‘How did 12 Jewish New Yorkers end up vacationing in Syria?”
Great headline, right? It certainly made me curious about Times of Israel article widely circulated last month by largely critical Arab news websites and social media pages. But after reading the article, I had to ask: Would it be news if they were not Jewish? Are seven decades of conflict between Arabs and Israelis enough to make a Syrian family’s visit to its ancestral home a hot topic of shock and suspicion among a large segment of Arabs simply because the family is Jewish?
The family certainly didn’t think so. They described their visit as an “extremely normal” vacation. One of them, Joe Jajati, said he has visited Syria more than 10 times in recent years without any of the problems that, according to the political narrative of mutual hostility, is supposed to occur.
This swings the door wide open for pointed questions about politics’ corrosive poisoning of human relations in our region. Away from today’s geopolitical framework, Arabs and Jews get along very well, as they have for centuries. Within the framework of everyday relationships, those whom the state, be it Israeli or Arab, classify as the “enemy” or condemn as “other” are neither. They are people, not labels. They are friends, not religions. They are neighbors, not enemies. Or they could be, if given the chance.
Something as simple as ordinary people breaking bread together has the power to override the assumptions and prejudices that fuel the Arab-Israeli conflict, the oldest and most complex in the region, and the only one based solely on religious affiliation, be it Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.
The hullabaloo caused by that article stands in sharp contrast to my countless personal experiences in the United Arab Emirates, particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi during the tourism season, where Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians, Algerians, Iranians, Yemenis, and other nationalities in the region – including Israelis – can be found enjoying a meal in a restaurant, sometimes together at one table, trading notes on how the stereotypes their country’s regimes have promoted for decades are incorrect.
Religion has nothing to do with these prejudices; they are the byproduct of politicians pumping hatred and incitement to achieve their own ends. In the not-so-distant past, Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the region practiced their religious rites in absolute freedom and were linked to one another by shared humanity, common values and needs, friendship, neighborhood, and, sometimes, lineage and intermarriage.
THERE IS an often-told tale about two Syrian orphans in Damascus at the end of the nineteenth century. A blind Muslim named Muhammad carried on his back a paralyzed Christian dwarf named Samir, who, in turn, warned Muhammad of potholes and obstacles. The two friends lived together in one room and worked in the same place, both surviving due to their complementary codependency. Their friendship was so great that they died within a week of one another.
More than a century later, their story, which Damascenes often recall, remains a powerful parable of peaceful coexistence. As Mother Teresa tried to teach each of us, including our leaders, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”
The possibility of coexistence recorded by history, and illuminated by Muhammad and Samir, shines a revealing light on the actions of some politicians, Arab and Israeli alike, who sow division as a tactical means to a political end. After gaining their independence in the middle of the last century, national governments in the region sought to unify the disparate people of their new nation. Unfortunately, some heeded the advice of Machiavelli: “The cause of union is fear and war.” As a bonus, they discovered that fear and war also serve to distract citizens from problems their leaders could not or would not resolve. To succeed, however, they first needed to create a common enemy.
Identify the enemy, build the fear, and wage the war to unite the country and distract the people. This political strategy plunged people who would otherwise get along as well as Muhammad and Samir into years of senseless hatred and wars that never once resulted in the restoration of any rights, land, or values. It only led to death and more losses of rights, land and values, including the opportunity for peace.
To be fair, Israeli politicians are no better in their failure to push for peace or prove their desire for it. Israel continues to occupy the land and usurp the rights of Palestinians, providing them and the groups that fight on their behalf a permanent excuse to reject peace and any faith in ever reaching it.
The latest example is Israel’s forced eviction, displacement and assault on Arab residents who have lived since 1948 in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood north of Jerusalem’s Old City. The resultant “international media firestorm” almost ended the newly emerging peace between Israel and some Arab countries. Moreover, this escalation of Israeli hostilities pushed other Arab countries to be more cautious in taking their first steps toward peace with Israel.
Despite this, there is still an opportunity for peaceful coexistence in the region. Although most people believe it begins with a signed treaty between the nations in conflict, the deeper truth is that true peace can never take root and thrive unless the warring peoples coexist again amid normal human relations. Once an “enemy” is accepted as a neighbor and possible friend, then peace becomes implicitly agreed and lacks only the signing of an official agreement between nations.
FOUR FACTORS offer a foundation for peace if there is a true will for it.
The first is religion, which, ironically, has been politicized to inflame and entrench hostility between nations. Religions are innately peaceful. All three Abrahamic religions – Muslim, Christianity, and Judaism – explicitly call for tolerance and peaceful coexistence. History has proven that peace is possible if we adhere to and practice the values taught by our religions. Hence, we must separate religion from the politics that perpetuate discrimination and hostility to achieve the vested interests of politicians or a particular group.
The second factor is culture and cultural exchange, which the Abraham Accords, a peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel [and Bahrain], expanded in both scope and interaction. Cultural exchange allows each party to get to know and understand one other outside the distorted prism of politics. It allows us to identify the common denominators that unify the human race.
After filming a movie in Abu Dhabi, Israeli actor Lior Raz told The Wall Street Journal “Every time I went to a restaurant there, I found myself talking with people that Israelis are not talking to – people from Syria, from Lebanon, from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, talking about peace, about opportunities, about art. For the first time, I now think that art could actually bring, if not peace, then conversation, and conversation could bring peace one day.” And he told the weekly Cleveland Jewish News that he needed a bodyguard while in the Emirates “not because I’m Israeli [but] because all of the Arab people from all of the countries just wanted to take a selfie with me all the time.”
Similarly, Israeli director Amos Gitai expressed his ambition of using the language of film to establish rational and peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians. His film Laila in Haifa, nominated for Best Film at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, explores the interweaving stories of five women, Israeli and Palestinian, over one night in a club in Israel’s port town of Haifa. “After all,” he told Variety magazine, “the stage is the creative meeting space where we are able to speak out in the language of film.”
The third factor is the awakening after the so-called Arab Spring revolutions that revealed the true aspirations of the Arab people: security, prosperity and development. As a result, many governmental policies were stripped of their lies, along with politicians’ claims about the so-called enemy, awakening people not only to the injustice and tyranny hiding behind flimsy political slogans but the possibility of peace between nations in the region.
WE MUST not condemn future generations of Arabs and Israelis to a legacy of fear and wars. Some critics assert that the continuation of war and refusal to make peace with Israel is the wish of the Arab people rather than their rulers. The opposite is true. Many Arab people are unable to express their desire for peace with Israel without being accused of treason, disloyalty, or defeatism, especially under regimes that practice a policy of suppression.
The fourth factor is economics and shared prosperity. Saudi Arabia, for example, is leading efforts to achieve a boom in regional development with Vision 2030, a project that requires stability and exchange of benefits for all countries in the region in order to succeed. To help achieve shared prosperity through mutual protection, I call upon the brave and forward-thinking Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords, following in the footsteps of the wise Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the Emirates. As Eric R. Mandel noted in his excellent Jerusalem Post opinion essay, “The best way to stabilize the Middle East… is an accelerated diplomatic approach to Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and other Muslim nations, Arab or not, to get them to join the Abraham Accords.”
Certainly, regional stability is vital to Syria’s recovery and reconstruction. Syria has made serious attempts to achieve peace with its neighbors, and decision-makers there know it is time to resume this path. In addition, the international community is currently putting pressure on the Iranian regime, thereby weakening its negative influence in the region, as well as helping to restore stability in Lebanon and its return to the Arab fold, which must be done as quickly as possible.
I also call upon all politicians, both Arab and Israeli, to stop creating an enemy to serve and perpetuate their authority. Countries don’t need an enemy to survive; peaceful coexistence is what ensures their survival, growth and prosperity.
And I call on the US and other western nations to increase their support of economic and democratic development in the Middle East at a time of increasing Russian and Chinese interference in this region. Granted, former US president Donald Trump faced fierce criticism at the time, but he nevertheless showed true leadership that resulted in the Abraham Accords.
Lastly, I call upon all who cherish and respect our shared Abrahamic principles and values to participate in the reconstruction of the cradle of the prophets and the Messenger.
The writer is a Jordanian entrepreneur with weekly columns in the Arabic press and the chairman of the Peace Institute for Studies and Research in the Middle East.