It’s nearly impossible to boil the Middle East’s recent history down to an hour-long presentation, but if there is anyone up for the challenge, it’s intelligence analyst Avi Melamed.
The former Israeli senior official on Arab affairs painted a sobering, comprehensive picture of the tumultuous region through discussion of political and radical Muslim groups and their movements, governments and agendas, Iran’s role in the region and regional sources of instability, but he offered a glimmer of hope when looking at the post-Arab Spring world. He also contextualized Israel, the U.S. and events that happened within the 48 hours prior to his talk last week at the Meeting House in Columbia.
Surveying the strategic landscape, his message was simple: “We have to be painfully realistic,” he said.
The March 13 talk was the first of three presentations in the “Israel: Reality, Hopes and Dreams” series, an effort by the Jewish Federation of Howard County to develop closer connections between county residents and Israel while showcasing information and perspectives that go beyond the headlines in order to paint a complete picture of Israel and its neighbors.
“[The goal is] to realize what Israel’s facing and not get caught up in BDS and all these things that are great distractions,” Jane Zweig, chair of the speaker series, explained, referencing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that has labeled Israel as the aggressor in its dealings with the Palestinians. The series is the first of its kind for the federation, and Zweig envisions future programs focusing on more Israel-centric themes, including technology and innovation.
The federation has an Israeli shlicha, emissary, working to connect the Howard County Jewish community to Israel. Gal Perlmoter, one of about 250 shlichim working in the U.S., began her year-long job at the end of August and is working with the area’s religious institutions, community organizations and schools to strengthen their bonds with the Jewish state.
“This is the first year there is a shlicha in Howard County, and that is why we have these events,” said Perlmoter. “We really want to let people have the knowledge about what’s going on in Israel, but not just to talk about the conflict; we really want to give a variety of topics.”
The second session, “Israel in 2023: What We Might Expect,” will be presented by Yoram Peri, director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, on March 27. He will discuss his predictions for Israel’s future.
The final session, on April 10, is “Banks, Bombs and Sanctions: How Rogue Regimes Abuse the International Financial Sector.” It will be presented by Avi Jorisch, senior fellow for counterterrorism at the American Foreign Policy Council.
Perlmoter said the intention of the series is to give attendees a bigger picture of what’s going on in Israel and in the region. To that end, Melamed laid out an in-depth but accessible modern history of the Middle East up to the present day.
“The Arab Spring is the outcry of Arab societies for a future, for a dignified future. This is the essence,” explained Melamed. “The message of the Arab Spring is, ‘We don’t want to die. We want a future. We want hope.’”
But these progressive voices — whose wishes focus on employment, education, infrastructure and government stability — have to break through groups of political and radical Islamists. The political Islamists, said Melamed, envision a political structure with a global kingdom based on religious law and an uncompromising animosity to Israel. Militant radical groups, meanwhile, hold that individual lives are not important; the glory of Allah is the greater purpose.
“These are major players in the region,” said Melamed. “They are not going anywhere.”
He traced the origins and migrations of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist sect within Sunni Islam, Hamas and Hezbollah and explained the various conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis and how the regimes in Iran, Egypt, Syria and other countries play a major role in the region’s continuing upheaval. On the topic of Israel’s place in the region, Melamed spoke about how Islamist Jihad, in addition to Hamas, operates in the Gaza Strip and how Iran has supported their fight against the Jewish state.
“[Iran has] sophisticatedly built challenges against Israel for the last generation,” he said.
But the annihilation of Israel isn’t at the top of many of these groups’ agendas, claimed Melamed. They are occupied in other countries’ conflicts, fighting other groups, fighting for power and pushing their agendas.
Melamed, however, offered some hope. He sees a lot of power and empowerment in the spread of social media throughout the Middle East. Internet use is rising, he pointed out, with 35 percent of the Iranian population online, and government attempts to control the Internet have failed so far. Recent research identifies Saudi Arabia with the world’s highest per-capita use of Twitter and YouTube, a statistic Melamed doesn’t take lightly.
“The power is not with any one [person],” he said.
“It sows the seeds of something that was never in Arab society — a real, civil society.”
Fulton resident Irene Saunders Goldstein thought Melamed was a fabulous choice for the first presentation.
“I think the complexity is far greater than anybody thinks about,” she said.
Columbia resident George Groman, who volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel and still has many friends there, said the talk left him “sobered, but hopeful.”
“When there’s instability in a region like that … I think there is probably a more moderate Islam that can find a way to forge a common interest, or at least an understanding, with Israel,” he said. “It might be naive, but it’s my hope.”
Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, said that while there are a diversity of views on Israel in Howard County, she wanted to make sure people are armed with knowledge in order to make their own judgments.
“I think people really need to hear this,” she said.
For more information on the series, visit jewishhowardcounty.org.