Of all the popular idiocies perennially spouted about the Middle East, the one I find most outrageous is the idea that Israeli-Palestinian peace would foment change in Arab societies by removing the “distraction” of Israel’s “oppression of the Palestinians.” Or as the New York Times‘ columnist Roger Cohen put it this week, “If Arabs could see in Israel not a Zionist oppressor but the region’s most successful economy, a modern state built in 65 years, they would pose themselves the right questions about openness, innovation and progress.”
Like many Middle Eastern tropes, this one is simultaneously too insulting and too forgiving. It’s too insulting because it deems Arabs incapable of posing “the right questions” on their own, treating their ability to do so as wholly dependent on Israel’s actions. And it’s too forgiving because it views anger at the “Zionist oppressor” as a valid reason for their inability to pose these questions, ignoring the obvious historical fact that numerous non-Arab nations have proven quite capable of posing these questions despite similar or even greater obstacles.
Taiwan, for instance, was founded by refugees driven from their homeland after losing a civil war that erupted immediately after the end of one of the most brutal occupations in recent history – Japan’s occupation of China. Since mainland China never stopped wanting to regain its errant province, the Taiwanese lived in constant fear of invasion. And they had the anguish of watching helplessly as their countrymen on the mainland suffered under Mao’s brutal dictatorship, which killed over 45 million Chinese. Yet none of this stopped the Taiwanese from building a flourishing economy and, later, a flourishing democracy.
Similarly, Rwanda has rebuilt itself into one of Africa’s most successful countries less than two decades after a devastating genocide killed an estimated 800,000 people.
Israel, of course, was established just three years after the Holocaust, and absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees. During its first 25 years of existence, Arab countries launched three wars aimed at wiping it off the map, and it has suffered nonstop terrorism since its establishment. Yet none of this stopped it from building a flourishing democracy and a flourishing economy.
No less relevant, however, is the way Diaspora Jewry responded to the Holocaust and the subsequent existential threats to Israel – not by impotent rage, but by helping to create today’s flourishing country by building hospitals and schools throughout Israel and funding numerous educational and social programs. That’s something wealthy Arab states and individuals could easily do on behalf of their “oppressed brethren” in Palestine, and it would benefit Palestinians far more than spewing verbal venom at Israel would.
But of course, they haven’t. Western countries primarily fund both the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, the agency that deals with Palestinian refugees. Wealthy Arab donors haven’t built state-of-the-art hospitals in Palestine like Hadassah or Laniado in Israel; Palestinians seeking top-notch medical care still go to Israel for it. They haven’t founded schools like the ORT network or daycare centers like the WIZO network, which still serve thousands of Israelis today.
And if Arabs haven’t done this in 65 years, when so many other peoples have, there’s no reason to think a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would suddenly make them start. This failure is entirely a product of their own culture. And therefore, change can only come from within.