Carlo Strenger
Haaretz (Blog)
June 6, 2012 - 12:00am

It used to be an old Jewish habit to try to understand our surroundings. One reason was curiosity; the other was to figure out whether current events are good for the Jews or not – because this allowed Jews to survive under often very difficult circumstances. The first motivation is certainly laudable; the second reflects good old prudence.

Some of this sophisticated interest in the world around us has been lost, certainly by the Netanyahu government. It has been replaced by one of the worst traits of humankind: certainties based on nothing but prejudice and irresponsible generalizations. One good example is Lieberman’s election slogan: “Only Lieberman understands Arabic” (he doesn’t), implying that he, as opposed to fainthearted wimps, truly knows the Arab psyche (I would seriously be interested on what grounds he thinks he knows Arabs).

Some of our right-wing MKs and ministers would have done well to attend a conference by the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin this weekend. They would have met quite a number of real-life Arabs, from a variety of countries ranging from Yemen to Egypt.

Ahmed Saeed Asery, for example, is a 27-year-old old musician whose band ‘3 meters away’ played during the uprising in Yemen. They would have met a very open minded young man, who, at the event played together with VJ Sniper, whose civilian name is Assaf Etiel, who, you may have guessed, is Israeli.

They would also have met Ezzedine Choukry Fishere, formerly an Egyptian diplomat, who has written a number of novels. He read from his most recent work that investigates the experience of Arabs who live in the Western world. His voice is ironic, sophisticated and defies easy categorization, and his intention is to portray new forms of Arab identity little known in the Western world nowadays.

Because I thoroughly enjoyed his words on stage, I talked to him afterwards – and then found out that he had served in Israel for five years.

They might find out that most Arabs have many interests like developing civil society in their countries, and that plotting how to wipe out Israel is not among them. They might be surprised to find out what kind of Arab identities are emerging, and they might actually find out about the Arab Spring from people who are involved in it.

Some of our right-wing MKs might find it a waste of time to travel all the way to Berlin to meet Arabs in a way they are not used to, and find out that their well-entrenched views on Arabs may be somewhat devoid of factual basis.

They could also travel to the West Bank; they might find it interesting to meet the Palestinian business class that is doing its best to create rich and rewarding lives for their fellow Palestinians. Sam Bahour would be a good example: he had a successful business career in the US, but decided to move back to his homeland to participate in its development when the peace process the right now derides started in the 1990s. Or they might meet Bashar Masri, who is applying his considerable business acumen in building the new town of Rawabi.

If they would take the trouble to actually talk to them, they might also hear how Israeli officials make their lives miserable and create every possible obstacle to their business ventures. They even might, for a moment, wonder why it should be in Israel’s interest to block Palestinian cellphone companies or make building a modern Palestinian city more difficult than necessary (I am sure they would spend little time wondering whether it’s moral or humane to do so).

But they really don’t need to do so. After all, like Avigdor Lieberman, they really know Arabs. They would tell me that I just took some rare examples of ‘nice’ Arabs; but that most Arabs are bloodthirsty anti-Semites. And since they have made up their minds, they don’t need to be confused by facts.

Incidentally: I wonder what they would say if any gentile would say that ‘nice’ Jews are an exception, and that most Jews are racist fanatics like Meir Kahane and MK Michael Ben Ari; they would most certainly scream ‘anti-Semitism’ – but that's different isn’t it? Stereotypes held by Jews are right; stereotypes held by gentiles are just that: stereotypes…

This is not meant to be an interpretation of the Arab Spring as a whole based on these and other encounters with Arabs. I am just trying to point out that I find it remarkable how the old Jewish virtue of being interested in ones surroundings has been replaced by a bunker mentality combined with cheap populism in Israel’s right-wing political class.

Israel is certainly placed in one of the world’s more difficult and volatile corners. Nevertheless, if you really want to know what’s good for the Jews and care for their survival, you might do well to resume the old Jewish habit (it’s actually a habit of smart people anywhere), of actually letting the facts confuse your mind, at least once in a while. You might find out that along with the very real dangers, there are opportunities that must not be missed.


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