Tag Archives: Middle East

An Iranian-Israeli Love-In?

by Kelley Kidd

Recently, Facebook has been bombarding me. Not with its usual memes and Spotify updates, but with a slew of politically oriented statuses and photos. This is usually fairly inevitable, but lately it’s transcended the typical circle of acquaintances who regularly post items from political blogs or links to news articles. In fact, certain messages have become trendy. First it was the mass movement against SOPA, aided by Google and Wikipedia. Kony 2012, an Invisible Children campaign, became the next hot topic. People get excited to be a part of a movement, to make their voices heard, and to stand in solidarity about something worthy of passion.

The latest of these explosive trends is the newly blossoming Israel Loves Iran campaign. Founded by Ronny Edry, the campaign began with a simple poster he created to send a message of love and understanding from Israel to Iran. Quickly, his modest gesture took off, giving birth to a widespread and large-scale exchange of message, images and discussion directed toward forging a connection between two politically estranged peoples.

The hope, ultimately, is to make an impression in politics—Iranians and Israelis want to make their leaders see that war is not an option in their eyes. Of course, the people with the power are not the same as those posting warm messages. For many, the potential for this movement not to affect anything on a grand political scale makes it a failure, worthless—another example of “slacktivism,” activism that refuses to move beyond the comfort of the couch and the safety of a computer screen. For many movements, such a complaint may be applicable, as it devolves into memes and likes from people who have no goal beyond being a part of whatever passion is trending. However, this cynical view, if it applies to any such movements, does not hold for the case of Israel Loves Iran.

First of all, it is inherently significant that Iranians, whose contributions to the site have been meaningful but commonly anonymous, are contributing at all, as many have said “they feared for their lives if they used their real name.” Iranians who have posted share messages of love, compassion and support. The posts note thousands of years of coexistence, express gratitude and love, and show us that, as one Facebook user in Iran promises, the sense of hatred between the two nations “was invented by the propaganda of the regime” and that the “Iranian people, apart from the regime, do not hold a grudge nor animosity against anyone, especially not the Israelis.” The mere act of sharing these messages demonstrates how committed the Iranian people are to communicating them; these people are not able to voice their complaints and defy their regime openly and freely, and their commitment to doing so clearly indicates their commitment to the cause. There is no slacktivism when even making your voice heard puts your life at risk.

The movement is a positive one, regardless of its direct political impact. The challenge, but also the beauty, of grassroots movements is that you do not see results immediately. The change is inherently bottom-up, and therefore slow to be enacted. Nonetheless, any eventual change has massive strengh and enormous support—a loud, clear voice that cannot be ignored. In this case, the change is a fundamentally meaningful one. People are learning to see one another as real people, to meet and connect with the “Other.” The hope is to influence political decision by taking a clear stance against war, but even if the movement fails to grow to that scale, its impact within the people is significant.  Alliances and wars are usually decided by the powers that be, but Israel Loves Iran may give us a chance to see how much change the Powers that Become can make.

Should We Remove the “Israel Filter” When Studying the Middle East? It’s Worth Trying.

By Leigh Nusbaum

A few weeks ago, my class on the contemporary politics in the Middle East was discussing the domestic future of Syria, particularly when it came to Arab Spring. One of the students asked, “How will it affect Israel?” My professor handled the question much more gracefully than I would have. I was annoyed; I wanted to fire back, “What does this have to do with Syria’s domestic policies?”

Maybe I am a little different than the average Jewish college student who studies the Middle East. I focused more on Arabic than Hebrew. I studied abroad at American University of Cairo instead of Hebrew University. Still, I believe there is a time and a place for discussing Israel’s place in the Middle East, and when the talk isn’t directly about the Jewish state or the conflict surrounding it, it shouldn’t be brought up into the classroom.

The Middle East is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating places in the world. The three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—were founded there. Great empires that have made amazing contributions to society rose and fell there. Today, the region is in the middle of the Arab Spring, where citizens of autocratic countries are taking to the streets to protest the current regimes.

This is where what I like to call the “Israel filter” comes in. This filter is the either conscious or unconscious attempt to steer a classroom conversation towards Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Additionally, the “Israel filter,” like its cousin, the “Palestine filter,” can become a platform for the person to voice their views on the conflict or the state itself.

You don’t just see these “filters” in action in the classroom, but also on the news. As I watched my friends protest in the streets of Cairo, most of what I heard from commentators on major U.S. networks was, “How is this going to affect Israel?” and less of “Can the Egyptian People change the system that’s been in place for the past 30 years?” In the end, it’s important to discuss whether or not the Camp David Accords will stay in place, but any event before Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11th did not merit Israel as the primary discussion with regard to the Egyptian protests.

Though Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict are integral part of the study of the Middle East, there are other equally interesting parts of the region worth studying. Be it, the rise of Arab Nationalism, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, or the Iranian Revolution, all are intriguing. While each may have some connection to Israel at some turns in history, these periods are not dictated by their relationship to Israel.

That in itself brings up a conundrum. How can I, someone who is Jewish and who cares about Israel, say that Israel is not the most important part of the study of the Middle East? It is important—most of the wars fought in the Middle East have involved Israel—but purely focusing on the conflict or who has the right to the land in the region limits not only the study of the region but also the college student’s view of the Middle East.

Learning why Gamal Abdul Nasser, the president of Egypt from 1956-1970, was so popular in the Arab World, or why Lebanon is prone to frequent instability, does not run the risk of hindering the student’s learning, but broadens it. The saying of “two Jews, three opinions,” rings true here because it isn’t wrong to hear both sides of the story of 1948 or 1967 or 1979. What matters is that you come to your own conclusion over which version is correct. Sometimes there is no right answer.

At the end of the day, Israel can be an important part of Middle East discourse, but not the only part. It cannot, and should not be the center of every Middle East discussion. If one is interested in both Israel and the Greater Middle East, there are several ways that will lead to a much more productive academic discourse. First, know when is an appropriate time to bring Israel into the class conversation. If there is not a time, then the student should bring up the question after class. Additionally, one of the wisest pieces of advice that someone gave me was, when it comes to the classroom discussion leave your preconceptions and personal opinions at the door. Subjective questions and commentary hinder healthy discussion. It makes the classroom hostile to reason and objectivity. Occasionally, it even alienates the student from others. I have heard stories of Jewish students derisively nicknamed “the AIPAC monitor” behind their backs. It’s not necessarily a nickname to be proud of.

At the end of the day, this is just my opinion, but I know that having removed my own “Israel filter” has helped me learn a lot in the past four years at Brandeis. While the conflict is not necessarily an area I am interested in concentrating my studies on, I do know that it’s an area I want to work in. I believe that I understand what is happening in the region and how or why it affects Israel, because I moved away from studying the conflict and Israel as a whole. I would like to think that broadening my perspective makes me want to work that much harder for bringing peace to the region.

Yom Kippur, Israel and Turkey

By Leigh Nusbaum

There is a saying in my High Holy Day siddur, the Gates of Repentance, that says, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”

This sentence always unnerves me when I hear it. I feel as though I have not received that clean slate that I am supposed to possess upon breaking my fast, that my name’s inscription in the Book of Life is still in question the moment after the Ni’lah service is over.

My own personal fears aside, I do wonder what went through the minds of Israel’s political leaders this Yom Kippur if they heard this line as well, particularly when it comes to the issue of Turkey.

For someone who has visited Israel three times in the last five years and has spent the past summer living and working in Istanbul, I find the breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel both distressing and disturbing. Eyal Peretz, the head of the Arkadas (Turkish for friend) Association, an Israel-Turkish cultural center in Israel, puts it best, “I’ve seen how a warm relationship has been erased in one fell swoop. It’s very painful, very frustrating.”

The expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Turkey is the most recent chapter in a disappointing saga that has been several years in the making. In 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a harsh public criticism of Operation Cast Lead, a three-week invasion of the Gaza Strip, at the World Economic Forum, saying to President Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.”

A year later was Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s “controversial behavior” towards the Turkish ambassador to Israel in 2010, when he stated to Israeli television cameras, “The important thing is that people see that he’s low and we’re high and that there is no flag here.” Ayalon apologized after.

Most notably, later that year, six ships, including the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, attempted to run the Israeli blockade in order to deliver humanitarian supplies to residents of the Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli marines boarded the ship and in the ensuing fight, nine activists were killed—eight Turkish, and one American of Turkish descent. Turkey demanded an apology; Israel refused.

The breakdown in relations between Turkey and Israel, relations that have existed since 1949, will not help either country in the long run. Though Erdogan has in many ways become a hero for the Arab Street and a well-liked leader within his borders, his inflamed statements will hurt Turkey’s EU accession talks, particularly since Israel has increased ties with Cyprus, a country whose northern half is occupied by Turkey and is set to inherit the EU’s rotating presidency in 2012. Turkey and Cyprus have their own share of problems, given that Turkey occupies Cyprus’s northern half. As long as Turkey attacks Israel on the global stage, Israel and Cyprus, will likely grow closer due to their mutual respective rows with Turkey, and likely impede Turkey’s EU aspirations. If relations were to improve between Ankara and Jerusalem, however, Israel could have a chance at helping mediate and eliminate the dispute between Turkey and Cyprus, since Israel and Cyrpus have had strong bilateral relations since the 1990s. Solving the conflict between Turkey and Cyprus would clear one of Turkey’s major roadblocks to EU accession.

Still, Turkey is not alone in this problem. Israel’s continued stubbornness to resolve their relations with Ankara holds potent risks as well. Israel has damaged a relationship with one of the largest Muslim majority countries in the world, a country that at one point not only had decent relations with Israel, but countries like Syria, Lebanon and Iran. While Netanyahu has stated that he does not want Ankara to mediate any future negotiations between Israel and Syria, repairing the Turkish-Israeli relationship makes Turkey uniquely suited to mediate between Syria and Israel more than the United States. Though Israel has no influence on Syria domestically or internationally, Turkey does. Even if Assad is removed from power, Turkey, who like Israel shares a border with Syria, will still have influence on the Arab Republic, especially if the Sunni majority takes over Damascus. Additionally, Turkey would be ideal in relieving the tensions between Israel and Lebanon and even Israel and Iran.

I am not advocating who is right or who is wrong—I am just encouraging both sides to talk. Now is not the time of brinkmanship be it an increased Turkish naval presence in international waters or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatening to openly negotiate with the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK (The PKK is recognized by the United States as a foreign terror organization). Openly trying to destabilize the other country not only decreases respect for Turkey and Israel on the international stage, but it is also a waste of time and money for both. Talking and airing out grievances between one another leads to making peace. Making peace will erase the blemish on an otherwise successful relationship that has lasted over sixty years.

A Jewish New Year Resolution: Scaling Back Our Use of the “D” Word

By Leigh Nusbaum

This is not a salvo—this is a challenge.

This past year, both Jewish and secular, has been an incredible conundrum for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. From the Arab Spring, to the breakdown of relations with Turkey, to the global recession, to the Palestinian bid for statehood—we find ourselves fumbling for some sense of stability. While some of us grope in the proverbial dark, others of us find a crutch to lean on. When it comes to Israel, I’d argue that the crutch is the “D-word”—delegitimization.

To “delegitimize” has traditionally meant to diminish the authority of, but recently this word, as well as the new buzzword “delegitimization,” have come into vogue when discussing Israel. In this new context, the word has taken on a new meaning—to hurt the legitimacy of an authority, usually a government, either in the eyes of its supporters or others. Overuse of the “D-words” is not a healthy habit to pursue.

The overuse of these terms reminds me of one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I am not referring to the boy’s lies to the townspeople, but to when he truly saw the wolf, and no one in the village came to his aid. If we label every small act or criticism that doesn’t fall in line with current Israeli policy as “delegitimizing the State of Israel,” such as criticizing settlements in the West Bank,” we run the risk of that call falling on deaf ears in the future, when delegitimization may become a very real danger.

What bothers me most is the immediate leap to label any criticism from the Jewish and Zionist Left as another example of “delegitimizing Israel.” I don’t say this because I am active in J Street as opposed to AIPAC, nor because I could start the argument that criticism is merely tough love. I say it because snuffing out any debate by invoking “delegitimization” goes against our tradition. For centuries, rabbis have debated how to interpret the Talmud and the Torah. Our tradition prides itself on great thinkers such as the Rambam, the Baal Shem Tov, The Rav, Heschel and Baeck. All of them spent their lives thinking and debating their peers. If they were put in a room together, I doubt any subject would be taboo, unlike the way many view the debate on Israel. As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.” Why should we go against one of the very foundations of our tradition?

Moreover, flippantly declaring a comment as “delegitimizing” is not only an ineffective rebuttal—it is lazy. It means that the arguer did not take the time to adequately arm herself with the necessary evidence to parry her opponent’s point. Even so, laziness is not the only danger. The overuse of the word “delegitimize” hurts the overall pro-Israel argument because it potentially narrows the support base for a Jewish state. It can drive away potential supporters, both non-Jewish and Jewish, because their ideas don’t fall in line with a certain viewpoint. Fewer and fewer of these potential supporters have the victories of 1967 and 1973 or Camp David in their minds; more and more remember Lebanon, Olso, the Intifadas and Gaza. How can we expect their support if we brush away their questions? Additionally, the overuse of the word may cause it to lose meaning. Will we be able to discern what does delegitimize Israel and what doesn’t in ten years? Will the world believe us when we argue the point?

A great example of the danger of overuse is the word “Nazi,” though it still connotes hate within the Jewish community. It can now mean anything from an anti-Semite who believes in Aryan supremacy to a disagreeable person, such as the infamous “Soup Nazi” in Seinfeld who screams “No soup for you!” when annoyed by customers. With the overuse of the word Nazi in American life, does it necessarily connote the image of Hitler or murderous SS? I’m not so sure anymore.

That said, we should not stop using the word completely. There are very real attempts to diminish Israel’s legitimacy. Denying the Holocaust, launching missiles from Lebanon and Gaza suicide bombings and the murder of a young settler family are real attempts at delegitimization. These attacks destabilize both Israel’s ability to protect her country and citizens and hurts the region as a whole, particularly since Israel’s reaction, no matter how measured, has been met with condemnation. Similarly, not condemning the arson of a mosque in Galilee or Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro, who writes in his new book, “It is permissible to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation,” is dangerously delegitimizing to Israel, because it further inflames longstanding biases against Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed, saying, “the incident contradicts the values of the State of Israel—such as freedom of religion and freedom of worship.” Despite these major issues of clear “delegitimization,” engaging in healthy discussion about the future of Israel, including debate over the legality of settlements or mending relations with Turkey, does not merit that label.

So my wish for you in this near year of 5772, other than being inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year, is to minimize your use of the “D-words.” Instead, do your research, learn about and discuss differing opinions. If you like Alan Dershowitz, read Jeremy Ben Ami, too. If you like Peter Beinart, read Dennis Ross, as well. This year, engage in a different “D-word”—debate.

Egypt on the Edge

By Adina Rosenthal

Tensions in the Middle East have sadly reached a familiar high.  Recently, Gaza militants ambushed Israeli vehicles in southern Israel near Eilat, killing eight people in the deadliest attack in three years. In addition to this premeditated act of terrorism, militants launched more than 150 rockets and mortars into Israel—despite a ceasefire—killing one, injuring scores of civilians and inciting panic throughout southern Israel.

While such hostilities at the hands of terrorists are a tragedy, unfortunately, they are not an anomaly. When news breaks concerning violence against Israelis, the word “Gaza” usually seems to follow closely behind. Despite the recent events being perpetrated by Gaza militants, the backdrop behind the atrocities should also raise some eyebrows.

Despite the difficulty in entering a heavily guarded Israel, the Gaza militants were able to travel through a lax Egyptian border to commit their atrocities. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty, thereby ending the war that had existed between the two nations since Israel’s inception in 1948. Though a cool peace, the treaty has kept tensions between Egypt and Israel relatively quiet for three decades.

But since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from office last February, much has changed in the discourse between Egypt and Israel. Over the last six months, there have been five separate attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline compared to “zero successful attacks” since the pipeline opened in 2008. Such actions have deprived Israel of gas and Egypt of foreign currency. Last June, Egypt lifted its four-year blockade on Gaza, which arguably contributed to the terrorists’ ease in committing last Thursday’s attacks. Moreover, such a political move may even highlight a shift in Egyptian policy and power, according to Evelyn Gordon in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, as the “cross-border attack took place in broad daylight, right in front of an Egyptian army outpost, without the soldiers lifting a finger to stop it.” Such inaction is particularly surprising, as the violence also resulted in the deaths of Egyptian soldiers. As Gordon also points out, “The Egyptian border policemen on patrol whom Israeli troops allegedly killed in their effort to repulse the terrorists were also clearly at the scene; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in the line of fire. Yet they, too, did nothing to stop it from happening.”

Although last week’s attacks were clearly initiated by Gaza terrorists, Egypt blamed Israel for the deaths of its border policemen and demanded an apology. According to Haaretz, the IDF stated that its soldiers had “returned fire ‘at the source of the gunfire’ that had been aimed at Israeli soldiers and civilians from the area of an Egyptian position on the border…and at least some of the Egyptian soldiers were killed by the [Popular Resistance Committee’s] terrorists’ gunfire and bombs.” Though Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately apologized after the attacks, adding that they “demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” Egyptians were not satisfied and popular sentiment amongst Egyptian quickly became apparent. Angry Egyptians responded with protests outside of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which included the “Egyptian Spiderman” scaling the 21-story building to take down the Israeli flag. The Egyptian government also threatened to recall their ambassador to Israel, though they later revoked their decision.

Clearly, tensions between Egypt and Israel are high, and a shaky relationship has become even more precarious. Such contention not only affects Israeli concerns with hostile Palestinian neighbors. Now, Israelis realize that their relationship with Egypt has changed in a post-Mubarak era, with popular sentiment growing more vocal and antagonistic against the Jewish state and, subsequently, a future Egyptian government reevaluating peace with Israel.

With tensions mounting daily and popular sentiment coming to a forefront, how can relations between the two states remain cordial?

According to Wafik Dawood, director of institutional sales at Cairo-based Mega Investments Securities, Egypt’s stocks fell to the lowest in two weeks as “The negative global backdrop and the killings on the Israeli border’ are driving shares lower…The main fear is the escalation.” Even more worrisome for Egyptians should be that there has been talk in Washington about cutting the $2 billion in their annual aid if the country backs out of its peace treaty with Israel. As Congresswoman Kay Granger, Chairwoman of the U.S. House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee told the Jerusalem Post, “The United States aid to Egypt is predicated on the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and so the relationship between Egypt and Israel is extremely important.”

If the mutual interest of keeping peace walks, the hope remains that money talks.

Blame Canada (for Anti-Zionism)

By Adina Rosenthal

Canadian bacon isn’t the only thing that’s unkosher. Earlier this month, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA), released its report concluding that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Canada, especially on university campuses. Since its inception in March 2009, the CPCCA, composed of 22 Parliamentarians from all parties in the House of Commons, has conducted investigations and hearings with the purported purpose “of confronting and combating antisemitism [sic] in Canada today.” Based on its findings, the committee made several recommendations to its government, such as training Canadian police forces on how to better handle anti-Semitic incidents, sponsoring conferences at universities to combat anti-Semitic events and establishing a clear definition for anti-Semitism. According to Former Liberal MP Mario Silva, Chair of the CPCCA Inquiry Panel that published the report, “We are calling on the Government of Canada to take our recommendations under serious consideration to combat the wave of antisemitism we are witnessing in our nation. Canada is founded on a set of shared values and antisemitism is an affront to all we stand for in this country.”

In their report, the CPCCA identified a “new anti-Semitism” prominent in Canadian discourse, that is “increasingly focused on the role of Israel in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.” The report further adds, “Jews are seen as supporters of Israel and are seen by some, who do not distinguish between Israelis and Jews, as a legitimate target in the fight to establish a Palestinian state or to eliminate the State of Israel.” Moreover, “anti-Semitism is being manifested in a manner which has never been dealt with before…Jewish students are ridiculed and intimidated for any deemed support for the ‘Nazi’ and ‘apartheid’ State of Israel, which is claimed to have no right to exist.” In short, anti-Zionist rhetoric has simply becomes a guise for anti-Semitic sentiment.

But not everyone is sold on the CPCCA’s report, with some critics arguing that the committee’s findings are being used to prevent legitimate criticism of Israel.  According to Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, “By referring to Israel as a ‘Jewish collectivity’ in the anti-Semitism definition, it means the state can’t be criticized…But Israel should be allowed to be criticized by the same standards of any state.” Last March, Bloc Québécois members dropped out of the committee, claiming the coalition had a pro-Israel bias. As Michel Guimond, the Bloc Whip, told a Quebec newspaper at that time: “We consider the coalition is tainted, partisan and presents a single side of the coin” in reference to the coalition’s alleged refusal to hear from pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian groups like Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and the Canadian Arab Federation.

In direct response to those who felt ill-represented during the CPCCA’s investigation, Silva argued that such groups “weren’t prepared at all, in fact, to even have any positive contribution, even state the fact that anti-Semitism is a problem…They’d rather just focus on attacking the work we were doing.”

The question of where anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism reaches beyond Canada’s borders. In Iceland, Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson announced he would support the Palestinians’ initiative to petition for state recognition at the United Nations this fall, a measure that would undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The foreign minister made this announcement after a trip to Gaza in which he concurrently called for an end to the Gaza blockade and avoided any contact with Israel. In response to criticism of the Foreign Minster’s slighting of Israel, writer Katharina Hauptmann of the Iceland Review insisted, “The fact that the Icelandic government may have issues with Israel’s treatment of Palestine has nothing at all to do with anti-Semitism.” In regards to Yale closing its initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, a recent Jerusalem Post article pointed out, “Given the widespread acceptability of anti-Zionism, some anti-Semites have insisted that they’re ‘only’ anti-Zionists, and that Israel and the Jews have become the new Nazis, perpetrating a Holocaust of their own.”

Essentially, it seems that whether anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are being melded is not the issue. Both sides agree that they are, and a new definition of anti-Semitism is now commonly accepted. Rather, the point of contention is whether such a conflation is legitimate. If you are anti-Semitic, you are probably anti-Zionist, but does the converse also hold true?  If you are anti-Zionist, are you also anti-Semitic? The answer is “not necessarily”; political discourse isn’t usually so black and white.

The CPCCA report evinces a global increase in anti-Semitism. According to the British Community Security Trust, the United Kingdom had 924 anti-Semitic incidents in 2009, finding that the main reason for this record spike was the “unprecedented number” of such incidents recorded in January and February of 2009, during and after the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The CPCCA report draws parallels with this data for Canada, noting 1,306 anti-Semitic incidents in 2010, up from 1,264 the year before. According to the CPCCA report, “As in other jurisdictions [of Canada], antisemitic incidents…tend to be tied to the situation in the Middle East.” Though the report doesn’t provide concrete numbers of anti-Zionism resulting in anti-Semitic acts, the qualitative evidence, particularly on Canadian campuses, should raise some eyebrows. Math might not provide a definitive answer here.  But if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…well, you be the judge.

We, the (Arab) People

By Aarian Marshall

Like many people my age, I watched the Arab Spring on CNN, from my university’s Student Campus Center. Sometimes, someone would change the channel—March Madness was on, and basketball involves a crowd of people screaming plus the satisfaction of a conclusion in 90 minutes. And Egypt felt so far away, its people so different and its struggles so foreign. Though historic, it was difficult to identify with what was happening in a world so far removed from my own.

Underneath all the talking heads’ discussion and analyses, one consistent allusion stood out: “the people” of the region. “The people” of Tunisia and Egypt need to take change into their own hands; “the people” of Egypt and Tunisia need a little bit of help; the wants and needs of the Egyptian military don’t necessarily dovetail with what “the people” want.  New York Times writer Thomas Friedman entitled a recent column “It Has to Start With Them”, arguing that when “the people” of the Middle East own an initiative, they will be push themselves forward.  But who’s “them,” Thomas Friedman? Who’s “they”?

In the United States, “the people” is a clear signifier, something that used to demarcate this country from the rest of the world. Even if you don’t know a word of the Constitution, you’ll know “We the people.” It is no wonder, then, that in an Arab Spring discourse dominated by notions of democracy, “the people”—these shadowy, non-specific people—show up everywhere.

In a lovely column by film director Mohammad Ali Atassi, the former Syrian president’s son writes: “Now this other Syria is appearing before our eyes to remind us that it cannot be forever set aside, that its people did not spend the decades of the Assads’ rule asleep, and that they aspire, like all people, to live with freedom and dignity.” Those words are stirring, and they touch upon those golden keywords—freedom, aspire—that our American souls are drawn to. And yet, without the detail, the preciseness, it’s difficult to conceive of “the people” of the Middle East as actual human beings.

Perhaps my discomfort is synthesized best by author Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) in an article for The New Republic entitled “They the People.” The piece is outdated, published in March of 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. But it seems as if Nafisi’s words, written to another America in another time, apply today. The problem with America’s attitude towards the people of the Middle East, she writes, is that we

…seldom differentiate between the people of the ‘Muslim world’ and their self-proclaimed representatives. So crimes committed against these people are repeated three times: once when they are forced into submission, once when they are represented through the very forces that oppress them, and once when the world talks about them in the same language and through the same images as their oppressors.

In Tunisia and Egypt, we hope that those oppressors are gone. Still, the problem of orientalism, of believing in the (often false) assumptions that gird the West’s ideas about the East, has not entirely gone away. There is “cultural baggage,” American historian Douglas Little writes, “that Americans carry with them,” even in a post-Arab Spring world. In other words, we insist upon boiling those who live in a Middle East down to a common denominator, albeit a bit differently from the way we boiled them down in the past. The issue, in Nafisi’s words, is differentiation, and I don’t hear that happening in policy discussions nearly as often as I would like.

I recently had the opportunity to watch the debate played out by three experts, who gathered in Washington, DC’s Academy for Educational Development to discuss the post-Arab Spring Middle East.  Helen Clark, the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, argued that economic reform is an essential companion to the social change that has already begun in Egypt and Tunisia, and warned that the work needed to become a democracy is “difficult and detailed.” The people of those countries, she argued, need to be ready for the long road ahead. Robert D. Hormats, the Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs at the Department of State, made similar economically based claims. Free markets and free societies, he told the audience, are inextricably linked. But it was Edward Walker, former Ambassador to Israel, the UAE and Egypt, who struck the most foreboding note. He argued that the U.S. is “limited in what [it] can do to shape the Arab summer”—an effective impetus, he said, can only come from the people of the region themselves. And most depressingly, he pointed out that things might not have changed that much in Egypt and Tunisia—perhaps the revolution is not so revolutionary after all.

As Clark pointed out during her talk, if the Arab Spring has confirmed anything, it’s that “the people of the Middle East are as interested in human rights and freedom as anyone else in the world.” We are one step closer, then, to understanding that those in that region are perhaps more similar to us than we ever could have thought.