By Khaled Diab
Israelis and Arabs tend to believe that they share little in common. But in reality they are more alike than they like to admit.
1 July 2011
One might be excused for thinking that the only thing Arabs and Israelis have in common is a shared passion for hummus. But even that simple pleasure has become highly politicised, as illustrated by the recent ‘Hummus Wars' in which Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians sought to show that size does matter.
Israelis claim hummus as their national dish, while Palestinians protest that it was theirs first and fear that the occupation has taken over their kitchens, too. Under different circumstances, who got there first wouldn't matter and the shared fondness for the same food could be utilised as a unifying factor – after all, the best way to a people's heart is through their stomachs – but, instead, any common ground is too often lost in demonisation.
Against the backdrop of a bitter decades-long conflict, Israelis and Arabs are prone to believe that they may be neighbours geographically but they are worlds apart in all other senses. Too many Israelis seem to view Arabs as die-hard (or is that die-willingly?) fans of fanaticism whose only idea of fun is fundamentalism. It's almost as if Arabs are career jihadis who chase promotion in the cut-throat corporate world of martyrdom in the hope of gaining access to the executive club in the sky, with its 72 sexy personal assistants and rivers of gushing vintage wine.
This automatic suspicion has been demonstrated to me repeatedly since our arrival here. The security at the airport's cargo village turned the van I was in inside out, and even combed it for explosive traces, for no other reason than I was apparently carrying a ‘suspicious package' in the form of my toddler son, whose presence seemed to miff the soldiers at the gate.
This benighted Arab extremism contrasts sharply with Israel's self-image as the region's only liberal, enlightened society – “an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism,” according to Herzl, or more colourfully the “villa in the jungle,” in Ehud Barak's view.
There are Israelis I have met who have reacted in disbelief when I talk about secular Arabs, as if their existence in the Middle East (outside Israel, that is) is as mythical as that of elves in Middle Earth. Though Arabs are generally more conservative than non-Jerusalemite Israelis, this stereotype overlooks the presence of places like laisse-faire Lebanon and egalitarian Tunisia, whose laws are possibly more secular than Israel's, not to mention the tens of millions of secular Arabs in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and beyond.
It also overlooks Israel's own reality. I am surprised by how much sway the religious community holds here, such as how much religious law the Orthodox have forced into Israel's legal system, how the pious force much of the rest of the country to keep come to a grinding halt during Shabbat, and how pigs will fly before you find any pork in Jerusalem shops. In fact, some parts of Jerusalem behave like theocratic city statelets.
For their part, Arabs tend to view Israelis as comic-book – or spy thriller – villains whose sole occupation in life is to be soldiers, settlers and/or spies. Although the Mossad, like other intelligence agencies, is involved in real-life conspiracies, the conspiracy theories, such as in my native Egypt, far outstrip and defy any possible realities: chewing gum that makes decent Egyptian youth horny, radioactive seatbelt buckles, shampoo that makes your hair fall out, and even creams that gnarl your skin.
Fortunately, Egyptians have interpreted the recent arrest of the maverick Israeli-American revolution tourist Ilan Grapel as a distractionary tactic by the generals currently running the country.
And it's not just fear and demonisation of the ‘enemy' that Arabs and Israelis share in common, despite their protestations to the contrary. Actually, the diversity within each group dwarfs the differences between the two collectives.
Israelis share with Arabs – particularly their Mediterranean neighbours – a keen sense of Middle Eastern hospitality, though Israelis have a more direct manner and behave with greater swagger, and are even hospitable to one another when they meet on the individual level, as I have discovered here and some Israelis I know found out in Egypt. We also share a love of loud conversation and gesticulation, and a passion for large gatherings and spontaneity in public spaces. Family is also of paramount importance on both sides of the divide.
Having suffered for centuries under foreign hegemony or as vulnerable minorities, Arabs and Israelis share a sense of victimhood and persecution, not to mention their penchant for believing elaborate conspiracy theories that confirm their belief that the entire world is out to get them.
Moreover, many of the challenges facing Arab and Israeli societies are remarkably similar, such as the battle for the soul of society between secularists, fundamentalists, modernists and traditionalists.
In addition, contrary to the Arab proverb that ‘what has passed has died', in Israeli and Arab eyes, the past is not relegated to the annals of ancient history but is a living, breathing, oft-oppressive creature. But as the revolutionary wave gripping the region turns attention towards the future, I hope that Arabs and Israelis will find a way to work together to draft a tolerant, inclusive and just chapter in their as yet unwritten history.