Friday, February 12, 2010

How We Look at Arabs

We who have been forever scarred by the Holocaust and for whom Israel is both birthright and haven and, except for the Torah, our dearest possession, regard Arabs as Israel’s enemies and therefore also our enemies. This is not only a calculation of wars and rockets. There are attitudes that are embedded and elements of our emotional makeup. Unless we ignore history and are blind to today’s realities, our attitude toward Arabs has been cemented by decades of hostility, by acts of terrorism and by the notion of permanent warfare, with the destruction of Israel being the ultimate goal.

Under such circumstances, how can we avoid feelings of hatred? There is no obligation, ethical or other, to be kind to those who wish us harm. Turning the other cheek is not in our teachings. But, there is nothing to celebrate about this. Golda Meir’s lament continues to jolt: “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

Within the attitudinal and experiential confinements imposed by Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Iran and much else in the Islamic world, is it possible to look at Arabs or Muslims not as an undifferentiated mass of tens or hundreds of millions who pray and plan daily for Israel’s harm and harm to Jews but as a people who like other people have bad and good elements, with the majority being silent and occupied primarily with such daily challenges as livelihood, family obligations and health concerns?

This question, which seems never to be asked, is not intended to suggest a shift away from Israel being hyper-careful about security. There is no practical way for security not to be at the top of the Israeli agenda and inevitably and unfortunately this results in hardships imposed on Arabs. As with other societies, what the majority may believe or want is subordinated to what those in power want and do. What ordinary Gazans may think figures not at all in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. What matters is the intent of armed groups, which is why Israel cannot make additional territorial concessions. The Gush Katif lesson remains an open wound.

There is hate emanating from the Arab and Islamic worlds. Must we reciprocate with our hatred? Whether or not justified, hatred is a dynamic force, quenching reason and being blind to reality as it feeds on itself. If we hate all Arabs, the prospect is that we will hate those Jews who disagree with our attitude toward Arabs.

My interest in this unexplored question was stoked by a New Yorker essay (January 18) called “Found in Translation.” Written by Claudia Roth Pierpont who is talented and exceedingly hostile to Israel, the article is ostensibly a review of recent Arabic literature. I hope that what she has written will be challenged.

For all of Pierpont’s hostility, the article provides cues to the normalcy of much of Arab life within Israel. We learn of Arabs who did not flee in 1948 and whose families have prospered, of Arabs voting in Israeli elections, of Arabs being treated in Israeli hospitals, of Arab students in Israeli universities. This pattern of normalcy is under the radar screen of journalists who constantly write negatively about Israel. Most of us have a sense of this normalcy when we are in Israel. We encounter Arabs in hotels and other work settings, on the street, and especially in Jerusalem’s wonderful parks. Admittedly, this does not amount to friendship associations, to social interactions that forge meaningful and ongoing ties. It is na├»ve and harmful to fall prey to the notion that persons of different ethnic backgrounds and commitments should somehow act as if they are buddy-buddy. It is sufficient and often a difficult enough goal that they live separately but with respect for those who are different.

Although there are zones of what may be called Israeli/Jewish-Arab interaction, as in the relationship with Egypt and Jordan which has resulted in tourism and some economic and diplomatic cooperation, it remains that even here there is scarcely a comfort level. In Egyptian textbooks, the message of hostility toward Israel and Jews remains. The cooperation that exists arises entirely from a mutuality of interests in that Israel, Egypt and Jordan - and to an extent other Arab states – have what to fear from Islamic extremism. Israel serves as a buffer for what passes as Arab moderation and the Arab countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations serve as a kind of buffer for the Jewish state. In short, there is a relationship of convenience.

Likely, self-interest is the optimum that can be achieved under contemporary circumstances. But this should not be discounted. There is insufficient appreciation of Israel’s diplomatic accomplishments, perhaps because much of it inevitably has been behind closed doors. There is also the problem that Israeli political life is beset by an excess of backbiting, so that even what should be applauded too often is subject to unfair criticism.

For all of the patches of normalcy or the zones of civility and cooperation, the dominant fact in the Middle East remains the fever of Islamic/Arab hostility and extremism. Until this fever subsides, which isn’t going to happen any time soon, Israel is compelled to act harshly toward Arabs and thereby to foster the attitude that in all our relationships there is justification for being hateful toward Arabs.

This is the reality, but it is a reality that we should not be happy about. The Midrash tells us that when the Egyptians were killed immediately after the Exodus, G-D rebuked the Jews for celebrating: “My creations are drowning in the sea and you are rejoicing.” Golda Meir’s formulation was as follows: “An Arab mother who loses a son in battle weeps as bitterly as any Israeli mother.”