There are two kinds of Arabs in this world. Those who hate Jews, and those who don’t. And in my life, I have met more of the former than the latter. I am not proud to say that. Arabs will not like me for admitting it. But it is true. And it is something I wish the Obama administration understood. It is something Americans should know as the “Arab Spring” enters its second year.
I didn’t know much about any of this as a Lebanese kid growing up in New Jersey. But I found out about it when I wrote my first pro-Israel column for my college paper as a young student journalist. I defended Israel on some point I’ve long forgotten, but what I’ll never forget is the backlash I received from fellow Arabs. Some were Americans, others were students from Arab countries, many of whom I counted as friends.
First came the letters to the editor, then the personal insults. It was as if I’d broken a secret code I didn’t know existed. Some secret blood oath, which goes something like this: Arabs don’t speak unkindly of Arabs in public, or kindly about Israel.
The backlash stunned me. I pondered the pounding I had taken, and floundered a bit. I even thought for a short time of writing something negative about Israel the next time I had a chance, just to balance things out and reestablish my Arab bona fides.
I was accused of being a self-hating Arab.
One friend accused me of being a self-hating Arab. He explained to me that I was exploiting my ancestry to ingratiate myself with white America and the Jews who controlled white America. I explained to him that I was white. And that I was an American. And that I didn’t believe that Jews controlled America. The Jewish men I knew had a hard enough time controlling their own families! But nothing I said helped relieve the tension, not even my stab at humor.
I also explained that many of my Jewish friends did not like my column. Most were liberals from New York or northern New Jersey who assumed I was with them on the politics of the Middle East, that I was in agreement with the governing thesis that drives most Arabs and liberal Jews: that it is Israel that is the problem in the region, not the Palestinians, and not the Arab world itself.
I also explained to him that I was mostly Lebanese, but also part German and part Italian, and that I was raised by parents who didn’t much care for the whole notion of hyphenated America. They taught me to think for myself, and have the courage to challenge authority. Even theirs, if I could make the case.
The fact is, Arabs don’t all look alike or think alike. But we are often pushed into a kind of groupthink, a kind of self-censorship that hinders our development and our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We are not a universal group. But some of us believe in a simple universal truth: that every Arab deserves to live in freedom, wherever he or she might call home. Some of us want Arab countries to be more like America and Israel, places where the individual can flourish.
Say those words to many Arabs and they are shocked and angered. Soon, words like imperialist are thrown about, and the subject turns to Israel. Always, it seems, it turns to Israel.
Why the anger when I hint that America and Israel might have something to teach the Arab world? I thought about it for the longest time, and only recently stumbled upon the answer.
Arabs fear they will never measure up to America or Israel.
It is all about Arab self-doubt. It is all tied to a profound lack of cultural self-confidence, and a deep-seated fear that maybe, just maybe, Arabs won’t be very good at the self-governance thing. That Arab nations won’t be capable of building democratic cultures that engender the flourishing of human freedom, and that these nations won’t have the ability to tap the God-given talents of their people the way Americans and Israelis do. That maybe, just maybe, the Arab world will never measure up to America or Israel.
Better, goes the logic, to cling to anger over the plight of the Palestinians. Better to cling to international policy disputes and to a deep-seated hatred of Israel. Better to play the role of victim, and the role of self-righteous critic, than to do the hard work of lifting up the conditions of your people.
An Arab American friend of mine who works for a large NGO is a case in point. He is Jordanian, he’s well educated, and he speaks five languages. But mention the word Israel, and watch his blood boil immediately. He will go into a lengthy diatribe about the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians by Israel. When Prime Minister Netanyahu’s name is mentioned, I worry that he will have a seizure on the spot.
Fear and Envy
Why is this? Why is all of his passion, all of his anger and rage, directed at this one country, this one people? Why is it not directed at Syria, I ask him? By all accounts, the Syrian government orchestrated the assassination of one of the Arab world’s great men of peace, former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. And President Assad continues to terrorize his own people.
Why not at Hezbollah, which orchestrated the takeover of Lebanon? Why not at Hosni Mubarak when he was in power? Or Saddam Hussein? Why not at the ways in which Islam degrades women in the Middle East, trapping them in a life of servitude? Why not at the ways some Muslims are persecuting Christians throughout the Middle East, as reports pour in about atrocities upon atrocities? Why not a critique of the Koran itself, which regrettably finds little separation between mosque and state, thus relegating the majority of Arabs to life under theocratic regimes?
Two reasons: fear, and envy.
To the dismay of Arabs around the world, Jewish people turned an ancient piece of real estate in the Middle East into a thriving oasis of intellectual, political, religious, and commercial activity, where people are free to do as they please. One of the oldest places on earth — a place where Abraham walked — Israel is as thoroughly modern as any place on earth, with a functioning government that respects religious and economic freedom.
A young person in Israel can choose to work in some of the best high-tech companies in the world, or can pursue a life dedicated to Talmudic studies. A woman has an equal right to pursue any career she likes, and people of different sexual orientations are not driven underground — or worse.
The fact is, the God-given talents of the people of Israel are allowed to flourish in ways Arabs should want to emulate, and replicate.
This smart, dynamic Jordanian friend instead focuses on border disputes and the acts of the Israeli government. He performs Houdini-like intellectual twists to dodge my questions, which are always gentle, but cut right through to his very clear — and almost programmed — bigotry.
I ask him why he is obsessed with the 1967 border dispute, and not some other border grudge, as it would not take long to find other countries unhappy with the ways in which territories were allocated as spoils of various 19th- and 20th-century wars. I tell him that using his logic, Mexican terrorists should be blowing themselves up in Houston and El Paso. And they should have his unwavering support to compel America to return Texas to its rightful, original owner.
I now ask Arabs who show such a knee-jerk reaction to Israel a simple question, one that cuts to the heart of all this nonsense: Why do you hate Jews? They first get angry, but then quickly point out that they have no beef with Jews. It’s Israel they hate. To which I reply, “If Israel had been handed over to Bolivians or Albanians or Estonians, would you still hate it?”
It is a none-too-subtle question, but it makes the point: Despising Israel the way Israel is despised in much of the Arab world is all about anti-Semitism. And most anti-Semitism anywhere in the world has its origins in envy.
National success is built on love, trust and hard work.
Benjamin Netanyahu once gave a speech in which he pointed at a map of the Middle East. He rattled off many of the countries in the region, and the relative size of those nations to Israel. Jordan is four times the size of Israel, Iraq 20, Egypt 46; Saudi Arabia is nearly 90 times the size of Israel. “Big countries,” he said. “But small accomplishments.”
He then went on to describe Israel, which is just slightly bigger than one of America’s smallest states, New Jersey. “Little country,” he concluded. “But big accomplishments.” And there you have it, in one perfectly formulated binary.
Today, Arabs are at a crossroads. The “Arab Spring” is an opportunity like none the region has ever seen. The people who live there are no more or less capable than the people of Israel or the United States. But it is up to them to build functioning democracies, and a culture that breeds and rewards hard work and success. It is up to Arabs themselves to take advantage of their newfound freedom, and unleash the productive capacities of their people.
Countries aren’t built on spite and hate, but on love, trust, shared sacrifice, and hard work. Maybe, just maybe, Arabs in the Middle East will be so busy working, yearning, and striving to make their own lives better that they will have little time left to burnish old grievances.
Maybe, over time, Arabs will build governments worthy of their people, as Israel and America have done. Maybe, Arabs will come to see Jews not as their enemies, but as their neighbors, and as their trading partners. And maybe, just maybe, as their friends.
Here is one Arab praying that will happen.
© 2012 National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.