In the 11 years that I served as rabbi to the students of Oxford University, I was aware that I had been given the opportunity to influence some of the world's future leaders. But the news this week that Prof. Noah Feldman of NYU Law School was chosen by the Pentagon as the American adviser to help draft an Iraqi constitution gave me particular delight.
Noah was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford for two years with whom I studied, argued, and played squash. I can attest to his brilliance and wide erudition, as well as to his profound commitment to social justice, already in evidence while at Oxford.
It is clear that one of the principal reasons that Noah, at 32, has been chosen is the fact that in addition to being an experienced constitutional expert, he has the added bonus of an Oxford doctorate in Islamic thought.
But my delight in his appointment comes not only from seeing a former student chosen for so historic a task. Rather, it is the joy of seeing the vindication of a system, a unique arrangement of student coexistence that was central to Oxford in my time there, a system where it was not out of the ordinary for a Jewish student to become an expert in Islam.
When I arrived in 1988, it became one of the highest priorities of our L'Chaim Society to promote the State of Israel in a city that was awash with high-profile Arab speakers who were guests of the Oxford Middle East Society a well-organized student organization founded and funded by Arab students of prominent families. They brought in Yasser Arafat, Hanan Ashrawi, Noam Chomsky, and many other leading critics of Israel. We responded with Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Shamir, and Natan Sharansky. Soon, a full-throttle competition for the hearts of Oxford's students was on.
But although a ferocious war of words was being conducted, the Arab students were never our enemies. On the contrary, we became friends and frequently socialized together.
The bitter battles that one sees today on American and European campuses between Arab and Jewish students, replete with ugly Palestinian divestment petitions against Israel, were entirely absent from Oxford.
While we both sought to promote our positions, we never directly clashed and never worked to undermine the other's events. To the contrary. A student whose father was the ambassador to Britain of an important Arab country was a frequent dinner guest at my home. Even as he hammered his belief that Sharon and Netanyahu were militant extremists, he hung out with my family and attended many of L'Chaim's events.
He was not the only one. Arab and Muslim students were regulars at our communal Friday night Sabbath meals, schlepped there by their Jewish college buddies. Jerusalem Post columnist Ron Dermer, who served as president of L'Chaim, habitually arrived on the Sabbath with his close Muslim friends. And one of my proudest moments as a rabbi was when one of these students told me he could no longer drink our kiddush wine because, inspired by our commitment to Judaism, he had decided to become a religious Muslim. Alcohol was now out.
IN NOVEMBER, 1997, when prime minister Netanyahu was to visit Oxford as our guest, I scrambled to find one of the beautiful medieval college dining halls to host a drinks reception. There being none available, I went to an Arab student friend of mine, scion of a highly distinguished family, and asked him to use his influence with the college head to procure the hall. It was a bizarre request, but the young man interceded immediately, asking in return that he and a group of Arab students be allowed to meet Netanyahu privately (Netanyahu's trip was subsequently cancelled due to a meeting with Madeleine Albright in London).
HOW DID we all act so cordially while being so far apart ideologically? To be sure, being far from the fighting in the Middle East helped. But a far more important consideration was that Oxford has a long history of debate without rancor, discussion without division, heated exchange without hostile intent. The Oxford mentality demanded that we all act like gentlemen. Ripping down each other's posters or sending hecklers to ruin each other's events was simply not tolerated.
Whatever our differences, we knew that the environment demanded that we treat each other cordially. And it is how two parties treat each other, rather than anything else, that determines whether they will be enemies or friends.
America's Christian conservatives believe that in the end of days Jews will either embrace Christ or burn in hell forever. Still, we are their close friends because they offer Israel unflinching support and visit Israel as tourists even when Jews will not come. Action, rather than ideology, is the ultimate arbiter in affairs of the heart.
The Arab-Israeli conflict still rages because, while all sorts of pressure has been brought to bear on Israel to relinquish land for peace, with the notable exception of some in the Bush Administration, the Western powers have made no demand that the Arabs simply behave like gentlemen.
The West has not had the guts to say to the Arabs: "You have a dispute with Israel, ok. But blowing up children is repulsive and uncivilized and we will not tolerate it. Before we have any dealings with you we demand that your actions be in accord with basic civility. We do not befriend barbarians. Period."
Suicide bombings against innocent civilians have repeatedly been excused in European capitals as an understandable response to occupation. Actions that would never be tolerated if practiced by the Arab populations of Paris, Rome, or Copenhagen are somehow tolerated if practiced in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Notice that when Palestinians danced in the streets on September 11, 2001, not one world leader rebuked them saying, "Is this how civilized people behave?"
Sadly, Arabs in the Middle East are not held to even minimal standards of civility not in how they treat women, not in how they treat Christians, and not in how they treat each other. The House of Saud can behead prostitutes and allow high school girls to be incinerated because they dared run from a burning building without headscarves, but Prince Bandar will still be treated as the dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington. That such a phenomenon is tolerated shows that we are not gentlemen.
Bashar Assad can occupy Lebanon a fellow Arab country and fund Hizbullah. But rather than telling him, "I only visit with honorable company," the American secretary of state rushed to Syria to hear from Assad's lips how he had closed the Hamas and PFLP offices in Damascus.
Later The New York Times made a simple phone call and confirmed that they were still open.
This is what makes Prof. Feldman so perfect for his job in Iraq. In his new book After Jihad, Noah argues that the Arabs are capable of democratic government, and challenges the West to take concrete steps to ensure that Arab countries embrace egalitarian principles, thereby facilitating a durable peace. "American self-interest can be understood to include a foreign policy consistent with the deeply held democratic values that make America what it is."
In other words, America, which treats other nations with civility, has the right to demand that the leaders of the countries it deals with behave like gentlemen.