By Opening Its Movie Theaters, Saudi Arabia Is Rewriting Its Social Contract

Dec. 13 2017

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS” as he is often called), in the latest step in his sweeping program of reforms, recently lifted a decades-old ban on movie houses. Arguing that Westerners ought not dismiss the importance of this decision, Sohrab Ahmari explains how it fits into Mohammed’s overall plan for his country:

MBS is rewriting the Saudi social contract [by removing restrictions on movie theaters, the presence of women at soccer games, and so forth]. For decades, the kingdom [mollified] its people with generous lifetime entitlements, in exchange for which Saudis traded in most of their citizenship rights. That arrangement worked for a time, but it is increasingly unsustainable, especially with oil prices hovering at $50 a barrel and unlikely to climb anytime soon.

It was this looming economic crisis that spurred MBS to act. Granting young Saudis greater personal freedoms, the thinking goes, will encourage them to see themselves as citizens rather than subjects and welfare-state dependents. In parallel to this social opening, the kingdom under MBS aims to expand the private share of the gross domestic product, boost women’s participation in the labor market, and scrap a number of subsidies and benefits. These are politically challenging economic reforms. MBS is wisely adding spoonsful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Second, MBS’s liberalizing reforms will help secure his own position. . . . [T]he crown prince is creating a permanent constituency of women and young people who are determined to see him succeed. Here is a prince, from their own age cohort, who makes bold promises and delivers. Other princes and princelings within the House of Saud will now be that much more reticent to challenge MBS for fear of incurring the wrath of these young people. This is populism, Saudi-style. . . .

Riyadh still has far to go. One important area, so far left untouched by MBS, is the status of religious minorities. The crown prince can put Iran, [which likes to sell itself as more enlightened than Saudi Arabia], to shame, and further bolster his regime’s legitimacy, by ending the restrictions and petty persecution targeting the kingdom’s Shiite minority. Extending a hand to the Shiites and appointing them to positions of responsibility within the government would help alleviate the community’s sense of grievance and inoculate Shiites against Iranian anti-Saudi propaganda. Similarly, it is long past time to permit non-Muslim believers to practice their faith openly in the kingdom.

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More about: Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, Shiites

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays