The popular Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat published two articles recently that presented a relatively positive view of Israel compared to the usual strongly negative image of the country in the Arab media.
Dr. Amal al-Hazzani, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, wrote an article about a week ago titled "The Israel we do not know " – and received a flood of hate mail. He went on to write another article, published Thursday, responding to the harsh reaction.
A look at the two articles, as well as the public response, is telling of where the acceptable boundaries in Arab culture lie when it comes to discussion of Israel.
In the first article, Hazzani analyzed the results of the Israeli elections, noting that the focus had been on internal issues and that politicians had acted with devotion and sincerity to promote the interests of the people as a whole.
This has not been the case in Arab countries since the Arab Spring, he said. There, Arab politicians focus on "their affiliation to a certain group" and "heap insults upon Israel from their luxurious hotel rooms. However, they are still unaware as to where, why and how these feelings of hatred towards Israel came about."
He lamented that Israel's neighboring Arab states "are ignorant of the Hebrew language," noting that in Syria and Lebanon, people preferred to study French rather than the language of the country threatening their national security.
Arab youth know nothing about Israel, he said, claiming that a "generation that harbors dreams and expectations different to those cherished by a leader like Netanyahu" had emerged there.
He called attempts by some analysts to compare young Israelis' social protests with the Arab Spring protests "ridiculous." The Arabs struggled against undemocratic "regimes that were light years away from their citizens," he said, whereas Israel is "truly democratic" and the protests there were over living standards, not "starting from scratch as in the Arab Spring states."
He argued that not all Israelis supported the oppression of the Palestinians, and implied that Arabs were not aware of this, partly because their intelligentsia did not talk about it.
By contrast, he said, there are many opportunities to study Arabic in Israel, and Israelis are fully fluent and absorbed in Arab culture, its strengths and weaknesses. This helps explain why Israelis have become so successful and powerful, he stated.
The article was not entirely positive vis-à-vis Israel, as it still spoke of an "oppressive occupying state," among other things. But the aspects of Israel that it did portray in a positive light were apparently too much for some readers.
Hazzani's second article opens by describing the flood of hate mail he received from people who accused him of "calling for a normalization of relations, promoting the Hebrew language, and glorifying Israeli liberalism."
"This response was to be expected because I breached a taboo," he says, but this "outrage will not change the reality. Israel will remain as it is; a small state but stronger than the rest of the Arab world."
He goes on to defend himself by asserting that he was only trying to say Arabs had to understand their enemy.
Hazzani says Arabs fear that learning about Israel will somehow mean they are recognizing its legitimacy, but that is not necessarily so. This attitude permeates Arab media, which is scared to deal with issues relating to culture, economics, and even some political issues when it comes to Israel, for the fear that it "promotes Zionism," he says.
During the latest wars in Gaza and Lebanon, he notes, Arab TV stations generally refused to invite a guest representing the Israeli side. "Only Al-Arabiya dared to buck the trend, and it was not long before some branded it as Zionist for choosing to do so."
The Arabs, he concludes, "have been preoccupied with [rage] and blind hatred since 1967. During this time, Israel has managed to build eight public universities and 200 museums that receive nearly 4 million tourists a year. It has also become a rival to the US in the programming and software industry."
This episode illustrates that Arabic discourse is still bound by a cultural enmity that refuses to let go of the traditional Arab narrative of the conflict, despite some gestures from time to time.
Hazzani, though critical of Israel, was able to present some positive aspects of Israeli society without being completely blinded by hatred.
The fact that even he could not present these facts without being bombarded shows that Arab society is nowhere close to accepting the legitimacy of, or peace with, Israel.
Yet there is some hope in the fact that Asharq al-Awsat had the courage to publish the article – albeit from its safe headquarters in London.
BY ARIEL BEN SOLOMON
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