Arab hatred and Arab identity

A few weeks ago, the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat published an article on “The Israel We Do Not Know.” The author, Amal Al-Hazzani, an Associate Professor in King Saud University in Riyadh, argued that it was “sad to say that Israel – the invasive, oppressive, occupying state – lives amongst us but we still do not know it.”

While the article didn’t do much to mend this situation, it apparently generated a lot of negative feedback, and a week later, Al-Hazzani responded by doubling down with a second piece entitled “Know Your Enemy”:

“I would like to thank those who showered me with a torrent of angry correspondence about my previous article on Israel, who accused me of calling for a normalization of relations, promoting the Hebrew language, and glorifying Israeli liberalism.

This response was to be expected because I breached a taboo. However, I am sorry to say to those people, despite my appreciation of their opinions, that their outrage will not change the reality. Israel will remain as it is; a small state but stronger than the rest of the Arab world.”

It’s probably a safe bet to assume that once again, there were a lot of furious reactions.

What I found most striking in Al-Hazzani’s second article is his conclusion, where he writes:

“We must understand the Israelis to know how we compare. Wars cannot be won by sentiments of hatred alone; otherwise the Arabs would have dominated the world long ago.”

One can easily imagine the outcry if any non-Arab wrote in a western media outlet that if wars could be won by hatred alone, “the Arabs would have dominated the world long ago.”

Notice that this is no longer just about Israel.

Yet, it is of course first and foremost a problem for Israel that Arab hatred for the Jewish state – perceived as a western implant in the Arab-Muslim Middle East – is generally ignored by the media.  The conventional and “politically-correct” wisdom is that if only Israel behaved differently, the Arab world would willingly accept the Jewish state.

But every now and then, even media sites that relentlessly push this conventional wisdom provide a perhaps involuntary glimpse of the intensity of Arab hatred for Israel. That happened recently to Ha’aretz when Zvi Bar’el reported on an interview with the Egyptian writer and intellectual Ali Salem. Salem had been shunned by the Egyptian media ever since he traveled to Israel in 1994, but now, almost 20 years later,  Al-Ahram published an interview with him.

According to Bar’el, Salem’s interviewer, Al-Bahaa Hussein, prefaced his piece by stating:

“I cannot allow myself to express satisfaction with Salem’s visit to Israel. Despite the fact that I am impressed by his talents, I am not persuaded that the devils [Israelis] can be good brothers, that they want peace or that they are willing to pay for its price. Nonetheless, we interviewed him not from the standpoint of a judge, as the dust has already settled; instead, we sought to understand his motives.”

Bar’el’s own article begins with a quote from the Al-Ahram interviewer telling Salem:

“When I’m on my own, I still dream of our pushing Israel into the sea.”

Salem responds by dismissing this as an unrealistic and therefore “romantic” idea.

There is much more in Bar’el’s article, but let’s just stay with this for a moment and imagine that the shoe were on the other foot: that a reporter from a respected Israeli paper interviewed an Israeli dissident who presented a lone voice for peace, saying to him: “When I’m on my own, I still dream of our pushing the Palestinians into the sea” – and that the Israeli intellectual would calmly respond that this was an unrealistic and therefore “romantic” idea.

To be sure, Salem emphasizes that “there is no path other than negotiation,” and Bar’el describes him as a “fervent supporter of peace” who “has paid a high price for his ‘crazes’” – because of course among Egyptian intellectuals, you’ll be considered a crazed outcast if you support peace with Israel, while Israeli intellectuals would ostracize anyone who wasn’t a fervent supporter of peace with the Palestinians.

Bar’el explains that Salem “remains associated with a term loathed by Egyptian intellectuals: ‘normalization’.” He lists several recent examples illustrating that Egyptian elites remain obsessed with opposing any “normalization” with Israel, among them a resolution adopted in January by an Egyptian writers’ conference at Sharm el-Sheikh which declared:

“Egypt’s identity should be preserved, along with its diverse, enlightened cultural depth; and the principled, consistent position maintained by all Egyptian intellectuals and writers in favor of rejecting any form of normalization with the Zionist enemy should be upheld.”

Mind you: this is a statement from the elites of an Arab country with which we have a peace treaty for more than 30 years now. How long will it take Arab elites to realize that by opposing “normalization” with Israel, they are first and foremost preventing their own countries from becoming normal?

As Bar’el rightly notes:

“The revolution in Egypt has yet to change anything in the way most intellectuals in the country relate to Israel. Liberals, secularists, leftists and rightists − mostly figures seen as being hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and all religious-tempered political ideologies − view opposition to normalization as a fundamental pillar of their Arab identity ‏(Arab, as opposed to Egyptian‏). This identity still views the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is sometimes described via slogans that had currency in the 1950s ‏(such as “A cancer in the body of the Arab nation”‏), as a political anchor.”

That is definitely noteworthy coming from the veteran Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Ha’aretz: “opposition to normalization” with the region’s most successful modern state is “a fundamental pillar of…Arab identity.”

Of course, the same Zvi Bar’el will usually ignore Arab mainstream hatred for Israel and instead focus on a few widely condemned incidents in Israel to claim spuriously that “A good Jew hates Arabs.”

While racism is present in every society, racist incidents in Israel will often get prominent global coverage. At the same time, the pervasive hatred for Israel in the Arab world that is even championed by the elites is usually politely ignored – which actually reveals the bigotry of the western media. There can be little doubt that it would trigger a veritable tsunami of news coverage and commentary if a gathering of Israeli intellectuals declared its abiding commitment to “the principled, consistent position maintained by all Israeli intellectuals and writers in favor of rejecting any form of normalization with the Arab enemy.”

But supposedly, Arab hatred of Israel is justified because of the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, who didn’t ask for, and weren’t offered, a state of their own when their Arab brethren were in control of Gaza and the West Bank. Of course, there are countless other examples that illustrate all too well that the Palestinian “cause” is worthwhile only when it can be used to bash Israel. Imagine for a moment how this recent New York Times report would read if Israel was involved:

“The Egyptian military is resorting to a pungent new tactic to shut down the smuggling tunnels connecting Sinai and Gaza: flooding them with sewage. Along with the stink, the approach is raising new questions about relations between Egypt’s new Islamist leaders and their ideological allies in Hamas who control the Gaza Strip.”

If it was not the Egyptian military but the IDF, nobody would dream of describing it rather light-heartedly as “a pungent new tactic.” If it was the IDF, it would be outrageous, indicative of Nazi-like racist contempt, a crime against humanity, a severe health risk, a threat to Gaza’s water supply, and on and on.

But when the Egyptians are doing it, it simply reflects their legitimate determination “to shut the tunnels to block the destabilizing flow of weapons and militants into Sinai from Gaza.”

It’s really something quite normal – and for Egypt’s elites, it’s probably not anything worth obsessing about like “normalization with the Zionist enemy.”

* * *

First posted at my JPost blog and at the Polish magazine Racjonalista.

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