The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia recently hosted an Israeli professor to debrief locals on the situation in the Middle East.
Israel is constantly tracking developments in Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraq — and everything that is going on with The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Oh, and don’t forget the conflict with the Palestinians.
The internal and external politics of other Middle Eastern countries — and how they affect Israel — were among the issues addressed by Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, when he spoke to a meeting of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia on April 21.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization hosts about 30 guest speakers each year to talk about global issues of importance. Though the group has hosted Israeli and Palestinian speakers in years past — Yaron Sideman, consul general of Israel to the mid-Atlantic region, spoke last year — Rabi is the first from the country to speak at the Philadelphia organization this year.
Rabi’s appearance came just before attending the second annual Israel Summit organized by The Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy in New York City.
“This is part of my mission for my country,” Rabi said of his weeklong visit. “I can’t change people’s minds” about what is happening in the Middle East, but “if people take time to further inquire into the topic and learn the origins, that would be great.”
He argued that the Western mentality and ideals of statehood are fairly irrelevant in his corner of the world — which is far more concerned with tribal allegiances — and that Iran and ISIS are looking to take advantage of “Western naïveté,” as displayed by the pending nuclear deal with Iran.
Rabi even asserted that Israelis’ adherence to Westernized values and viewpoints is a “weak point” for his country and that he pushes his Jewish students to learn the Arabic language and culture so that they may better understand “where they are coming from.”
Among the 40 or so attendees at the lecture were several students from North Philadelphia’s Bodine High School for International Affairs one of the city’s magnet schools.
“At first I found it confusing, but it was interesting to learn about how the Middle East conflict is affecting Israel,” 17-year-old Alex Zabaleta said of the talk.
Barbara Izquierdo, 15, noted that Rabi, who spoke in a loud voice and often punctuated his remarks with hand gestures, was “very enthusiastic and passionate about what he was saying,” which helped her to pay attention.
“I mean, I worry about ISIS because I heard there was a branch of the organization here in the United States,” Izquierdo said.
One World Affairs Council member in attendance said he appreciated how Rabi laid out the realities on the ground in the Middle East in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
A self-described supporter of Israel, Mitch Sargen, 62, an attorney working in the insurance industry, said that it’s important for Americans to understand what is happening around the world, particularly in Israel.
“I’ve been following Israeli affairs since I was a little kid,” said Sargen, who lives in Lafayette Hill and is a former president of Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue.
“I’m an optimist generally, but I find it very challenging with the way the world there” in the Middle East “is changing in many ways.”