A Big Leap for the Israeli Psyche

One of the most persistent images in the Israeli psyche is that of Arabs as an existential threat, as people who are primitive, filled with hate for Israel and want to destroy it.

The human psyche, both individual and collective, tends to work on emotionally laden images rather than on precise concepts. The more pressure we are under, the more difficult it is to change the emotional charges associated with images, particularly of groups that we have experienced as dangerous over many years.

One of the most persistent images in the Israeli psyche is that of Arabs as an existential threat, as people who are primitive, filled with hate for Israel and want to destroy it. While, like all collective stereotypes, this image is an imprecise generalization it does have some foundation in Israel's historical memory: for most Israelis, even if they were not yet alive then, the images of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Ahmad Shukheiri screaming that they will push the Jews into the sea has remained indelible. And it doesn't help that Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and other radical Islamist leaders continue to say that Israel needs to be wiped out. Hence Israel's apprehension about Egypt's transformation is understandable: Is it about to turn into another radical Islamist state like Iran, or will it become a more or less liberal democracy?

illustration - Eran Wolkowski - February 11 2011
Eran Wolkowski

The only way to test the rationality of these fears is to look at comparative data. Fareed Zakaria, one of the most influential commentators on international relations, has claimed that there is a threshold for successful democratization: It seems to be a per capita GDP of approximately $6,500. This is said to be the magic number that indicates the presence of a strong middle class that looks out for its own interests, which generally do not include war. As a result, research shows, there have as yet been no wars between democracies at the same developmental level. This augurs well for Israel.

The states surrounding Israel are approaching the Zakaria threshold. Most important, according to the CIA's World Factbook, Egypt currently has a per capita GDP of $6,200. Since President Hosni Mubarak's regime was catastrophically inefficient economically and highly corrupt, it can be expected that with a government that is only slightly more efficient, Egypt will soon cross the threshold that allows for stable democracy.

The Egypt section of the 2009 United Nations Human Development Report presents a complex picture of the state. The educational system, unfortunately, is in tatters, and the government is highly corrupt. But there are a few positive indicators, such as the presence of several institutions that could allow for the emergence of a functioning civil society relatively quickly.

What about the various arguments according to which the Arab psyche and Muslim culture are simply incapable of democracy and modernization? "So far there is not a single example of a functioning Arab liberal democracy," they say. "Even when change comes from the people, look what happened in Algeria in the 1990s and in the Palestinian Authority in 2006: Free elections bring radical Islamist groups to power!"

This, of course, is a weighty argument that cannot be dismissed out of hand. Commentators disagree when it comes to answering the question of whether the Muslim Brotherhood would become the dominant force in Egypt if free and fair elections were to be held. Most Egypt hands, like anthropologist Scott Atran of the French National Center of Research, think the organization's power is overestimated. But we won't know for sure until after the upcoming election.

So, too, the "Arab psyche and Islamic culture" arguments are based on very shortsighted thinking. Commentators between the 9th and 17th centuries would have said that Europeans are obviously incapable of creating stable regimes and devoid of culture, sophistication and finesse, whereas the Islamic world is far ahead in all respects. Let us not forget that in 1683 Vienna was almost conquered by Muslim forces.

While Israel certainly has cause for anxiety, I believe that at this point it has no choice but to bet on Egyptian democracy and the broadening of democratization in the Arab world. Israel must address its own fears and prejudices rather than hoping for a perpetuation of the status quo, which was unstable to begin with.

It will not be easy for Israel to overcome the memories of terrorism and all-out attacks against it. But we must not forget that in order to cooperate on building the cornerstones of the European Union, in the late 1940s, European states had to overcome memories of much more terrible wars, with tens of millions of victims.

Building the foundations for relationships between democracies is a two-way street. Israel must do its share to convince the Arab world that we are not haughty, arrogant and completely devoid of respect for Islam and for Arab culture. The Arab world has good reasons to think that Israel is incapable of relating respectfully to Arabs, given settlement construction, expropriation of Palestinian property and other unilateral steps. Our government can start building confidence this very moment by stopping such acts immediately.