Al-e Ahmad, Jalal. “The Israeli Republic: An Iranian Revolutionary’s Journey to the Jewish State”, Restless Books, 2017.
A Future That Might Have Been
Jalal Al-e Ahmad was an influential Iranian writer (he died in 1967) who spent his life teaching and as an social critic, activist and writer. He helped lay the groundwork for the Iranian Revolution. In 1963, he made a two-week trip to Israel and upon his return, he penned his article “Journey to the Land of Israel” in which he looked at the history and current political landscape of the Middle East and is a documentation of his visit to Israel. It caused an uproar after being published in Iran. The anti-Western clerics whom he had taught were very upset about what he had to say, especially because he saw a future model for Iran derived from what he saw and learned on that trip.
That article is the basis for “The Israeli Republic” and we see that Al-e Ahmad claimed that Israel and Iran actually mirror one another in various attitudes but especially in attitudes toward religious authority, politics and economic populism. As we might imagine, the fact that he liked these aspects of the country upon Iran’s status quo did not sit well with the leaders of his country. We now have his writing in English for the first time and we see Al-e Ahmad as an idealist and what he has to say can very well change the way we look at the Middle East. We see this once Iranian leader as a polemic and modernist, both qualities that we do not often find in others in Iran.
His “Journey to the Land of Israel” was basically a justification for his trip there as well as an account of what he saw especially and it greatly upset Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric who held the title of founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
We must look back a bit in history and realize that in the 1950s and 1960s relations between Iran and Israel were growing even though the Shah never formally recognized the Jewish state. Nonetheless there existed military, intelligence and economic ties between the two countries. Iranians were often treated in Israeli hospitals and there existed Israeli advisers and contractors living in Tehran. However, the Muslim powers that were rising like Khomeini saw this as examples of the Shah’s perfidiousness as if to say, he was pandering to the West.
Undoubtedly, Khomeini and Ali Khamenei (a young seminary student who later became the supreme leader of Iran) were upset that Al-e Ahmad praised Israel and even more upsetting was that he dared to do so in print. This was a radical move especially since he did so in language that is traditionally reserved for Muslim religious clerics. Al-e Ahmad said that Israel was a religious state that was led by clerical leaders who were not quite prophets but more than politicians. He dismissed Arab nations as puppets of the West and saw Israel as provocatively posited as the ideal Muslim government.
By what we read here, we are reminded that before the Iranian revolution there was a relationship between Iran and Israel and this is something that is easy to forget when we think about where Iran is now in terms of Israel. Because Al-e Ahmad was a canonical writer who other leaders of the Islamic Republic admired, his feelings toward Israel seems uncanny and very titillating. Today his writings are considered to be curiosities and even a memorial to what might have been. Can we now think about the similarities between Zionism and the Islamic Republic? Al-e Ahmad stressed the characteristics of Israel as an “Islamic utopia” . This, still today, is unsolved. His interest in Israel came from presenting Israel as an alternative model and a mixture of Western industry and native culture but we must also consider that Al-e Ahmad’s view is ambiguous. On one side he sees Israel as the aforementioned utopia and a place where the division between East and West does not exist. On the other side Israel is seen as “the sure bridgehead of Western capitalism” that has a “coarsely realized indemnity for the Holocaust”. The West has sinned and the East pays the price. It is not necessary to agree or disagree with any of this yet it is food for thought on many different levels and the ideas here are great for playing “what if”. What is written here is very modern and for many it may change the way we think about the Middle East. The article by Al-e Ahmad is a record of his idealism, insight, and ultimate disillusionment toward Israel.