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One of the most enchanting compositions written by English composer Albert W. Ketelbey (1875-1958) is entitled, “In a Persian Market.” Even if you are not familiar with Ketelbey, he was reputed to have become a millionaire as a result of his musical compositions, the moment you listen to this piece you will recognize it as one you have heard many times and in many venues. It’s depiction of the Persian marketplace as filled with hustle bustle and at the same time of serene beauty aptly describes this ancient locale in which barter and bravado is king. Anyone who has visited the Suk, Arab market in Israel, is familiar with this aspect of the culture of the Middle East.
The recent historical speech before a joint session of Congress by the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netenyahu, spelling out in crystal clear terms for the American people and for the world the reality of a fundamentalist Iran needs no further comment or elucidation from me. I do want however to focus upon a remark the Prime Minister made regarding negotiations with Iran. “Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar — call their bluff. They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”
One of the major issues in our President’s approach to the Middle East is his apparent inability to understand Islam in particular and Middle Eastern culture in general. You may recall that not too long ago our Secretary of State was meeting with his counterparts from Iran when they began shouting at him in such a violent manner that his security service burst into the room. Just a few days ago Iranian military forces used a mock version of an American aircraft carrier to carry out military maneuvers. Many in the press saw this as a belligerent act on the part of Iran. The reaction from our Secret Service in the case of our Secretary of State and the media talking heads in the case of the Iranian military maneuvers misinterpreted the Iranians. This was the bravado of the Persian market place and nothing more.

In 1958 a novel was published entitled “The Ugly American” in which the authors, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer depict Americans in south East Asia. In the novel, a Burmese journalist says “For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.” That book had a tremendous impact upon American society bringing into question how our demeanour as Americans affects our relations with other countries and cultures. Much has changed in our approach to international politics and yet much remains the same.
While our President claims to be a progressive, one who should be acutely concerned with the feelings of others and their approach to interpersonal relationships emboldened by their respective cultures, it seems he has fallen quite short of the mark when dealing with Iran. Secretary Kerry and his counterparts may be saying the same words at the negotiating table yet their meaning, the motivation behind their statements, is quite different.
Respectfully, a Prime Minister of a Middle Eastern country surely is in a better position than the President of the United States to understand and evaluate the actions of an Islamic fundamentalist Iranian government. Let us pray the White House heeds the thoughtful and clear message of the Prime Minister of Israel.


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Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz is the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he has led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom and served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.