CiF Watch interview with Jonathan Spyer, author of “The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict”

Jonathan Spyer is a Senior Fellow at the GLORIA Center, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He agreed to answer some of my questions about his latest book, The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, which Barry Rubin characterized as “probably the best book on Israel to be published in 30 years.”

AL: I was struck by your passage about how the “mythical Israel” has gained traction beyond Islamist circles.  You describe this mythical place as “a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”  In our work at CiF Watch, we’ve also noted how such a caricature has taken root among the UK intelligentsia, a dynamic which informs much of the reporting, and commentary, about Israel at the Guardian.  Do you have any insights as to how otherwise intelligent and sober minds can so easily accept such a facile and distorted picture of Israeli life – one which is unrecognizable to those who actually live here?

JS: Well, having just returned from a trip to the UK, I think one of the reasons for this is because of the sheer volume of copy and programming hostile to Israel which an average, intelligent consumer of media and TV in the UK would come across and be exposed to – compared to a near absence of anything much proposing an alternative view. In the week I was there, there was ‘The Promise’ – an extremely bizarre but very professionally made saga about the last years of the British Mandate, which managed to depict the 1947-8 period as a sort of attempt by hapless and nice Brits and Arabs to resist the onslaught of crazed Zionist immigrants damaged by the Holocaust. Then there was ‘War child’ about children in Gaza, and also a documentary about settler extremists. I’m not sure if this was an especially busy week!  Now, in contrast to this, as a Middle East analyst, in the past I’ve also been struck by the near silence in the British discussion concerning the brutal nature of many regional regimes.

AL: You mention the strength of radical Islam in the UK, and recounted your experiences as a student there in the 90s interacting with adherents to this movement.  Why, in your view, has the UK shown to be so much more fertile ground for Islamism, as opposed to, other European countries or the United States?

JS: I don’t know the answer to this, as I’m less familiar with the US situation, but I would counsel against any nation feeling satisfied with its performance in this regard.  Off the top of my head, the US produced Anwar al-Awlaki, and Nidal Hassan, so I don’t think this represents a shining success.  If one is to adopt a strictly empirical approach, the nation with the most ‘success’ in this regard is France, which has yet to suffer a major Islamist terror attack on its soil committed by home-grown terrorists. As I said, I don’t think anyone should feel smug. But its maybe worth noting that the French system combines an absolute, ruthless lack of tolerance toward foreign Islamist preachers and their activities on french soil (in marked contrast to the UK), with a very sophisticated intelligence community, which has for a long time included lots of people with regional languages and knowledge. I think everyone can see why both these things are good assets to have.

AL: As a new Israeli, I was especially moved by your characterization of Israel’s resiliency, adaptability, and – despite its relative affluence – her capacity, in your view, to understand and respond to the present and future challenges by Islamism (The Muqawama).  However, throughout the book, you also understandably expressed concerns about our capacity to resist this threat so, I’d like to know what currents in Israeli political, social, or intellectual life you think could possibly erode this capacity to resist the Islamist threat. For instance, in the late 90s, Yoram Hazony, in his book “The Jewish State“, suggested that post-Zionist thought represented a clear intellectual (existential) threat to the state.  Is there a dynamic in the current Israeli political context which particularly worries you?

JS: Yes, I am concerned at the withdrawal from politics of many of Israel’s ‘best and brightest.’  Israel produces excellence in many fields. But it is very noticeable that the young leaders in the most dynamic parts of the private sector tend to shy away from political activity and to some degree from public engagement.  I think we need to find a way to change this.  Also, I am worried by the state of Israel’s education system, and the performance of Israeli kids today relative to other countries in crucial subjects such as math and English.  Israel has been able to thrive because of its edge in the field of knowledge.  It’s vital that this edge is not lost.  And we can’t afford to have only small islands of world-class excellence in a sea of mediocrity. That isn’t going to cut it, given the nature of the challenges we face.

AL: Before reading your book, I was intrigued by the subtitle: “The Rise of the Israeli-Islamist Conflict”.  After finishing it, however, I now see that it’s a much more accurate characterization than the terms typically used, like “Israeli-Arab Conflict” or “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”  Can you expand a bit on the significance of this subtitle, and why you think its important to frame the conflict in such terms?

JS: The term isn’t mine. Martin Kramer came up with it.  And I liked it so much that I decided to annex it (thanks, Martin).  But first and foremost, the point is that this term is more accurate, because the main enemy in the axis now facing Israel – Iran –  is not an Arab country, so the old terms wont do.  Iran has also succeeded in splitting the Palestinian national movement, and arguably one half of that movement (the Ramallah Palestinian leadership) is not aligned against Israel in the current conflict – or at least it is certainly not allied with Iran so there is a clear need for a new term. Also, of course, the new anti-Israel axis is characterized by the fact that it consists almost exclusively of forces bearing allegiance to one or another form of political Islam.  So I think the term is an accurate and descriptive one.

AL: Your account of the battle your IDF armored unit was engaged in during the 2nd Lebanon War was quite gripping.  I’ve read other accounts by IDF soldiers and officers who described one of the military advantages of the IDF – beyond its weaponry, training, and preparedness – as a culture which encourages improvisation and initiative, and indeed empowers personnel to adapt to new military circumstances and even abandon a plan of battle if the circumstances warrant it.  From your experiences, is that a fair characterization of the IDF today?

JS: Flexibility, willingness to improvise, independence of thought – all these characterize the Israeli at his/her best, certainly.  At their worst, these can exhibit themselves as failure to engage in proper planning, failure to prepare and over-confidence.  So I think that when our army does well, it’s because it manages to turn the Israeli mentality toward the former, rather than the latter.  I sincerely hope that recent re-focusing in the military will produce the right results the next time around.  I think that from a purely military point of view, certainly from my layman’s eye, the signs emerging from recent campaigns and activities appear mixed.

AL: Regarding the political upheavals in Egypt, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s return to the country, how would you assess the chances of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining political power there? And, in the context of Egypt’s previous role (under Mubarak) as part of the anti-Iranian block of Arab states, are you concerned that, even if the MB doesn’t take power, they may break out of this alliance, and move closer to Iran and Syria?

JS: I think there is a very high chance that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a major role in Egyptian politics in the future. This does not mean that the movement will ‘seize power’ or will emerge as the sole ruler of Egypt. Rather, it will probably perform well in elections and emerge as one of the lay power brokers in the country.  This could well have the effect of moving the country away from its past role as a lynchpin of the western strategic architecture in the Middle East.  It doesn’t mean that Egypt will align with Iran and Syria. For economic reasons the country will have much motivation to remain aligned with the US. But it does mean that a more volatile and uncertain picture could emerge.

AL: Finally, are there any other writing projects you’re planning for the future?

JS: Well I am currently planning some articles on the Syrian opposition, where I have some interesting friends and contacts. I’d also like to write a book on the reasons for the relative success enjoyed by the Iranian (or IRGC) political-military model in certain areas of the Mid-East in the last years – specifically in Lebanon, among the Palestinians and in Iraq. This success has taken place despite Iran’s economic backwardness and the not especially sophisticated nature of their model.  So this is something which it is worth looking at. Of course, there are those who are saying that the current unrest in the Arab world will put paid to that success. I’m not convinced. We’ll see.

Guardian theater review: Israel criticism as artistic criticism

“Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real and imagined wrong-doing committed by a single Jewish person or group is anti-Semitic”EU’s Working Definition on Anti-Semitism

I admit it. I know next to nothing about theater.  In fact I likely know as little about this art as Guardian theater critic Michael Billington knows about Israel. So, while I won’t engage in a critique of Billington’s artistic criticism, I do feel quite capable of fisking his amateur political analysis of the UK production of “Reading Hebron” (Guardian, Feb. 14)

Reading Hebron is “a play by Toronto-based Jason Sherman about a massacre that took place in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in 1994.”

Billington opines:

“Sherman starts with an official Israeli inquiry into the facts: that in February 1994 Dr Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born Jewish settler, walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and shot 29 Palestinians at prayer and injured at least 125 more. Despite oddities in the evidence, such as the fact that only one of six Israeli guards was in place at the time, the commission concluded that the massacre was the action of a lone shooter.”

I honestly don’t know what “oddities” Billington is talking about and quite frankly never read anything even suggesting that Goldstein didn’t act alone, yet we’re treated, in the writer’s opening salvo, to the suggestion that their may have been a conspiracy.  Are we to believe that the commission withheld evidence which would have implicated the IDF, or the Israeli government in the massacre of innocent worshipers?

Billington continues.

“The main thrust of Sherman’s gripping play concerns an attempt by the fictional Nathan Abramowitz to get at the truth about the shooting and to decide “whether those of us who allowed it to happen are as guilty as Goldstein”

So, now the moral urgency of the production is clear.  “Those of us” (Jews other than Goldstein) “allowed” the shooting to happen, and may therefore be as guilty as the murderer himself – a logically incomprehensible moral causality, and bigoted in its suggestion that individual Jews in the diaspora should be held responsible for the actions of individual Jews in Israel.

“But at the heart of the play lies the self-doubt and moral rage of Nathan, a secular Jew who has never visited Israel but who feels implicated in its policies.” [emphasis mine]

Indeed, at one point in the play Nathan attends a Passover Seder with guests which include three paradigms of objectivity and fairness – Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi – to offer their sage and, no doubt, nuanced meditations on the state of the Jewish and Israeli soul.

Of course, the notion that Jews in the diaspora should be “implicated” (a quite telling word choice) in the actions of the democratic Israeli state is not simply anti-Semitic, it also is a principle which has much wider implications.  If a Jew who’s never been to Israel, but merely shares a historical religious connection to the nation, is to feel so “implicated” one would have to wonder if a Chinese American should feel implicated in the crimes by the totalitarian regime in Beijing, or whether an African-American should somehow feel responsible for the political decisions made by various state actors in that continent.

Finally, Billington asks:

“It leaves us pondering one question: with Israeli-Palestinian peace-talks permanently stalled, has anything seriously changed since the massacre?”

Why, yes, much has changed since 1994.  A deadly campaign of terror from 2000 to 2004 left over 1200 Jewish citizens of Israel dead – victims of suicide attacks and other forms of violence directed against civilians and routinely sanctioned by Palestinian authorities, the state-run media, and religious leaders (not to mention more than a few sympathetic journalists and “intellectuals” in the West).

Unlike in Israel, where the deadly rampage by Goldstein was both anomalous and universally condemned, Palestinian society didn’t seem too keen on engaging in such self-criticism over the moral implications of their violent intifada, and we will likely never see a play, or some other form of artistic expression, questioning their societal culpability, one which engages in serious self-reflection.

Michael Billington, like so many of his colleagues at the Guardian, has grown up believing as much in the romanticized version of “Palestine”, as in the crude caricature of the Jewish state – what Jonathan Spyer characterizes as a place which bears little or no resemblance to the nation for those who actually live there: “mythical Israel…a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

I can’t comment on Michael Billington’s adeptness at artistic criticism, but I certainly can hope that he, and his colleagues, will one day engage in the same level of self-criticism they are constantly demanding of me, my religion, and my nation.

Their Enemy’s Enemy

Sometimes the old saying that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ takes on quite ridiculous and distinctly comical proportions at CiF as commentators attempt to lend reason and justification to events and phenomena within the constraints of their particular rigid world view. Such were some of the reactions to Dr. Jonathan Spyer’s article of April 30th.

Dr. Spyer, holder of a BSc in Economics and Diplomatic History, an MSc in International Politics of the Middle East and a PhD in International Relations, had his credentials called into question by commentators who metaphorically stick their fingers in their ears whenever an Israeli puts pen to paper.


30 Apr 2010, 12:19PM

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel. He is a former advisor on international affairs at the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures, and a former official of the Government Press Office, an agency within the Israel Prime Minister?s Office.

Nothing more to add!!

Come on CIF, try to make it a little less obvious when giving coverage to the Israeli Hasbara brigade.


30 Apr 2010, 12:45PM

@ Gareth100

It would seem that the nub of Mr Spyers polemic that there’s no-one amongst the Palestinians that Israel can do business with, therefore the status quo must remain and meanwhile Israel will hang on until November when there’ll be more Republicans in the US senate to block any advances Obama might propose. Perhaps I’m being too cynical but history suggests maybe not.

Cynical? No Gareth, I think you’ve hit the nail firmly on the head. Status quo ad infinitum is the name of the game here.

@ sham144

“Divide and Rule” is what comes to my mind, such a simple strategy but so effective. The more the Palestinians can be divided the easier it becomes for occupiers/abusers to steal their land; accuse them of being terrorist; abuse them; and not wanting peace!!

Exactly. And no amount of Israeli propagandists (sorry, government spokespersons) such as Jonathan Spyer or Mark Regev – can pull the wool over the eyes of the informed of this world.

(Note the creative use of the word ‘informed’ here)

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