Essay: Lies we learned about Israel
May 3, 2022 | Ali Aziz
How we came to see through them
We spent our childhood, my generation and I, in the wars and politics that were swarming in all fields of life in the Middle East. This kind of life accelerated our awareness and understanding of what was going on around us, so we were like grown men in the skin of children.
In Iraq, we lived in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, yet sectarian society. When I grew up, and met citizens from various parts of Iraq, I found that we shared thoughts, obsessions and feelings. These spontaneously resulted in common questions about the practices of the Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein, as well as the other regimes in the Middle East – Arab, Turkish and Iranian. The most frequent question among the Middle Easterners of my generation I encountered was, why do the regimes in the region accuse Israel of injustice and aggression when they treat us incomparably worse than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians?
In the eighties, and up until the late nineties, we did not have the internet. Our only window to the world was media controlled by the totalitarian regimes of the Middle East. Television, radio and the press were owned exclusively by national ruling parties, and it all had the same messages, which we saw on television, heard on the radio, and read in the press. This media we grew up with portrayed Israel as a bogeyman – absolute evil, with no motive other than spreading destruction and aggression against humanity – imposing the most severe forms of injustice against Palestinians and all Arabs.
Yet, with our naked eyes, we witnessed the reality of such evil and injustice on the ground in our daily lives, embodied in the Iraqi regime and other dictatorial governments across the Middle East.
In addition to the absurd wars there, such as the Iran-Iraq war, we saw how these regimes did not hesitate to target civilians with the heaviest weapons, torture the innocent in prisons using the most horrific methods, suppress freedoms, seize people’s wealth and put it at the disposal of a ruling minority, and on top of that, prevent the exercise of the most basic human rights, such as expressing one’s language, culture and identity.
No one in the world chooses their identity, language and culture. Rather, every human being is born bearing these traits as a gift. However, the regimes of the Middle East have assumed the right to ban identity, language, and culture of any ethnic and cultural group whose existence the state finds inconvenient. This is what was happening in Iraq during my childhood, and it is happening today in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the rest of the countries in the Middle East – with a few exceptions. Amongst those exceptions, Israel stands at the forefront.
In the eighties, I used to listen to overseas radio news and programs, including stations in London and Monte Carlo, as well as the Voice of Israel’s Arabic station. In addition to the news, I especially loved listening to a program called “Judiciary Files” (written by Iraqi émigré Shaul Menashe) which was broadcast late in the evening. It was an entertaining program.
Meanwhile, on Iraqi state television, and later other Arab national media, I watched Palestinian children stoning Israeli soldiers and military vehicles, while Israeli forces responded with tear gas. Like many others, I wondered, what if we threw stones at Iraqi military vehicles? Would the Iraqi army be satisfied with merely deploying tear gas against us?
I witnessed, with my own eyes, how the Iraqi army destroyed villages and farms in Kurdistan. The villagers and farmers had committed no sin except that God had created them as Kurds. I witnessed how the Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam Hussein purged the country’s north and the south horribly, following a popular uprising by Iraqis, suppressed by the most brutal methods, in 1991.
This is what I knew was happening in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries, directed against different ethnicities, sects and groups. So tear gas by the Israeli army appeared like child’s play to us. And what really surprised me was Israel’s interest in Arabic language and culture – completely unlike other countries in the Middle East, which were obliterating the cultures and language of groups that were different from the state’s official culture and language.
Israel, the epitome of absolute evil, did not fight to eradicate the culture and language of the Palestinians. On the contrary, the Palestinians enjoyed full freedom to express their identity and culture in their own language. Ironically, we were able to reach this conclusion from the propagandistic reporting of the anti-Israeli state media, even though it wanted to achieve exactly the opposite result.
In the course of my life, I have encountered many Arabs, Iranians, Kurds, Turkmen and other people of Mideast origin ready to admit that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not the epitome of “absolute evil” portrayed to us by the media of the ruling parties of the Middle East. Using basic logic, people were able to make simple comparisons between Israel and other states in the Middle East, which have never had any compunction about deploying any abuse or horror against their own citizens, especially members of minorities.
While the Palestinians have been expressing themselves loudly and widely with seemingly little hindrance, there were and still are large groups in the Middle East – ethnic, religious and cultural – that cannot publicly exhibit the simplest expression of their identity.
In the mid-1990s, while living in Beirut, I read A Place Among the Nations by Benjamin Netanyahu in Arabic. This book reflected feelings and thoughts that had grown in my own mind, and that of many other people I know, nurtured over time through many bitter experiences.
I remember from the book an interesting chapter titled “The Palestinian Question and the Sacred Cows”, where the author explains how there had been certain sanctified ideas similar to sacred cows – postulates no longer subject to logical or rational discussion – since the establishment of Israel in 1948. Among these postulates is the accusation that Israel is behind all the evil, war and tragedy that is going on in the Middle East. The author then lists many tragic historical events in the region – most of them conflicts and rivalries between different countries, regimes and groups that have nothing to do with Israel.
In 2017, a referendum was held in Iraqi Kurdistan for independence, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushed to accuse Israel of being behind the referendum. I couldn’t help recalling what Netanyahu had written in 1993, and feeling regret that this kind of pathological thinking still exists in the Middle East even today.
Israel is an existing reality, and this fact cannot be removed even if all military forces and energies of its enemies were somehow deployed against it. Israel’s Arab enemies have initiated many wars against the Jewish state, but these have only increased Israel’s strength and prestige.
Jews lived among us in the Middle East for more than two thousand years, and brought to Israel the cultures, heritage and languages of the various other people with whom they once co-existed.
There are communities in Israel representing all the countries of the Middle East. These Israelis should be serving as the key to building cultural, scientific and commercial bridges with the peoples of the region, away from traditional political disputes and military conflicts. The UAE and some other countries in the region have taken important, rational steps in creating a new openness to Israel, which should serve as a basis for building a new era. The precedent and potential now exist for Israel to be an important friend, partner and neighbour – putting an end to the furnace of enmity that has only increased the region’s failure and miseries.
Israel has actually won the admiration of many in the Middle East despite the constant media propaganda against it, because Middle Eastern people were able to see the truth through the anti-Israel media, given their own bitter experiences on the ground in their own nations.