Peace in the Middle East? History has some lessons

Jodie Butler’s career of more than 45 years includes work at the local, state, national and international levels from teaching to education and technology policy development. She was Governor Terry Branstad’s education policy advisor (January 1994 to October 1998), with responsibilities for policy/law development, budget initiatives, constituent services, and agency liaison to multiple state agencies.

I had some amazing opportunities from 1994-1998. One memory came flooding back after the latest Hamas terrorist attack against Israel.

It was my first day on the job as Governor Branstad’s education policy advisor in January 1994. I was reassigned to be his aide that day and attended the convention of the Iowa Utility Association. Hundreds of people were at the convention center luncheon, yet one could have heard a pin drop for the 30 minutes that Thomas Sutherland spoke. It will remain one of the highlights of my public service to have had the chance to hear him.

Thomas Sutherland was abducted by Hezbollah in June 1985 from the American University of Beirut, less than two years after the bombing of Beirut’s Marine barracks which happened on October 23, 1983, now forty years ago. The list of those held captive during that time included journalist Terry Anderson, who (like Sutherland) earned a degree at Iowa State University. Terry Waite was also among those who were kidnapped from 1982-1992, and now we are shocked once again by atrocities we haven’t seen for decades. 

Thomas and his wife Jean Sutherland later co-authored At Your Own Risk: An American Chronicle of Crisis and Captivity in the Middle East in 1994. The book chronicles the couple’s individual experiences during the hostage ordeal. Thomas was held captive for more than 6 years, finally released in 1991. The Sutherlands’ book also offers a glimpse into the ongoing strife in the Middle East and between Islam and the West.

I will never forget his ability to tell his story. But what struck me most that day was his observation about the “late teen/early adult,” uneducated boys that held him in captivity and his message about how inextricably linked education and freedom are in a democracy

Thomas Sutherland was an inspiration to me and set the stage for my work for those five years and beyond. I was simply awestruck by his humanity and forgiveness after such a horrendous experience. His message about why we need to invest in a strong public education system, including higher education, stuck with me.

When nationalism and religion are manipulated by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, they become tools to turn the uneducated into terrorists against democracy, threatening the freedoms of the collective “we the people” around the world. When countries like Israel and Ukraine, are attacked, we’re all threatened. The context and complexities are historical, cultural, familial, religious, and all contribute to prejudice, hate, and bias, which need to be dissected and addressed to resolve such longstanding discrimination against one another. 

It’s going to be extremely difficult to keep Lebanon and Iran out of the negative mix in the Middle East right now, but President Joe Biden clearly is the leader we need now and, in the near future, given what he’s learned over his career. I only hope the American people realize how important this battle is, and what it means for the future of our democracy and those around the world. 

Top illustration of dove carrying branch of peace is by LittlePerfectStock and available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Jodie Butler

  • right on!

    Great post, Jodie! I’m appalled at red state after red state gutting public education. The costs to our youth, polity, and society will compound for decades. As someone who also worked for the
    “first” Branstad administration, I find it hard to believe that Iowa Republicans have fallen so far from what really make America great.

  • We would welcome more republicans taking a stand against their party in defense of secular public education.

    Theocratic ethnonationalist education has always been a dire threat to our attempts to have more representative governments (and government services) and I hope Iowa can offer more resistance to attempts by our Governor and her allies at the state and federal level to crush what’s left of public education, and that Dems at the federal level will offer more support to the fight as we are outnumbered and outgunned (literally and figuratively).

  • Education not propaganda

    In the spirit of valuing education over propaganda, let’s put a check on a few of your statements here:

    1) Israel is not a democracy. It is an ethnocracy in which non-Jewish citizens are discriminated against by law. Their brutal and systemic oppression of Palestinians has been well documented for decades. This is recognized internationally by human rights groups and petitions to the international criminal court.

    2) “Education” will not help you if you live in an open air prison with no escape. Education will not help you if you don’t have drinkable water or food to eat. Education will not help you if there is a blockade and basic resources such as gauze cannot be provided to hospitals. Education will not help you as you watch your family member be killed with impunity. To reduce this current conflict to lack of “education” is absurd and almost willfully ignorant.

    I encourage people to get better “educated” to the context of this conflict, which has a 50+ year history. Here is an article from Human Rights Watch which takes an impartial view on the devastation on both sides.

    As well as this free Ebook:
    Ten Myths About Israel

    3) The occupier, antagonist, and murderer of civilians for years in this situation has been the Israeli forces. To compare Israel in this situation to Ukraine is an incredible leap of logic — can someone explain to me how this comparison works except out of convenience of U.S. foreign policy and racism?

    Regarding peace: why does Israel refuse to end their aggression and allow Palestinians the right to exist? And why does our government continue to support (ideologically and with billions of $) the atrocities of the far-right apartheid regime of Netanyahu?

    20 years since the invasion of Iraq and war in Afghanistan began, and some people refuse to learn from our country’s past mistakes. Conflating all of Islam and Muslim people as one and all as terrorists. Lumping together the “West” as all beacons of Democracy and moral superiority. It’s honestly disgusting this holy-than-thou take, this propaganda, that’s still prevalent.

    So yes, let’s all get better educated, shall we?