Myths of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
1:05 PM, Jun 7, 2011 • By HASSAN MNEIMNEH
There is no fundamental reason to resist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state, despite its sizable Palestinian population. Surely Netanyahu is not suggesting any Israeli citizen be denied equal rights. Nor is he advocating the implementation of Halakah as the law of the land in Israel. He is merely demanding that Israel be treated as a nation like others; one that has the right to brandish the identity of its historical legacy. Netanyahu's concern may be his potential Palestinian interlocutors. However, his call for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is an actual challenge to Arab culture as a whole to face the myths that stand as obstacles for the achievement of the cultural peace to which both Israelis and Arabs are entitled. It is a call for the end of cultural warfare against Israel. Arab cultural warfare against Israel may cost Arab societies relatively little in immediate visible damage; its effect on Palestinian and Israeli societies is however considerable.
In demanding the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu may as well be inviting the Palestinian side, and its wider Arab context, to address three Arab myths that converge into the illusory and destructive conclusion of the non-permanence of Israel.
Myth 1: The state of Israel is but the latest expression of a civilizational duel between Islam and the West. Its most similar antecedent is the Frankish states of the Crusaders, created almost a millennium ago, vanquished and relegated to mere memory in the span of two centuries. As a Western implant created by ideology and civilizational rivalry, Israel is as artificial as the Crusader states, and is bound to be defeated by the sheer weight of history. Religious expressions of this myth rephrase it in the form of a battle between Islamic virtue and Western perfidy, with the collective “Jews” representing the culmination of evil throughout history. More secular expressions venture as far back as the Hellenistic period to posit an irreconcilable East/West dichotomy based on some essential immutable characteristics of members of the two camps.
The mirror version of this myth has some currency in the West. Its Arab version inhibits the normalization of Israel, as a state and society, in Arab consciousness. It often recycles much of the most venomous anti-Semitic Western products to erect a virtual wall of separation that rejects the already hesitant desire within Israel to usher the country into an actual integration within the region.
Myth 2: The state of Israel is the last remaining colonial-settler state. According to this myth, Israel was created as an outpost for the exploitation of the riches of the region. This myth avoids the existential and civilizational dimensions of the previous one. Its advocates even accuse Myth 1 proponents of obfuscating the socio-economic foundations of the conflict by promoting fictitious grand cultural notions. But the end of Israel is inevitable nonetheless: Just as the Colons in Algeria had to depart, same with the Jews of Israel. Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, as well as Rhodesia are no more, and the white South Africans had to abandon apartheid and concede to black rule. Israel, as a relic of the colonial age, will follow suit: Zionism, a European-supremacist ideology, will be defeated by the native liberation movement.
This myth provides a more sober interpretive framework than Myth 1 and explains away the destructive radicalization infecting Palestinian and Arab societies as utilitarian phases in an asymmetrical conflict resulting from the overwhelming Western support for Israel. It serves thus as a facilitator for the acceptance of radicalism in the broad Arab society.
Myth 3: Demographic determinism dictates the certain demise of Israel. The rate of growth of the Palestinian population is bound to create an untenable situation for Israel. This truth is irrespective of how the Palestinian population is segmented, or how successful Israel is in absorbing immigrants. According to this myth, the influx of almost a million Russians did not alter the pattern, and the sources of potential immigration are drying up. Once the tipping point is reached, Israel will suffer from an increasing emigration that will tilt the balance in favor of the Palestinian population and thus hasten the collapse of Israel as a Jewish state.
While each of its postulations is at best questionable, and while the omission of demographic counter-trends is glaring, this myth serves as a “scientific” “non-ideological” basis for Arab faith in the ephemeral character of Israel.
The cumulative effect of all three myths is that the dominant conviction in Arab culture is that Israel is doomed to collapse. In fact, the debate over Israel in mainstream Arab culture is between two camps. First there is the one that opts for allowing civilizational, political, and demographic factors to play themselves into the anticipated end of Israel. Generally, this is the position of the “moderate” camp, which implicitly or explicitly subscribes to this view.
What we call the extremist camp seeks to hasten Israel’s end by confronting Israeli society and state, thereby transforming Israeli fear into despair, and despair into departure. It is not enough for the Arab “moderates” to passively reject the maneuvers of their radical counterparts. If peace is indeed the goal, pro-active endeavors are in order. Reaching across the demarcation lines is imperative. Otherwise, it is fair to equate silence with disagreement on tactics, not strategy. The passive-aggressive stand of the Arab “moderates” is revealed in their non-engagement of Israeli civil society and for the absence of the recognition of Israeli concerns and of Jewish history. Israel, as a society, as a state, as a reality, is almost completely absent from the self-perception of the Arab future. Discussions in the Arab world abound about the future of the region and the path for it achieving its potential. In virtually none of these discussions does Israel, its substantive economy or its significant socio-cultural force, figures. This state of affairs reflects the effective dominance of the aforementioned three myths on Arab culture.
Israel is neither the forward operating base in a civilizational war, nor the last bastion of the bygone era of the European colonial-settler movement. Demographic determinism, as repeatedly demonstrated over the history of the discipline, is an oxymoron. Israel will not collapse. Israel is a permanent reality in the Middle East. It is a beautiful and commendable one in many respects. Jewish history is ingrained in the land of Israel, and the land of Israel is seared into Jewish historical memory. In its turn, Israeli culture harbors a number of destructive myths about its Palestinian and Arab neighbors. These Israeli myths are however irrelevant to the need in Arab culture to address false convictions that stand in the way of genuine peace.
Many do dream about a future in the Middle East region in which citizens and communities live in harmony, are confident in their life and culture, and are willing to dispense of the need to have their state be anthropomorphically assigned a cultural identity. Until then, Palestinians, Lebanese, and others may opt to assert the Arab identity of their states, and Israel may choose to declare itself a Jewish state, the state of the Jews, or any other formulation to the liking of its citizens. These assertions notwithstanding, any and all states should be held accountable in the global public eye for the respect, protection, and fulfillment of the equal rights of all citizens. With understandable reservations stemming from undue hostility, it is a standard to which Israel willfully submits. In the new changing political landscape of the Middle East, it is hoped that it is also a standard to which more Arab states would also adhere. But Arab society can undergo few transformations that are more valuable than cultural reform, which would cleanse itself of these destructive myths.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.