Friday, May 20, 2016

Courage of the Spirit and the Rise of Radical Islam- An exchange of ideas with Ralph Georgy, an Egyptian-born novelist

This is an excerpt from an email conversation I had with Ralph Georgy, author of  Notes from the Cafe and Absolution: A Palestinian Israeli Love Story.  Georgy, born in Egypt, is a Coptic Christian, a member of one of the oldest existing Christian communities in the world, a community facing great dangers in today's volatile Middle East.  For information, go to Arab World Books:

May 17 at 12:13 AM

Dear Rabbi Norbert,

I'm so glad my book reached you. I just finished reading Courage of the Spirit and I'm simply overwhelmed by the extraordinary story you relate! Your book is an extraordinary contribution to Jewish thought, as well as the triumphant story of survival in the face of unimaginable odds. 

I'm not sure where to begin. I'm actually speechless at the moment. As a writer, I can appreciate the painstaking research, which went into this book. Every page was an emotional and intellectual revelation to me. Your writing style is not only inviting and accessible, but also intellectually engaging. It's as if you consciously set out to engage those who have a passive interest in the Jewish narrative of the twentieth century, as well as the intellectual who is well grounded in the history, but may lack an appreciation for the unfolding human drama. 

Early on in the book (p.5), you say, "To be a Jew was to invite a firing squad, and the worst of all was a roar of laughter and ridicule. Everyone was free to take out his heart on the Jew; he was the only one who could not retaliate, for the offender had the police, the church, the army, and the whole society lined up before him." What power your words have!!! 

You father was an intellectual giant who perfectly understood the philosophical currents of his time. On page 123, you state, "He penned his thoughts in a series of three essays on the position of Judaism as the naysayer of civilization especially in contrast to the popular intellectual trends of his day: the economic determinism of Marxism; the genetic determinism of Nazi racism; the cultural determinism of fascism; the psychological determinism in the schools of depth psychology espoused by Freud and Jung." Your father was indeed an extraordinary man!!! 

On a personal note, I was deeply affected by your book! I'm not sure if you ever knew this about me, but there is something about Jewish history, which is deeply meaningful to me. This is partly why I chose to teach at Herzl so many years ago. I wanted to be close to the Jewish people, the religion, the culture, etc. The love I have for the Jewish people is profound and I cannot fully explain why. 

I'm not sure if I told you this, but the Israeli director (Eran Riklis) who will adapt my book, Absolution, has recently given the book to the screenwriter. When I met her for the first time, she broke down in tears and said to me, "I've never met any writer from the Arab world who writes of Jewish history and the people with such love and compassion." 

Finally, I want say to you: Bless you for writing such a powerful book!!! More people need to read this book!!! 

Ralph Georgy
On Thursday, April 14, 2016 12:40 AM, R.F. Georgy wrote:

Dear Rabbi Norbert,

I absolutely agree with your observations. I believe the problem today in the Arab world is the Islamization of the region. I can tell you that as a Copt, my family in Egypt, as well as the Coptic community as a whole, lead lives of quiet desperation. President el-Sisi is saying all the right things and many Christians are hopeful, but as I write this, churches continue to be burned down. 

For the past several centuries, Islam has been on the decline. This decline has been accelerated after World War I and continues to this day. Arab intellectuals have offered various explanations and solutions to this decline, but nothing has worked. From Pan Arab nationalism to Nasserism, socialism to democracy, nothing has worked. The Islamists seem to be winning the day by instilling fear in people. Their argument is that the Arab world has moved away from Islam and the only way to recapture the glory of centuries past is to return to a strict interpretation of Islam. From within this generalized ideological reversion lies the radicalized elements we see today. 

On a personal note, radical Islam is a cancer, which will be with us for quite some time. When the Arab Spring happened in 2011, the world looked at the Middle East with hope and optimism. The Arab Spring, of course, served only as a punctuation, or a disturbance, if you like, in the status quo. Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria are failed states. Egypt returned to military rule. The only country I can think of that benefited from the Arab Spring is Tunisia (where the Arab Spring started). Only time will tell if it continues down the path of democracy. 

In terms of Edward Said, I highly doubt he would have a place among Palestinians today. I'm not sure if you read his groundbreaking work, Orientalism, but I engage his ideas at length in my book, Absolution. Here is one argument I make. If we accept the premise that the West reduced the Orient to, what Said calls, an essentialist reality, shaped and informed by a paradigmatic view of the "other" as the antithesis of the civilized West, then my question is this: how did the West look at the Jewish people who lived in the heart of Europe? If the Orient was a distant, exotic place, then how do we account for the horrific treatment of Jews who were assimilated into the intellectual life of Europe? 

The argument is more developed in the book, so I won't go further into it here, sufficed it to say that Zionism became an existential necessity for many Jews. 
. . .




Dear Ralph,
It will be fascinating to read these books. The premise is fascinating. I can somewhat understand Chomsky’s position, in that we have Jews who live in a  rarified atmosphere that if only we were perfect enough, leftist enough, internationalist enough,( going back to the Yevsekstia that were more Stalinist than the Stalinists) then all would be solved. I think that Edward Said represents the Middle Eastern variation—the Arab awakening involved many Jews &; Christians who dove in head first into the new Algeria  the new Syria or Iraq, to be more Arab than the others. No question that Edward Said was fully identified with Palestinian nationalism. Nationalist movements however, tend to homogenize their society--including the idea of one religion, to the exclusion of others. Would he have a place in a Palestine today, dominated by Islamists? Looking at what the Copts have experienced in the last few years, in Egypt, what would you say?
Regards , Shalom,
Rabbi Norbert
Dear Rabbi Weinberg,
. . .
Absolution is a love story with a theme of redemptive possibilities. The story opens in 2018 where the Israeli Prime Minister, Avi Eban is in Oslo preparing to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in establishing a Palestinian state. As Avi paces back and forth in his hotel room, he experiences a series of flashbacks, which take him to 1985 Columbia University, where he was an undergraduate. It was at Columbia that Avi fell in love with a red haired Palestinian girl. I made Avi Eban the great nephew of Abba Eban and Alena Said (the red haired girl) is the niece of Edward Said. It would be this love, profound and providential, which decades later would inspire peace. Both Avi and Alena had to navigate through the dialectic of hate, suspicion, blame and counter blame, and all of the historical forces plaguing both people. 
This novel took me several years to write. The amount of research was extraordinary. Although I had a strong foundational knowledge of Zionism and Arab/Palestinian nationalism, I needed to do research on the minute details of the conflict. In fact, Abba Eban's son, Elie Eban, helped me with details about his father. Eli and I became friends over the years. Most of the characters in the novel are actual historical figures, save for Avi and Alena. Edward Said's wife, Mariam Said, offered personal details about Edward Said, even the layout for the New York apartment they lived in. Many of my Jewish and Israeli friends loved the book. I can't say the same about the Arab reaction. Many Arab intellectuals told me I make the case for Zionism better than Jews. 
My response is that I will never apologize for the love I have for the Jewish people. You know, Rabbi, I have met Edward Said and Noam Chomsky on several occasions. We would get into heated arguments about the conflict. Many people will tell you that Chomsky is brilliant, which he is. I simply don't agree with his conclusions about Israel. 
I'm not sure if you are aware of this, but Chomsky and Said never met each other, let alone debate. In the novel, I created a fictional debate between them at Columbia. Let me know what you think of the debate. 
By the way, USC is devoting an evening to my book, Notes from the Cafe, this September. This is part of their Vision and Voices program. I will be speaking about the ideas in Notes and the Los Angeles Times article. The event will take place September 14th. It would be lovely if you can make it. 
. . .
Ralph Georgy

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