One surprising side effect of Syria’s civil war is that it’s causing a few people in the Arab world to question their society’s accepted view of Israel as evil incarnate. These people are still very much a minority: The majority’s attitude is exemplified by the Syrian rebel commander who, without batting an eyelash, last month espoused the delusional theory that “Iran and Hezbollah are cooperating with Israel” to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, two notable examples of a rethink have surfaced recently.
One involved a seriously wounded Syrian treated at an Israeli hospital this month. He isn’t the first Syrian to be treated in Israel, but he was the first to arrive with a note from the Syrian doctor who treated him initially. “To the honorable doctor, hello,” it began, before launching into a description of his symptoms, his treatment to date and suggestions for further treatment. “Please do what you think needs to be done,” it concluded. “Thanks in advance.”
The Syrian doctor who wrote that note clearly didn’t view Israelis as enemies, but as colleagues who could be trusted to give his patient the care he himself couldn’t provide. It indicates that word has filtered out to at least parts of Syria: Good medical care is available in Israel, and patients who need it can safely be sent there.
Perhaps even more remarkable, however, was a Friday sermon given earlier this month by a cleric in Qatif, a Shi’ite-majority city in Saudi Arabia. Discussing the conflict in Syria, Sheikh Abdullah Ahmed al-Youssef informed his congregants that more Muslims have been killed by fellow Muslims than were ever killed by Israel.
That isn’t news to anyone familiar with the facts. As I noted last month, the Syrian conflict alone has killed more than five times as many people in just two years as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has in all of Israel’s 65 years of existence. And that’s without even mentioning the ongoing Muslim-on-Muslim carnage in places like Iraq (almost 2,000 killed in the last three months) or Pakistan, much less historical events like the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which killed more than one million people.
But most Arabs aren’t familiar with the facts, having been fed delusional atrocity tales about Israel for decades by their media and their political, religious, cultural and intellectual leaders. Thus for a cleric to stand up in the mosque and tell his congregants this home truth borders on the revolutionary.
If this attitude spreads, it would benefit not just Israel, or even the elusive quest for Mideast peace, but above all, the Arabs themselves. This isn’t merely because Israel has much to offer Arab countries on a practical level (like water management technologies essential for agriculture in a drought-stricken region), but mainly because Arab society’s biggest problem has always been its habit of blaming outsiders–Israel and the West–for all its ills. By so doing, they not only absolve themselves of responsibility, but also nourish the belief that these ills are beyond their control, and hence beyond their own power to fix.
By recognizing that Israel is not the monster of their own imagining, Arabs can begin the process of recognizing that their problems are of their own making rather than the product of malign outside intervention. And only then can they begin the long, hard work of fixing them.