Home > Ira Sharkansky > Commentary: Transnational loyalties have affected many religious groups

Commentary: Transnational loyalties have affected many religious groups

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–The issue of Islam touches a problem with ancient lineage that appears in modern societies that pride themselves on diversity, and suffer from conflicts with people who are both outsiders and insiders.

Josephus describes the civil war between Judeans who identified with the culture of the Romans, and those who rejected any deviation from what they defined as the essence of God’s law. The Roman perspective, like that of Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks before them, was to manage their multi-cultural empire by allowing considerable freedom to its parts, as long as they did not challenge the peak leadership to govern the empire as they saw fit. Keeping the balance was not easy, and failure was among the explanations for the crumbling of one empire after another. The British, French, and Russians have experienced the problem in our lifetime. The Chinese are trying their skills with Tibetans, Muslims, and religious Christians.

It is the task of Barack Obama to maintain the balance between norms of accepting variation between cultures (including religion), and forceful opposition to those who challenge his imperial regime.

The quarrels about the New York mosque touch part of this. Al-Jazeera has focused on the question: how does the American military train its soldiers, who include Muslims, to fight at a time when all the wars are against Muslims in one place or another? Al-Jazeera quotes a soldier who says, “Islamophobia Pervades U.S. Military’; ‘The Training We Get and the Information That We Are Subject To – Constitute Propaganda Against Islam”  
The issue appeared in World War II, although without the emphasis on religion, per se. After a debate as to whether to enlist them at all, the US Army accepted Japanese-American volunteers, kept them in one unit, and sent them to Italy. The issue did not arise about Americans with German ancestry. If it had, there would have been a problem in sending Dwight Eisenhower to Europe.

Israel faces the problem in connection with its non-Jews. Early on, the leadership of the Druze community offered its sons to be drafted, and most of them serve without ethnicity becoming an issue. During the fighting with Lebanon, however, some asked whether Israeli Druze should be sent against Lebanese Druze. Another problem involves the Druze of the Golan who identify with Syria. As Private Sharkansky, I once traveled from lecture to lecture in Lebanon alongside a Bedouin who manned the machine gun on the back of my jeep. A Druze lieutenant colonel said that he considered himself army property whenever he wore his uniform.

My father served with the US Army in France during World War I, against Varda’s grandfather in the German army. Her Uncle Albert was a sniper who once was aiming at a French soldier. The armies were close, and he heard the Frenchman saying his morning prayers, “Shema Yisrael . . .” Uncle Albert did not fire.
When I conveyed this to a Jewish colonel teaching at West Point, I gathered that he did not like the story. It goes down well in Israel.

Slogans and platitudes do not solve the most difficult matters. Most people think and speak in slogans and platitudes, but neither are likely to offer the sensitivity and nuances required. Absolutes do not help. The United States is fighting Islam, even if its leadership does all it can to resist that idea. It also must maintain working relationships with Muslim countries, and provide a decent environment for the Muslims living in the United States.

I am back to my guiding concept of coping. It does not provide details about how to deal with problems, except to emphasize that there are no simple ways to solve them once and for all times. Balance rather than proclamations, subtlety of management, low flame, compromise, and half a loaf. Final solution is a term that must be avoided at all cost.

None of this is easy. Armies and other large organizations must work on the principle of simplicity. It is essential to giving orders that are clear, and assuring that all the troops operate in concert. In domestic affairs, it is important that low level bureaucrats deal with similar cases in similar fashion.

I am pretty sure that Uncle Albert did not tell his superiors about the French soldier he did not kill.
It is at the crucial points of extreme sensitivity where simplicity must give way to nuance and flexibility. Not on the battlefield or the social service office where agreed upon actions are to be implemented. But where it is appropriate to explain actions to a complex audience in a way to minimize the need to engage in further combat.

There are times when it is necessary to fight. The task of the IDF is to train nice Jewish boys to do ugly things. Arab violence against Jews, and then 9-11 have provided their lessons to Israel, the United States, and others.

There is no shortage of Muslims, from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, who are arguing that the location of the mosque near Ground Zero is not likely to serve the interests of Muslims in the United States or elsewhere. We will see how their fear of escalating phobia against Islam plays out against the insistence of the promoters and supporters who have invested their egos in slogans about religious freedom and property rights.

The United States military will continue to battle Muslims, and train its soldiers how to kill the enemy while devoting some of the training to religious tolerance. Israel will continue to employ Druze and other Arabs in the IDF, while seeking to preserve the balance between a democracy that honors civil rights and a country that is primarily Jewish.

Simpletons of the world–It isn’t for you.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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