Commentary Magazine

Rhetoric and the Arab Mind

It is natural enough that the parties to any conflict should construct onesided versions of the nature of the conflict, and therefore it is also understandable that the desire to be fair should lead uninvolved observers to assume as a matter of principle something like a parity between the claims of both sides. The way this familiar scheme works in the case of the Middle-East conflict is clear. The Arabs see the Israelis as invaders, interlopers, usurpers of the Arab homeland, who in the name of simple justice must be expelled. The official Zionist position, on the other hand, has been that the Jews have done nothing more than return peacefully to their own historic land, where in any case there had never been an Arab national state or Arab national consciousness, and that the immense labors of rehabilitation and modernization of the Jewish settlement would bring vast benefits to all the inhabitants of the region, were it not for the gratuitous hostility of the Arabs. (It is worth noting here that in Israel the general effect of the Six-Day War seems to have been to polarize opinion on the ultimate nature of the conflict. Those Israelis who began to speak in quasi-religious terms of a historical destiny to maintain the borders of a Greater Israel were implicitly rejecting the possibility that there could be any right on the Arab side of the dispute. For cooler Israeli heads, the failure of victory to bring peace any closer has driven home a new sober awareness of the seriousness with which Arabs view their own claims to the land.)

Now, against these opposing and irreconcilable versions of the conflict, there has been a tendency among many commentators in America and Europe to strike a neat balance between the two sides. As so often in history, the argument runs, we find two different peoples contending for the same patch of earth, each convinced that its own rights are exclusive. The obvious solution, then, is for each side to recognize some minimal legitimacy in the claims of the other; such a recognition will lead to mutual concessions, general compromise, and finally to some approximation of peace. One hears this note, for example, in the editorials of the New York Times, which are usually pro-Israel (“rabidly Zionistic,” the Arabs would have it), but which generally conclude even their denunciations of Arab intransigence with the blandly moralistic suggestion that if both sides would only be more reasonable, peace would ensue. Such statements are no doubt well-meaning, but by imagining the struggle in the Middle East in terms of a simple general model of conflicts rather than through the particular facts of the Israeli-Arab confrontation, observers of this sort evade the most painful question that the facts now pose: is conciliatory “reasonableness” at present a possible alternative, for either side?

In regard to actual policy it is often suggested, especially on the Left, that the current explosive situation in the Middle East is largely the result of Israel's unyielding position on the territories it has occupied since June 1967. After all, during the fighting the Israelis themselves claimed that their sole interest was self-defense, not territorial expansion. If they would show their good faith now by a generous unilateral gesture—giving up some or all of the territories, or perhaps establishing a genuinely independent Arab state on the West Bank, free to make whatever alliances it chose—then the Arabs would see that Israel was not an expansionist threat and would at last feel free to come to terms with the existence of the Jewish state. I must say that I find a. vicious naiveté in this kind of scenario, vicious because it generally reflects a rigid determination to take a firm vew of the conflict and at the same time preserve a pristine ignorance of the facts of the case.

Perhaps the most central of these facts is the enormous lack of symmetry in the positions of the two antagonists. The Israeli position on the Arabs over the years has on occasion been stupid, blundering, unfeeling, but it has also showed aspects of common sense, even humanity, especially since June 1967, and, by and large, one can say that its guiding principle has been enlightened self-interest. The Arab position on Israel, by contrast, has been blind, fanatic, self-deceptive, self-destructive, harshly inflexible, and in many respects morally obscene.

These are strong words, but they point to a truth that must be recognized, one that has been recently documented with overwhelmingly persuasive detail in a scholarly study by Yehoshafat Harkabi entitled The Arab Position in the Israeli-Arab Conflict.1 Harkabi, who is lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has broad theoretical interests in the nature of conflicts, the relationship between ideology and policy, the psychological bases of nationalism—he is the author of a previous work, Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace—but his particular expertise is in Arab language, politics, and culture. It should be noted that before he began his academic career he served as chief of intelligence in the Israeli army. In much of what follows, I will be summarizing and quoting from Harkabi's book because I feel that the information he makes available ought to be brought to the awareness of American readers. Consequently, some words may be in order about the reliability of a writer so obviously involved on one side of the conflict.


Harkabi's study is at least in part exempt from the criticism that it represents the distorted view of an Israeli because so much of it is devoted to a simple, exhaustive documentation of the Arab view—from books, pamphlets, speeches, broadcasts, magazine and newspaper articles—by Arab leaders, ideologues, propagandists, educators, academicians, journalists, from the extreme Right to as far Left as Arabs go. But even when Harkabi is interpreting and not merely quoting, he would seem to be a generally safe guide: however lurid his material, he remains cool, judicious, reasonable, never jumping to conclusions about the connection between word and deed, or between official statement and popular feeling. He appends as a kind of epilogue to his study a chapter called “The Problem of Subjectivity,” in which he analyzes the inner difficulties he tried to overcome in dealing with this subject as an Israeli, and much of his interpretation in fact reflects an impressive act of empathy—one gets a very convincing sense of how a Jewish state on Palestinian soil must look to Arab eyes. The aim Harkabi emphasizes in his conclusion is palpably present throughout the study; he surveys the Arab views not to “expose” them but because he wants to take Arabs seriously as people, to determine as precisely as possible how they really feel about Israel:

I see a danger of dehumanizing the opponent in the conflict, which would express itself in a rejection of the possibility that he, too, can have ideas, ideologies, dreams, and a real sense of emotional attachment to this land. Without the awareness that he, too, can have aspirations and ideals that stir his soul as his own “truth,” I am afraid that we will not properly understand his behavior and that we will be surprised.

What, then, do the Arabs really think about Israel, its Jewish citizens, its role in world politics? Is all the talk about “pushing Israel into the sea” merely a propagandistic flourish, an instance of the well-known Arab propensity for hyperbole, or is there some radical incompatibility between the development of Arab nationalism and the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East? From all the varied materials surveyed by Harkabi, one inescapable conclusion emerges: that Arab nationalism, at least as it has been formulated over the past two decades, cannot in any conceivable way tolerate Israel's existence. Israel remains the stabbing cinder in the enflamed eye of Arab nationalism; for the Arab nothing will relieve the anguish it causes except its complete removal.

Why anguish? Arab spokesmen are of course keenly aware of the genuine human anguish of the Palestinian refugees and stress it again and again in their statements. If they give rather free rein to hyperbole (and perhaps self-pity), repeatedly describing the events of 1948-49 as “the greatest tragedy ever to befall a people in all of history,” nevertheless the physical and mental suffering of the Palestinian Arabs can hardly be discounted, even by a partisan of Israel. It is clear, however, that for the Arabs the refugees are not the ultimate cause of the problem but only a spectacular symptom of it. What the Arabs finally are unable to accept is not so much the displacement of people as the usurpation of territory by the “Zionist hordes.” From a Jewish point of view, the borders of the state before June 1967 may have seemed pinched-in, just barely viable, perhaps laughably exiguous, but from the Arab viewpoint, even with the more restricted boundaries of the 1947 UN partition Israel would still look like a murderous stake struck deep into the Arab heartland. (The one visible exception to this view is Cecil Hourani, who in an article translated in the November 1967 Encounter suggested that the Arabs would have been wiser to accept the original partition decision. But Hourani seems to be a voice without echo in the Arab world, and in any case he differs from other Arabs only in tactics, not in his ultimate attitude toward Israel.)

It has been the ambiguous fate of the Jews ever since biblical times to sit at the crossroads of communication, both within their land and in exile. In geopolitical terms, Israel today cuts through the middle of the Fertile Crescent, occupying the place that should logically be the center of the Arab Middle East, acting as a wedge between Egypt in the south and Syria and Lebanon in the north.2 What troubles the Arabs still further is their knowledge that this wedge into their world is hardly an inert body. Arab nationalism, one must keep in mind, has been a highly problematic, often painfully unsuccessful, enterprise, plagued by factionalism, floundering in its efforts at modernization, at social and economic reform, generally unable to maintain stable governments, very far from realizing its hopes of a renascence of Arab culture. In the midst of this predicament, a competing nationalism has set up shop on territory Arabs view as their own; people of a different racial stock (Arabs usually reject the idea of Semitic kinship with the Jews), coming from European backgrounds with an alien culture, have managed to establish a vigorous national state with an advanced technology, cohesive social institutions, a broadly developed educational system, flourishing arts and letters—achievements which have even won a considerable degree of international recognition. Israel, then, is not merely an intruder and not merely a challenge to Arab nationalism: its presence and its success are a constant infuriating reminder to Arabs of all their own national inadequacies.


It is against this background that the annihilation of the Jewish state has become one of the primary goals of Arab nationalism, and neither territorial concessions nor a change in the tenor of life in Israel could really serve as an adequate substitute for the realization of that goal. Harkabi states the case succinctly: “The opposition is not to an Israel of twenty thousand square kilometers and an acceptance of an Israel of fifteen thousand square kilometers, or an opposition to an Israel with a Western culture and an acceptance of an Israel with an Oriental culture, but rather an opposition to the existence of Israel in any form or area.” After the Six-Day War, there was a good deal of talk here in America about the refugee problem as the key to the conflict. If Israel could find a dramatic solution to that problem, it was argued, Arab hostility would soon dissolve. An equitable solution to the refugee question is obviously both a moral and a political necessity, but only ignorance of the Arab position could allow anyone to think that it would end Arab opposition to Israel. Nasser himself, in a speech to the Egyptian National Council on March 26, 1964, made this point unambiguously clear: “Israel imagines that the elimination of the refugee problem will bring about the elimination of the Palestine problem, but it is in the very existence of Israel that the danger is hidden.”

Some American readers may find Nasser's reference to hidden danger a little puzzling, but for Arabs that danger has the cold, hard reality of a knife-blade against the skin. As the varied materials assembled by Harkabi vividly demonstrate, the labels of “imperialism” and “colonialism” constantly attached to Israel by the Arabs (and by their leftist sympathizers elsewhere) are used with the full seriousness of conviction. First the Arabs were subjugated by two Western imperialist powers, France and England; when the oppressors left, Israel remained as their agent—though in other Arab versions the Jews are rather thought of as the secret masters of the West—to continue the despoliation of Arab land and resources. Thus the confrontation with Israel is really a confrontation with the colonialist West, and it is an added humiliation for the Arabs that their alien exploiters remain visibly present in their midst when almost all the other new nations of Africa and Asia have succeeded in “overthrowing” and driving out the colonialists.3

Israel, then, is not just a foreign encroachment upon Arab land but a military beachhead from which the forces of imperialism will attempt to move out to a conquest of the entire Middle East. Unfortunately, the strategic facts of life of Middle-East warfare have given an appearance of truth to the Arab conviction that Israel is expansionist by nature. A tiny country hemmed in against the sea, at points narrower in width than the range of its enemy's mortars, cannot hope to survive an attack without striking into enemy territory, and so in 1948-49, and far more spectacularly in 1967, Israel ended up after the fighting with expanded borders. These historical circumstances, however, are only a point of departure, for Israel's supposed expansionism has encouraged the most uninhibited exercise of the Arab habit of confusing facts with lies. Projected fears turn into “historical” realities and thus the Arabs come to think and act in a strange world of distorted half-lights in which fantasy is more substantial than verifiable fact.

For the Arabs, Israeli expansionism is a matter not of mere inference but of declared Zionist policy. Here, for example, is a statement allegedly made by Ben Gurion at the end of hostilities in 1949, “quoted” not in an Arab propaganda pamphlet but in The Egyptian Journal of Political Science, an ostensibly scholarly journal:

We have returned our swords to their scabbards only as a temporary measure. We shall unsheathe them when liberty in this land is endangered and when the vision of the Prophets and the Torah will be fulfilled, for then the entire Jewish people will return to settle in the lands of our forefathers stretching out from the Euphrates in the east to the Nile in the west.

Even as forgery, this is pretty poor stuff: whatever the defects of Ben Gurion's rhetoric, the business of sheathing and unsheathing swords is just a little too much. But the troubling point is that the statement, cited by a supposedly scholarly authority, is accepted by its readers and has precisely the same effect on them as though it really had been made by Ben Gurion. The little flourish about the Euphrates and the Nile has a certain inevitability because Arabs everywhere believe this is the stated Zionist program. According to one frequently repeated story, there is a large map in the Knesset building in Jerusalem showing most of the Middle East as Israel irredenta: under it is printed the biblical phrase, “From the Nile to the Euphrates.” Another version has it that this phrase is inscribed on the facade of the new Knesset building. When captured Egyptian officers were taken into the Knesset in 1956 to see that there was no such map, they decided that the Israelis had merely hidden it. In 1967, another batch of Egyptian prisoners were taken to Jerusalem to be shown that there was no menacing inscription on the Knesset building; they undoubtedly concluded that the map was nevertheless hidden somewhere inside.

What has made such visions of an Israel insatiable for conquest especially credible to Arabs is the dissemination among them of a demonological image of the Jew. As Yehoshafat Harkabi demonstrates, Arab propagandists are able to draw on many traditional Islamic stereotypes of the Jew as treacherous, conniving, racially inferior, but what is really staggering is the degree to which Arabs have taken over directly from the Nazis the most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda, often merely issuing it in Arabic translation without substantial alteration. Such materials are used, moreover, not only by rabble-rousers and nationalists of the lunatic fringe, but by high-ranking officials, government information services, reputable political commentators, educators (who have introduced these materials into the schools). One is faced with the unsettling conclusion that in many Arab countries the difference between lunatic fringe and official opinion, at least on the matter of Israel, is negligible.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been translated into Arabic seven different times; Nasser himself has spoken admiringly of it, and it would appear that it is widely accepted in the Arab world as a valid historical document. In the baleful light of the Protocols, as Harkabi shows, the Arab confrontation with Israel takes on a new dramatic significance. The Arabs have to face not merely Israel but, in a phrase recurrently used, “Israel and all that stands behind it.” The satanic Jewish plan, as we know from the Protocols, is nothing less than world conquest, and Israel is now clearly the main jumping-off point for this plan. World wars are engineered by the Jews in order to implement their scheme of domination. After World War I, they obtained the Balfour Declaration; after World War II, they won the State; with World War III, they will take over the world. Most of the ills of modern civilization are attributable to the vast Jewish scheme to weaken the enemy before subjugating him. Thus, according to various Arab writers, the Jews are responsible for capitalism, Communism, the erosion of traditional faith and values; for existentialism, sociology (a particularly low blow), the spread of sexual promiscuity, the existence of a worldwide network of whorehouses. In the face of such an immense and insidious conspiracy, it is small wonder that the Arabs have been defeated three times by the Israelis. The Arabs, however, will bravely persist in their struggle, which is after all a struggle of cosmic dimensions, the forces of good confronting the forces of evil at the geographic center of their nefarious plan of conquest.


This, I would suggest, is the ultimate and most ominous asymmetry of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Israelis may have often been guilty of a lack of moral imagination vis-à-vis the Arabs, but they have always seen them as men of flesh and blood living in real national entities, with a language, a culture, and political institutions, that could be studied, known, confronted in practical ways. For the Arabs, on the other hand, the real contours of the Jewish state and its citizens long ago dissolved in a roiling cloud of poisonous myth. The Arabs—or at the very least the Arab intelligentsia—are more completely the captives of a collective myth than any people since the Germans under Hitler, and it finally is this that makes political compromise with Israel unthinkable to them. For the Arabs, it is perfectly natural that government publications should circulate the old Christian libel that Jews make ritual use of the blood of Gentile children; it is not even surprising that Arab spokesmen should repeatedly support the Final Solution as a necessary act of self-defense by the German people, standing as the champions of mankind against the implacable Jewish enemy. Since all this may still have an air of unreality for Western readers, let me offer just one sample, a paragraph from an open letter to Eichmann that appeared in the Jordanian English-language Jerusalem Times on April 24, 1961 (and we might recall that all of us are in the habit of thinking of Jordan as the most “moderate” of the Arab states):

Listen, Eichmann, you are accused of killing six million of their race. It is not our purpose to argue whether this is true or not; but we should like to say that if you succeeded in finishing off six million and the remaining six million have caused destruction and suffering to the Arabs, driving them from their homes, what might have been the result if the six million who were destroyed had been allowed to live?

The important point to recognize in all this is that the Palestine problem has become the focus for a collective psychopathology among Arabs, enveloping the most enlightened and sophisticated of their intellectuals as well as their ranting nationalist and religious demagogues. Arab doctrine on Israel and the Jews, steadily inculcated for two decades, cannot be the basis for any politically workable policy but is only, to borrow Norman Cohn's telling phrase, a “warrant for genocide.” The practical issue of this whole ideology is succinctly summarized by Harkabi: “In the face of a demand for annihilation there is no possibility of compromise, for there is no such thing as partial annihilation.”

What we have been dealing with, to be sure, is not direct proof of the secret intentions or actual feelings of the Arabs but only the record of their public statements, and one must always allow for the possibility that in certain circumstances they may be prepared to act more reasonably than they talk. Given the gap, moreover, between the shapers of opinion and the illiterate masses, it is hard to guess how deeply or widely these attitudes have taken root in popular feeling, although Harkabi and others offer some evidence that hatred of Israel is by now a genuine passion of the Arab populace. In any case, the saturation of a culture by a literature and ideology of hate cannot be lightly dismissed. The Middle-East conflict is a very real conflict of opposing national interests over territory. By the nature of the dispute, peaceful solution is difficult but possible; after the conflict has been swollen and distorted by twenty years of Arab propaganda, no peaceful solution is possible so long as the Arabs continue to act in consistency with their own ideology. On this question of the relation between ideology and action, I would again like to quote Harkabi, because it seems to me that his formulation is particularly judicious:

The value of the ideology is that it reflects the feelings and aspirations of the Arabs. If it doesn't tell us what they will do, it does describe what they would like for themselves. It is a summary of the goals beckoning from afar, which, even if they do not determine the way, at least give it a general direction. If ideology does not embody policy, it is an expression of the matrix of policy, of a metapolitics; it is the background of consciousness and feeling upon which policy is woven.

With the particular background of consciousness and feeling that Arabs have developed, one must face some sobering conclusions about the alternatives open to Israel. For the foreseeable future, it would seem that Israel's security will have to depend upon the superiority of its armed forces and on whatever deterrent value that may have in Arab eyes. Israel obviously cannot afford to give up anything without mutual concessions from the Arabs, and, above all, it can never agree to an arrangement which would put it back in a position of serious tactical vulnerability to Arab attack. In view of the unbending hostility of the Arab position, this is not a “hard” line (and, indeed, there is scarcely any debate about this much in Israel) but merely the minimal necessary precautions Israel must take to prevent its own destruction. A serious reconciliation between the two sides can take place only after significant inner changes in Arab politics and ideology, and such changes may be, I fear, a long time in coming.


Careful scrutiny of the Arab posture offers nothing encouraging to an Israeli view, only one somewhat bitter reassurance: in cold military terms, the result of the Arabs' addiction to a mythic vision of the conflict is to cripple their effectiveness as adversaries. On the one hand, they secretly or openly fear the Zionists as satanic beings with unguessed powers of darkness working behind them. The more frequent emphasis, on the other hand, of an ideology that dehumanizes the Jews is to imagine them as subhuman. Israel, according to reiterated Arab doctrine, is not even a state but a “pseudo-state,” a “bandit state,” about to collapse under its own corrupt weight, ridden by that savage factionalism which is a racial attribute of the Jews. The stereotype of the Jew as it appears in Arab propaganda is straight out of Der Stürmer: a recurrent cartoon motif shows a sallow, puny, hook-nosed creature being crushed like vermin under the boot of an enormous Arab soldier. This may be flattering to the Arab self-image, but it hardly seems the best way to prepare realistically for a confrontation with what is probably the toughest, best-trained, most brilliantly commanded army in the world. Both Arabs and Israelis, then, are caught in the vicious circle of Arab ideology. For the Israelis, it precludes peace, compelling them to continue their national existence in a stage of siege. For the Arabs, it precludes the very victory they seek, condemns them to a mental hell of national humiliations that can only grow in number as they are driven onward in a self-defeating policy by the rage of their frustration.


1 'Emdat Ha-'Aravim B'Sikhsukh Yisrael-'Arav, Dvir Publishers, Tel Aviv. The translation of the excerpts is my own.

2 All this, however, presupposes the Pan-Arab vision that has been the great will-o'-the-wisp of the several Arab states since their founding. If the Arabs, as one may hope, come to abandon the deceptive, self-damaging dream of a single “Arab nation,” it would be considerably easier for the individual states to accept the existence of Israel.

3 For the historical development of this relation between Arab opposition to Israel and to the West, see Amos Perl-mutter, “Sources of Instability in the Middle East,” Orbis, September 1968.

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