No Camels in Camelot: Is Mideast Peace Even Possible?

As an optimist of long standing, the only cup I think of as half-empty is the one with the hemlock. So a part of me wants to be enthused over reports that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, whose title means a lot, and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, whose title means very little, have begun again to speak optimistically about the prospects of peace between their populaces. I even confess, although it is considered embarrassing today, to having held high hopes for the Oslo Accords back in 1993.

But today I can no longer rouse myself from the torpor and ennui—still short of despair—which have smothered my dreams for the entire Mideast tableau. This may seem like a non sequitur of sorts, but a case in a court here in Florida has done much to dampen my spirit, perhaps as much as the rockets in Gaza. A huge class-action suit, presuming to represent as many as 10,000 men, has been initiated against the muckety-mucks of Dubai, in the hope of extracting compensation for the horrors wreaked upon child camel jockeys.

For 30 years or more, mercenaries have been combing Pakistan, Sudan and other poor Arab countries for a certain type of young boy. He has to be built short and slender, the sort of physique that makes for a good jockey. When they spot a good candidate, they either pay off the parents, essentially buying the child as a slave, or they kidnap him by force or stealth. These children are then transported to elaborate training camps, tucked away out of sight of average civilians. In order to simulate riding conditions, these camps are set up in the desert.

The children have no money, own no property and get no schooling. They sleep out in the desert; a sheet on the sand is their bed, their home. Their food and water intake are strictly regulated to keep them at the desired weight. And they are taught to ride camels in races. Camel races are a huge attraction in the United Arab Emirates, but, unlike horses, the camels cannot support rider over the age of about 15. So these boys, wrested from their homes and any semblance of normal life, are racing from age 8 or 9, making money for their “owners” until their forced retirement at fifteen.

The lawsuit was filed in Florida, because most of the same decadent sheiks who own racing camels raise thoroughbreds in the area of Ocala, Fla. The premise, admittedly thin, is that the Florida horses and the Dubai camels are part of the same inventory of racing stock. Thus they are suing the same “company,” giving them standing to go after funds in the Florida jurisdiction. I am not one for courts being too expansive in defining their powers, but I promise not to be offended if the judges allow the case to proceed. Every dollar they can shake out of those sheiks is a victory for good—although the likelihood of the victims receiving their fair share is probably slim.

In this context, my mind ranges back to an amazing anecdote. In Chicago there was a saintly man named Rabbi Winchester, who devoted his entire life to helping poor people trapped in bad neighborhoods. He saw to all their food and medical needs, working day and night, ‘borrowing’ a lot of money from people for this purpose. At his funeral in ’75, a group of wealthy Jews chipped in to pay his debts. I moved to Chiago in ’79 for a few years, and I would interview people for memories of this remarkable man.

Finally, I found an old-timer who gave me the key. He knew the history that had formed Winchester’s consciousness. Winchester had been a student in Hebron, Palestine, in 1929, traveling from Chicago as a young man to study at the rabbinical school there. The infamous Hebron Massacre occurred, with Palestinians butchering Jewish civilians with knives and machetes. Winchester survived by playing dead amid a cluster of corpses. But the most macabre part of the experience was seeing little Arab kids kicking at the bodies gleefully; if they elicited a groan, an adult was summoned to finish the job.

To me, a straight line runs from a culture that can brutally slash men, women and children at random and bring the kiddies along for the ride to one that would kidnap and starve their own children to provide idle amusement for decadent sheiks. No one would be more pleasantly surprised than me to see all of them make peace with Israel; after all, the Japanese did unspeakable things during World War II but have since thoroughly repaired their culture. But for now, forgive me if I have lost my youthful zeal; the half-full cup might be better than none.