Insights into the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and the politics of the contemporary Middle East abounded in Rabbi Steven Bayar’s wide-ranging Our Jewish World series, titled “Spotlight on ISIS: What It Is, Why and How it Developed, What’s Ahead.”

Our Jewish World is coordinated by Melanie Levitan and Ellen Nesson.

Among the key points Rabbi Bayar made regarding ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US role in the region were the following:

Melanie Levitan and Rabbi Steven Bayar

Melanie Levitan, left, and Rabbi Steven Bayar.

  • Israel is more secure now than ever before, in part because everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere in the region, including on Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. Despite its diminutive size, Israel is a powerhouse in the region.

  • Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim country with a state religion, gave birth to the ultraconservative Muslim fundamentalist Wahhabi sect in the early 20th century. Wahhabism is a religious revivalist branch of Sunni Islam, which is opposed to Western culture. With the discovery of oil, the kingdom—and the Wahhabi movement—gained great wealth, and Wahhabism assumed a preeminent position of strength in the Islamic world and around the globe. The political leaders in Saudi Arabia were afraid of Wahhabism and tried to export it out of the kingdom (the most famous Wahhabi export was Osama Bin-Laden). They also struck a compromise with the Wahhabis: The Saudi leaders would import modern technology and communications by dealing with non-Muslims (contrary to the Wahhabis’ beliefs), while the Wahhabis would oversee education, law, public morality and religious institutions.

  • The difference between ISIS and Al-Qaeda is that ISIS wants territory to establish a caliphate, whereas Al-Qaeda seeks to topple governments and impose harsh Sharia law.

  • The Islamic State has begun to establish a foothold in the Palestinian territories. According to Israeli security officials, the military wing of Hamas paid the ISIS affiliate in Sinai for weapons shipments.

  • There’s a big rift in Islam between fundamentalism, in the forms of Wahhabism and Al-Qaeda, and secularism. Among the countries ruled by fundamentalists are Saudi Arabia and Iran. Secular Muslim countries include Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan.

  • Muslim fundamentalists despise Sufis, who are Muslim mystics.

  • Islam is not democratic. Any reformers who try to moderate its teachings are killed.

  • If Iran (a Shiite Muslim country) develops nuclear weapons, Saudi leaders are sure that their country will be the first one targeted (not Israel).

  • The Syrian civil war has pitted Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. Iran is also involved the conflict through its proxy, Hamas, which is fighting ISIS. Various rebel factions in Syria also figure in the equation, but they are not the major players.

  • While this cannot be confirmed, Israel might have told the United States to stay out of the Syrian conflict. Why? Because the US could not make things better; we could only make them worse.

  • For the most part, Israel has stayed out of the Syrian conflict and refrained from attacking ISIS. However, reports have circulated that Israel destroyed several weapons shipments destined for ISIS.

Rabbi Bayar’s keen understanding of the rapidly changing political and religious landscape in the Middle East gave series attendees fascinating insights into the increasingly dangerous neighborhood surrounding Israel.

Diana Grayson