Russia and the Return of Civilizations in the Near East – Part II

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By Dr. David Wurmser
January 21, 2020

In Part I of this piece, we reviewed how Russia is informed by a civilizational concept of foreign policy. It sees itself anchored to both an ancient Byzantine legacy, as well as a Eurasian power – which is an amalgamation of pre-Renaissance European culture with Mongolian culture, according to the works of its leading ideologues and theologians. And in turn, it projects onto the Middle East a strategic concept that there is a vertical geographic axis, within which Russia as a Eurasian power is the northern, and dominating, anchor. Further south, the Middle East is increasingly defined by the resurgence of ancient cultures/civilizations – three urban (Byzantine, Indo-Persian, Jewish) and two originally nomadic (Ottoman and Arab).

If there is a remnant of the great Byzantine civilization beyond Russia itself, it is not in its cradle in Asia Minor, but in Greece and in the periphery of Asia Minor: namely, the Christian communities of the Balkans and Middle East. Russia tends to focus as much on populations as on territory – an expansive evolution of the early concept after the Soviet collapse of the “near abroad.” The more Russia sees itself as the heir of Byzantium, the more it sees itself as the protector of Byzantium’s populations, namely Greek and Middle Eastern Christians, which it sees not as tired stragglers clinging to life, but the core civilization of the western Levantine fertile crescent and, more importantly, an extension of itself.

Interestingly, Russia seems to have more of a population-oriented rather than territory-based concept of its Byzantine inheritance, at least thus far. As such, it appears not to view the land of Israel as Byzantine trust territory, and thus has little territorial design on it. It is interested in its Christian inhabitants, though, which explains why Putin, when he last visited Israel , at first planned on dispensing with the habitual “balancing” visit to the Muqata in Ramallah and Abu Mazen, and instead met with church leaders in Bethlehem. In Israel, he sought discussions with the Jews and displayed support for the Christian community. He reluctantly agreed in the end to go the Muqata for a minimal half-hour visit as an afterthought, the optics of which only emphasized his disinterest.

Further east, the West continues to see Iran as a non-Arab Muslim nation – a definition the Iranian regime itself has an interest in advancing in its quest to invent and lead a new version of a pan-Islamic (rather than Sunni) Nasserism. While the West has in the recent decades appreciated the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, it does not know what to make of Iran’s ancient history beyond filing it away as a quaint history lesson, or a residue leaving ethnic tensions. It fails to grasp the unifying, civilizational and powerfully nationalist, emotive aspects of it. It views Iranian attitudes toward the West as a natural extension, thus, of the attitudes reigning in the rest of the Middle East.1 And yet, if Russia views itself as the inheritor of Byzantium, Christendom and ancient Hellenica, then the Iranian population increasingly sees itself as the inheritor of the legacy of Cyrus the Great and the Persian empire, more than it now views itself as a regional Islamic leader. In other words, Iranians see themselves as distinct from the Middle East, or perhaps, older and more genuine (pre-Islamic, Indo-European) than what we would understand as the Middle East.

Increasingly in Iran, the language of opposition – which has proven explosively dangerous for the regime — is assuming the menacing mantle (for the regime) of a nostalgic return to its Persian roots. The works of Ferdowsi written well over 1000 years ago are growing in importance as seditious texts. Pilgrimage to the tomb of Cyrus has become an act of subversion, so the regime tries to bar visits. The seeds of this revival were sown before the rise of the Islamic revolution in Iran precisely because the royal Iranian government was strongly attempting to restore ancient Persian history and encourage its domination within Iranian identity to dilute the influence of Islam and power of its clergy. It took the Iranian revolution and its popular rejection, however, to cause those seeds to grow. As the Islamic revolution in Iran falters, the popular language of hope and aspiration naturally assumes an ancient Persian form.

Moreover, Iran belongs also to an ancient Indo-Persian civilizational grouping. An urban culture for millennia, it still has deep culture and population ties to India and many populations in between. Nor are Indians neutral on Iran. Many Indians view Iran as cousins, as a relative in the ancient Indus-basin civilization. Moreover, India is home to a robust Persian exile community still practicing Zoroastrianism, and many of these Persians now form India’s business elite.

Simply stated, Iran is in the process of returning to its Indo-Persian foundations – perhaps re-inventing it in somewhat forced fashion through the obscuring mist of nostalgia.

Further south is Israel. In Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Huntington goes to great lengths to try to prove that Jewish people are not a distinct civilization – ultimately arguing that the miniscule size of the community cannot muster civilizational critical mass. And yet, his efforts betray his own suspicions, as Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much.” Israel is in fact re-emerging as one of the few, core civilizations with its own ethnicity, religion, language group (the only remaining north-Semitic tongue) and culture in the Middle East. Moreover, it is again assuming its highly influential and strategic role in helping shape the region – ironically, without intending to or being consciously aware of it.

Israel is often called the “start-up nation” – a term popularized by the book of the same name by Senor and Singer which fails to credit the enduring influence of ancient civilization and limits Israeli innovation to being nothing more embedded than a fairly recent result of the unique circumstances and tribulations of the Jewish people’s struggle in world War II and Israel’s creation and demands of survival.

While certainly also an attribute of several other civilizations, innovation has marked Jewish civilization from inception with the moment the quest to struggle with understanding unknown abstraction guided Abraham’s behavior. The intangibility of monotheism – the concept of the abstract deity – was reinforced by a prohibition on its representation through icons and statues. This cultural proclivity to innovation was born of a restlessness, a struggle and conflictual relation with the abstract power guiding the unknown. The name of the Jewish people – Israel – translates into “wrestler with God” (Isra-El), the allegory of which was Jacob’s actually wrestling with the divine, and the change of his name, and that of his descendants, to “Isra-El.”

So unique was this proclivity to struggle with the abstract that the Greeks took intense interest in the name, and chose to use it to refer to the people and land of Israel – Palaistis, from which the name Palestine was coined by Greeks to refer to Jews by their own self-appellation already in 400 BC (the common wisdom that it came from the Romans’ renaming of Israel with the name of its ancient nemesis, the Philistines, is actually erroneous since the name Palaistis – παλαιστής — already appeared in Greek texts, such as Herodotus, four to five centuries earlier to refer to Jews and their land, using the exact translation of the word Isra-El). Such naming was consistent with Greek practice, since they generally used Greek translations, not transliterations, of the name people gave themselves. Phoenix (purple) is a translation of Canaan (purple snail dye), and thus Phoenicia.

This restlessness — this constant state of struggle with the abstract and unknown – grounds the tendency to never settle accepting what is as is. Innovation is the upside of this otherwise non-palliative, culturally-rooted restlessness, since it leads to a civilizational proclivity to fiddling with things and ideas. But this proclivity toward innovation also enabled the Jewish people to preemptively politically and theologically adjust to survive. Consistently, whether it was Abraham, Simon the Just’s transformation of Judaism’s leadership not only to Pairs (Zugot) but also to lay the onus of knowledge at every Jews’ feet rather than priestly elite (implying also universal literacy), to the rise of the Mishnaic and Rabbinic Judaism, the removal of Rban Gamliel to Yavne on the eve of destruction, or to the Geonic tradition in Babylonia (6th Century onward) during exile of writing the first Talmud, the pre-existing proclivity to innovation enabled the Jewish people to preemptively adjust politically and theologically to survive. This ingrained cultural proclivity to innovate helps explain the unlikely survival, as the British historian Paul Johnson termed it, of the Jewish people against the current and expectations of history.

This point is far beyond being merely a curiosity or semantics. It suggests that Israel’s innovation will not only persist, but thrive, in an age of reduced threat. Indeed, the historical record suggests the Jewish people have played an innovative role within the economies of the nations in which they lived in the diaspora but reach their greatest heights in periods of greatest freedom and a reduced sense of communal threat.

Innovation may have been ingrained in Israeli culture since the beginning of the state, but the type of innovation has changed in the last decades. The stress, privation and danger of constant threat either in the diaspora and in Israel’s first decades more likely retarded, or at least distorted, than nurtured the full potential of the Jewish people toward innovation. It forced its innovative nature to largely limit itself to leveraging existing or known technologies and applying them in novel ways. At first, Israeli innovation tended to be adaptive, not pioneering. It provided tactical solutions within paradigms to problems, rather than challenging the paradigms. This engendered several episodes of respected and exported Israeli know-how, especially in the defense industries, but the volume of pioneering versus adaptive innovation were fewer and rarer and failed to sufficiently amount to a reputation of Israel’s “punching above its weight.” Moreover, since a large percentage of innovation was adaptive, the global application of Israeli innovativeness was limited to global needs which coincided with Israeli needs. As horrific an event as it might have been, Israel’s disappearance in its first half-century would have hardly registered an impact on the global economy, and thus its economy never registered as a vital Western interest.

What marks Israeli innovation in the current era and going forward – and explains the rise of Israel as an economy that punches above its weight — is that it has now transcended both adaptive creativity and limited local applicability. Israel has emerged at the forefront of pioneering innovation, and in an inversion of its past circumstance, it is geared toward answering global innovative demand even if it is not applicable to the Israeli market. Israel is now a research innovator and incubator on an international level servicing major global industries rather than just its own economy. More and more sectors, not only high tech, but also traditional large-capital industry such as the automotive sector, view Israel as a critical incubator for the global economy. As such, Israel’s economy has now emerged as a significant Western strategic interest in its own right. As such, millennia-old Jewish civilizational attributes and the state of Israel are finally aligned. China and Russia see this as culturally rooted, not circumstantial as most in the West do, and thus they appreciate it more as a resilient and permanent strategic condition than many in the West cannot fathom.

The Jews, even in ancient times, tended to be introverted and sucked into great power conflicts rather than volunteer to engage in them. While the Davidic empire (House of David) had its moments, neither have the Jewish people displayed any imperial ambition nor has Judaism sought universality. Still, although generally clueless about its impact, Israel is unwittingly emerging as competition for Russia’s vision. Israel is neither solely European nor Asian nor African. Culturally, Israel is also a Eurasian amalgam with a long history of interactions with both Europe and Persia. But its pedigree is Semitic, with strong Persian and Hellenistic and later, renaissance European influences rather than Russia’s pre-renaissance European-Mongolian origin. So, not only does Israel pose a challenge to Russia as an important model for the West, but it also occupies the same space, but with radically different foundations, in Russia’s grand Eurasian concept. At the same time, Israel is emerging as the eastern Mediterranean power able to challenge neo-Ottoman designs on Greece and Cyprus, and may play a role in assisting regional minorities, such as Christians and Kurds. In this, it is aligned with Russian interests. This positions Israel in a better light for Moscow.

As such, Russia views the rise of Jewish civilization in Israel ultimately with anxiety and ambiguity. Israel is certainly part of the occident, like Russia, but it also is part of the orient, like Russia. As such, while nowhere near as powerful as Russia, it occupies the same space as Russia — but unlike Russia, all the underlying indices of cultural health suggest Russia is old and tired, and Israel – despite its ancient pedigree – is young and vibrant. For Russia, which seeks to be the premier Eurasian power in its “vertical geographic axis,” this must be disconcerting.

Not only does Israel compete with Eurasian Russia by straddling both European and Asian culture, it also could preempt Russia’s ability regionally to secure compliant allies in the long run, such as Iran. Obscured by the intense recent hostility of the Islamic Republic against Israel, it is to be noted that in contrast throughout history, Jews have traditionally had substantial interactions with the Persian empire, with several episodes rising to the level of immense strategic importance to both. It is not to be ruled out that another such moment is approaching.

Israel by the very act of being, let alone being who it is, is damned to a complicated relationship, half unwitting ally and half unintended foe, with Russia. And unlike the West, Russia understands far better the strategic importance of the nation.

In part III of this series, we will examine Russia’s views on the persistence of the two originally nomadic cultures, the Ottoman and Arab, and conclude with how this strategic concept will interact with and affect the interests of the United States.

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1: The West, at any rate, mistakes these attitudes, believing the predominant “rage” is driven by a deep sense of grievance and post-colonial anguish born of Western arrogance and oppression dating back as far back as the Crusades. There is far more evidence that the theologians and ideologues driving the rage, in fact, act far more as a result of deeply-held contempt for Western civilization mixed with the rage born of witnessing the injustice of a supposedly superior civilization’s (their brand of Islam) being dominated by the eclipsing power, influence and confidence of the supposedly inferior Western civilization.