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Mideast Enmity
Arabs, Jews, Myths

They’ve been at it forever. They’ll never have peace. Arabs and Israelis think each other sub-human. Israel has to attack; otherwise it’s asking for annihilation. And so on. Can you blame anyone for thinking that the Middle East has been a cradle to war and prejudice since the beginning of time when those assumptions seem to be the undercurrent of any discussion on the Middle East? I don’t subscribe to the assumptions anymore than I subscribe to the notion that Germans and French or Serbs and Croats or Catholics and Jews could never live in peace. Arabs and Israelis are no different.

If anything, their history of animosity, while brutal, is shorter than European animosity toward Jews for centuries, or Europe’s past enthusiasm for perpetual war over two millennia, or the United States’ inability for the last two centuries to go 10 years without warring somewhere — including in the heart of the Middle East for going on four years and perhaps 100,000 deaths. If it’s solutions we’re looking for, shedding convenient but false assumptions could be one modest step toward peace, beginning with assumptions about anti-Semitism.

As even the neo-con historian Bernard Lewis wrote of anti-Semitism historically, “Until the rise and spread of Western tolerance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [Jews] were better off under Muslim than under Christian rule in most significant respects. With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, Islamic societies tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. […] The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among Christian minorities, and can usually be traced back to European originals. […] But the poison continued to spread, and starting in 1933, Nazi Germany and its various agencies made a concerted and on the whole remarkably successful effort to promote European-style anti-Semitism in the Arab world.”

Amos Oz, the leading Israeli intellectual and long-time dean of the peace movement, wrote in 1982 that “Arabs and Israelis are both peoples who have experienced humiliation, subjugation and suffering” at the hands of Europeans. “It is tragic that each looks at the other and sees only the face of their common enemy. Fear and suspicion beget foolishness.”

The poison and the foolishness have spread, indeed. Neither is going to be tamed so long as Arab governments nurture it through their media and their textbooks. Nor is it going to be tamed so long as the United States carries on policies — like speeded-up bomb shipments, supporting-role declarations on Israel’s behalf and brutal occupations in Arab lands — that show as much contempt for Arab concerns as they do blind allegiance to Israeli demands. But Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims went through the same frenzies in the 1990s, whipping each other’s age-old prejudices to the point of mutual genocide. It took more than military intervention by NATO to tame the beast. It took a mandated, concerted end to the campaigns of hate.

Arabs, every faction in Lebanon included, could make an enormous leap toward that end by accepting Israel’s right to exist — unequivocally: no conditions, no qualifiers. It’s the absolute minimum that Israel deserves, and where peace’s starting point in the Middle East should be. Israel could make an equally giant leap toward peace by accepting the reality of a Palestinian state — not as a reluctant appendix cauterized and sutured by humiliating walls and embargoes, but as a nation like any other, free to be whatever it wants to be, even if it’s not a democracy.

No buffer zones. No false claims of self-defense. If the United States and the Soviets could peacefully negotiate their mutual belligerence for half a century in spite of thousands of nukes pointed at each other, Arabs and Jews could certainly do the same with their more modest arsenals, but without the purposefully deal-breaking assumption that the only border Israel will accept is one approximating the quiet one between Kansas and Oklahoma. The road to peace in the Middle East means accepting that borders will be tense, even occasionally violent. It also means that invading other countries or demolishing them from the air will never beget peace, only further belligerence. That goes for the United States in Iraq. It goes for Israel in Lebanon. Arab hatred for Israel and the West has its inexcusable home-grown strains, to be sure. But it’s richly fertilized by unwanted imports — like those raining death on Lebanon’s civilians for the last two weeks.

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