The Middle East rediscovers the Jews - opinion

Israel’s relations with Arab states have been slowly changing since the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

KUWAITI ACTORS Mohammed Jaber (left) and Hayat Al Fahad film ‘Umm Haroun’ in Dubai, UAE, in January. (photo credit: AL FAHAD ESTABLISHMENT FOR ART PRODUCTION & DISTRIBUTION/REUTERS)
KUWAITI ACTORS Mohammed Jaber (left) and Hayat Al Fahad film ‘Umm Haroun’ in Dubai, UAE, in January.
Saudi Arabia’s latest binge-worthy television series has an unlikely subject: Umm Haroun, produced for the month of Ramadan, depicts life in the Jewish community of Kuwait in the 1940s. It is far from coincidental that the show is aired on the Saudi MBC channel, flying in the face of harsh Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns and radical Islamic criticism. Arab and Muslim states’ interests in Judaism and the Jews has been growing quietly for around a decade. The gradual rapprochement can be seen in official meetings and rabbis’ visits to Arab capitals; the restoration, renovation and establishment of synagogues in Egypt, Morocco and Dubai; messages of reconciliation from Arab leaders; moderate legislation in several states; positive remarks by senior Muslim clerics and even, as Umm Haroun demonstrates, in literary and cinematic endeavors.
 The changing tides are inherently linked to sweeping geopolitical developments in the Middle East throughout the past two decades, from 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, to the Arab Spring and the ascent of Iran. Since 1948, Arab regimes have officially sought to distinguish between Jews and the State of Israel, preempting Israel and the West’s accusations of antisemitism. Yet, their artificial distinction did not prevent them turning on their Jewish residents, expropriating their property, excluding them from public life and ultimately expelling them. Thus although the official line of Arab regimes always targeted the State of Israel and the Zionist movement, it appeared that 1,400 years of Muslim-Jewish and Arab-Jewish co-existence had ended abruptly. From Egyptian and Syrian caricaturists depicting Jews as malicious parasites to Saudi Arabian stores banning ‘dogs and Jews,’ relations were far from warm.
 Today, the situation is markedly improved. Even as Arab states choose not to publicize their relations with Israel – despite the shared interests, and even shared enemies – while the Palestinian issue remains unresolved, they are taking significant steps that could not have been imagined just a few years ago. Building relationships with world Jewry and promoting interfaith dialogue give Arab states credit in the West, without endangering themselves by publicly consorting with Israel. To a certain extent, they still seek to distinguish between Jews and Israelis. However, this time in the background there is cooperation and mutual desire for gradual rapprochement.
 Israel’s relations with Arab states have been slowly changing since the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As Arab regimes throughout the region felt threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamist groups on the one hand, and sensed the Iranians breathing down their necks on the other, they began to see Israel as less of a hostile neighbor and more of a potential partner against mutual threats.
At the same time, the prevailing view in the Middle East has long been that the road to Washington passes through Jerusalem, and the Jews supposedly hold the keys to access those who “run the world” (or at least the US). Thus, Arab states began to establish contact between the heads of security agencies, rulers, clerics and various lobbyists, and Israeli and American Jewish politicians, clerics and businesspeople. Existing discreet ties were intensified, and new contacts were formed. The new road to Washington, it turned out, passes through the synagogue. To contextualize the magnitude of the change: it was not so long ago that Saudi Arabia banned Jews from entering its territory. Earlier this year, Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee met King Salman in Riyadh.
 Is it possible to reshape public opinion and change the views of the masses, after so many decades of incitement, hatred and antisemitism? Does the gradual rapprochement between Arab states through the Jewish ‘bridge’ to Israel herald tacit agreement regarding the dispossession, annexation and harms of the Palestinians? Not necessarily.
 Though many Arab rulers realize they are better off allied with Israel against Iran, plenty of their citizens disagree. The BDS movement continues to gain traction in Jordan and Egypt; its activists have sabotaged performances of artists who appeared in Israel, and called to boycott TV series featuring the stories of Jewish communities in the Arab world – unless they attack Israel, as Umm Haroun did. While the Saudis aired the story of Kuwait’s Jewish community, Egyptian networks broadcasted The End, a futuristic series calling for the destruction of Israel and the Jews’ return to their countries of origin.
 Yet, along with the usual manifestations of hatred, younger generations in the Middle East are curious about Israel, which they see as a military and technological regional power, and Jewish history in the Arab and Muslim world. Israel’s Foreign Ministry’s increased Arab-language presence on social media opens a window for Arab-speaking users in that regard, although more can and should be done.
 We need look no further than South Africa and Northern Ireland to see that, as well as eradicating superstitions and stereotypes, interfaith dialogue plays an important role in promoting peace. The State of Israel could have used the current window of opportunity provided by changing attitudes toward Israel and the Jews to promote pro-peace policies and co-existence. A return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians would have allowed Israel’s Arab partners to emerge from the shadows and move to the next phase of recognizing Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, without fearing repercussions for domestic stability or for their relationship with the Palestinians.
It is likely that the trend toward closer access to Judaism and Jews is here to stay, even if there is no breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian channel. But, in the absence of such a breakthrough, this trend will also not reach its full potential. It is hoped that the new Israeli government will be able to use the encouraging data to promote peace, thereby contributing to the stability and security of the State of Israel.
The writer, a former member of Knesset, is the director of the program on Israel-Middle East relations at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.