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Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait

The Jewish Humanist, September 1990

Iraqis invasion of Kuwait came as quite a surprise to the world. No one believed that Saddam Hussein would be mad enough to defy the Western alliance at a time when he could no longer count on the support of the Soviet Union. Was this deed the action of an irrational man, a dreadful miscalculation? Or was it a shrewd plan to expose the weakness of the West and to mobilize the Arab world behind the might of Iraq? Only the unfolding of events will answer that question.

However, the current crises has made us aware of certain important realities that were obscured by the euphoria that followed the death of the Cold War. In the heady atmosphere of the collapse of Communism many naive people came to believe that major wars among nations would disappear and that military budgets would become irrelevant. But the Iraq crises has reawakened us to reality.

What is reality?

The end of the Cold War does not mean the end of war. Natural and regional conflicts will continue throughout the world, especially in the Third World. The manufacture of weapons is still a profitable industry. Small ambitious nations will continue to purchase arms. Some of them will even seek to develop nuclear arms. The former easily divisible world of Soviet-American confrontation may be replaced by much more chaotic and dangerous hostility.

The Middle East is replacing Europe as the setting of future confrontations. Muslim fundamentalism combined with Arab and Persian nationalism is a powerful spark to war. Add the economic importance of oil to the Western world and the intense Muslim resentment of the old Western imperialism and you have the makings of violent terrorism and war.

Despite victory in the Cold War, Western powers are very vulnerable because they are dependent on petroleum from Middle East. Even the trauma the 1973 boycott did little to persuade the Americans, Europe and the Japanese to reduce their reliance on Muslim oil. The fall in oil prices made it convenient to forget the danger. But danger remains. The West cannot allow the oil fields to fall into the hands of unfriendly powers. In a time of crisis, military intervention is unavoidable.

America remains the policeman the world. While the United Nations acted nobly in declaring sanctions against the Iraqis, enforcement of the sanctions been left up to America. Both the Europeans (with the exception of the British) and the Japanese, despite their economic power, continue to use American military might as their shield protector. This parasitic reliance is unfair. It gives America more responsibility t it can afford and more negative criticism than it deserves.

Iraq is the first Arab nation become a formidable military power. The Iraqi army I million strong) is the fourth largest army in the world, right behind Russia, China and America. For a nation of seventeen million people that reality is an amazing achievement. And if you add experience of eight years of war with the Persians you have a tough military force. America will find it difficult to field an equal number of battle-trained soldiers. As with Israel, size is no indication of military might.

In war almost anything is possible. Even enemies can become temporary friends, witness Hitler and Stalin, the Americans and the Russians in World War II. The possible reconciliation of secularist Iraq with fundamentalist Iran is a frightening prospect. Both nations feed on anti-American and anti-Israeli passion. Both nations are opposed to the establishment governments of the Middle East, especially feudal regimes of the Arabian Peninsula like Kuwait. Both nations want to raise the price of oil and humiliate the West through economic warfare. Both nations are in favor of terrorism and extra-legal violence to achieve their aims. If Iran accepts Iraqi peace offers and cooperates with Hussein, the American blockade will become impossible.

The Arab nation is, to a large degree, an illusion. There are deep divisions in the Arab world. These divisions were dramatized by the response to the moderate Arab regimes to the Iraqi invasion. A strong alliance of Egyptians, Moroccans and Syrians merged to offer its support to the endangered Saudis. Regional and personal hostilities are also aggravated by class hostilities. The have-not Arabs, like the Palestinians, are deeply resentful of the affluent Arabs, like the Kuwaitis. Hussein intends to see class warfare as. a weapon to Le-stabilize existing conservative Arab regimes and to mobilize the Arab masses to his side.

Oil and democracy do not necessarily go together. While the political system of the aggressor Iraqis is an internal socialist dictatorship, the political system of the victim Kuwaitis was an anti-democratic feudal monarchy. Defending the integrity of Kuwait, whose boundaries were determined by colonial administrators, is less an exercise in the defense of democracy than in the preservation of Western economics and world order. The endangered Arab states are no more respectable than was South Vietnam.

The crises has restored Egypt to a position of Arab leadership. President Mubarak has emerged as the consummate politician who has mobilized an Arab coalition against Hussein. For a long time Egypt was a pariah state in the Arab world because of its peace settlement with Israel. Now the Iraqi confrontation has put Egypt back in first place. If it succeeds in helping the Americans defeat Iraq, it will return to its former role as the center of the Arab world.

The peace movement in Israel has been dealt an almost fatal blow. The emergence of an Arab foe has revised the notion that Israel is an important American ally. Especially now that the PLO and the Palestinians have sided with the Iraqis, the Americans will be reluctant to push for the creation of a Palestinian state. Arafat, by backing Hussein, has given new strength to the Israeli right wing, who has continuously claimed that Arafat and his cohorts are unreliable and dangerous radicals.

The Jews are again in the center of world controversy. Hussein’s threat to punish Israel if he is attacked ties American military intervention to the defense of Israel. If the confrontation with Iraq is short, Israel will benefit from the victory. If the confrontation is prolonged, American frustration could redirect American hostility to Israel as the major cause of Middle East turmoil and Muslim resentment.

Hopefully, the confrontation will be short. But there are no guarantees.

Jewish Humanist

The Persians

The Jewish Humanist, March 1977

The Persians.

Jews don’t have very strong feelings about Persians. Their name doesn’t conjure up any images of holocausts or pogroms. Unlike Germans and Arabs we seem to have no good reason to hate them – or to love them.

If it weren’t for Purim, we most likely would choose to ignore them.

But they deserve our attention. In fact, for that very reason, Purim is important.

As a story, the book of Esther is only a delightful myth. Neither Ahasuerus, Esther, Mordecai nor Haman ever existed. No Jewish queen ever graced the royal court of Susa. No wicked Persian prime minister ever plotted the genocide of the Jews.

The Esther story is a Mardi Gras myth dramatizing the victory of spring over winter, of life over death. Esther is the barely disguised Ishtar, goddess of fertility. Mordecai is none other than Marduk, guardian chief of the gods and the fatherly enemy of evil. The tale, in its origin, is Semitic and Babylonian.

The story of Esther was long resisted by the priests and rabbis because its thinly covered polytheism. Yahweh allowed no rivals. However, historical luck rescued it from oblivion. When the rabbis turned against the Maccabee kings of Judea because they had dared to call themselves kings, they abandoned all the holidays honoring that warrior family. Hanukkah was discarded and ignored for centuries. Nicanor’s day was also abandoned.

What is Nicanor’s Day?

It was a holiday, falling on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (March), and commemorating a Maccabee victory over the Greek general Nicanor. In the days of the Second Commonwealth, it was more important than Hanukkah.

The rabbis pushed Purim, because Purim fell on the same day and because it would allow the people to keep their festival without having to pay honor to the Maccabees. Although it violated their theological purity, the changed the name of Nicanor’s Day to Purim and kosherized the book of Esther to justify the change.

Purim, n some strange historical way, is connected with Hanukkah and the Maccabees. Hanukkah (as well as Nicanor’s Day) was the holiday of those who loved the Maccabees. Purim (despite its Persian setting) was the holiday of those who hated the Maccabees and who wished to erase their memory.

Nevertheless, modern Purim has forgotten this old political controversy. It retains its importance for two reasons.

The first reason is fun. Purim is nothing less than the Jewish Mardi Gras. Even if it were called Nicanor’s Day the laughter would be the same.

The second reason is history. By the coincidence of the myth’s national setting, Jews are forced to pay attention to their Persian connection.

The Persian Connection?

The Persian Connection is that set of ideas, books and institutions which the Persian conquest of the Jews brought to Judaism. Around 530 B.C. Cyrus, the young and bold king of Persia, set out to create an empire through the conquest of foreign countries. When he was finished, Egypt, Phoenecia, Syria, Armenia, Assyria, Chaldea, Media, Parthia, West India and Judea were his possessions. The Persian Empire was the first true world empire. Cyrus was no longer merely king. He became the king of kings.

What did the Persian Connection mean for the Jews?

The PC gave us monotheism. Theological ideas do not arise in a vacuum. They reflect the political and social realities of their day. A world god is merely the image of a world king projected into the sky. The first real world king was Cyrus, ruler of the Persians. The first real world god was Mazda, the chief god of the Persians. If Yahweh, the god of the Jews, was to survive his competition, his devotees would have to make him Mazda’s equal. In the end the Bible, Yahweh’s professional portfolio did exactly that. The priests of Jerusalem, who did most of their editing of sacred texts in the Persian period, elevated Yahweh to universal rule – and claimed, with enormous chutzpa, that Yahweh was simply using the Persians Or any nation for that matter, as a way to reward or punish the Jews. In order to survive the Jews had to imagine themselves more important than the Persians and their god more significant than Mazda.

The PC gave us the Torah. The Torah, as the political constitution of the Jewish state, is a document which gives supreme power to the Jerusalem priests. These priests were called Zadokites. They were the editors and completers of the Torah. Under the leadership of Ezra, they came home from Chaldean exile with Persian permission. They ruled the Jews in the name of the Persian king. They were favored by the Persian court because they were clergymen who would be incapable of leading a military rebellion. Needing to justify their right to rule the Jews (as opposed to the non-traditional royal house of David) they completed the Torah and used the Torah to enforce their authority. A peaceful theocracy, diverted by ritual excess from armed revolt, was convenient for the Persians. The Jews were now too priestly to fight.

The PC gave us the Diaspora. In the Persian period for the first time in their history, the Jews found themselves part of a world empire. National boundaries were now irrelevant. People of different nations could now move freely from country to country. Living in a small mountainous country, bad for agriculture and harsh for survival, many Jews decided to emigrate for economic reasons. Some became merchants and settled in the cities of the Empire. Some signed up as mercenaries in the Persian army and went as far as southern Egypt to patrol the boundaries. Others wandered, without fixed skills, to more fertile places. An international empire spawned an international people.

Today the Persian Connection is less dramatic. The modern Persian calls his country Iran and himself Iranian (a pretentious title linking the Persians to the ancient Aryans). He has exchanged Allah for Mazda and given up the conquest of land for oil (a more lucrative substitute). The king still calls himself King of Kings, Shah in Shah, but he is hardly made of the stuff of Cyrus. The Rothschilds would be better models. Although Muslim, modern Persians hate the Arabs, as cultural rivals and former conquerors. They discreetly supply the oil’ needs of Israel and treat their local Jews as well as any Muslim country can.

Modern Persia is not terribly important for Jews.

Ancient Persia was.

Purim reminds us of this Persian Connection.