The basic dynamic in the Middle East (ME) is the persistence of a pre-modern, Islamist axis led and fed by Iran.

This resonates with a postmodern victimhood cult in parts of the Western Left and postcolonial countries. The Islamist axis aims to create an Islamic Caliphate by conquest. Israel stands in the way. The present war is part of the fight of pre-modern theocrats in the ME, corrupt leaders of failed post-colonial States around the world and Utopian radicals in the West against the demands of modernity: rationality, normalcy and democracy. All the rest is commentary.

It’s meaningless to write about the daily noise and strife of the political arena without relating it to the larger questions of history and the gathering crises of our times.

This moment is one such especially difficult time. We are immersed in claim and counterclaim and depictions of the destructiveness of war to serve political agendas. Each side has a vested interest in lying, or at least in minimising their own responsibilities and magnifying the evil of the other. Under such circumstances most people simply go with the narrative of the ‘majority’ in their circle or resort to moral equivalence.

Such an escape from the pain and complexity of judgement is understandable but not good enough. At times like these we need to remind ourselves that it is vital not to lose our powers of rationality and commitment to truth. So let’s start.

The human species has had many enemies threatening its survival. As a result the history of humanity has been uneven and patchy. Much of this variation is due to fortuitous external factors such as climate, ecology, the absence or presence of domesticable plants and so on, and other natural disasters.

But with technology and increasing energy abundance and modern communication systems such extraneous factors have receded in importance and success depends more on innovation, social organisation and social harmony. In short, our survival depends more on ourselves and less on externalities

But we’re left with the global residue of history over many thousands of years which has shaped the cultural, technological, economic and political map of the early 21st century. This patchiness, combined with the greater interdependence of the global system, is threatening the stability of nations, regions and the global order itself. This is the big picture backdrop to the current state of the Middle East.


To drill down further into specifics, we need to recognise the threat posed throughout recorded human history by relatively primitive states to more complex, stratified settled societies. From the Bronze Age horsemen and charioteers of the Eurasian steppes, to the Huns and Goths and other tribal warriors who overran a declining Roman Empire to the Mongol conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries and the Mfecane arising from Zulu expansionism in the early 1800s, a notable feature of these conquests was the extreme and calculated brutality of the invaders.

More broadly, cruelty and suffering in war has been universal throughout most of history. But three factors have reduced the calculated brutality of war in what we now call the developed world.

One was the increase in prosocial attitudes required of complex, democratic societies to function successfully. Second, linked to this broad social increase in trust and cooperation within democratic society, was a revulsion against brutality and oppression everywhere. Thus slavery was outlawed in the West (but continued in the Muslim world into the late 20th century), colonialism was regarded as beyond the pale of civilised countries and rules of conflict began to make their appearance especially following the mass casualties of the two world wars of the 20th century. Third, and finally, the advent of modern and especially digital communications brought home the realities of war to settled populations preconditioned to look with disfavour on the brute exercise of power.

Partly in response to these evolving norms within the developed, democratic world, a new movement arose in the second half of the 20th century which foregrounded the sins of power, notably power exercised by the West, and the victimhood of all those impacted directly or indirectly by that power. This spun off into a narrative of group identity arranged along a victim-oppressor spectrum which determined the moral standing of various races, genders and classes irrespective of their specific actions in the real world.

Acute sensitivity

In short, the events of the past five centuries have aroused in the democratic West especially, an acute sensitivity to power in the context of a predetermined moral axis in which the oppressor pole is occupied by white supremacist, imperialist capitalists while the victim pole is represented by previously colonised, black, indigenous persons and societies.

Nevertheless, this leftwing political doctrine of original sin is flexible enough to allocate oppressor or victim status according to the political tides of the moment. Accordingly, Jews and Israelis are primal figures of evil in the minds of large and powerful segments of the democratic West. It is through this lens that the recent events in the ME are depicted in significant sections of the social and legacy media. If this bears a strong family resemblance to Nazi-type racial stereotyping, it’s no accident. Both arise from binary Manichean views of good and evil permanently embodied in certain individuals and groups which is immune to contradiction or evidence.

An honest summary acknowledges that both sides had legitimate claims to the land, but that from the very start Palestinian leaders adopted a maximalist stance which rejected all compromise and negotiation while the Jewish settlers accepted repeatedly what was on offer (see Milton Shain’s excellent article in Business Day, 17 Oct 2023: ‘Israel haters ignore a grievous history’ for further detail).

These approaches were entirely in keeping with the dominant cultural ethos and historical experience of the two groups. The Jews had come from over a millennium of survival as an embattled minority in a hostile Christian Europe and elsewhere, scattered around the globe. They also participated in the Western Enlightenment and imbibed the doctrine of nationalism which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This historical experience engendered a unique sense of national and communal identity which embraced considerable ethnic diversity and a multiplicity of ideologies.

At the time of Jewish settlement starting in the late 19th century, Palestine was a biblical term with no specific nationalistic connotations. It was still an undeveloped, under-populated and neglected part of the Ottoman Empire, home to a traditional, clan- and honour-based, hierarchical Arab-Islamic society dominated by a few land-owning families. It had no natural resources and was either arid or swampy, riddled in places by malaria.

Integral part

However, Jews had remained an integral part of the population of Palestine ever since the fall of the second Temple in 70 AD. The region remained the setting for endless bloody contestation between different religions, regional and distant powers for 1.5 millennia till absorbed into the Ottoman empire in 1517, which ruled for four centuries until its collapse in 1917.

The influx of largely Ashkenazi (European) Jews in the waning decades of Ottoman rule once again reignited the tinderbox of local ethno-religious xenophobia. The next three decades also saw the rise of Nazism and Communism in Europe, an increase in pogroms against European Jewry culminating in the Holocaust, continued Jewish influx into Palestine accompanied by anti-Jewish riots, the UN partition plan with the creation of a Jewish homeland followed by the Declaration of Independence and the creation of Israel in 1948.

For the Jews, return to Palestine, the site of Jewish origins and temporary self-governance, was an opportunity to create the ‘new Jew’ free of the oppressor’s yoke and arbitrary whims. For a small proportion the return to the Holy Land was fulfilment of God’s promise but the majority were motivated mainly by the opportunity of creating an inclusive, diverse democratic, state which would foreground Jewish ideals, industry and history. Arabs and other religious traditions were welcome within the Jewish homeland with full civil and political rights and freedom to practise their own religious beliefs (proclaimed in the Israeli Declaration of Independence).

Some simple statistics are revealing. Israel occupies 1.5% of the Muslim landmass in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It is singularly lacking in natural resources, except for some recently discovered offshore gas fields, partly shared by other states in the region, in sharp contrast to its oil-drenched Arab neighbours. Muslims constitute 25% of the world population. The entire population of Israel is just over 0.1% of the global number and the entire Jewish population is about 0.65% of the Muslim total. The Palestinians are mainly Arab Muslims speaking the same language, sharing the same history and culture and following the same religion as their 300 million neighbours. Israel, on the other hand, apart from being mainly Jewish, is one of the most ethnically, historically and culturally diverse societies in the world.

Grotesquely one-sided contest

Yet despite this grotesquely one-sided contest Israel is routinely depicted as the aggressor and the Goliath in the on-going conflict. Of course, a hundred specious arguments are thrown up at this point: Israel is a Western (US) pawn, a symbol of the power of Jewish money, or of the Jewish lobby, or whatever.

Everything except the truth: namely, that the Jews are the prime example of why Western democratic values, hard work, intelligence and courage create prosperity and peace. In stark contrast, the atavistic Islamist mindset still prevalent in large parts of the ME coupled to the post-modern victimhood cult in parts of the West are a fatal combination which threatens not only the region but the entire globe.

Since beginning of the 20th century, there have been more than a hundred inter-State and within-State violent conflicts in the MENA region claiming millions of casualties by direct action, and millions more through displacement, famine and disease. The stunting of human potential is incalculable. The conflicts have mostly been Arab versus Arab driven by religious differences and competition for supremacy complicated by Western and non-Western great power involvement. Israel’s contribution to the toll has been miniscule.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be solved, except extremist Arab leaders, their Western supporters and passive accomplices do not want a resolution which leaves Israel as an independent viable Jewish state in the Middle East. They have no interest in the benefits of democracy for their people, captured as they are by the primal desire for revenge and conquest and the rewards of corrupt autocracy for the chosen few.

The slogan that Gaza is an ‘open air prison’ is true but Hamas and Islamist Jihad are the wardens, not Israel. When Israel handed Gaza over to the Palestinians in 2005, dragging their own people out of their homes, they left behind sophisticated agricultural and other infrastructure and invited the Gazans to create the Singapore of the ME, with Israeli help.

No such luck. Hamas took over and all resources went to the favoured few and to the construction of weapons and tunnels with which to attack Israel. That was their entire motive for existence.

Transparently dishonest propaganda

When Western media buy into the transparently dishonest propaganda of Hamas and the other Palestinian terror groups, they become apologists for genocide: the genocide committed by Arabs against their own people and the genocide planned for the Jews. They become accomplices in the brutal extortionist tactics of Hamas: ‘We will kill your civilians and children in cold blood but should you retaliate, we have 130 Israelis hostages here to slaughter. Even better, we have 2.5 million Palestinians civilians you will have to penetrate to get to us in our tunnels and under our hospitals and schools.’

And, whatever you do, we can lie with impunity because we have the media and our apologists all over the West to lay the blame on you. 

At this point I’m expected to say that, of course, Israel has not been perfect. So yes, that’s true. But the problems in the ME have nothing to do with Israeli hubris or with Israeli racism or with Israeli brutality. Those ills exist in Israeli society, as they do in virtually all others, further exacerbated by perpetual war on its border and inside its territory. But anyone who has any knowledge of Israel can only admire its remarkable determination to adhere to civilised democratic norms against the odds.

Democracy that cannot defend itself cannot persist, and the world needs to give Israel permission to defend its citizens and civilised values against the Islamist axis terrorising the MENA region and holding the world to ransom. Many Western leaders have grasped the significance of this this time and they must be applauded. I hope they have the courage and wisdom to see it through to a successful outcome.

Brief Coda: Israel cannot be left to steer the ME towards democracy alone. The problems of the ME are simply one version of the pitfalls faced by modernity and democracy across the globe. This is the challenge of the 21st century.

[Image: incorporates work by hosny salah from Pixabay and Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Dr Mike Berger has a BSc and MBBCh from the University of the Witwatersrand, and a PhD in Biochemistry from Mayo Clinic/University of Minnesota in the United States. He was a Senior Lecturer-Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town, and latterly Professor and Head of Chemical Pathology at the University of Natal Medical School. He is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. In retirement, he has pursued Interests in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and aligned disciplines in relation to politics and human collective behaviour. He has published extensively in South African popular media. Other interests and hobbies include writing, photography, cycling, history and literature.