peace or trust because they are simply the continuation of the conflict – the continuation of Palestinian dispossession. Peace comes from the imposition of prescriptions from outside, either outside the region in the form of UN declarations and international law, or outside the political reality by rejecting colonization and demanding the core violence of Israeli colonization be atoned for and partially undone. Whether you support a two-state solution based on UN recognition, or a rights-based solution the centre of which is the right of return of refugees, the solutions that are feasible are the ones that Israel rejects, the ones that are impractical because they ignore the desires of the Israeli voting public. For a radical, politics is not merely the exercise of power, or the art of the possible, but the transformation of power in accord with new values – in other words, the art of the impossible.


And today, today is not a time for liberals, for we live in a time when even the best intentions of elites fail to divert the course of humanity away from a future of war mongering and environmental disaster.


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