Look, I’m just an ordinary Joe with a newspaper subscription. I don’t have a Ph.D. in international relations. I don’t really know anything that large swathes of the general public don’t know. Embarrassingly, a large portion of my knowledge of recent Middle Eastern history comes from watching Lawrence of Arabia. I’m not proud of this. I’m only mentioning it to underline a point, my knowledge of the Middle East is pretty thin and mainly due to contemporary newspaper reports. Like I said, I’m pretty ordinary.
So, I don’t feel like I’m being a snob when I take the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, to task for ignorance. I just read, “Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was booed offstage Wednesday night by a crowd of Middle Eastern Christians after he told the crowd they had “no greater ally than Israel.” (Raw Story)
Now, if I were to trace my thought process, I’d reveal just how limited my knowledge of the area is. When I see “Christian”, “Middle East” and “Israel” in the same sentence the first person I think of is the prominent literary theorist and former president of the Modern Language Association, Edward Said. I also recall that during his tenure as head of the MLA he was frequently criticized because of his Palestinian nationalist politics. Although an atheist himself, he came from a Palestinian Christian family. I know, this is a thin thread on which to hang any claim to understand the Middle East, and that is part of my point. I have, due to interests in completely unrelated subjects, a vague awareness that there is tension between Palestinian Christians and Israel. The Palestinian conflict with Israel is not due to religion. It is due to imperialism and conquest. The most prominent Palestinian group opposing Israel today is Hamas, but not long ago it was the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or the PLO, a group that was not associated with a religion.
The unrest in the Middle East has been raging since before I was born. I confess, my eyes glaze over when I read about a new conflict. So, the information I personally know is very piecemeal. Again, this isn’t something I’m proud of. I just want to show how average I am. However, when I flip though the paper, I see the headlines nonetheless.
Now, if someone wanted me to speak before a group that was knowledgeable on the subject, be they Israeli, Palestinians, or anyone else, you could be damned sure I would do some research. I wouldn’t leave it at my little ordinary Joe level of patchy knowledge. There’s something to be said for knowing what you don’t know. Ted Cruz is so ignorant that he doesn’t even realize that there is something to know.
I don’t know the history of Israel. I recall that there was a mention of Zionism in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Although I love Eliot and think she was both brilliant and wise, I always felt a little uncomfortable with some of the racial aspects in that book. In that book is a portrayal of early Zionism. At the end of the novel, Daniel and his fiancée are preparing to move to the Middle East. I know that is a strange source for my awareness that some diaspora Jews, feeling that they would never be accepted as fellow countrymen in European nations, began moving to the region now known as Israel. What government was there at that time? Honestly, I don’t know. Normally, if I were writing this post I’d look this up before going further, but I want to show how little I know. If I had to guess, I would speculate that the region was controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
Now, what else is in my spotty store of knowledge? Well, I know that the Ottoman Empire came to an end with the First World War and France and Britain partitioned the empire. I had an Israeli friend who liked to blame the British for everything wrong in the Middle East. I know almost nothing of the details, although a few weeks ago I read an article about it in The New York Review of Books. That’s a little factoid that’s filed in the back of my mind with a question mark above it because I have every reason to believe that she is not impartial. However, I am aware that throughout the period between the wars, there a was a trickle of Jews moving to the British run area at that time known as Palestine.
After the Second World War, that trickle became a flood and I don’t think anyone needs to be told why. (Actually, not long ago I read that many people who grow up in the Middle East do not learn about the Holocaust, so maybe that statement is too broad. If you are unaware of the place of Jews in European society prior to the Second World War, you might want to take a look at this Wikipedia article on The Jewish question. The Holocaust was supposed to be the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question.”) In the wake of the Second World War, large numbers of Jews entered British run Palestine illegally. The Jews in Palestine waged a guerrilla war against the British and the British passed the question of what to do about Palestine onto the United Nations. The UN then created, in the territory that had been British run Palestine, an Arab state, a Jewish state and the independent city of Jerusalem. There’s lots of fighting among different groups at this point and I don’t know the details. All I know, is that by the time I was old enough to read the newspaper, we had the supposedly intractable problem that exists today.
This is the fairly thin and commonplace knowledge of someone who has no particular interest in the subject and whose opinion on this subject is never ever sought. In the unlikely event I was invited to speak before the organization In Defense of Christians, “a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to heighten awareness among policymakers and the general public of the existence of ancient and often persecuted minority communities in the Middle East, particularly Christians,” you can damn well bet I would do some research first. From Cruz’s comments I would be under the impression that he didn’t even go so far as to read the about page of the group to whom he was about to speak. This is especially worrisome in light of the fact that the United States is getting more and more deeply involved in the Middle East. It would be easy to say, “I wish we wouldn’t,” but at this point we are deep enough in that even to simply scale back our involvement is a delicate operation requiring first and foremost an understanding of what is going on. I am simply very worried about the ignorance of those who have the hubris to want to lead us.
I do not have the requisite knowledge to have firm opinions about what the U.S. role in the Middle East should or should not be, but at least I know I don’t know. More importantly, the thought, “perhaps I could be President of the United States,” has never entered my mind. The idea of Ted Cruz as President is simply scary. He can’t even speak to a group of Christians without making a mess.
It’s hard for me to speculate on what Cruz was thinking. My own hunch, and it’s just a hunch, is that the Christian Nationalist view of the world is so simplistic and distorted that, despite being a supposedly “smart guy,” Ted Cruz doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what is going on in the world. He probably believes that all Christians believe as he does.
Many Fundamentalist Christians believe that the creation of Israel is the beginning of the “End-times”, the era preceding the end of the world. All Christians do not believe the same thing about the end of the world, so I don’t know if Ted Cruz shares those beliefs, but his simplistic understanding of the Middle East makes me fear that he does.