The roles of Greece and Israel in western civilization

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I'm writing while on what I think of as my cradles of western civilization tour. It consists of Greece and Israel. My travelling companion (to echo Paul Simon on his way to Graceland) is 13 years old, my only child. When I was in university, Athens and Jerusalem were served to us as the separate wellsprings of western civilization. Their status was a given, like western civ itself. I'm finding though, that it may be a bit late; the old categories don't seem as firm.

Even back then, as an undergrad doing Near Eastern and Judaic Studies in Boston, I took courses with an academic troublemaker named Cyrus Gordon. He had the peculiar (at the time) notion that those cradles weren't so distinct. He argued there were links and relations between ancient Israel and ancient Greece. Homer's wily Odysseus and the Biblical trickster Jacob (who became Israel, the father of his people) weren't accidentally similar. Travellers and tales blew back and forth across the Mediterranean. It was a big mix even then.

What about their central roles in western civilization -- as they now appear?

Well, we arrived in Athens a few days after last Sunday's "Athens Burns" headlines, wondering if downtown would be a smouldering ruin. It isn't, not at all, but Greece is clinging to Europe, in the form of the euro, by its fingernails. It doesn't seem so integrally western and perhaps it never was. What made us picture Plato and Aristotle as Oxford dons or German philosophers? You can see Turkey from parts of Greece; it receives more African and Asian immigrants, legal and illegal, than any other EU nation and they seem at home.

As for Israel, it's certainly positioned itself at the heart of western civ. Modern Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl, said a Jewish state would "form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism." A century later, just this month, historian Niall Ferguson called Israel "the little country that is the most easterly outpost of western civilization."

But that role has made a lot of mischief for Israel. It meant playing up to colonial powers like Turkey and Britain; then, after statehood, joining them to attack local populations -- as at Suez in 1956 and being a U.S. policeman in the region, especially after 1967. Planting a Jewish state in an Arab Mideast was never going to be an easy sell. But explicitly identifying with imperial forces, a.k.a. western civilization, rather than attempting to integrate with the people of the area, made a peaceful outcome almost unthinkable.

The last piece of my little intellectual undergrad castle to teeter might be the idea of western civ itself. I don't mean in Gandhi's puckish sense, who said that it -- western civilization -- would be a good idea. It used to seem so solid. Cyrus Gordon never asked, as I recall, if there was such a thing as western civilization. Nor did Harold Innis, perhaps Canada's greatest iconoclast, though he had grave doubts about its prospects. Everyone took its reality for granted.

That's now harder to maintain. Partly it's due to thinkers like Edward Said, who explored the crass motives behind grandiose constructs like self-contained civilizations. But it's also a result of globalization in its economic and Internet senses. It's easier now to see how everything human tends to interpenetrate and bleed into everything else -- and harder to imagine that it ever didn't. Now think of the damage done by vague notions of a clash between huge, hostile civilizations that was used to justify panic and overreaction post-9/11. The aftermath would have been tough enough without those scary images.

We also spent time at the amazing, Gibraltar-like citadel of Monemvasia on the Aegean. It was successively occupied by Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, a papal army, Turks, Germans -- they weren't civilizations, they were empires: an easier category to comprehend, though less serviceable if you want to build a university curriculum in the humanities or scare hell out of people. Empires are tangible, unlike civilizations. There are also financial empires and they can crush you, too, as Greeks have learned. If only the magnificent fortifications at Monemvasia could hold off that kind of power.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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