By Lee Habeeb
There are two kinds of Arabs in this world. Those who hate Jews, and those who don’t. And in my life, I have met more of the former than the latter.
I am not proud to say that. Arabs will not like me for admitting it. But it is true. And it is something I wish the Obama administration understood. It is something Americans should know as the “Arab Spring” enters its second year.
I didn’t know much about any of this as a Lebanese kid growing up in New Jersey. But I found out about it when I wrote my first pro-Israel column for my college paper as a young student journalist.
I defended Israel on some point I’ve long forgotten, but what I’ll never forget is the backlash I received from fellow Arabs. Some were Americans, others were students from Arab countries, many of whom I counted as friends.
First came the letters to the editor, then the personal insults. It was as if I’d broken a secret code I didn’t know existed. Some secret blood oath, which goes something like this: Arabs don’t speak unkindly of Arabs in public, or kindly about Israel.
The backlash stunned me. I pondered the pounding I had taken, and floundered a bit. I even thought for a short time of writing something negative about Israel the next time I had a chance, just to balance things out and reestablish my Arab bona fides.
One friend accused me of being a self-hating Arab. He explained to me that I was exploiting my ancestry to ingratiate myself with white America and the Jews who controlled white America.
I explained to him that I was white. And that I was an American. And that I didn’t believe that Jews controlled America. The Jewish men I knew had a hard enough time controlling their own families! But nothing I said helped relieve the tension, not even my stab at humor.
I also explained that many of my Jewish friends did not like my column. Most were liberals from New York or northern New Jersey who assumed I was with them on the politics of the Middle East, that I was in agreement with the governing thesis that drives most Arabs and liberal Jews: that it is Israel that is the problem in the region, not the Palestinians, and not the Arab world itself.
I also explained to him that I was mostly Lebanese, but also part German and part Italian, and that I was raised by parents who didn’t much care for the whole notion of hyphenated America. They taught me to think for myself, and have the courage to challenge authority. Even theirs, if I could make the case.
The fact is, Arabs don’t all look alike or think alike. But we are often pushed into a kind of groupthink, a kind of self-censorship that hinders our development and our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
We are not a universal group. But some of us believe in a simple universal truth: that every Arab deserves to live in freedom, wherever he or she might call home. Some of us want Arab countries to be more like America and Israel, places where the individual can flourish.
Say those words to many Arabs and they are shocked and angered. Soon, words like imperialist are thrown about, and the subject turns to Israel. Always, it seems, it turns to Israel.
Why the anger when I hint that America and Israel might have something to teach the Arab world? I thought about it for the longest time, and only recently stumbled upon the answer.
It is all about Arab self-doubt. It is all tied to a profound lack of cultural self-confidence, and a deep-seated fear that maybe, just maybe, Arabs won’t be very good at the self-governance thing. That Arab nations won’t be capable of building democratic cultures that engender the flourishing of human freedom, and that these nations won’t have the ability to tap the God-given talents of their people the way Americans and Israelis do.
That maybe, just maybe, the Arab world will never measure up to America or Israel.
Better, goes the logic, to cling to anger over the plight of the Palestinians. Better to cling to international policy disputes and to a deep-seated hatred of Israel. Better to play the role of victim, and the role of self-righteous critic, than to do the hard work of lifting up the conditions of your people.