At a recent event in Dearborn, Mich., a crowd welcomed Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, who led a rally on behalf of his country’s President Bashar al-Assad. The scene was outrageous for a number of reasons, including that these were American citizens gathered in support of a regime responsible for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. But perhaps even more notable was the tragedy at the heart of the scene: These Syrian-Americans—Christians and members of Muslim minority sects like the Alawites, Druze, and Ismailis—are still writhing from their emotional experience as Middle Eastern minorities. No matter how far they get from the region, they are plagued with a vulnerability that leaves them terrified, angry, and often crazy.
And what they throw into sharp relief is a larger lesson: Among all the minorities of the Middle East, only the Jews have escaped this unhealthy condition, thanks to the fact that for over 60 years now they have had their own state and can defend themselves against their adversaries. Theodor Herzl asserted that Israel would allow the Jews to live like normal people, and as it turns out—contrary to what nearly all Arabs, most Europeans, and many Israelis believe—he has largely been proven right.
But to understand why he was right, we have to put aside Herzl and Europe and look at Israel in a Middle Eastern context, as a refuge for a religious minority: the Jews of the Middle East. Many people, including many Jews, still see Israel as the end product of a European ideological movement that found an awful but undeniable justification in the Holocaust. Yet, as many Arabs argue, that narrative is unconnected to the Middle East. No matter how many Arab ideologues collaborated with the Nazis or adopted Nazi ideas about Jews, there is no reason that the Palestinians should have to pay for a European crime. It makes more sense, then, to look at minorities in the Middle East generally, the Jews specifically, and to evaluate the success or failure of Zionism by the standards of the region.
Anyone who previously wrote off as a right-wing Zionist myth the idea that Middle Eastern minorities are oppressed by the regional Sunni majority needs only consider the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt over the last few months. Even many observers who did acknowledge the reality in Egypt are surprised now in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution to note the uptick in violence against Christians—the kidnappings of Coptic girls and the burning of churches, among other incidents. After all, it was commonly believed before the revolution that sectarian violence was the fault of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who, in this view, had empowered the Islamist movement and thus animosity against non-Muslim communities. But Egypt’s Muslim-Christian divide was not about Mubarak, any more than the United States was responsible for the murder of Christians in Iraq or Israel is responsible for the flight of Christians from Bethlehem and other towns in the West Bank.
Nor did sectarianism begin, as many believe it did, with the age of European colonialism, or with the Ottomans. While the French, the British, and the Ottomans hardly played constructive roles in taming the region’s sectarian furies, the problem goes back much further, at least to the Arab conquest of what we have come to call the Arabic-speaking Middle East.
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.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).