Born in the city of Izmir (Smyrna) in 1626, Shabbetai Tsvi, while still in his twenties, pronounced God’s ineffable name and celebrated the three major festivals in a single week; later he married a prostitute. Only after that did he meet a mystic and self-proclaimed prophet named Nathan of Gaza who convinced him that he was the messiah. By the mid-1660s, much of European and Middle Eastern Jewry had become convinced that Shabbetai Tsvi was in fact going to lead them back the Land of Israel. They were thus shocked and disappointed when he converted to Islam—to avoid execution by the Ottoman sultan—but a minority of his followers interpreted this decision as a kabbalistic tactic to hasten the redemption. The distinguished medieval historian David Berger tells the story in detail, and seeks to explain why Sabbatianism had a degree of success unparalleled either before or since. (Audio, 64 minutes.)
Why So Many 17th-Century Jews Were Convinced an Eccentric Turkish Jew Was the Messiah
Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East
Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)
American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.
In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.
Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.