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. She 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, she 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
She 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
Arab youth know nothing about Israel, she said, claiming that a
“generation that harbors dreams and expectations different to those cherished by
a leader like Netanyahu” had emerged there.
She 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,” she said, whereas Israel is “truly
democratic” and the protests there were over living standards, not “starting
from scratch as in the Arab Spring states.”
She 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
By contrast, she 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, she 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 she 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,” she 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
She goes on to defend herself by asserting that she 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,” she says.
During the latest wars in Gaza and Lebanon, she 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, she 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
Hazzani, though critical of Israel, was able to present some
positive aspects of Israeli society without being completely blinded by
The fact that even she 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
had the courage to publish the article – albeit from its safe
headquarters in London.