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Saudi King on Peace 1

Added: Sunday, July 27th 2008 at 11:45am by robertflynn

Tikkun  to heal, repair and transform the world


A note from Rabbi Michael Lerner

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

By Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor,TIKKUN

I had expected the World Conference on Dialogue convened by the
King of Saudi Arabia July 16-18 in Madrid 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 Wahabaist stream of Islam that has fostered extremists likeSaudi-born and raised Osama bin Ladin and many other, and has done far too little with its wealth to alleviate the poverty and suffering of many in the Middle East. For that reason, when the  Embassy called me to invite me I at first declined the invitation, and only changed my mind a few days before the event when  it became clear that many establishment Jewish leaders were planning to attend, so my presence there would not be giving legitimacy that these other leaders had not already given.

Imagine my surprise, then, to hear the Saudi King not only affirm the centrality of tolerance and dialogue, but speak 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. [He is certainly also that, and my praise for his actions in starting what may be a processs of Glasnost and Perestroika is the Muslim world does not mitigate against the strong ethical revulsion I have at a society that does not allow the practice of any other religion besides Islam, for decades prevented Jews from even entering the country, even when they were members of the US Armed Services, systematically subordinates and oppresses women, and beheads people for "crimes" like adultery].

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 theconditions 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. This was obviously a new direction being articulated by the King of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it was not just being articulated for a Western audience. The King had convened a similar meeting of Islamic scholars and thinkers in Saudi Arabia six weeks before, and there had championed this new approach for Islam as the one most authentically rooted in traditional Islam (an argument made previously by many Western Islamists-but when they were making that argument, the Saudis seemed to be aligned with the other side, the more reactionary and anti-tolerance forces). The King had faced some real opposition in his previous meeting, and the events there and in this meeting in Madrid represent first steps in a process that is likely to take years or decades. But this was quite a striking new direction, and one that is very hopeful. It was an historic event, the thawing down of the ice that the Saudis had helpedcreate as they sponsored rejectionism of multiple paths in the past. Even in an authoritarian society like Saudi Arabia, the King has to deal with people who have different approaches to the world than he, particularly in the reactionary and anti-Semitic elements in the Islamic religious community, and I don't expect to see some clear line of unambiguous goodness suddenly emerging in Saudi Arabia to magically transform the whole society overnight, any more than I expect to see that in the US or Israel).  

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 break-through, because the King is one of the more
influential figures in Islam, because of his role as "Protector of the 2 Mosques" (in Mecca and Medina), gives him immense influence in the Islamic world.

Like the Jews, the Muslims have no pope and no authoritative body that makes all religious rulings, but instead has a plethora of religious authorities who read Islamic law in as many different ways as Jewish Hallakhic authorities read Jewish law. Protestantism in Christianity de facto created this same kind of plethora of sources of authority, so that in effect people get to choose among a variety of different Christian traditions today, just as they have had in Islam and Judaism for many many centuries. But the identification of religious leaders with state power leaders in Islamic countries has defacto created a much tighter control by the powerful elites over the religious tradition in those countries.

 It remains to be seen whether the King can impose his new tolerance over a Saudi society which has not done much yet to embrace this new tolerance. But if the Saudis do in fact allow other religions to teach their ideas and practice their religions in Saudi Arabia, and if they can make other changes in law that embody a new spirit of respect for human rights, that could have a huge impact throughout the Islamic world. Moreover, even if none of this happens very soon, we should understand that in changing ideologies, statements of a new worldview are themselves acts of importance-sometimes writing or saying things (e.g. writing the Declaration of Independence or giving a speech about the failure of Stalinism or writing a book about the way that Israelis kicked Paletinian non-combatants out of their homes and into refugee caps) can be just as important an action as any other.


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 11th  to the 14th centuries. He made no mention (or apology) for the Spanish expulsion of all Jews in 1492, 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 The 4th World War), 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 inside Saudi Arabia  as  it was in Madrid.
After hearing the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Spain speak, the "religious leaders of the world" moved to  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 flagm 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 (English 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 8 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, the Secretary of Labor,  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. 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 very briefly described the Tikkun/NSP perspective, particularly the need for a new consciousness based on open-heartedness, mutual repentance, and compassion, and the idea of the "New Bottom Line." I also talked about the new Global Marshall Plan as a way to do foreign policy based on the recognition that our interests as human beings in the West are directly tied to the well-being and success of eveyone else on the planet, and that the smartest way to achieve Homeland Security is not through Domination and "Power over" other, but through Generosity and Genuine Caring for Others. To start in this new direction, I argued, would take a major act of public repentance by the peoles of the world.

A few embraced this right away, and explained that their own understanding of Islam led them to feel very comfortable with what I was saying. Others argued that my thinking might be right for the U.S., but certainly couldn't apply to the Middle East, since it would be unfair to ask Palestinians to show equal repentance toward Israelis,  given that the Palestinians had been made homeless by the 1947-49 conflict and were living in terrible conditions.

I agreed with them that the suffering of the Palestinians was impossible to accept as legitimate, and certainly ran counter to the dictates of Judaism with its commands to care for "the other" (ve'ahavta la'ger-You must love the stranger).  But then I added 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. He is certainly right about the intransigence and human-rights-violating policies of the Israeli government as it attempts to punish the entire Palestinian population for the activities of a few (an explicit violation of international law). However,  I pointed out that Palestinian refugees lived in Jordan, Syria, Egypt and particularly in Lebanon where their conditions were appalling and that the Saudis could rectify that.


The Finance Minister 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 (1949-1967) 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 any housing construction project 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 May/June 2008 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 historians like Beni Morris, Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappe uncovered documents and letters from Zionist leaders revealing 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 clearto 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 is the evil oppressors! Lets 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 (and while under Arab rule, Jews had been prevented from going to the Wall to pray). 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

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 surrounding Arab states. Incredulously, they asked if any Jews in the US seriously believed that destruction of Israel 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 Iran's President Mahmoud 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.

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