Beyond ISIS: How to Respond? Avneri, Waskow & Lerner comment

[How ought we to oppose and defeat the spreading cruelty of ISIS? Last week my weekly email from Uri Avnery addressed this question.  Avnery is the most senior and often the wisest of all Israeli peaceniks. During his long life he has been –


·     an underground “terrorist” attacking the British colonial occupation of mandatory Palestine before 1948;


·     the publisher and editor of a popular Israeli news magazine;


·     an elected member of the Israeli Knesset;


·     a strong critic of the use of terror against Israeli civilians;


·     and the unrelenting opponent of Israeli governments that use overwhelming military power and repression to deny Palestinians a peaceful state alongside Israel.


[This time I found myself strongly agreeing with what Avnery said about the danger of ISIS, and strongly disagreeing with his plan to defeat it..


[I wrote him, and I also sent the two letters to Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, offering him the conversation for Tikkun’s sharing. He responded on the day before Rosh Hashanah by posting the exchange, with his own comment, on the Tikkun website.    


[The three essays follow, in the sequence in which they were published.


[Shalom, salaam, sohl, peace, Earth!  --AW]




The Best Way to Deal with ISIS


Uri Avnery


September 12, 2015


The Real Menace




I am not ashamed to admit it. I am afraid.


I am afraid of the Islamic State movement, alias ISIS, alias Daesh.


It is the only real danger that threatens Israel, that threatens the world, that threatens me.


Those who treat it today with equanimity, with indifference, will come to regret it.


 IN THE year I was born – 1923 – a ridiculous little demagogue with a funny mustache, Adolf Hitler, staged an attempted putsch in Munich. It was put down by a handful of policemen and soon forgotten.


The world had far more serious dangers to contend with. There was the galloping inflation in Germany. There was the young Soviet Union. There was the dangerous competition between the two mighty colonial powers, Great Britain and France. There was, in 1929, the terrible economic crisis that devastated the world economy.


But the little Munich demagogue had a weapon that did not catch the eye of experienced statesmen and wily politicians: a powerful state of mind. He turned the humiliation of a great nation into a weapon more effective than aircraft and battleships. In a short time – just a few years – he conquered Germany, then Europe and looked set to take on the entire world.


Many millions of human beings perished in the process. Untold misery visited many countries. Not to mention the Holocaust, a crime almost without parallel in the annals of modern history.


How did he do it? Primarily not by political and military power, but by the power of an idea, a state of mind, a mental explosion.


I witnessed this in the first quarter of my life. It springs to my mind when I look at the movement that now calls itself IS, the Islamic State.




IN THE early 7th century of the Christian era, a small merchant in the godforsaken Arab desert had an idea. In an amazingly short period of time he and his companions conquered his home town, Mecca, then the entire Arabian peninsula, then the Fertile Crescent, and then most of the civilized world, from the Atlantic ocean to North India and much beyond.  His followers reached the heart of France and laid siege to Vienna.


How did a little Arab tribe achieve all this? Not by military superiority but by the force of an intoxicating new religion, a religion so progressive and liberating that its earthly power could not be resisted.


Against an intoxicating new idea, material weapons are powerless, armies and navies crumble and mighty empires, like Byzantium and Persia, disintegrate. But ideas are invisible, realists cannot see them, experienced statesmen and mighty generals are blind to them.


“How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin responded contemptuously, when told about the power of the Church. Yet the Soviet Empire fell and disappeared, and the Catholic Church is still here.




AL-DAULA AL-ISLAMIYAH, the Islamic State, is a “fundamentalist” movement. The fundament is the Islamic state founded 1400 years ago by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina and Mecca. This backward-looking stance is a propaganda ploy. How can anyone resurrect something that existed so many centuries ago?


In reality, IS is an extremely modern movement, a movement of today and probably of tomorrow. It uses the most up-to-date instruments, like the internet. It is a revolutionary movement, probably the most revolutionary in today’s world.


In its rise to power, it uses barbaric methods from bygone times to achieve very modern aims. It creates terror. Not the propaganda term “terrorism” used nowadays by all governments to stigmatize their enemies. But actual atrocities, abominable deeds, chopping off heads, destroying invaluable antiquities – all to strike debilitating fear into the hearts of its enemies.


The IS movement does not really care about Europe, the US and Israel. Not for now. It uses them as propaganda fuel to achieve its real immediate aim: to take hold of the entire Islamic world.


If it succeeds in this, one can imagine the next step. After the Crusaders conquered Palestine and the surrounding areas, a Kurdish adventurer called Salah-a-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin to European ears) set out to unite the Arab world under his leadership. Only after succeeding in this, did he turn on the Crusaders and wipe them out.


Saladin, of course, was no IS-style merchant of atrocities. He was a profoundly humane ruler, and as such he was feted in European literature (see: Walter Scott). But his strategy is familiar to every Muslim, including the leaders of today’s Islamic “Caliphate”: first unite the Arabs, only then turn on the infidels.


 FOR THE last two hundred years, the Arab world has been humiliated and oppressed. The humiliation, even more than the oppression, has been seared into the soul of every Arab boy and girl. Once the whole world admired Arab civilization and Arab science. During the European Dark Ages, barbaric Westerners were dazzled by Islamic culture.


No young Arab can abstain from comparing the splendor of the past Caliphate to the squalor of contemporary Arab reality – the poverty, the backwardness, the political impotence. Formerly backward countries like Japan and China have risen again and become world powers, beating the West at its own game, but the Arab giant remains impotent, attracting the world’s contempt. Even a tiny band of Jews (Jews of all people!) beat the Arab countries.


A huge reservoir of resentment has been building up in the Arab world, unseen and unnoticed by the Western powers that be.


In such a situation, there are two ways out. One is the arduous path: to divorce the past and build a modern state. That was the way of Mustapha Kemal, the Turkish general who banned tradition and created a new Turkish nation. It was a profound revolution, perhaps the most effective of the 20th century, and it earned him the title of Ataturk, Father of the Turks.


In the Arab world, there was an attempt to create a pan-Arab nationalism, a feeble imitation of the Western original. Gamal Abd-al-Nasser tried and was easily put down by Israel.


The other way is to idealize the past and claim to revive it. That is the way of IS, and it is hugely successful. With little effort it has taken hold of large parts of Syria and Iraq, wiping out the official borders created by Western imperialists. Imitators have set up proxies all over the Muslim world and attracted many thousands of potential fighters from the Muslim ghettos in the West and the East.


Now the Islamic State is starting on its march to victory. There seems to be no one to stop it.


 FIRST OF all, because nobody seems to realize the danger. To fight an idea? To hell with ideas. Ideas are for intellectuals and such. Real statesmen look at facts. How many divisions has IS?


Second, there are other dangers around. The Iranian bomb. The Syrian chaos. The breakup of Libya. The oil prizes. And now the avalanche of refugees, mainly from the Muslim world.


Like a giant toddler, the USA is helpless. It supports an imaginary secular Syrian opposition, which exists only in American universities. It fights against the main enemy of IS, the Assad regime. It supports the Turkish leader who fights against the Kurds who fight against IS. It bombs IS from the air, risking nothing and achieving nothing. No boots on the ground, God forbid.


To govern is to choose, Pierre Mendes-France once said. In the present Arab world, the choice is between bad, worse and worst. In the fight against the worst, the bad is an ally.


Let’s put it bluntly: to try to stop IS means supporting the Assad regime. Bashar al-Assad is an abominable fellow, but he has kept Syria together, protected its many minorities and kept the Israeli border quiet. Compared to IS, he is an ally. So is Iran, a stable regime with a political tradition reaching back thousands of years – contrary to Saudi Arabia, Qatar et al which support IS.


Our own Bibi is as innocent of any understanding as a new-born child. He is shrewd, shallow and ignorant. His Iranian obsession blinds him to the new realities.


Fascinated by the wolf in front of him, Bibi is oblivious to the frightful tiger creeping up behind him. 




From Rabbi Arthur Waskow, September 13, 2015


Chaver Uri —


I absolutely agree with your diagnosis about ISIS. I don’t agree with your prescription for its cure.


You mention Iran as an opponent of ISIS, but focus on the cure as supporting Assad and hint that boots on the ground (presumably USA boots) are essential.


But that is a prescription that you have just said is the wrong one — a military one. What else have Assad and USA boots to offer?  (And for our own sake, the USA desperately needs NOT to enter yet another unwinnable war  — unwinnable by your own definition of what ISIS is.)


ISIS is the traumatized response to the cruelties imposed by the West upon Islam. As often with victims of trauma, ISIS is replicating, perhaps worsening, the cruelties Islam has suffered.  (Your note of the cruelties ISIS has inflicted did not include one of the worst – the organized and “religiously justified” sexual enslavement and rapes of many women.)


The only cure for ISIS is a passionate, prophetic,  progressive Islam. The nearest equivalent and a necessary ingredient is Iran — the Iran that despite Khameini’s doubts has moved forward to the nuclear pact, the Iran that almost pulled off the Green Revolution.


To make Iran an ally would mean a revolution in US and of course Israeli foreign policy. And in Iranian policy!


Difficult — but for all the reasons you give in your diagnosis of ISIS, it is necessary.  What would make it possible?  It would take three meshing elements:


  • A commitment by Israel to welcome the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state along approximately the green-line borders;


  • A commitment by Iran to welcome Israel and the new Palestine into the legitimate community of nations, with the fullness of relationships equivalent to what the Arab League has proposed, including: ending its support for attacks against Israel; insisting that Hamas and Fatah agree on a national-unity government of Palestine at peace with Israel; and ending its rhetoric against the US as “Great Satan”;



  • A commitment by the US and its allies to fully welcome Iran into the community of nations;  to insist that Sunni states like Saudi Arabia end attacks upon Shia communities; and to insist that military governments like Egypt end their violence against peaceful Muslim political groups..


There is only one power in the world capable of initiating such a mesh of commitments: the United States, ideally bringing with it the other “5+1” Great Powers that negotiated the nuclear pact with Iran: –  Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.


How could the transformation begin? Imagine President Obama calling an Emergency Middle East Peace Conference with all Arab states, Palestine, Israel, and Iran, with the US commitment to put all its economic and political (not military) power behind achieving what the Arab League Initiative proposed –  full diplomatic and economic relationships among Israel and all Arab states — only with Iran included.


Such a turning – a tshuvah – in US policy could only happen if there were a strong public base demanding it. Perhaps alliances of prophetic, progressive American Jews, Christians, and Muslims  could seed such a demand.


In the context of such a transformation in world politics – perhaps even more basic than Nixon’s opening to China – there could be the real “Muslim Spring” the world so needs. American Islam,  fruitfully benefitting from the free creativity offered by the First Amendment, and such initiatives as the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, brilliantly drawing  on the Holy Quran to address the greatest crisis that we all face, might point the way.


Is this vision merely a pipe dream? At least, Chaver Uri,  it is a cure in line with your diagnosis of the meaning and power of ISIS as virulent idea. And if we will it, it can be more than just a dream.


Shalom, salaam, sohl, pax, peace!  — Arthur


Rabbi Arthur Waskow


The Shalom Center




September 13, 2015


Comment by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine :


The two perspectives articulated above by Uri Avnery and Rabbi Arthur Waskow deserve to be well known and discussed. We at Tikkun have a slightly different approach: we believe that the hate-filled and barbarous approach of ISIS will continue to manifest in a world that is fundamentally unjust, creates huge amounts of suffering in daily life for at least 2 of the 7 billion people on the planet, and privileges military power over kindness in its expenditures of money and in the organization of nation states.


We have long argued that what we need is to convince the Western powers to privilege generosity over domination, and to launch as a first step in this process a Global Marshall Plan to once and for all eliminate global poverty, hunger, homelessness, inadequate education and health care, repair the global environment, resettle refugees, and eliminate the unjust global trade arrangements (read our proposed version at  


Yet Uri Avnery and Arthur Waskow, both strong allies of Tikkun, have proposals which differ from our approach and from each other, though because they fit into the “realistic” dialogue of power politics both might be achieved sooner than our plan.


 Arthur’s seems much closer to us precisely because it does not envision the direct use of force but only the economic, political, and diplomatic power of the US to implement it.  In my view, however, it is more likely to get the US population behind a fundamental change in worldview called for by the Strategy of Generosity than to get a piecemeal acceptance of Iran as an ally in the Middle East reconciled to Israel, unless we were simultaneously challenging the notion that their security depends on power over enemies (the Strategy of Domination).


But these are the kinds of debates that ought to be taking place in national elections in 2016, so you decide if any of the candidates are even approaching this level of discourse on foreign policy—and if not, what you could do to get them to address this kind of discussion.


Rabbi Waskow and Uri Avnery present important ideas for your consideration.  


–Rabbi Michael Lerner




AND, I would add, so does Rabbi Lerner.  --  AW




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