Just as Arabs do not realise just how ‘Middle Eastern' Israelis are, Israelis don't realise how ‘western' millions of Arabs are.
Nearly six decades after its creation, Israel occupies a semi-mythical place in the Arab mind. In popular culture, it is the land of brutal occupation, political intrigue, social decadence and sophisticated espionage, with a beautiful or cunning Mossad agent lurking behind every lamppost. Europe once had its Iron Curtain; the Middle East still has its Zion Curtain.
Landing in Tel Aviv at an airport called Ben Gurion had all the makings of an Egyptian spy thriller. And for those in search of “intrigue”, my first introduction to Israel did not disappoint. Although Egyptian-born, I was travelling on my Belgian passport. Airport security had obviously been alerted about my imminent arrival and an official welcoming party was waiting when I stepped off the plane.
When I left the airport two hours and four interviews later, my first encounter with an Israeli taxi driver confirmed that I had very much landed in the Middle East. He was a Moroccan Jew who had moved to Israel as a teenager and could shame any Cairo cabbie with his colourful use of curses and expletives and his love of Umm Kalthoum, the Arab world's legendary singing diva. The only western thing about this scene was that he had turned on the taxi's meter.
The Israeli family I stayed with for a few days reminded me in so many ways of home. Like the traditional set-up in Egypt, several generations of the same family live together on the same plot, flowing in and out of each other's spaces, sharing intimacies, food and resources, etc. The key difference was that they were less patriarchal and more egalitarian than most Egyptian families.
“I don't understand how Europeans can leave home so early and stay so distant from their families,” said an exasperated Zipora, the mother, sounding just like one of my Egyptian aunties, over a sumptuous lunch she had prepared to feed twice the assembled people, just like another of my aunts.
Throughout my time in Israel, it was constantly driven home to me that the joking description in Egypt of Israelis as our errant “cousins” had a very distinct ring of truth to it. After all, about half the Jewish population of Israel came from Arab countries – that's not to mention all the 1.2 million Palestinian holders of Israeli passports.
One Iraqi Jew I met in Jerusalem could do a passable imitation of the Egyptian vernacular so popular in films and music across the region, loved travelling to Egypt, was a professional oud player and sang in Arabic at weddings and barmitzvahs.
Israelis share with Arabs – particularly their Mediterranean neighbours – a keen sense of Middle Eastern hospitality, a love of conversation and large gatherings and spontaneity in public spaces. But just as Arabs do not realise just how “Middle Eastern” Israelis are, I discovered that Israelis are also largely ignorant of just how ‘”western” millions of Arabs are. But, then again, in a conflict, it's tempting to portray your foe as everything you're not.
I found it entertaining that at a barbecue where no one was drinking except me with my solitary glass of wine, everyone seemed convinced that “secular Arab” was some sort of mythical creature, a semantic impossibility. Some guests looked at me with unrestrained dismay when I recalled the amount of drinking that went on at the Cairo parties I used to host or attend.
“Do you have alcohol in Egypt?” one confounded guest actually inquired, causing me almost to choke on my wine. “Of course, it's not the same with the Palestinians,” another confidently asserted. We later drank a toast to his memory at a local bar in Ramallah over the surprisingly good Palestinian beer.
The idea that there are sizeable minorities of Egyptians and other Arabs – counting in the millions – committed to secular ideals, gender equality, sexual liberty, etc., was entirely contrary to the vision that most Israelis I met entertained of the Arab world being a seething ocean of Islamic fanaticism.
Of course, there are differences, and plenty of them. Whereas a relative minority are socially liberal in Egypt, a relative majority are so in Israel. An openly permissive city like Tel Aviv would be hard to find anywhere in the Middle East, with the exception of Beirut.
Another key difference between Egypt and Israel is the sheer diversity of the Israeli population. Egypt's 75 million citizens are largely homogenous, despite some religious and racial variations. Israel is like a racial microcosm of the world – a fairly unique riot of ethnicities, races and cultures. And the fact that it has succeeded in managing all this diversity to construct a functioning society and a competitive economy is remarkable. Israel also leads the region in science and the knowledge sector.
Despite a certain lack of contemporary confidence, Egypt, the oldest existing nation in the world, has the security of an ages-old identity that has the permanence of the Nile or the pyramids. Whereas Egypt is the land of the rooted, Israel – in contrast – is the land of the displaced controlling millions of dispossessed.
Most of the Middle East suffers from a sense of victimhood – in fact, Arabs and Israelis are unified, I discovered, in their belief that they were betrayed by the British. However, the long shadow of the Holocaust and earlier pogroms and the long-standing conflict with the Arabs has transformed this into a full-blown persecution complex and the deep-seated fear that the Arabs cannot be trusted – no matter what they say or do – because what they really want is to drive Israel into the sea. That would partly explain why Israel is the most militarised society I have ever seen and the fact that it often hits first and forgets to ask the right questions later.
This immense level of insecurity may confound many of my fellow Arabs because it flies in the face of Israel's undisputed military might, its ambiguous nuclear arsenal and the fact that it is in occupation of Arab land and not vice-versa. Whereas Israelis do not expect Arabs to lose sleep over the estimated 600 nuclear warheads aimed our way, they are fixated on the suspected nuclear weapons designs of Iran – however remote in the future or unlikely they are to occur.
And here lies the biggest potential weapon in the Arab arsenal: militant peace. Arabs should dialogue directly with Israelis and tell them clearly and unequivocally that they want to live alongside them in warm peace once they reach a settlement with the Palestinians and Syrians.
Paranoia was the name of the game during the Cold War in Europe. After the Iron Curtain fell, people were confounded that we ever feared the other side so much, especially with many of our former “enemies” now members of the EU. I am optimistic that the same will occur in the Middle East once the Zion Curtain is lifted.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 13 May 2007.