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Abraham's Iraq Lesson

Abraham's Iraq Lesson

Jewish tradition holds that even a corrupt culture can be reshaped.


"Turn it over and over, for everything is in it." So the mishna in Pirke Avot tells us of the capaciousness of Torah: Everything that concerns us in our private or public lives is addressed by Jewish tradition -- everything, including what America's plans should be for post-war Iraq.

In making the case for war, President Bush spoke of his "goal of a unified Iraq with democratic institutions," of "helping the Iraqi people to build a free Iraq." Judging from the fact that Jews have been polling 10 percentage points behind other Americans in support for the war itself -- 52% versus 62% -- one suspects that there is also some skepticism in our community about the president's nation-rebuilding ambitions.

Of course, one may reasonably wonder if a democratic Iraq is even possible. Middle East historian Bernard Lewis observes that public participation in government is unknown among the Arab states: "There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law."

In his outstanding book "The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs," David Pryce-Jones argues that Arab culture, propelled by tribal dynamics much older than Islam, is by nature unsuited to any system of orderly, legal transferring of office from one individual to another. In such a tribal society, power is achieved by violence; and once acquired it is given up only through further violence.

The Torah, however, challenges us to believe that cultures can change, if directed from the outside. The very first war recorded in the Bible is found in Genesis 14. As the story goes, four kings led by the tyrant of the land of Shinar -- also known as Sumeria or Mesopotamia, and geographically identical with today's Iraq -- had been harassing five peoples of Canaan.

The latter, victims of Iraqi -- I mean, Sumerian -- violence, included among their five leaders the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. War broke out between the four Sumerian kings and the five Canaanite kings, and in the ensuing conflict Lot, a Sodom resident and nephew of the patriarch Abraham, was abducted.

Abraham intervened in the conflict against Shinar, leading a "coalition of the willing," one might say, comprising 318 disciples. When Abraham won the war, there ensued a brief parley between himself and the king of Sodom. The latter offered a reward of booty: "Give me the people [the war prisoners] and take the possessions for yourself." But Abraham high-mindedly refused both: "I lift up my hand to the Lord, God, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth: Not a thread of a shoe-string will I accept of anything that is yours!"

Despite his high-minded intentions, the Talmud takes Abraham severely to task for declining to accept responsibility for the people who had been left leaderless in the war.

In tractate Nedarim, Rabbi Eliezer asks, "Why was our father Abraham punished [so that] his children [the Jews] were enslaved for 210 years to Egypt?"

Various answers are then proposed by the other rabbis, but it is Rabbi Yochanan's that catches our attention: Abraham was punished and the Jews enslaved because the patriarch "prevented human beings from entering under the wings of the Divine Presence, as it said [by the king of Sodom], 'Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself'" (Nedarim 32a).

In Rabbi Yochanan's view, Abraham had an opportunity to mold this populace that had been displaced by war, to educate them and bring them into a proper relationship with God.

Iraqis can be liberated in soul as well as in body, turned into the first democrats in Arab history, if America wills it.

That is not to say that it would have been an easy task. The displaced persons Abraham and the Sodomite tyrant bargained over included the men and women of Sodom, a disreputable bunch.

But Jewish tradition holds that even a corrupt culture can be reshaped. Indeed, it is the responsibility of anyone who has the opportunity to reform such people to do so.

It would seem, then, that Iraqis likewise should not be regarded as hopelessly enslaved to their culture -- nor to the legacy of Saddam Hussein. They can be liberated in soul as well as in body, turned into the first democrats in Arab history, if America wills it.

With less than a month until Jews celebrate the liberation of our ancestors from precisely the slavery that Abraham's misplaced high-mindedness got us into, we can hope our president does not repeat our patriarch's mistake.

David Klinghoffer's new book, "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism," was published this week by Doubleday.

March 22, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Daniel Cervantes, July 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Iraqi Lesson missunderstood.

The point you make regarding IRAQI'S ability to be democratized is probably correct. Nevertheless, the issue of Abraham's missed opportunity is not valid. He was called by God to walk a seperate life, to walk the width and length of the land GOd would give him. We must remember that God called him out of the culture of Idolatry, human sacrifice, depravity, and inhumane cruelity. The call was a call to "come out from among them and be ye seperate." The prevailing culture was simply too monolithic and all-pervasive to engage in at this early stage, first generation. Recall also that one reason Israel was given into captivity was due to their failure to totally destroy and dismantle the perverse and wicked cultures as they entered the land of Caanaan. This eventually resulted in their accepting the indegenious culture's evil practices and forsaking God. I think scripture bears out that God is much more interested in our eternal well-being than in cuddling us and shielding from every shadow and pain. His is an eternal perspective; ours is a temporal one. God did reveal to him his descendents would be enslaved 400 years as a precurser to liberation and entry into the land of promise. God was guiding and communicating with His friend throught out the journey of faith; If He had desired this momentuous event of Egyptian enslavment to be avoided, He would have made it know to Abraham and would have revealed to him the means to aviod it. Shalom

(7) budi machribie, May 2, 2003 12:00 AM

importing a revolution

a nation couldn't be change if the people do not want it.
Foreign ideas may be of help however everything is up to the people of said country >>> Iran is an example

(6) Anthony Levy, April 7, 2003 12:00 AM

democracy and religion

the idea of democracy emerged in the enlightenment with the rise of atheism which asserted that there was no G-d given right of the king to power; in his place came the people's choice. it is not surprising that islam as a religious society should not support democracy. what should we as (orthodox) jews think?

(5) Arnold Thorell, April 3, 2003 12:00 AM

Is God in control ?

Thinking how "we" can change a country like Iraq into a unified country.
"We", have forgotten that God is in control, not "we". If "we", put our efforts into asking God how to do this then it is not impossible to accomplish that task.
Abraham found out that very fact when he did not obey God's every command, but God made him know who is in charge.

Do we supercede what God has in mind?, I certainly hope not. Let us unite first and seek what God would have us do and then "we", can carry out God's plan.

(4) Beverly Kurtin, April 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Yes, but...

Mr. Klinghoffer seems to be an optimist of the first degree. I wish I could share his faith that the people of Iraq could be changed. He ignores the same facts that our president ignores: It will be impossible to "unite" the people because they are, and will remain, unalterably opposed to any efforts to unite them!

Iraq, it must be remembered, is not a "natural" country. It was created by the (G-d love 'em, I can't) British.

How can the Kurds and the disparate sects of Islam ever find any common ground? Simply, they cannot. That is not their mindset and never will be.

What will be needed is the recognition of the FACTS that those people will never get along, period. How about doing what the British tried to do? Split Iraq into three separate countries where each of the mutual enemies can live?

But the most serious flaw in Mr. Klinghoffer's theme is that he is assuming that the Bush administration has the resolve to see the thing through. So far, they have not show the kind of resolve we (United States) showed when we turned Japan and Germany around.

Although I must support the president in this time of war and pray for the safety of our boys and girls who are fighting and even can see that we must be there doing what we are doing, I find it impossible to muster belief in the Bush administration's ability to fulfill its responsibilities.

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