How we perceive the Arabs

We have yet to internalize that they do not form a homogeneous group.

arabs 88 (photo credit: )
arabs 88
(photo credit: )
Perceptions are everything. I am not suggesting the readers of this article pay closer attention to their attire but rather, I ask to pay closer attention to how they perceive the Arabs. The word "Arab" has derogatory meanings in the Hebrew language. In high schools you often hear young people refer to a "dirty Arab," or say to a friend "you did that task just like an Arab." These kids are perhaps reflecting what they heard at home or perhaps they saw "dirty Arabs" on TV, those poorly clad Palestinians running around barefoot in refugee camps. In the Israeli mindset the image of the Arab has often been characterized as either the underdog, the poor Palestinian (this is an image not to difficult to foster - 60% of Palestinians do live in poverty), the enemy, the ungrateful, conniving or untrustworthy other. You may think the enlightened Israeli would not have such perceptions. Surely this is the realm of the ignorant and the racist. Or is it? I recently read Sari Nusseibeh's autobiography, and I kept thinking to myself, indeed this book is fascinating, the Palestinian perspective on the Barak-Arafat summit in 2000, or even on the 1948 war. But I was also very irritated: every few pages, Nusseibeh would remind the reader of the "aristocratic heritage" of his family, their patrician status and that that they had lived in Jerusalem for 1300 years - noting with gusto that the late King Hussein of Jordan kneeled before his father's coffin. A reader of the book also learns very quickly that the Nusseibehs sent their children to Eton and Oxford. I kept saying to my wife, "enough of this aristocracy, why must I read about this every few pages?" THEN IT dawned on me that Nusseibeh was trying to make a point: there were old families in Palestine, who were highly educated, civilized and cosmopolitan. Kind of the way we Jews like to think of ourselves. The problem in Israel is that we form our view of the Arabs primarily by reference to the condition of those we have most contact with, namely the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians. The other Arabs who perhaps feature in second, third, fourth and fifth place in our minds are the Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and perhaps the Egyptians. Our perceptions of this group is not necessarily much more positive, given the years of conflict which, apart from the latter two, still go on, reinforcing a lack of trust. I recall that a few years ago, I was driving in Jerusalem while listening to the Egyptian singer Amr Diab with my car windows open. People looked at me perplexed. "Why is he listening to that Arab music? How uncool." Why study Arabic in high school when you can study French? Now there is a civilized language… When you consider the incredible fusion of Western and Arabic architecture in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the fact that Dubai has become one of the world's financial centers, I realized that we in Israel have it all wrong. The Arabs are not pitiful: they are also successful, affluent leaders in the global economy. Sure we know in theory of the "oil rich" Arabs - most of us may have viewed them on television or seen them in a European capital. But we have yet to internalize that the Arabs are not a homogeneous group who can easily be slotted in one (usually negative) category. IN THE Gulf it is the Arabs who are telling Jewish lawyers and bankers what to do, not the other way around. But this is something that most of us can not comprehend because we watch the poor Palestinian on TV, the Israeli Arabs rioting or the 10-year-old Arab trying to sell us a box of tissues outside the Old City. We don't envisage the Arab who is the master of his own destiny. The Arabs are certainly not immune to prejudice, and we are all aware of the derogatory images of Jews in school textbooks in various Arab countries (including some that formally at least are at "peace" with Israel). Although perception is not always everything, it certainly counts for a lot. We must re-examine our own perceptions. Once we do that, we may just be able to take that step forward in recognizing the Arab as an equal partner whom we can not only deal with but also learn from and respect. The writer is an international lawyer based in London.