Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Maureen Dowd and the Saudi Prince


From Maureen Dowd's latest op-ed in the New York Times:
"The religious institutions in Israel are stymieing every effort at peace," said the prince, wearing a black-and-gold robe and tinted glasses."
Israel is a secular society that some say is growing less secular with religious militants and the chief rabbinate that would like to impose a harsh and exclusive interpretation of Judaism upon the entire society. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis are fighting off the Jewish women who want to conduct their own prayer services at the Western Wall. (In Orthodox synagogues, some men still say a morning prayer thanking God for not making them women.)

Neither Prince Saud al-Faisal nor Maureen Dowd seem to have a clue about Israel. Jewish religious institutions in Israel have very little if anything to do with the lack of progress in the peace process. The morning blessing to which Dowd refers is said by nearly all men who pray at Orthodox synagogues; it is not evidence of any kind of recent trend in Israel. The only factor making Israel "less secular" is demographic. I don't think it's accurate to say that the chief rabbinate wants to impose ultra-Orthodox Judaism on Israeli society. It is more concerned with keeping ultra-Orthodox rabbis in control of religious institutions. And that, again, is completely unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems like the Saudi prince is projecting. He, like many Muslims today, views Israel primarily in religious terms as a challenge to Islam.


rmblum said...

Amos - thank you for posting about this! This column is an example of how the NY Times (despite its spectacularly addictive Real Estate section) is beginning to become unreadable. I think you are right about the Saudi Prince viewing Israel in primarily religious terms. As for Ms. Dowd, this piece reveals the astonishing depth of her stupidity: as if pre-modern conceptions of women's role in ritual perpetuated by the Rabbanut or orthodox men reciting birkot hashachar every morning are in any way some kind of counterexample to the supposed relaxation of the intense restrictions on women's fundamental civic and political rights in Saudi Arabia! Even if Ms. Dowd's "worst dreams" came true in Israel in terms of orthodox men limiting women's rights and Saudi Arabia were to make major liberalizing reforms - there is simply no way a Western woman would be better off in a "modern" Saudi Arabia than even a "theocratic" Israel. She has no perspective whatsoever!

Noah K said...


I more than agree that an attempt to link increasingly prominent expressions of religiosity in the political culture (is this not well documented?) to the current status of the peace process are a bunch of hot air. And it wouldn't surprise me if Maureen Dowd did that. It's just the kind of thing that Frank Rich is also fond of doing, where he tries to connect the cultural dots to the political ones. I have to say, though, she's not really doing that. Her informant tries to, and she doesn't subject that claim to the kind of scrutiny she focuses on the Saudis' claim about themselves -- of which she has a healthy skepticism, no? So I would have liked to seen the same skepticism about the charge against Israel, rather than the kind of banal but potentially damning "Some [presumably credible] people say that Israel is indeed becoming more religous..."

Now, other commentators in the American media are indeed making Prince Saud al-Faisal's same argument explicitly. The recent example I saw was by the influential Andrew Sullivan of Many grievances about Israeli policy are thrown together in his muddled view. But it's particularly interesting to note the link made between the decision of the current government to take what is perceived in the world to be a hard line on the territories and the decision to designate the Tomb of Rachael and the Tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron as, as I understand it "Zionist heritage sites." Or is it a "Zionist and archaeological heritage site?" I can understand why it doesn't play so well abroad for the State of Israel to be staking its claim to this land on the presence of a Jewish pilgrimage site there. I mean, I can understand why it's read as "capture" of political institutions by religious ones.

What I really think is going on, though, is that, as Bibi is quite open about in his comments, Israel is far less postmodern about the constructed-ness of national identity. Or maybe just as postmodern, if not more, only they feel less guilty about it! The idea is to reinforce national identity by giving these sites a new designation, "archaeological and Zionist heritage sites," according to Sullivan's piece. Someone should check the government's official documents on this in the relevant languages...I personally think that the Dubai assassination, the issue of women's prayer at the Western Wall, and the new and provocative designation of the Hebron sites have little or nothing to do with each other. I can also sympathize with a government that is not willing to envision a future where Jews are prohibited from visiting the Hebron sites. On the other hand, the notion that there will be some archaeological sites that will be "Zionist" and others that won't be from now on, and that perhaps the criterion for inclusion as "Zionist" (and thus privileged) will be their importance to the religious population is extremely problematic and troubling!!!

Amos said...

Yes, my friend, you have hit the nail on the head. That careless equation, whereby Saudi women possibly being given the right to drive in some nebulous future is balanced by Jewish liturgical "misogyny" (which I think is an outrageous claim to make) is what got me. It was also extremely annoying to see that despite her efforts to project cool skepticism toward al-Faisal's claims, she had obviously been taken in by the rhetoric. Somehow it made sense to her to see the current Israeli government's policies as driven by religious radicalization. I am not denying that religion plays a role in public policy in Israel - though I see no reason to apologize for that. But the attempt to relate the supposed religious radicalization of Israeli society to the foreign and domestic policy aims of the current government betrays Dowd's utter ignorance. BTW, I think that the slow movement of haredim toward greater participation in the public sphere will entail quite a few compromises on their part rather than increased coercive powers.

I am not sure, however, I would concur with your judgment that the NYT is becoming unreadable. I fail to see a better alternative, though I would welcome an argument to the contrary, as I may simply be unaware of one.

Amos said...

Noah, I am only seeing your comment now and will respond to it later. The above is my reply to Mr. Blum.

Rebecca said...

Thank you for posting about this. I wouldn't put Dowd in the same category as Sullivan at all. This is just one of Dowd's many stupid, personality-based columns for which she is getting extremely overpaid at the Times. She wrote a whole series of idiotic ones during the American election season last year. She is known for this kind of idiocy. It's just that this time she decided to display her ignorance of international affairs, instead of domestic policy.