Terrified, angry and crazy: the vulnerability of ‘dhimmi’ minorities in the Middle East can make them behave in illogical ways – even when they no longer live in the region. Only the Jews of Israel have largely broken free of this affliction, Lee Smith argues thought-provokingly in The Tablet (with thanks: Eliyahu):
The pact of Omar, named for Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph after Muhammad, stipulated the various laws and restrictions under which non-Muslims would be allowed to conduct their affairs. Their relative freedom, or burden, depended on the disposition of the particular caliph or the local authorities, but their legal status was never equal to that of Muslims. They were protected people, known as dhimmis.
Some regional minorities, by dint of their temperament and accidents of geography, were able to defend themselves with some success. Lebanon’s Maronite and Druze communities, for instance, made their strongholds in the mountains where they could cut intruders to ribbons. It is well known that the Druze community tends to align itself with the local power regardless of whether they’re based in Lebanon, Syria, or Israel. Historically the Maronites are somewhat more stubborn, and perhaps one of the great tragedies of the Lebanese civil war is that in its aftermath large parts of this proud community under the leadership of Gen. Michel Aoun have aligned themselves with the country’s Shia militia, Hezbollah. Part of the reason for that is the Maronites’ historical fear and hatred of the Sunnis and the wish, as Aoun has explained, to be protected against them by the Shia. This is the same reason why those Syrian-Americans in Michigan rallied in support of Assad: They feared what the Sunnis might do to their relatives.
The price of being a dhimmi is not just physical fear but intellectual confusion and moral corruption. Arab nationalism is largely the work of ideologues drawn from Middle Eastern minorities like the Syrian theorist of Baathism Michel ’Aflaq, who was Greek Orthodox. Arab identity, at least in its earliest iterations, was largely a product of the minorities’ desire to hide their sectarian identities from the Sunni majority. The minorities believed they had a better chance of blending in as part of one massive super-tribe, the Arabs, when as Christians or members of heterodox Shia sects like Alawites they were vulnerable. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and Syria’s former president, embraced Arab nationalism in order to legitimize his rule over Syria’s Sunni majority and protect his Alawite community. The present uprising in Syria shows that the thread is starting to become undone—sectarianism is starting to rear its head, and the minorities are terrified of the mostly Sunni opposition in the streets of Syrian cities.
It is hard not to sympathize with the regional minorities and their fear. However, it is also difficult not to be appalled by their support for a regime that is slaughtering children. One picture from the Dearborn event shows three Christian clergymen in the front row, all of them evidently supporters of Bashar al-Assad, which is unfortunately a common position among Syria’s Christian clergy, Catholics, and the Orthodox. “Definitely the Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad,” Yohana Ibrahim, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo told Reuters last month. “They hope that this storm will not spread.” The rather inconvenient fact for the archbishop is that Assad is trying to quell that storm by torturing and murdering people. The question is: What can be the point of preserving a Christian community if its values have been so thoroughly perverted? Or how many Sunni corpses is a church worth?
It’s not just Christians and Muslim minority sects who are afflicted with this moral sickness, but Jews as well. Jack Avital, head of the Sephardic National Alliance and a leader of the Syrian-Jewish community of North America, has been in touch with Syrian officials in Damascus and in the United States and seems to think Assad is an “honest guy” who is “protecting the minute Jewish community still in place in Damascus.” Avital thinks a regime that buries its opponents in mass graves is OK because in Syria “the Jewish community is doing well.” Compare this repugnant calculation to the position of all of Israel’s senior officials, from the prime minister and president to the defense and foreign ministers, who have condemned Assad’s massacre.
How did the Middle East’s Jewish minority escape this sickness? The state of Israel. Of all the Middle Eastern states carved up in the aftermath of World War I, Israel is the sole success story—politically, economically, socially, and technologically. Moreover, it has safeguarded the lives of a regional minority with minimal oppression of and maximum participation by other groups who are also citizens of the state. By establishing a Jewish majority in Palestine, Israel distinguished itself from other regional minority groups that succeeded in gaining control of a state while remaining minorities, like the Alawites in Syria, whose record has been one of stagnation, oppression, and plunder.
So, when it comes to the Holocaust, maybe the Arabs are right: The crimes of Europe need not justify the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. There is plenty of justification to be found in the Middle East. Without Israel, the region would lose its one success story—and the Jews of the Middle East would be yet another group of fearful, oppressed, and vulnerable dhimmis.