A left-wing protester argues with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during a protest
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A left-wing protester argues with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during a protest
Last updated: April 30, 2013
David Ha'ivri: Take off the mask – Israelis and Arabs

"Many Arabs fear that opening this topic for discussion breaks an opening in the wall of non-normalization with Israel"

Two timely columns in different publications have me thinking about humanity’s most basic obligation to ourselves – integrity. Are you honest enough to ask yourself if you are truly confident in the statements you are making – or are we all just going through the motions of a pre-set script and playing the parts that are expected of us? 

My close friend and colleague Avi Zimmerman, who heads up international relations on behalf of the city of Ariel, published a column in the Times of Israel on the theme of Purim. On this holiday, it is customary to wear a costume and to drink alcohol. Both traditions, the writer explains, raise questions and expose who is really hiding inside the individual's body. The sages of the Talmud are quoted as saying that when wine goes in, secrets come out. Hiding behind a mask can be a reminder that while this might be fake, there is a real you. 

Avi challenged his readers to ask themselves a truly hard question. "What masks are we wearing? Have we chosen the ‘Israel-is-flawless’ position or the ‘Israel-is-lawless’ approach? Do we genuinely consider the issues at hand, or do we blindly recommend or condemn a news report or Op-Ed on the basis of our emotional attachment to the author? Is Israel the subject of honest debate – or the object we use to advance a personal agenda?"       

Wow. Asking those things does take a lot of intellectual courage. I am sure that many members of the choir were not overly pleased to hear this preacher's message. It is so much more fun when we can all gather around and pound on our chests and expect only words of encouragement and pats on the back.

Dr. Amal Al-Hazzani of King Saud University in Riyadh recently published a column in Asharak Alwaset, in which she questioned Arab society's ignorance of Israel. Under the headline "Know Your Enemy," she apologizes to her readers for her previous article titled "Israel We Do Not Know," in which she wrote:

"A simple means of demonstrating our ignorance of Israel can be found in the fact that its neighboring states are ignorant of the Hebrew language. In Lebanon and Syria, people prefer to study French rather than the language of a country that continues to jeopardize their own security every day. In Egypt and Jordan, people do not prioritize or publicize the study of the Hebrew language, while in Israeli educational institutions, there is ample opportunity to study the Arabic language. It is for this reason that we find a considerable number of Israeli politicians and media representatives who speak Arabic fluently. I do not know many Arab foreign ministers in Israel's neighboring states that can speak Hebrew. As for those who say that the Israelis speak Arabic because the language is more common than Hebrew, or because the Israelis have intruded on our region, this justification is irrelevant. The reason why Israel enjoys superiority over the Arabs is because it has sought to understand them through their language; it can gauge the thinking of the young and old. Israel is well aware of the Arabs' strengths as well as their weaknesses, and it can understand them simply because it has immersed itself in their culture."

Apparently, she came under a hail of criticism for daring to report on Israel's democratic process, in which, contrary to the norm in the rest of the region, citizens actually elect their leadership.

In her retraction, she writes: “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."

While criticizing Arabs for not knowing enough about the Israeli "enemy" might not sound so positive, the mere fact that the writer needed to publish a type of retraction shows that many Arabs fear that opening this topic for discussion breaks an opening in the wall of non-normalization with Israel. Could her critics be saying, "we would rather be ignorant of Israel than take a chance of knowing the truth" – and possibly finding out that we have common interests? 

It seems that both writers – from opposite sides of the fence – are offering similar challenges to their own "choirs" by suggesting that they ask themselves to examine their positions and be sure that they understand why it is that they believe as they do. The authors give excellent encouragement to a practice of self-examination we should all engage in regularly, in order to promote more authentic discussion between sides.

FOR MORE BY DAVID When did “settlers” become a negative appellation?

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