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The American Mindset
By Dorothy Anne Seese
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Americans have not seen war on their home soil for 135 years, but the wounds from the American Civil War still tend to reopen in this day and time. A good example is in the recent South Carolina protests over the flying of the Confederate flag. However, America presents itself as the great mediator of the world's conflicts, however complex the history of those conflicts may be. Somehow it seems to boil down to an American simplistic philosophy reflected in Rodney King's question, "can't we all just get along?"

If we could all get along, there wouldn't be any wars or threats of wars. If we could all get along, there would be no riots, no divorces, no street violence, no corruption and no evil in the world. We'd just all get along.

Now, having dismissed the simplistic approach, let me say I recently reviewed the history of the Middle East from the time of Sumerian domination of the fertile crescent to the present day. Forty-five years after my last history course at UCLA, I found that there was much I had forgotten as well as much that was never covered in the courses I took.

The politics of the Middle East, and particularly what we know today as the Arab countries, has been one of turbulence since the days of the Sumerians, or c. 4000 B.C. The Christian, the Jew and the Muslim can relate much of the conflict as beginning in the days of Abraham (Ibrahim). The Jew and the Christian see Abraham, the father of the faithful, through the narrative of the Bible. (For those who aren't aware of this, the first 39 books of the Bible actually constitute the Jewish Tanach or Holy Scriptures, the first five books of the 39 being the Jewish Torah or Law.) Mohammed saw Ibrahim as a prophet, along with his son Ishmael. Thus all three of these major religions relate back to the time of Abraham, but through different sons.

The question of property rights begins with Abraham. Christians and Jews reckon the line of descent through Abraham's son Isaac, to Jacob, to the Twelve Tribes, to Moses, to King David and down to the time of Jesus of Nazareth. The Arabic Muslim peoples reckon the line of descent through Ibrahim's son Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arabic tribes mentioned in Genesis. So two peoples who trace their lineage back to Abraham (who lived c. 1900 B.C.) are in conflict over ancient property rights as well as religious "rights" to the land. The Christian and the Jew see the land known as the "promised land" of Israel as the ancient land God gave to Abraham's offspring through Isaac. The present-day Muslim Palestinian Arabs see the land as theirs both by descent from Ibrahim and by their occupation of the land for centuries. This brief and oversimplified description of the ownership dispute has religious and ethnic roots. Any issue involving the underlying religious beliefs of a people is not going to be simple.

In 1947 Palestine was still governed by the British under the 1922 Mandate of Palestine. The area had been continually engaged in conflicts between Jews and Arab Palestinians, the land was anything but peaceful. In November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution No 181 calling for the end of British government and the creation of two states, one Palestinian and one Jewish. Israel as a state was created in May of 1948. Jerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel, is still a holy city to the Jewish and Islamic people, as well as a city with great religious significance to the Christians. The Muslims built the present-day Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosques on the site of the ancient Jewish Temples built by Solomon and Herod. Christians are not involved in the property rights disputes because their religion does not involve the bloodlines, clans and residency on the land. Christians have certain "holy" sites on the land and wish to retain access to those sites.

In America we're divided over the religious beliefs of the "Christian right" and the resulting political divisions that have been caused by pro-choice vs. pro-life, and we are basically still "one culture" although that is rapidly changing. This issue dates back to 1973 A.D. (approximately 27 years), hardly a speck of dust on the clock of civilization.

It is the religious issue that unites the Muslim Middle East into a bloc even though, as with most religions, there are fundamentalist groups and more liberal groups. Such is true with Christians, Jews and Muslims. The ancient land of Israel was occupied by the Israeli people under the leadership of Joshua, who succeeded Moses as leader of the new nation that emerged from Egypt in the Exodus. That was approximately 3,400 years ago. Today there are all manner of ethnic Jews in Israel, ranging from the most Orthodox keepers of the Law to the rather agnostic ethnic Jews who see their right to the land devolving from a historical claim. Nevertheless, Israel became a state carved out of Palestine and given to the Jews in 1948 on this ancient land because of their historical presence there. Even greater conflict has been the result since that year, and continues to this very day.

The Arabs see the Jews as a dispossessed people who lost any right to the land after their defeat by the Roman general Titus in 70 A.D. and the final Jewish stronghold of Masada fell in 73 A.D. Thus the Arab Palestinians see Jews as intruders whose claim to the land is totally disputable, since nearly 2,000 years lapsed between any ancient occupation of the land by Jews and their presence in today's Israel. Further, when the Jewish state was created by the United Nations, it dispossessed thousands of Arab Palestinians whose Arab "brethren" did not necessarily welcome them as refugees into the neighboring Arab states. Quite the contrary, the neighboring nations supported the expulsion of Israel from Palestine and the return of the Palestinian Arabs to their native land. This situation continues to this date also.

So, while the creation of the Jewish state was viewed by the Jews as restoring to them their ancient Promised Land, it was viewed by the Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab nations as foreign powers carving out a territory to give to people who no longer had any right or claim to that land. Thus the centuries old conflict over who belongs where continues.

In a recent conversation via internet with an Israeli he expressed to me the fear that the entire situation would again break down and that the result would be war. We also talked about the role of Americans in the process, and he expressed his opinion that it is merely America's known willingness to use military force that is supposed to intimidate everyone into agreement. Have we forgotten so quickly that this nation bombed Yugoslavia to pieces and yet the ancient hatreds rage on? Serbian Slavics and Kosovar Muslims will never love one another as long as this world system lasts. And that bad blood has only existed for about 600 years.

Americans also do not understand the clan structures that have dominated the Middle East for centuries. A few families in the older rural settlements of America may have some idea of what "clan warfare" is, but to the urban American mind it is not only misunderstood, it isn't understood at all. We hardly recognize the traditional family structure now, much less the idea of bloodline clans. A Scot would relate to that concept more quickly than an American.

The other concept that escapes Americans (and shouldn't) is the idea that religious fervor will and does override the more pragmatic issues of political structures. The past thirty or forty years of American history have relegated religion to a personal matter never to influence one's political expedience. That is not true of Judaism, Islam, or the nationalism of these two states. Religion is a major factor in the Middle East.

Dealing with opinions is difficult when no other divisions exist. Americans are finding this out as our own nation divides over moral, ethical and religious issues. Toss in a few thousand years of history, various cultural invasions and domination, clan warfare, internecine hostilities dating back almost thirty centuries, and varying degrees of religious fervor the problems soon begin to appear insurmountable. In fact, they just may be!

The traditional way of settling such issues in the Middle East has been by warfare, conqueror take all. Has the 21st century changed anything? Yes, it's changed the weapons involved, and that concerns us all.


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