JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758


Make runs, not war

The Middle East "situation" has been an ongoing conflict for far too long. Since every other effort to ignite peace has failed, writes the executive editor of The National Interest, Adam Garfinkle, maybe it's time to teach both sides the fine art of baseball.

MANY TIMES LAST summer, I heard the languid remark that "we are living through slow news times," that "nothing much seems to be happening" It wasn't just the stupefying heat and humidity that caused this; remember, we were passing a season in which all that headline writers had to work with were impenetrable budget issues, the dips and doodles of the stock market, unending White House scandals and inconclusive investigations of them. When who should or should not be ambassador to Mexico got prime-time coverage, one couldn't help wondering if life in general had gone south.

Of course, things have since gotten much more interesting, thanks first to the Asian financial crisis and, then, even more dramatically, to Saddam Hussein. The Middle East, in particular, should serve to remind us all that when Americans imagine times to be slow, it is because they are thinking only of their own backyard. Mob violence, mindless terror, general mayhem and borderline insanity in high places aren't at all boring.

In point of fact, there is general agreement both within the region and among those who study it from the outside that things have been much too interesting of late. Even a short list makes the point.

Most telegenic for American pressmen, as always, is violence between Palestinians and Israelis. There hasn't been too much of that lately -- thank G-d -- but there is, of course, the bloody madness of Algeria, the occasional tourist massacre in Egypt, the sundry riot in Jordan, the colorful kidnapping in Yemen. There are also the wars and woes of Kurdistan and the nearly constant political tightrope walking in Turkey. And for those living in the region, the recent Iraqi-Syrian rapproachment interests people very much --- just as the more perspicacious, if nervous, citizens of south Philadelphia get interested whenever any two notables local Mafia dons begin dining regularly together.

One can hardly blame the typical, sensible American newspaper reader who, if he should perchance hear of such things, wonders just what is the matter with these people: "Why can't they just get along?"

Why indeed?

Several theories have been propounded over the years in answer to this question. About four decades ago one popular candidate was air-conditioning. You couldn't sit long in the presence of experiences (and imbibing) foreign-service officers before hearing such comments as: "The Middle Eastern sun fries their brains"; "They're all, well, hot-headed."

This may not have made much sense, but it had an exciting pedigree: If T.E. Lawrence could claim, as he did in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the sharply contrasting light of the stark Middle Eastern desert explains why "Semites have no half-tones in their register of vision ... they exclude compromise, and pursue the logic of their ideas to absurd ends," then just about anything could pass for common sense in that crowd.

Such notions were particularly common in North America and Western Europe right when air-conditioning was first widely available and quickly became more popular than sex. But this answer has not held up well; after all, most major urban residential and especially commercial buildings throughout the Middle East are now air-conditioned, but the people who work in them keep doing the same hot-headed things.

The real answer isn't a lack of air-conditioning, that's silly. It's a lack of baseball.

For the most part, Middle Easterners don't play baseball. They need to, because baseball is the most philosophically advanced of all sports and has an enormous untapped potential to teach lessons that can ease Middle Eastern crises. So, particularly for the benefit of the non-baseball literate reader, let me briefly explain its philosophical and political merits now that we are well into the season.

First of all, unlike football, soccer, basketball -- even tennis, pingpong, and lawn bowling, for that matter -- baseball is infinite in both space and time. It is particularly anti-war in not being territorially bounded: Theoretically speaking, a ball hit between the first and third baselines is a fair ball that remains "in play" no matter if it rolls all the way to the Andromeda galaxy. Baseball is also a sport in which, on any given day, the worst team in any league can beat the best team, something that happens far more regularly in baseball than it does in other major sports. Why this is so remains a mystery, but what it means is that everyone who grows up playing baseball learns how to lose as well as how to win, an experience that could do a world of good for coming generations of Arabs and Israelis, Turks and Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'a.

Also, any athlete, tall or short, fast or slow, can find a niche in the game --- you don't have to be a pituitary freak as in basketball, a behemoth as in American football or a masochist as in rugby and lacrosse to enjoy participating without undue worry about imminent hospitalization. Obviously, this is conducive to democracy and peace. (Surely it is a well-known fact the countries whose national pastime is baseball do not go to war with one another. Yes, Americans have occupied and otherwise irritated some baseball-playing countries -- Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba -- but those occupations and irritations cannot be counted as full-blown wars.)

Now, some people claim that baseball is boring. Of course it is, if you don't understand it. Well, to be honest, baseball can be a little slow sometimes even if you do understand it --- but that is precisely the point. Peace is often boring, too, while war is just downright too exciting. If Middle Easterners can learn to appreciate baseball, they'll get primed for peace as well.

There is hope for this, too. Thanks to the influence of Americans who have emigrated to Israel, baseball has a fast growing presence there. In Saudi Arabia, as well, due to the effects of its Aramco ministate within, there is a growing appreciation of the game. The best news of late, however, comes from Jordan. Thanks largely to the heroic efforts of the journalist Rami Khouri -- a fanatical New York Yankee fan (no one is perfect, alas) -- baseball is now being played in Amman. There is even talk of an Israeli-Jordanian youth series, perhaps as soon as next year.

There is a near-term policy implication to all this, as well. The next time that Congress must rule on continued financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, it might usefully attach a rider insisting that the P.A. Sports authority begin mandatory instruction in baseball, and that it prepare the fields in which to play it --- all for the sake of peace. The slogan is obvious: If you build them, it will come.

We should then look forward to the day when Yasser Arafat or Hanan Ashrawi throws out the first ball on opening day, as perhaps, the Tulkarmem Turbans take on the Kalkilye Kabobs. Can't you hear the crowd now, shouting: "Hum one over, Ahmed," "Let'er rip, Mahmud.? If these folks just have to throw things, better baseballs --- wouldn't you say? --- than rocks and Molotov cocktails.


The writer swears he is still a Washington Senators fan.

©1998, Adam Garfinkel