Commentary Magazine


The Arab Preference for War

Egyptian playwright Ali Salem visited Israel in 1994 to “rid himself of hatred,” as he put it, and he wrote a slim volume about his experience called A Drive to Israel. His book was a bestseller in Egypt, but Cairo’s intellectual class ostracized him. The Egyptian Cinema Association and the Egyptian Writers Association canceled his memberships.

The Middle East Media Research Institute just translated an interview with him in Kuwait’s daily An Nahar newspaper that makes for depressing reading. His interlocutor harangues him throughout and comes across only somewhat more reasonable than the intellectual colleagues who shunned him.

“My trip posed a serious challenge to the Egyptian intellectuals and the entire Egyptian society,” Salem said. “How are we to treat this small society next to us [i.e., Israeli society]? Reality forced us to embark upon a peace campaign with the society that defeated us ruthlessly in 1967. My generation cannot overcome the hurt of 1967. All the attacks on me were because I forced them to face the truth.”

It’s difficult to even imagine a Western intellectual getting in this kind of trouble for writing a sympathetic portrait of former enemies decades after peace has been made. When our wars are over, they’re over whether we win or lose.

No one in the United States wants to reignite conflicts with Germany, Japan, Vietnam, or any other country we’re no longer at war with. While we argue among ourselves about whether it’s a good idea to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, no one in the U.S. prefers war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else if peace and normal relations are viable options.

Americans from one end of the political spectrum to the other would be thrilled to see Iraq and Afghanistan as stable, prosperous countries at peace with themselves, their neighbors, and us. We don’t even have a marginalized fringe group unhappy with the fact that Germany and Japan emerged as they did from World War II. The U.S. lost the war in Vietnam in the 1970s, as Egypt lost its last war with Israel in the 1970s, but no one among us wants to fight it all over again or wishes that we were still slugging it out.

We Westerners aren’t unique in our ability to forgive, forget, and move on. I have never visited Vietnam, but everyone I know who has says even Vietnamese who supported the Communist side seem to hold no grudges against Americans.

My grandfather fought in both Europe and the Pacific as a United States Army officer during World War II. He visited Tokyo many years later and purged some of his demons there just as Ali Salem did in Israel. My mother has a picture of him smiling with his arms around a former Kamikaze pilot. I don’t know what these two former enemies said to each other, but my mother who traveled to Japan with him said it was a transformative experience for both of them.

Though my grandfather was not a public intellectual, if he had been, and if he had written about his own personal reconciliation, there is no chance his American colleagues would have shunned him or revoked his memberships from the institutions he worked with. Many Israeli writers, intellectuals, academics, and activists likewise have visited the Palestinian territories and other Arab countries with Ali Salem’s spirit. None have been ostracized by their peers. On the contrary, they’re usually lauded.

It’s easy, for those so inclined, to prefer war to peace with Israel while living in places like Damascus and Cairo. Everyone killed recently in the Arab-Israeli conflict lived in Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. No one is shooting at Cairenes or the residents of Damascus. Egyptians, Syrians, and most other Arabs can enjoy, if that is the word, the emotional satisfaction of hostility with the hated “Zionist Entity” without suffering any consequences.

“It is strange that some people [still] say, ‘What good did the peace [agreement] do us?'” Ali Salem said. “My answer to them is this: ‘You refuse to recognize [the value] of peace, [and] therefore you are unable to understand what peace has created. . . . The [mere] fact that you return to your home safely and are not hit by a sniper’s bullet or by a missile falling from the sky, that you do not [have to] darken your windows and fortify your door with sandbags, or check the list of the fallen every morning — all that, or [at least] some of it, is thanks to peace.”

But what of the people in Gaza and South Lebanon? They actually do have to live with the consequences of war. Support for Hezbollah and armed conflict with Israel is much stronger in south Lebanon and the suburbs south of Beirut–the parts of the country that suffer almost all casualties–than it is in central Beirut, the north, or Mount Lebanon. This can be mostly explained by sectarian and regional politics, but there’s another element, too, that is illogical and barely even explicable.

Emotions aren’t rational. Love and hatred certainly aren’t, anyway, and neither is that dark part of the human psyche that thrills to war and destruction. Rebecca West put her finger on it in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her masterful travel narrative set in Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II. “Only part of us is sane,” she wrote. “Only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our 90s and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, hopes to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all. There’s no viable solution, though, when people on one side can’t even make peace with the idea of peace. A distressingly large percentage of the Palestinian population is still in the throes of what Rebecca West glimpsed in the Balkans some time ago. The bitter hatred and rejectionism that drives this conflict still hasn’t ebbed even in Egypt 30 years after a peace treaty was signed. It’s hard for most of us in the West to believe that some people prefer war to peace when they could have either, but they do. Ali Salem, bless his heart, has been contending with them for years.

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