Westerners have a difficult time understanding why Israel and her Arab neighbors cannot settle their differences and live in peace with one another. After all, isn’t it obvious to everyone that the cost of each nation’s foreign policies keeps it from being able to spend its resources benefiting its own people? Why spend so much time, energy, and money at odds with one’s neighbors when your own people have so many needs?
Instead, what we see is the Arab nations of the Middle East constantly seeking ways to eliminate Israel’s presence from the area while Israel spends a huge percentage of its GNP on defense.
Although this struggle is not simplistic, I offer the following to help westerners understand a little about the basic disposition of these very dissimilar people-groups.
Beginning with the Arabs: Above all, one must understand how deeply imbedded in the Arab psyche is the concept of honor. Nothing affects an Arab more deeply than for one’s personal, or national, honor to be constantly offended.
For Arabs, Israel’s existence in the very midst of what Arabs perceive as “the Arab world” is analogous to having cancer in one’s body.
Cancer is rightly considered so invasively destructive that any means is appropriate to achieve its eradication. This is true even if the “cure” is as devastating as the disease itself: therapy may cause long-term misery and surgery could prove fatal. Nevertheless, the disease must be removed.
Honor as one’s highest virtue comes from the Arab’s Bedouin roots. Arabs have, therefore, always been a tribal people and the culture of tribalism requires a highly respected (feared) leader to which everyone else owes allegiance. When a leader senses he is losing his people’s respect, he must do whatever is necessary to restore his standing. This includes attacking an invincible enemy to show that he is not afraid, even of death. Obviously, this way of governing is nowhere close to being democratic.
And now to Israel whose “driver” is not honor, but something entirely different. Historically, the size of the Jewish population, relative to that of the countries in which they once resided, always meant that Jews would necessarily be subject to those who had the power to control them. Two things changed this longstanding internal predisposition: the holocaust, which forever altered the Jews’ historically-held victim mentality; and, Israel’s return to Palestine, which forever established in their minds the right to live in their ancestral homeland.
Although some Arab nations are currently distracted as they play with the wealth their oil revenues provide, or with their own internal disputes, everyone understands that Israel will soon be the first nation on the planet to become petroleum independent. Eventually, all other nations will follow suit. This reality means that the Arabs’ oil monopoly gives them but a temporary window to deal with the cancer in their midst.
Israel and Egypt are the only Middle Eastern nations without oil, yet Israel grows rich due to the resourcefulness of her people, while Egypt grows ever poorer. Israel is, therefore, a continual source of shame to the Arab world. Is it any wonder that Egypt—soundly defeated in the war of 1967—spent the next six years preparing for a war they knew they could not win, but felt they had to fight for the sake of honor.
When westerners interact with Israelis on a personal or business level, they often remark how difficult it is to have a relationship with an Israeli due to the way Israelis behave. It is easy to perceive Israelis as impolite, argumentative, arrogant, self-assured, aggressive, intolerant, outspoken, disrespectful, impatient, and generally ill-mannered. What westerners don’t realize is that history has taught Israelis that many of the social graces which other cultures practice (and assume everyone should practice) have proven potentially lethal to Israel’s survival, a survival which depends on her citizens questioning every premise and paradigm—never assuming anyone is right about anything. Even her ongoing need for America’s support has almost cost her the loss of more than one of her wars.
One can see from the above that, unlike her Arab neighbors, Israelis are fiercely and independently democratic which makes them almost impossible to govern. No decision is accepted at face value, even considering that it may have come from a well-respected source. This is why the tiny country of Israel leads the world in technology and Nobel Prize winners: every challenge is their personal opportunity to prove someone wrong or come up with a better way of doing something.
This goes a long way to explain to visiting westerners the seeming brazen disrespect and insolent behavior of Israeli children as well as the brashness that adult Israelis manifest toward virtually everyone. It is not meant to insult. And it doesn’t; that is, unless you are from outside their culture.
So, Israelis walk a tightrope between needing to be understood by nations who cannot seem to understand her, and her own need for survival. In the end, Israelis would rather be perceived negatively than ever again live under someone else’s oppressive rule and outside of their Promised Land.
Does any of this sound like a recipe for peace? With the Arabs’ determination to rid themselves of the cancer of Zionism and with the Israeli’s determination to remain right where they are, peace depends solely on each one’s sense of what it will take to secure their separate aims. Aims, which are obviously incompatible.