Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Arabs speaks out on the Arab World's problem with Antisemitism

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Two recent blog posts by bloggers of Arab descent bravely tackle the internally- taboo issue of antisemitism in the Arab world, both claiming that it is a well entrenched belief system which undermines the development of pluralistic, democratic societies in the Middle East, as the Arab Spring revolutions enter their second year.

The first blogger, Lee Habeeb, is an American of Lebanese decent. He draws from his own experience and reactions he received after publishing what was perceived as a pro-Israeli column:

"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... 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."

Habeeb continues to shatter this facade of an anti-Israeli monolithic Arab narrative, or "groupthink":

"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."

Habeeb ponders what is the root of this obsession with Israel: "Why is this? Why is all of his passion, all of his anger and rage, directed at this one country, this one people?"

He goes on to suggest a whole list of burning topics that should have been on the Arab agenda, such as Syria, Hezbullah, tyrannical regimes, women's rights and minority rights (especially Christians) in the Middle East etc. He comes up with a surprisingly candid answer: "fear and envy"

"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."

The fear, Habeeb suggests, stems from a sense of self-doubt:

"Why the anger when I hint that America and Israel might have something to teach the Arab world?... 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... 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."

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Habeeb has a recommendation for Arab societies in transition, and a grand hope for the future:

"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... 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, Arabs will come to see Jews not as their enemies, but as their neighbors, and as their trading partners."

The second blogger, Wiji Bohme Shomary, originally from Syria, is a student in Sweden. She also reflects of her own experiences and upbringing, as well as those of her surroundings, in the context of antisemitism among Arab societies. During her childhood in Damascus she never encountered Jews nor had she learned about the Holocaust:

"I had the chance to move to Sweden and all the knowledge I had about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism was overwhelming at first. I knew nothing about the Holocaust while growing up in Syria for it is not taught in schools and all the talk about Jewish affairs is strictly in order to express disgust or hatred for it... Many of my Arab neighbors are equally ignorant of the Holocaust, and when they find out more about it, see the disaster usually as a legitimate punishment for the Jews. 'Look what they do in Palestine,' they say, 'a tooth for tooth and eye for an eye.' The chronological order, of course, is less important."

This, she explains, serves for many, including in the West, as a justification for antisemitic feelings, scapegoating and conspiracy theories among Arabs:

"The Arabs are allowed to be anti-Semites because they have suffered because of Israel's policy. This is an attitude that often occurs in the Western world, simply turning a blind eye to the phenomenon. In Syria, Jews are considered to be the cause of misery, water and electricity shortages, poverty, disease, economic stagnation, immoral behavior."

Importantly, she also notes that there seems to be a pragmatic political rationale behind governments' encouragement of such social sentiments among Arab populations, and their obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict :

"Israel is blamed for everything and some states in the region are happy of course with the situation. Arab nationalist governments have helped to create the image of a ghostly Jewish identity that haunts their country and destroys everything that they claim they are trying to build. Most of the residents, particularly young people, have themselves never met a Jewish person but may create a mental image based on the state's descriptions. Every time a grievance regarding the quality of life grows among the people, they zoom the Palestinian question into focus and suddenly the media's total attention spotlights Israel's settlement policy. The Palestinian question is used by neighboring countries, and in the sentimental Middle East it is a safe bet that Hezbollah and the Syrian government, for example will win support among the people. These States and the so called resistance organizations do not really give a damn about the Palestinians' fate , and when you consider how badly the Palestinians are received and treated in Arab countries, these countries' positions become clear and you soon realize the hypocrisy on which they are based."

Like Habeeb, Shomary also reflects on the influence of the prevalent antisemitism on the prospects of democratisation in the Arab world, as well as Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects. And also like Habeeb, she also tries to reveal the all- too-common connection between anti-Israel sentiments and antisemitism:

"... anti-Semitism in the Arab world is really a big problem, both for the region's democratic development and the peace process that could result in an independent Palestinian state. In the Middle East, they argue that Jews can be hated without Israel. But being anti-Israel is often just a politically correct way to express anti-Semitism."

Unfortunately, it is not only the peoples of the Middle East who need to hear about the prevalance, the immorality and the dangers of antisemtiism from courageous liberal like Habib and Shomary. Many Western commentators are too quick to dismiss or excuse Middle Eastern antisemitism as simply an irrelevance by-product of the Arab-Israel conflict. They would understand the region much better if they incorporated what liberals like Habeeb and Shomary are telling them into their analysis.

Or Avi-Guy

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