Many people were riveted to television recently, watching Libya’s civil war. Indeed the “Arab Spring” has been a media special since its inception in Tunisia, months ago. Libya is just the latest country to oust its autocrat, although it has certainly been the bloodiest war.
Let me share a story. Years ago (OK, many, many, many years ago), I was in a share taxi from Alexandria to Tripoli, where I was to visit with a friend and her family in the oil patch there. Although there were women in the share, I was not comfortable. My having no Arabic and they no English or French, we made do with a lot of hand signals. Not that I was molested, no, just that I felt like a monkey at the zoo being watched by a crowd of strangers.
After Benghazi – a city now familiar to all TV news wonks – the cast of characters changed, and I was the only woman. Also travelling with us was a young army officer, about my age, who spoke English. When we stopped for lunch, he introduced himself and treated me (by this time I was also pretty much out of Libyan money) to a traditional Libyan lunch, which turned out to be spaghetti. His joke was a wry one, as the colonial power that had influenced Libya was, of course, Italy.
We fell into conversation, although I kept a wary eye. He was travelling to meet his family near Tripoli. I told him I was going to my friend’s house in the oil-patch compound. Slowly, it dawned on me that I had no address save that one. This was a thought that I kept to myself.
Night was near when we reached Tripoli, passing what seemed to be miles of shacks made from pounded-out oil drums or tar paper, with metal roofs. Things did not look good. Where would I spend the night until I could find my hosts?
Then the conversation switched to Arabic, as my new friend told the driver where to go. We pulled up in front of a hotel, my officer showed me inside and told the hotel clerk that (1) I needed a room for the night and (2) I was to be treated like an honoured guest. He translated his orders for me, and from the look on the clerk’s face, I saw he was going to obey.
I thanked my companion. “Just please,” he replied, “when you go back to America, tell them that we are not barbarians.”
With that, he left me. The next day I set out to meet my hosts.
So when I looked at the recent scenes from Tripoli and recalled the years of craziness that have made Libya a hell for its citizens and for us, when I watched the uprisings in other countries – when I remember the hatred of us as Jews on the faces of these same people, their joy at the murders of Israelis, hear the shouts from Gaza “we want another Schalit” – I couldn’t be optimistic.
What happened to that young and earnest officer? Was he one of the officers who started a revolution (bloodless, by the way) against King Idris? Did he die in some Gadhafi prison when the revolution became a dire, dark regime of terror?
What if anything is my take-away message?
For us, Israelis and Diaspora Jews, the Arab Spring and all its offshoots do not include a moderation in their hatred of Israel or their animus toward Jews. Nor is there any sign that the ransom of Schalit will moderate the hatred of Gazans and the Hamas rulers’ intention to continue the war with Israel.
Whatever new governments come into being, countries such as Libya and Syria have few resources to draw upon that can help to create, for the first time, democratic states. Even Egypt seems destined for another military government. Countries trying to fashion democracy need institutions that foster democracy. They need, among other things, an independent judiciary; they need a vibrant and empowered middle class and schools that provide an educated electorate. They need an agreed-upon set of civil institutions that allow personal freedoms. For decades these things have been missing – or the middle class is powerless – in countries antagonistic to Israel.
It’s a long, dangerous road ahead for them and little joy for us.