My article in the Summer 2004 Dissent was called “Israel: No Souvenirs.” But I was wrong: early one Saturday morning, early in the fall, I got a phone call from the great Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, who wanted to let me know how wrong I was about him, about Israel, about modernity and identity, and much more. I encouraged him to tell it to Dissent, and I promised him some dialogue. What a thrill, that “No Souvenirs” should get me such an impressive souvenir: for once a happy irony!
For more than thirty years, I have been teaching political theory and urbanism at the City University of New York. I have taught many Israeli students, and plenty of Arab students as well. Most of my Arab students have been Palestinians, and they have come in waves, first as refugees from the 1967 war, then from the 1973 war, then from the early-1980s war in Lebanon.
Some were Egyptian citizens, some Jordanian, some Lebanese. Many described themselves and their families as victims of horrible actions by the IDF. They often said their parents had implored them to send pictures of their children but, please, not to come back. (Students from Argentina in the 1970s, from Croatia in the 1990s, from Nigeria and Bangladesh, told the same story.) When I was able to speak to Arab students privately, I would ask them this question: Within the Middle East, which country would you most like to be a citizen of? Over a thirty-year span, the overwhelming majority have voted for Israel. They were often embarrassed, and I was at first amazed: I asked, isn’t Israel your sworn enemy? They didn’t deny it; they laughed, ironically or uproariously, and then they said remarkably similar things. Look, they said, Israel isn’t a theocracy where heretics get killed; there’s plenty of poverty, but the poverty isn’t crushing; kids learn to read and write and get jobs beyond day labor; oppressed Arabs can vote; we can go out with whoever we like, if they like us (this meant a lot); conflict is endless, but the losers don’t get shot on the street or disappear at night; if you get arrested, you can get a lawyer, and he can get you out of jail; there’s freedom to complain and argue, and every party has its own paper; a great variety of people get to lead pretty good lives. I’ve heard Arab students say stuff like that for thirty years.
I am telling this story for a number of reasons. It demonstrates Israel’s tremendous success as a nation—something that stressed-out Israelis and their friends easily forget. It shows that people whose countries are Israel’s enemies have the capacity to see through their countries’ propaganda and learn what’s real. It shows how Arabs can empathize with Israel and appreciate it for complex and good reasons, not absurd and fantastic ones (like that Israel secretly controls the world). It is fascinating that many Arabs have been abl...
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