A cartoon from the Israeli foreign ministry’s Arabic Facebook page.
In the Arab Middle East, known, deservedly, as a global hub and disseminator of anti-Semitism, something is astir of immense interest and importance.
First, the bad news—which is hardly news at all. Even as some Arab leaders are visibly warming toward Israel and Jews, the widespread culture of rejectionism and anti-Semitism persists at key levels of their societies. Ingrained over generations through Arab media, schools, and mosques, and more recently reinforced by Iranian and jihadist propaganda, it permeates Arab establishments and much popular sentiment alike.
As Israel’s “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan has abundantly shown, official treaties do not, on their own, ameliorate this culture of animosity. And though a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could substantially mitigate the problem, prospects of achieving such a settlement are themselves obstructed by it. From North Africa to the Gulf, opposition to an accommodation with the Jewish state amounts to a check on any rulers inclined toward signing a treaty.
But then there’s the new news: across the region, seeds of an effort to challenge Arab rejectionism and anti-Semitism have unmistakably been sprouting. Beyond official circles, a growing number of Arabs not only view Israel and Jews in a positive light but espouse, openly, a “peace between peoples.” For their part, Israelis and some Jewish activists in the West have developed means of engaging in Arab public discussions, breaching historical barriers to such communication and holding out the promise of forward movement.
Between the spread of positive Arab sentiment and a modest opening for its public expression in Arab media lies the potential for a more coordinated effort to complement and reinforce the warming taking place at the topmost level of international diplomacy. This is an opportunity begging to be seized.
Consider the Israeli foreign ministry’s Arabic Facebook page, “Israel Speaks Arabic” (Israil Tatakallam al-‘Arabiya): a daily diet of infographic and video posts by a small Israeli digital-outreach team that has attracted 1.7 million followers in the Arab world.
In one clip on the page, a young woman speaks earnestly in Israeli-accented Arabic as she leads a tour of Jerusalem’s Maḥaneh Yehudah market, the open-air space where she does her grocery shopping. Another features the story of the Egyptian Muslim doctor Mohammad Hilmi, honored posthumously at Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations for risking his life to save a Jewish teen in Nazi Germany. In numerous clips, Israeli Jewish refugees from Arab lands, who together with their offspring constitute a majority of Israel’s Jewish population, recall their bittersweet childhoods and send out wishes for peace.
As for the responses, an internal study of the page’s Arabic-speaking audience finds a third of all 2,700 daily comments to be “positive.” (Seventeen percent are “neutral.”) Among the positive comments are calls for an Israeli embassy in most Arab capitals, tens of thousands of requests for tourist visas to Israel, expressions of regret over the flight from Arab countries of nearly all of their 900,000 indigenous Jews, and, amid ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas, statements of solidarity with the IDF.
Nor are these Facebook responses an isolated phenomenon. To the contrary, they comport with a flurry of polling data reflecting a similar outlook. Consider a 2017 survey of citizens in Kuwait. Despite the fact that anti-Semitic incitement remains a mainstay of Kuwaiti domestic media, fully 60 percent of respondents agree that “Arab states should play a new role in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, offering both sides incentives to take more moderate positions.” Of these, 16 percent believe that the region should not wait for a Palestinian settlement before launching civil cooperation with Israel.
What sparked the positive change? One indirect element is the impact of new media campaigns conducted by Sunni autocrats against Iran and its Arab proxies, Hizballah prominent among them. These suck airtime and column inches away from traditional broadsides against Israel, implicitly supporting an alternative view of Israel as at least a lesser enemy and possibly a provisional ally.
But this on its own does not explain the notably pro-Israel sentiments of many Iraqi Shiites, some of the most voluble of whom are even clerics, or the grassroots calls for rapprochement from war-torn Libya and democratic Tunisia, where, significantly, no ruler monopolizes the domestic informational environment. Indeed, the sheer globalization of that environment has in and of itself given many millions of Arabs an increased awareness and appreciation of Israeli technological capacities, not to mention the attractions of Israeli and American media content from Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman to reruns of Seinfeld.
Some Arab observers offer a more basic explanation: namely, that the trend isn’t new at all but rather the delayed expression of a real but long-suppressed sentiment. “Let’s be honest,” wrote Muna Abd al-Aziz, a professor of media studies at Cairo University, in an October 2018 opinion piece for the Arab Telegraph:
In every newsroom, drama guild, and writers’ salon, there have always been voices more curious about [Israel’s] shades of gray, more skeptical of the wisdom of the “boycott,” and more open to direct engagement. They know that when the Jews of Arab lands fled to Israel, we lost a piece of our collective soul. And they know that if we can somehow reclaim that connection—accepting our Jewish brethren for who they are, where they live, and what they believe—then we can gain something vital for our future. Arabic media professionals who harbor these views never vanished from the landscape. But to our detriment, they rarely made themselves heard.
Interviewing media figures in nine Arab countries for a new book, I found evidence in most cases of a similarly-minded disposition. Attitudes favoring relations with Israel are now manifest in some establishment outlets themselves, transmitted via opinion pieces, fair-minded interviews with Israeli officials, and reports on indigenous Jewish history.
But let’s be frank: comparatively speaking, and in the overall scheme of things, the open expression of such attitudes is still rare. And the opponents of those attitudes, who tend to remain at the helm, have been known to punish the authors. The trend has proved especially irksome for those still sworn to Israel’s destruction.
“‘Normalization with Israel,’” fumes Muhammad al-Laythi in the Egyptian daily al-Watan, “is a term that has lost its meaning lately for a young generation, some of whom seem not to know the bloody history of that occupation state.” Laythi singles out for special censure Egyptian students of Hebrew who, “on the pretext of practicing the language,” have been using social media to engage Israelis personally. Similarly, the journalist Ahmed Hidji, writing in Al-Monitor, quotes three Egyptian professors noting with severe disapproval that many of their students have been seeking to befriend their neighbors across the border. And this is just a taste.
In brief, Arabs advocating a “peace between peoples” continue to face a high barrier, enforced by old-guard cultural gatekeepers. And extremist groups, through their own pervasive media and other means of exhortation, sharpen the assault on those who challenge that barrier.
Nor have outsiders—in particular, Israeli or American policy makers—shown much of an inclination to become involved, however much they may appreciate the extent to which rejectionist and anti-Semitic propaganda has stymied diplomatic progress. “We had talked about the importance of mutually reinforcing public messages,” recalls the veteran Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross, “but there was not a lot that was systematically done to make this a component part of peace-building. I think it was one of our biggest mistakes. We should have integrated this into a strategy.”
Which leads to a question: today, four decades after the Camp David accords inaugurated a peace between governments without a peace between peoples, might the United States at last adopt the goal of fostering an Arab public discourse supportive of partnership with Israel and friendship with Jews, and pursue that goal as an interim strategic priority?
After all, as I noted at the outset, this is a moment of unprecedented opportunity. All of the region’s major trendsetting institutions—that is, the largest Arab media outlets, education systems, and religious establishments—now submit to national leaders allied with the United States. Each of these leaders, in turn, seeks political and economic advantages from the U.S., and cooperation in this and other realms with Israel.
Washington thus enjoys today the standing to urge its Arab partners to align the content of their various domestic-information environments with their conciliatory messaging overseas. It also harbors the capacity to help them do so by connecting American and Israeli communications specialists in Arabic with their Arab establishment counterparts. Working together, these could provide new education to teachers and preachers, build a foundation of corrective media content, and establish a monitoring and accountability mechanism to ensure that the effort yields results. At the same time, the United States could do far more to assist those grassroots Arab actors who in the absence of establishment cover or support are taking risks to advocate a genuine peace between peoples.
Yes, Arab establishments themselves are first and foremost the parties responsible for re-educating their publics and repairing the damage done over decades of anti-Semitic indoctrination. But others can lend a hand, and provide an incentive. And no, such a strategy by itself will not resolve the Israel-Palestinian stalemate or bring about a region-wide settlement. But it can crucially alleviate a longstanding obstacle to both. The opportunity, to repeat, is there to be seized.