Friday, April 28, 2006

Arab Regimes and Discussion of Israel

Lisa Goldman links to this Lebanon Profile post on an exploration of the Israeli blogosphere. The anonymous blogger notes:
"What is most striking is that many Israeli bloggers are incredibly knowledgeable about what is going on here (ie, Lebanon, but also the rest of the Arabic speaking region). Note that my mother sent me an article about the Nakba by the editor of An Nahar Literary Supplement from a New York based Jewish newspaper. I didn't read a single article in the Lebanese press on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The lack of news about Israel - not an unimportant country in the region - is astounding...

"Not knowing about 'them' is the worst crime we can commit. It invalidates them as humans, as if they don't even matter. They are Stalin's faceless enemy, the rabid dog, the evil blood suckers whom it is righteous to kill. Our papers definitely need to start covering more than major political events in Israel. We should remember their tragedies. 'They' already have a massive internal debate going on about the Palestinians, the war in Lebanon, and the wall. Given the reception Elias Khoury's book has received in Israel, it seems the Israelis (including the official IDF education officer quoted in the Forward) are recognizing the Nakba. Why deny the Holocaust?"

I think this issue is real, and ultimately hurts the Palestinian cause. During Mustafa Barghouti's visit, I learned I am not the only pro-Palestinian person who finds the Arab political culture on Israel to be a significant problem in trying to sway people to our viewpoint, or indeed maintain our own morale.

My use of the term "political culture" is deliberate here, because I think the poverty of the Arab discourse on Israel is inextricably linked to the authoritarian nature of Arab regimes. Acknowledging the liveliness of Israeli political debate, for example, might encourage imitators in their own population, and generate opinions such as those of Muhammad Dahlan that Israel's success as a state stems as much from the fact its leaders are accountable to the people as from any Western support. Focusing on Ashkenazi political domination also serves a purpose, for if it became widely known in the Arab world that half of Israeli Jews and a clear majority of Israeli citizens are of Arab origin, and that intermarriage is making this less of an issue all the time - the argument that it is a colonial creation would start to founder on the fact that Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan are also colonial creations, as well as force a public accounting of why so many Jews decided (or were forced) to leave Arab countries during the 20th century. It is far better, from the standpoint of Arab dictatorships, to leave in place a status quo which places the blame for most problems on the West, and uses the forms of anti-Semitism imported during the colonial period as a connecting link between American foreign policy, economic neo-colonialism, and the daily suffering of the Palestinians at Israeli hands, and this I think is one reason why for Arabs to hear the opinions of mainstream Israeli leaders in Arabic, they usually have to go to independent satellite stations such as al-Jazeera.

This is not to say the Arabs are unable to think for themselves after the old orientalist stereotype, but rather that they are forming rational opinions given the completely different images of Israel which dominate Arab culture. For most Americans, Israel is a seemingly similar country in terms of its values and lifestyle, and its treatment of the Palestinians is seen in terms of the broader conflict between this society and countries like Ba'athist Syria. For most Arabs, the suffering of the Palestinians is foremost, and Israel appears strictly as an oppressor, a caricature the actions of which can only be explained by conspiracy or stereotyping. Getting past this caricature, however, will be necessary to achieve true peace and understanding in the region, a peace which would ultimately improve the lives of people across the region.


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