Jewish Values: Governments and Leaders of the Middle East

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This is one of six books in the World Almanac Library of the Middle East series that surveys different aspects of the Middle East, defined as fifteen present-day countries stretching from Libya in the west to Iran in the east. The four written by David Downing exhibit thought and skill in their organization. For example, the volume on governments and leaders discusses regimes in terms of several categories: monarchies, one-party states, Islamic states, and democracy. Regarding democracy, there is an excellent discussion about the preconditions, such as free press and absence of intimidation, that need to be present for democracy to have meaning. There are some “fuzzy” areas, however. For example, Baathist regimes are more than simply “nationalist,” but also authoritarian, if not outright fascist. Islamic regimes have governments which “reflect Islamic beliefs,” but there should be some indication of what it means when governments enforce Islamic religious law. Although the author strives for fairness in presenting all sides, he unfortunately succumbs to asserting some inaccuracies that contribute to biased views. For example, the Conflicts volume, which is the most problematic, is wrong about Sabra and Chatilla: Ariel Sharon did not “allow the massacre [at refugee camps in Lebanon] to take place,” and the charge that he had foreknowledge of the killings committed by Lebanese militiamen was rejected not only by an Israeli investigation but by a New York Federal court that heard Sharon’s libel case against Time magazine. Similarly, its discussion of the hardships imposed on Palestinians by Israeli construction of a border fence should, for fairness’ sake, explain that erecting the barrier was a response to terror attacks by Palestinians, and that the fence diminished those attacks by 90%. Amazing to this reader, the section on the war on terror claims that Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor and father of the idea of the global jihad, “opposed the use of terrorism.” And in discussing bin Laden’s motivating factors, Downing omits from the list bin Laden’s own oft-stated inspiration that comes from his religious beliefs. Finally, the Conflicts volume ends in mid-sentence. Overall, Downing’s writing shows a welcome absence of the outright prejudice and smugness that we often see in series books on political topics. But his striving for objectivity and accuracy falls short. Because of their many positive features, his books could be useful introductions in junior and even senior high school—but only if supplemented and amended by an instructor or by other sources to correct the sometimes flawed treatment.
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