What Lies Behind the Unrelenting Arab Rejection of Israel?

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Professor of Anthropology McGill University

Member, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Board of Directors

The unrelenting rejection by Arabs of Israel doesn’t make a lot of sense. One would think that the Arabs, who currently struggle to get along, would look with more enthusiasm to neighbors who could and would assist them in bettering their circumstances. Here are some of the difficulties that Arabs currently face:

. • Most live under either a greater or lesser degree of tyranny.

. • Many have recently suffered repeated warfare. And in warfare with non-Arabs they have been decisively bested repeatedly.

. • Their standard of living, never in modern times outstanding, has plummeted in the last decades, even while many other countries, once at the same level, have shot ahead.

. • Their science, long ago an important contribution to world culture, is virtually nonexistent.

. • Arab culture, once the glory of civilization, appears to be a shadow of its former self.

. • And in consequence of these conditions, Arab influence in the world,except in the sphere of religion, is minor.

In sum, once important and influential in all spheres of life, Arab society and culture, aside from religion (about which, more later), have declined in importance and influence. Another way to say this-and perhaps how it feels to Arabs themselves-is that in the global competition with other societies and cultures, Arabs have been losers for centuries. What good fortune for the Arabs, one would think, to have Israel as a neighbor. Israel could serve both as a model to emulate and a source of practical assistance:

• Israel is a parliamentary democracy with established civil liberties.

• * Israeli society is one of, perhaps the most multiracial and multicultural in the world, as it has gathered Jews from all corners of the world. As well, Israel has accepted and incorporated (if imperfectly) a substantial Arab (Bedouin and Palestinian) population, both Muslim and Christian.

. • Israelis-does anyone remember the old compliment?-made the desert bloom. Israeli know-how could help make deserts bloom throughout the Middle East.

. • Israeli science and technology is a wonder, with major contributions across the board, including medicine and high technology.

. • Israeli education is first rate, both drawing upon and supporting its scientific and technological establishments.

. • Israeli industry is innovative and economically successful.

Furthermore, Israel is a close cousin of the Arabs: Linguistically Hebrew-speakers are fellow Semites with Arabs; religiously Jews are “people of the book,”recognized and in principle protected by Arabs.

Israel has shown in Africa and elsewhere its willingness to contribute to the development of other societies. Would it not be delighted to contribute to its Arab neighbors? But in spite of what sweet reason might suggest, Israel’s Arab neighbors have not welcomed it with open arms. On the contrary, the Arabs have rejected not only example and assistance from Israel, but the very existence of Israel. There is not much in human affairs that is absolute, but the Arab rejection of Israel is as close to absolute as possible. The existence of Israel is referred to among Arabs as “the catastrophe.”

What a remarkable reaction to the presence of such a promising potential helpmate. How can we understand and account for this extremist Arab response? It is to this question that this essay is dedicated.

I would identify four contributing factors to Arab rejectionism. These are (1) conflicting material interests, (2) use of Israel as an external enemy by Arab leaders to diffuse internal discontent, (3) the challenged honor of the Arabs, and (4) organizational principles based on opposition. All four encourage Arab rejection of Israel, and so the rejectionist response is overdetermined, that is, a result of several influences all pushing in the same direction. The first factor is conflicting material interests. Much has been made of conflicting Arab and Israeli claims to land and water. Of course, wherever people live together, there are conflicting interest and claims. The question is on what grounds can these conflicts be decided in a mutually acceptable fashion. But note that in this material conflict the Arab/Israeli opposition is taken as given, while it is what we are trying to explain. So I would suggest that the main problem is the categorical opposition, not the need to share resources and compromise over jurisdictions. Therefore, to my mind this factor is, while not insignificant, the least determining of Arab rejectionism.

The second factor is the diversion of internal discontent outward toward Israel by Arab rulers. It is the oldest trick in the world to enhance internal solidarity, and thus prop up the position of the rulers, by identifying a threatening external enemy. When piles of oil money and the magic of the mass media are stirred in, the transference strategy becomes even more effective. This factor has been much commented on, and is undoubtedly an important contributor to rejectionism. Israel, close by, small, and initially at least, apparently weak, has proven to be an excellent scapegoat. Once it was clear that Israel was strong, and could really be a threat “General Sharon marching on Cairo!” it became an even better bogeyman. Could Arab rulers survive without Israel to distract “the Arab street?”

The third and fourth factors derive from traditional Arab tribal culture and have been incorporated as general principles in Arab cultures. The third factor in rejectionism is Arab honor. Arab honor consists in the warrior’s imperative to stand up for oneself and one’s people against outsiders, and in success in confrontations with outsiders. Valiant fighters have honor, but winners always have more honor than losers.

We can understand Arab honor if we consider the importance of tribal organization in Arab culture. Tribal organization requires the balance of segments (i.e. lineages of kinsmen) against one another. Families oppose and are balanced by other families, lineages oppose and are balanced by other lineages, tribal sections oppose and are balanced by other tribal sections, and tribes oppose and are balanced by other tribes. (Anthropologists call this “complementary opposition.”) Peace and security, to the extent that it can exist, resides in the balance of segments, which serves to deter aggressive adventures by promising swift retaliation. But this balance only works as deterrence if people are willing to stand up and defend themselves and their group. The concept of honor is the cultural demand that each stand up and do his or her duty. One keeps one’s honor by doing one’s segmentary duty. Arabs are taught, and many have taken to heart, that honor is more important than anything, than wealth, than fame, than love, than death. Deeply imbued with the value of honor, today’s Arab finds himself in a virtually untenable situation. Looking back to the years of glory under Mohammed, when the Bedouin armies imposed Islam by the sword in North Africa, Persia, and Central Asia “the baseline reference point for Arab culture” and the later defeat of the Crusaders, Arabs can only view subsequent history as a sad tale of defeat visited upon defeat. First there was the breakdown of Arab solidarity and fighting among the Arabs themselves. Then the Arabs were conquered and governed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The decline and fall of the Ottomans led to conquest and occupation of (almost all of the) Arab lands by the despised Christians of Europe. So the Arabs lost time after time, and lived under the rule of infidels. Even their successful anticolonial struggles turned into empty victories, or worse than empty, for the Arab victors found themselves subject to their own power-hungry statists, sadistic despots, or religious fanatics.

What honor can be found in defeat and oppression? And what self-respect can Arabs find without honor? In a world of defeat and failure, honor can be found only in resistance. Facing their many weaknesses and the great strengths of their adversaries, Arab self respect demands honor be vindicated through standing and fighting, so matter what the cost. Where there is honor, no victory, or even loss, can be pyrrhic, for no cost, even life, can be too great. Osama bin Ladin on one of his publicized tapes complained bitterly the loss of Andalusia, retaken from the Arabs by Spain in the fifteenth century! Imagine the chagrin and shame that Jews­who for a thousand years and more had been “protected” subordinates of the Arabs-had established themselves in the Arab heartland (never mind that the Jews had been there first) as an independent state and had repeatedly fought and beaten all of the Arab armies. Disaster! Catastrophe! Where is Arab honor? Are there among the Arabs no men? If military defeat was not sufficient humiliation, Arabs had only to compare their failed societies with prosperous, dynamic, developed Israel. In these circumstances, the only way to salvage Arab honor was to reject, forever, the Jewish intrusion. To accept Israel, “the Zionist entity,” is to admit defeat to the lowest of enemies. Nothing, then, would be left of Arab honor. Rejectionism, to the Arab mind, is the only honorable path.

The fourth factor contributing to rejectionism is complementary solidarity, which is the unity of the closer against the more distant-whether in descent, culture, or religion. As the Arab saying puts it: I against my brother, I and my brother against my cousin; I and my brother and my cousin against the world. The tribal system depended upon this principle, “unite with those closer to oppose those more distant” to maintain the balance in complementary opposition. The Italians who returned to Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) in 1911 and fought two wars there during the succeeding decades, had expected the Bedouin to turn on their Ottoman overlords and side with them, or at least stay neutral. They learned to their regret that no amount of bribery, cajoling, or stroking, or for that matter threats, could bring the Bedouin onside or keep them neutral. The way the Bedouin saw it (as reported in Evans-Pritchard’s famous Sanusi of Cyrenaica), their tribes were opposed to one another (and they fought constantly), but the Bedouin were one in the face of the town-dwellers, and the Bedouin and the town-dwellers were one, as Arabs, facing the Turks, and the Arabs and the Turks were one, as Muslims, facing the Christian Italians. The most basic Arab social principle is solidarity with the closer in opposition to the more distant. This means that “right -and – wrong” are correlated with ”my group” (always right) and “the other group” (always wrong). The morality is that one must strive always to advantage one’s own group and to disadvantage the other group. Unity, then, is possible only in opposition to those more distant. And to those more distant, only ill will. There is no way, in this structure, to reach beyond the Arab vs. Israeli and Muslim vs. Jew opposition to establish a common interest, short of an attack on both Arabs and Israelis by some group deemed by both more distant (religiously, racially, culturally). In this oppositional framework, it is impossible (and inappropriate) to seek or see common interests or common possibilities. Israel will always be the distant other to be disadvantaged and conquered if possible.

These four factors -conflicting material interests, transference of discontent outward, the defense of honor, and segmentary opposition-militate in favor of alienation between the Arabs and Israel and the tenacious rejectionism of the Arabs. The two cultural factors-honor and opposition-are influences deeply embedded in Arab character. What appears to be reasonable to Westerners will not appear reasonable to Arabs. Such is the power of culture. But another question remains. Why is Arab rejectionism increasingly expressed in religious terms? I saw a similar turn toward religion during my research in Baluchistan (southeastern Iran). The Baluch had been conquered by Reza Shah in the 1930s and been ruled by Iran since then. The Baluch, at one time proud warriors and raiders, were force to accept that they were inferior in power, wealth, and technology to the Persians. But (almost all of) the Baluch were Sunni, and the Persians Shia so the Baluch could at least claim superiority in religion. Some said that the Persians were not really Muslims. Whatever the evidence of success or failure in this world, however one does in the competition for power, wealth, and prestige, one can always claim that one’s religion is superior, and, even better, that your opponents are agents of the forces of darkness.

In worldly terms, in military, economic, technological, and scientific power, Israel since its founding has gone from strength to strength, while the Arabs have gone from defeat to defeat and failure to failure. Righting this humiliation has proven extremely difficult. But the turn to religion allows the Arabs to claim that Islam is the true faith and Jews are evil infidels. Thus Muslim Arabs will always be right and Israeli Jews wrong. And, in this perspective, rewards for virtue, which for Arabs are so rare are in this world, can be sought in the hereafter. In this usage, religion is the last refuge of the worldly failure. I have limited myself here to an analysis of Arab rejectionism. Before there can be any consideration of measures or strategies to ameliorate this most fundamental condition of Israel’s environment, the profound foundation of that rejectionism must first be acknowledged and appreciated.

(Copyright 2004 Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Faculty Forum. This article may be circulated electronically, but may not be reprinted without permission of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East at )

What Lies Behind the Unrelenting Arab Rejection of Israel?

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

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