This is part II in a series of four. Each post contains a question I’ve had about Arab culture and the Arab world for some time, and the information I was able to glean from Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, which I finished reading recently.
Why does the Arab world nourish such an obsessive hatred of Israel?
There seem to be several interesting paradoxes alive in the Arab world. One of them is the tendency to view the West’s technological edge as both ruthlessly imposed and selfishly withheld, as mentioned above. Another is a fatalistic attitude imposed by Islam on the Muslim Arab. Where Islam demands that the faithful accept their lot as determined by Allah, good or bad, and any attempt to change that fate set by Allah comes with a punishment, on the other hand, there is a tendency to blame forces outside themselves for their misfortunes. So while Israel has been a thorn in the side of Arabs for as long as the Jews have been here in any significant numbers (beginning in the 1880s—sixty years before the founding of the State), and Israel’s presence and victories over the Arabs could well be interpreted as the will of Allah, Arabs nonetheless also embrace the custom of revenge and blood feud, and as long as they believe they have been dishonored and humiliated in the eyes of the world, they will pursue vengeance.
First by coming into existence, by threatening what the Arabs viewed as their rightful sovereignty over this land (debate on this subject will be suspended for this post), and ultimately by beating them on the battlefield, Israel has inflicted a wound to the Arabs’ honor, and “blackened” their faces, in their own terminology. Believing that that honor must be recovered, Arabs have (in general) refused to negotiate or even open channels of direct communication with Israel. When, at the conclusion of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel attempted to return the lands conquered to their former occupying powers (Syria, Jordan, Egypt) in exchange for peace, the response from the Arab world at the Khartoum Conference was the “Three No’s”: no recognition, no negotiation, no peace. To suffer a crushing defeat as these nations just had, and to turn around and grant the Jewish State the same honor they themselves possessed by their mutual recognition in order to recover their land would, in their minds, only have compounded their sense of humiliation. Patai writes that “there is no greater shame than defeat by an enemy, and especially an enemy such as Israel, the Jews, who ever since the days of Muhammad have been looked down upon by the Arabs as dhimmis, a people brought low and subjected as well as protected by Islam. If it is Allah’s will that the Arabs be defeated by such an enemy, or any enemy, it is up to them to plan patiently for the revenge which alone can restore their honor, even if they have to wait for it for years, or if need be, decades. When the attainment of such a supreme value is the goal, the pressure to achieve it mounts until it is strong enough to overcome the threat-inaction pattern.”
This observation by Patai raises another important point. It should be noted that Arabs are often prone to exaggerated statements and substituting words for actions. (This tendency may account for the unwillingness of Westerners ever to take Arab threats seriously.) While Patai describes the psychological value of these verbal habits, he does note that there are exceptions, when violent words may well be followed by violent deeds, and that should not be ignored. Since “[d]efeat and domination by an adversary who had been weaker than the Muslim armed might are thus more painful to the Arabs than for nations who throughout their historical contacts with the West have always experienced it as superior in military power.” The fragmentation and fall of Muslim domination in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East at the hands of the Ottomans and Europeans saddled them with a sense of shame at their economic, intellectual, and cultural impoverishment compared with the West. So while in personal encounters and even some contacts between national leaders and the press, there can be dramatic or violent threats made which never come to execution, on a pan-Arab level, in conflict with Israel and the West, most threats from shame-faced, angry Arabs may not be immediately forthcoming, but they can be assured to be genuine.