The Jerusalem Post
I am an Arab-lover
Iam sometimes accused of being an “Arab-lover.” I have to come clean: It is true, I cannot deny it. Is there something wrong with that?
I have lived and worked with Arabs for more than 40 years. I live in Jerusalem, which is a binational Israeli-Palestinian Arab city. My wife comes from an Iraqi Jewish family. Certainly her family’s cultural roots are Arab. My mother-in-law’s cooking (before she fell ill) was among the best Arab food I have ever eaten.
I love the Arabic language and the more I study it the more I love it. I listen to a lot of Palestinian Arab radio stations while driving in my car. I have discovered hundreds of Arabic language films and series on Netflix, seriously expanding my world. In studying Arabic, I learn to appreciate and love the Hebrew language, too, even more than I already do. The two languages are so close to each other and share so much in common, it is such a huge loss that so few Hebrew and Arabic speakers in this world speak each other’s language.
I enjoy my frequent visits to Arab friends, in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. There are differences between the different Arab cultures. I feel most at home in Palestinian homes, both inside of Israel and in the occupied territories. In those homes and communities, I always enjoy the closeness and warmth between friends and family.
Arab hospitality is well known. I encountered it first when I lived in Kafr Qara from 1979 to 1981. Until you experience the generosity and openness, it is difficult to even describe it. I often felt uncomfortable because there were certainly times when I knew that the family was not very well off, but that was never expressed when serving guests. They would quietly send one of the children out to the nearby grocery store to buy some sweet drinks and other things to put on the table. I always felt bad because I didn’t want to drink those sweetened beverages, but knowing of their situation I would gulp them down anyway.
It took me a while to understand the whole Arab hospitality thing. For me it was difficult to grasp. Why are they spending so much time, so much money, and demonstrating such generosity? It seems so disproportionate to be treated that way when I would probably not come close to showing the same kind of hospitality. Then it dawned on me. It all has to do with the notion of “honor,” which is a key value in traditional Middle Eastern cultures.
In Western society, the honor is to be the guest. In Arab society, the honor is to be the host. You gain honor and you demonstrate your honor by hosting in the best way possible. Not only is this a foreign concept in the West, the relationship to “honor,” particularly to “personal honor” in the West is completely different from the way that Arab society relates to it. Honor is the core of one’s existence.
THE HONOR of the individual embodies the honor of the family, all of its members, especially the women and, even more so, the elders. The collective honor of the family is embodied in the honor of the tribe or the extended family. This goes from the local to the national, where the concept of national honor becomes a core element in the Israeli-Arab conflict. It all can be distilled down to something that Westerners and Easterners can easily understand: dignity. Arab dignity is expressed, among other things, by their hospitality.
Even the Arabic word to extend hospitality is yehtarem, meaning to grant honor.
I have heard so many stories over the years of Israeli Palestinians who hosted Israeli Jews in their home and showed them the generosity of Arab hospitality. I heard from the Arab hosts how insulted they were when their Jewish guests invited them in return and took them to a restaurant instead of inviting them to their home. The Jewish side, of course, felt that they were showing respect and generosity by taking their guests to dine out, and it didn’t even dawn on them that this would be seen as an insult.
I heard many times from young Israeli Palestinians who participated in meetings with Israeli Jews within the framework of
school. The first visit usually takes place in the Arab town or village and almost always includes a home visit, often for lunch. When the reciprocal visit takes place, most often the kids have lunch together in the school, and the Arab kids end up being insulted. They say, “Why didn’t they bring me to their home like we brought them to ours?”
Why am I bringing all of this up? Because of the renewal of the so-called “citizenship law” that is really the anti-love, anti-Arab, racist, and one of the most despicable and disgraceful laws in the Israeli legal system. I have good friends who are the victims of this law. Even in 2003 when it was first passed, it had nothing really to do with security, as was claimed. It has always been about demography, which is Israeli coded language for pure outright racism. It has always been about preventing Arabs from receiving citizenship in Israel.
It is beyond my human ability to understand how our lawmakers and politicians can see the validity of denying citizens of a democratic country the right to freely marry and live with their spouses as full citizens within their own country. I can only imagine what the reaction of Israel would be if some other country passed laws that prevented Jewish citizens of that country from allowing them to marry freely and bring their spouses to live with them as equal citizens.
I call on the new Israeli government to simply not bring the law’s extension to a vote. The law, which is a temporary order, will simply fade away. There are already more than enough safeguards within the Israeli legal system to prevent people who are genuine security risks from becoming citizens. All other applicants for family reunification should be immediately granted the right to love and to live in peace with their spouses and families as equal citizens of our democratic country. So yes, I am an Arab-lover. The question I ask is, why aren’t you also?
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine,