I first read The Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, the famously gossipy and endlessly amusing historian of the first twelve Roman emperors, when I was in graduate school. Lots of the book stays with me still, but among those anecdotes he relates that I could cite in a letter that might possibly fall into the hands of children my favorite has to do, I think, with the death of Vespasian—the archenemy of the Jews of his day and the Roman most responsible for the brutal defeat of the rebellion that left Jerusalem in ruins and the Temple razed. He was dying of terminal diarrhea (which detail appeals to me for some reason) and sensed that his end was near, when, so Suetonius, he looked at the people assembled by his bedside and archly said, “Vae, puto deus fio,” which translates loosely as “Vay iz mir, I think I’m turning into a god.” Okay, the vay iz mir part I just made up. (Although vae in Latin means roughly the same thing as that longer Yiddish expression that oddly starts with the same word.) But the rest is slightly funny, slightly pathetic: since the Romans in his day liked to imagine their deceased Caesars turning into minor gods, Vespasian apparently though he could announce his imminent demise in an amusing way by forecasting his posthumous deification. Hardy-har-har!
That story came back to me over the last week as I received email after email about my last letter, the one in which I quoted Leonard Cohen’s song about light coming into the world because everything, somewhere, has a crack in it through which light can seep. I used that image to frame some of the good things I perceived as having happened lately, incidents or events that reminded me—in a particularly dark, distressing couple of months—that where there is darkness there can also be light…if you know where to look for it!
One writer asked me, I think seriously, if I was turning—not into a Roman god—but, in some ways even less probably, into an optimist. My regular readers know that optimism is hardly a hallmark of my worldview. Just to the contrary, I think, is the case: I have read too much—way too much—history, and particularly Jewish history, to see things other than clearly. And, at least for me, that means understanding mindless anti-Israelism not as a momentary aberration but as an integral plank of Western culture, as merely the latest iteration of the anti-Judaic sentiment that underlies too much of Western culture to be removed or even removable other than by the cultural version of a tectonic plate shift. So, no, I don’t think I’m ready to look out at the world and declare myself even a non-cockeyed optimist. And yet there have been just lately some positive, encouraging events that I omitted to discuss last week. And so, at risk of being accused of abandoning my systemic pessimism about the universe, I thought I’d risk writing about them this week. Why not? I’m on a roll!
I am thinking of two recent events principally.
The first is the conference that took place just last month in London that brought together Arab intellectuals and leaders from fifteen different Arab countries: Morocco, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and nine Persian Gulf states, all of whom were apparently of the mind that the best way to bring peace to the Middle East would be for Arab states, as well as the Palestinians, to engage with Israel, to abandon the decades-long boycott of the Jewish State, and to welcome Israel as a partner-in-dialogue. Even casual students of the Middle East will understand easily how surprising—or rather, shocking—a development this was. And yet, there they were: journalists, artists, scholars, politicians, and scholars (including scholars of the Quran) sitting together and saying clearly that the refusal to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s existence has mostly cost the Palestinians what could otherwise have been the opportunity to build their own state with the willing, even eager, support of their Israeli neighbors.
The group has a name: The Arab Council for Regional Integration. And they have a leader too in one Mustafa el-Dessouki, an Egyptian who edits an influential Arabic-language news magazine called Majalla. More recognizable will be the name of Anwar el-Sadat, not the assassinated Egyptian leader (obviously) but a namesake and nephew whose major claim to fame—at least so far—lies in his having been expelled from the Egyptian Parliament in 2017 for not being sufficiently obsequious to Egyptian President (and strongman) Abdel el-Sisi.
I’ve read several accounts of this meeting. (To sample some, click here, here, here, and here. To hear former P.M. Tony Blair’s address to the group, click here.) All seem in agreement that these people are sincere and that they represent a real sentiment among many in the Arab world—albeit one rarely expressed in public—to the effect that the real way to pave a path into the future for the Palestinians is for Israel to be made to feel secure, thus less inclined to act solely defensively, and to foster an atmosphere of mutual undertaking and endeavor that will make Israelis into real people for their Palestinian neighbors and, in some ways even more dauntingly, vice versa. This is something I’ve hoped would happen, basically, forever—the sudden appearance of a block of respected thinkers prepared to enter into sustained, respectful dialogue with Israeli leaders that is not “about” Israel’s right to exist but rather about the ideal way for Israel and its neighbors to relate to each other, to work together on projects of mutual benefit, and to create the kind of peaceful setting in the Middle East that would benefit all concerned parties.
It’s just a beginning. It’s not even that much of a beginning. But it is something…and, as far as I can see, it actually is real. I feel buoyed, almost encouraged, slightly hopeful, marginally less pessimistic—all highly unlikely developments for someone who prides himself on the sobriety and realisticism of his worldview. And yet…here we are! Something new has happened. Where we go from here, none can say. But all can hope!
So that was the first event I wanted to bring to your attention. The second has to do with a visit just last week by some senior journalists from Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia who came to visit Israel for a five-day visit. Organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the guests all came from countries without diplomatic ties to Israel. But they came anyway, and this too represents a kind of sea-change—or at least the intimation of the possibility of that kind of sea-change—in the intransigency and obstinacy that has characterized even relatively liberal Arab writers when it came down to accepting the reality of Israel and understanding that the path to peace in the Middle East is through dialogue rather than violence. Yes, it’s true that these journalists, apparently fearing repercussions at home if it became known that they had been in Israel, retained their anonymity during the trip. But that only makes their visit more, not less, remarkable: here were people with everything to lose. And yet they came, partially (I’m sure) out of curiosity, but apparently also to take a principled stance against the mindless rejectionism that has led exactly nowhere in more than seventy years.
Their visit was not totally unprecedented. Last summer, a group of bloggers and journalists from Iraq and the Gulf States who came to Israel also last month as guests of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In some ways, it was a normal trip: visits to Yad Vashem, the Temple Mount, the Knesset, etc. But this too was something we hadn’t ever seen: young writers, particularly bloggers, from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and some Gulf States traveling around Israel, seeing the people not as a faceless enemy but as actual individual men and women, attempting to understand the culture of the place and its sense of self. (To get the idea, click here for a picture of a young Saudi blogger named Mohammed Saud and Yair Netanyahu, Bibi’s son, sitting side by side and apparently getting along just fine.)
None of this is going to matter in the long run if the participants are doomed to be outliers who represent no one but themselves. But I have long hoped—even prayed—for something like this, for people on the other side to realize that the great hope for a future for the Palestinian people lies in dialogue and cooperation, not in violence fueled by self-generated despair.
Yes, it isn’t much. In some ways, it’s hardly anything at all. But you know how it works with cracks and light: even the narrowest crack has the capacity to let in enough light to change everything! As Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, approaches, that seems like a positive notion to keep in mind.