Talking to Neighbors is a Waste of Time
Last updated: October 12, 2008
October 6, 2006
A few weeks ago the International Herald Tribune published an article that was discussed on a few blogs I know. In 'Talking to the neighbors' Avi Azrieli called for Israel's cultural integration into the Middle East as a way to peace and mutual understanding between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The primary means for achieving this goal is of course teaching Arabic to every Israeli. Otherwise how can Israelis become a part of the Arab culture? Basically it's not so much about talking to the neighbors as about doing it in Arabic.
It's not difficult to understand why the article got a positive reaction from many people. Most people can't resist the idea of talking to each other and the word 'dialog' can send even many hardliners into a prolonged and intense orgasm.
The question is if indeed it makes any sense for Israelis to waste their time on learning Arabic hoping that it will make their state more legitimate in the eyes of their neighbors? Given that many Israelis don't speak English, they sure can find better use for their time. So I went back to the article and read it once again.
Azrieli starts with describing the problem:
*** While Israel has flourished economically and technologically by modeling itself on the Western European culture of its early Ashkenazi pioneers, the cultural alienation from its neighbors has intensified Israel's pariah status in the region. Even the peace with Egypt and Jordan remains cold, while hate toward Israel in the Arab street heats up to new records. ***
The question of course is why if modeling oneself on the European culture makes one flourish economically and technologically, should one be looking to substitute it with something else?
There are more questions. To what degree the universal failure of Arab states to produce a decent and successful society is due to their modeling themselves on the Arab culture? How one embraces the Arab culture without importing the backwardness and stagnation 'flourishing' across the border? The last question is no idle one since Israel doesn't dispose of any oil fields or gas reserves to support itself in case this happens.
***A change of paradigm for the intensely besieged Israeli society would not be easy, and embracing the culture of the enemy could be confusing, if not outright repulsive. Yet it is necessary and possible. Israelis must accept that the people surrounding them are not only their current enemies, but also long-term cohabitants of the same troubled part of the world. ***
It can be indeed repulsive and confusing for Israelis to try their hand at arranged marriages, honor killings, mistreating of women and violent inter clan feuds so common among the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But what it's good for anyway? Israelis already demonstrated that they see Palestinians as 'long-term cohabitants of the same troubled part of the world'. They did it by embracing the two state solution and supporting the Oslo process. How learning Arabic can help them here?
Azrieli then discusses a few ways to make Israelis learn Arabic but learning Arabic is only a means to the final goal:
*** Complementing its embrace of Arabic, Israel should absorb Arab culture. Israel's decidedly westernized self-identity has implied a rejection of everything that is Arab. Israelis need to engage in a dialog with the Arab people in order to understand their aspirations and frustrations. ***
Here comes the killer word: Dialog. After the majority of Israelis learn Arabic they would be finally able to engage in a long sought dialog with their Arab neighbors to understand better their aspirations and frustrations.
Probably Azrieli does not speak Arabic himself because I found no correlation between fluency in Arabic of Israelis I know and their attitudes towards their neighbors. Quite to the contrary it seems to work all the way round. The Moroccan Jews I worked with on water projects in the West Bank spoke fluent Arabic and even knew Koran to the point they could talk religion with Palestinian villagers (ordinary Palis, by the way, apparently know very little of their religion). But their intimate knowledge of the aspirations and frustrations of the other side didn't lead to any respect and embrace of their neighbors' culture. To the contrary they detested both the culture and its owners. And I doubt that it endeared them much on the neighbors themselves.
By far it's the Tel Avivans I know, who don't speak a word in Arabic and assume that Arabs are like Israelis who just happen to speak Arabic, who may be most sympathetic to Azrieli's ideas. But it's a shame to teach them Arabic since their delusional thinking may not survive a meeting with the reality. In a region where the majority of neighbors are sure that Jews are behind 9/11 attacks, failing to learn the language may save some people lots of disappointment.
I used to speak a rudimentary Arabic I picked up after living for a year with Israeli Bedouins and I have a relatively extensive exposure to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. But if this exposure to the culture and mentality of the neighbors had any lasting impression on me it was mostly negative.
Azrieli is delusional if he thinks that exposure to Arab culture would endear Arabs on Israelis. Most probably it would only make Israelis realize even more that they are not Arabs and they want to have nothing to do with Arabs and their culture.
Back to the article. Here comes the most important piece of Azrieli argumentation. It's basically why Israel should go into so much trouble of remodeling itself into a middle eastern country.
*** Would the Arab world accept such a Jewish state into its fold? Islamic extremists aside, Arab society traditionally embraced religious and ethnic pluralism. There are millions of Arabs who are not Muslims, and millions of Muslims who aren't Arabs.
Many religions and ethnic groups have prospered as part of the Arab world, such as the Druze, Kurds, Bahai, Copts, Christians and Jews. Islam itself is permeated with different varieties, most prominently Shiite and Sunni. ***
That many religions and ethnic groups have prospered as part of the Arab world is open to question. If anything it was long time ago. Maybe by the standards of the Middle Ages the Arab/Muslim world was a highly tolerant place but we are not living in the Middle Ages.
Probably Azrieli has not noticed this, but from the Druze to the Alawites, too many religious sects here keep their creeds secret, never revealing their books or making public their religious doctrines. Millions of Shia and the same Alawites have a rich history of massively practicing Taqiyya. Taqiyya, sometimes translated 'dissimulation', means concealing one's faith, which in practice means concealing by adopting outwardly the religion of the regional master race. Such a proliferation of secret doctrines and dissimulated religions in this region did not happen because the Arab/Muslim world is a very tolerant place.
Neither the regional minorities saw much of tolerance with the coming of the modern age. The same Kurds were slaughtered by hundreds of thousands in recent time. Thousands were gassed by mustard gas under Saddam Hussein. The Turks wiped out hundreds of Kurdish villages. Khomeini once even declared on them Jihad . And there is a reason why the spiritual center of the Bahais is in Israel, in Haifa, and not elsewhere in the region. And let's better pretend that we have never heard about this Sunni Shia thing to spare ourselves nightmares and occasional visits to a shrink. What sort of tolerance and inspiring co-existence Azrieli has discovered in the Arab world is impossible to see. Actually these facts are so well known and these observations of mine are so self evident, that I am under temptation to accuse this guy of deliberately twisting facts for the sake of pursuing some warped agenda of his own.
It's also hard to understand what Azrieli is trying to say since he got completely off track. Is he inviting Israelis to join a nearby Islamic Khalifat as an ethnic minority? But there are no Khalifats around !!! What this stuff about ethnic/religious minorities has to do with Israel ??!! Israelis are not an ethnic or religious minority. They have a state of their own.
The question properly asked should be if the Arabs would be ready to accept Israel as a state if all Israelis learn Arabic as a second language. If anything, Azrieli should check not how the Kurds are doing as an ethnic minority in Arab/Muslim states across the Middle East (and they are doing badly everywhere) but if the Arab/Muslim world is ready to accept their aspirations to create and maintain an independent state of their own. The unavoidable conclusion would greatly disappoint Azrieli and other enthusiasts of this idea. In particular given that the Kurds in Iraq and Syria probably speak fluent Arabic and culturally are closer to the Arabs than Israelis can ever be.
The end of the article is no better than its beginning:
*** By making Arabic a true national language beside Hebrew, Israel would send a clear message to its neighbors: We respect you and we are here to stay. ***
One may think that by sticking to Hebrew, Israelis were sending message to their neighbors that they are just about to pack their stuff and go to Canada. And it's hard to believe that our wars with Arabs came as a result of our failure to communicate to the Arabs how much we respect them. In fact, the concepts of honour and respect play such a tremendous role in the Arab culture, that at times it seems as if they can just never get enough of both.
At one point Azrieli turns to his personal experience to encourage Israelis to accept his radical plan:
*** Some Jews have always sought to understand their neighbors better. My great-grandfather and namesake, the rabbi of a farming community on Mount Carmel a century ago, learned Arabic in order to converse with his neighbors. ***
Now that the story got a personal twist, the whole thing starts looking more real and promising, and Azrieli continues:
*** Unfortunately, he and his family were massacred (!!! NB) while visiting relatives in Hebron during the 1929 Arab riots.
I would say that, unfortunately, even after sharing that piece of his family experience with the readers, Azrieli still fails to make his point appear overly convincing.
October 12, 2008
The approaching cultural war between Israel and Lebanon has attracted my attention recently in view of the tremendous opportunities it presents.
*** At ethnic food exhibitions our producers go to the Israeli stand and find most of the specialities they are marketing as Israeli foods are Lebanese," said Fadi Abboud, president of the Lebanese Industrialists' Association (LIA). "Our culture goes back a few thousand years. It's time to set the record straight."
Abboud and researchers say they have documentation to prove that 25 traditional dishes hail from Lebanon and deserve the EU's Protected Designated Origin status, meaning they can be marketed under their name only if they were made in the country. Under an EU deal, Lebanon is entitled to seek European arbitration for its claim to protected status, but will require a World Trade Organisation ruling for the move to affect sales in non-EU markets. ***
No expert on foods and their history, I have little idea about the origin of Mummus and other stuff. Neither do I care. Whether this stuff was invented by Arabs or has been present here from the biblical times; whether it was introduced here by Turks or spread across the region from ancient or Coptic Egypt, is largely irrelevant as far as I am concerned. The only two things that I am ready to bet on with some degree of certainty is that the popularity of these foods in Israel has exploded following the massive exodus of Jews from the Middle East and that probably none of the 25 dishes claimed by the Lebanese can be proved to have originated in Lebanon. In fact there are sane voices in Lebanon who seem to not argue with the obvious. This is the closest approximation to the notion of sane voice that exists in a country that used to hospitalize its citizens in droves, paralyzed from inhaling toxic gases, each time winds were blowing Israeli advertising balloons across the border:
*** "Foods like falafel are not Lebanese but they're certainly not Israeli either. How can they be when Israel is only 60 years old?" asked Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture and ecosystems at the American University of Beirut, and author of a book on "slow food" in Lebanon.
"But Lebanon's borders are only 60 years old as well. There is an instinctive response in the region against what is seen as Israel's theft of land and appropriation of culture, but to register falafel as Lebanese is almost as absurd and chauvinistic as Israel trying to register it as Israeli."
Following another debate with the neighbors on what goes under the name of Hummus in the Arab world, better known in Israel as Mummus, I came to spot here a tremendous opportunity for Israel to develop and modernize itself. Of course many Israelis would loath a possible WTO ruling obliging the Israelis to pack all of their Hummus and send it back to its rightful owner, the proud nation of Lebanon. Some people are sure to get so heart broken to the point of having heart attacks. But we should always try to see the full half of the glass.
First of all returning our Hummus...mmmm sorry ... returning our Mummus to Lebanon can be always used as an excuse for Israel to pay another visit to Lebanon, and this time not in order to destroy infrastructure or fight militants, but just to check how well what used to be our national food is doing. Second, claims to Mummus and Malamel may be soon followed by an attempt on the Arab side to get back those parts of the regional culture adopted by Israel. Personally I would be the most happy to see this country relieved of some of those musical genres that belong to what is collectively known under the name of "Zemer Mizrakhi". In particular, if the Turks and Greeks follow the suit, we may soon find our cities much quieter and radio waves cleansed of this noise.
There is no doubt that through its short history this country has accumulated more than enough authentic or locally reprocessed Levantine and Arab cultural ballast, possibly enough to produce another failed state, another Lebanon and even another Syria. The current campaign launched by the Arab world to reclaim part of its culinary and cultural heritage appropriated by the Jews should be welcomed and encouraged. Of course some people may take it harder than the rest, the music thing in particular, but then we can always calm them down by importing here a few BMWs.
In fact, in the best possible case the Arab world may go that far as to demand that, unless Israeli Arabs reject Israel and actively join the fight against Zionist entity, they can no longer practice any of the centuries old venerable traditions of the great Arab civilization. Forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy... All of this stuff can be just packed and sent back to the neighbors as part of the deal. Think about it and realize that Mummus is a very small price to pay for getting such favors.
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