Obama as an Arab reformer

As the American President has said, the mass demonstrations all over the Arab world do in fact indicate more than anything else "a longing of freedom" that has been building up for years.
Salman Masalha

Obama as an Arab reformer

If we ignore the reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. President Barack Obama's most recent speech to the Arab world was the speech of an Arab reformer. The words should have been said by an Arab leader who is worthy of the title "leader."

"The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not," Obama said. In other words, all these declarations of independence after the retreat of colonialism were nothing more than a deception. Because, as the president said, "In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few."
Tahrir Square

Many years of Arab "independence" did not bring prosperity. They brought neither work nor social welfare, neither freedom nor creativity. Corrupt and oppressive rulers lined their pockets and handed over these corrupt and oppressive governments to their successors, whether through palace coups or by bequeathing control of the country to sons or cronies.

The mass demonstrations all over the Arab world do in fact indicate more than anything else "a longing of freedom" that has been building up for years, as Obama said. This yearning for freedom is an essential part of human nature everywhere. Thanks to globalization and to the technological developments that have made it possible for information to reach every corner of the planet, the gates of the modern world have opened. Young Arabs in Tunis, Cairo, Damascus or anywhere else in the Arab world compared their lives with those of young people in other parts of the world, and they too began to yearn for freedom and for lives as free people, like the young people of London, Paris, Tokyo and New York.

On the other hand, there has been a steady unplanned increase in the population of the Arab world over the years, and education has stagnated and sunk into the world of yesterday, longing for an imaginary past. The rulers and their cronies continued to oppress the people and become rich at their expense. Failing universities sent millions of degree holders out to the labor market, without any possibility that they would get productive jobs. As international reports have noted for years, there is not a single Arab university to be found among the 500 best universities in the world.

So it is no surprise that even though the Arab world has a population of hundreds of millions, its exports are equal to those of a small country like Switzerland. The rulers of the Arab world rested on their laurels - or rather, on their countries' deposits of oil and natural gas. And the momentum of economic development in these countries is deceptive, since those who stand behind it - oil companies, scientists, engineers and even the construction workers who build the skyscrapers and the artificial islands, are generally not Arab.

Populism has reigned in Arab discourse. It was not only the rulers who betrayed their people. The intelligentsia cooperated with the rulers, in return for crumbs. There is a well-known Arabic saying about such people: If you see a cleric knocking often at the ruler's door, be aware that he is a thief. And in fact, it was clerics as well as political leaders who attributed the ills of the Arab world to colonialism and the West, and even to Israel, to the point where "antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression," as Obama put it.

It should also be noted that one of the main reasons for the chronic ills of the Arab world is the attitude toward women. The tribal, patriarchal Arab society has blocked the path for women, and by doing so has silenced half of society. "History shows that countries are more prosperous and peaceful when women are empowered," Obama said, correctly.

Had any Arab leader delivered the speech in Arabic and addressed an Arab audience, Arabs would probably be saying: Behold, an Arab king has arisen. But for the time being, although there are kings, presidents, sultans and princes in abundance, there has yet to be a king like Martin Luther.
Published: Op-Ed, Haaretz, 25 May 2011

For Hebrew, press here



Vivian Eden


We watch Egypt on television
just one country away.
Off the screen, down the side streets
behind closed windows and doors
many people wait.

The television tells them truth and lies.
They watch the footage shot on high:
Tops of men’s heads all look the same,
like lentils for sorting on a plate.
Where is my husband, my father, my son?
Girls and women wait.

Amina opens her math book, but dreams.
She will write a novel about these days.
There will be a tall, blond newsman,
British, French, perhaps a Dane.
The heroine, Amina, will save his life.
She will, of course, become his wife.
Young girls dream and wait.

Ali is five. His father says: No,
You can’t go to the square with me.
Ali pouts: But I am big. I’ll take a stick.
Dad insists: Big boys stay home.
They must take care of Mom and Sis.
Ali thinks: When I am six

I’ll make the revolution too.
Big boys hate to wait.

In a kitchen Bushra makes the tea.
A son – whose is he? –
climbs a tank, smiles his thanks
to someone’s brother,
the soldier who lends him a hand.
Under whose command?
Where does he stand?
People keep pouring down the streets.
We watch and wait.

For Hebrew, press here


Alexander Yakobson | Who's afraid of equality?

Alexander Yakobson

Who's afraid of equality?

Why won't writer Emile Habibi, an Israeli Prize laureate, appear on one of the banknotes bearing the likenesses of writers, asked Salman Masalha ("Shekels as tools of the regime," April 24 ). He was immediately attacked by belligerent commenters, sending him off to Gaza and swearing in the name of the Jewish state.

But there's nothing wrong with that proposal, nor does it contradict the Jewish nature of the state. The system of official Israeli symbols, including the portraits on the banknotes, should faithfully reflect the fact that Israel is a country that grants national independence to the Jewish people. But who said that that is the only thing it should reflect? In principle there is no reason why it shouldn't also reflect the existence and the culture of the country's Arab minority, among other things.

The symbol of the state is a menorah surrounded by two olive branches, based on the verse in Zechariah: "A gold candelabrum with two olives trees." The olive is one of the symbols of the country, and it's an important symbol of Israeli Arabs. The two branches could be turned into two olive trees to the right and left of the menorah. That's still a menorah "with two olive trees." If this step is accompanied by a clear statement that its purpose is to give the Arab public a part in the system of official symbols, which is supposed to represent it - such a modest change is likely to be of positive significance; not in the eyes of Arab chauvinists, who won't be placated by anything, but in the eyes of those who really want to feel that the state is theirs too.

And why doesn't such a proposal have a chance of being accepted in the foreseeable future? Partly because of those same commenters who are ready to send to Gaza an Arab citizen who wants to feel at home in the State of Israel of all places - and the politicians who represent them. But no less because of the leadership of the Arab public and most of its spokesmen in the Israeli media, whose main cause has become the rejection of the Jewish people's right to a state. In such an atmosphere, a change of the type suggested here will be regarded by the Jewish public not as a step toward justice for the Arabs, but as a step towards injustice for the Jews. There is no chance that this community, or any community in the world in similar circumstances, will agree to that.

Salman Masalha, in his fascinating articles, often belittles Jewish nationalism. In his favor, it should be noted that he belittles Arab nationalism equally. I do not share this attitude, but I greatly admire his courage and his consistency. Although I disagree with him, he believes that he is fighting for equality.

But what we hear from the Arab leadership and elite in such documents as "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel" is a very different voice. This voice is saying to the Jewish public: Yes, there are two nations in this country; our nation has a right to a state, whereas your nation has no such right. We are by no means trying to turn the Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel into the members of one civic nation - an Israeli nation. Our Arab-Palestinian nationality is very important to us; we have our nation and you have yours, and your nation has no right to a state. That is why we reject the Jewish state in Israel and favor an Arab state alongside Israel.

This discourse of the Arab leadership - not necessarily of the Arab public, whose viewpoint, according to the surveys, is far more complex and more moderate - is trampling on equality in the guise of defending it. This makes no positive contribution to the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Published: Haaretz, May 4, 2011


A Feeble Middle East

The rise of Shi’ite Islam under Iran’s leadership necessitated encouragement to Sunni Islam, to step into the breach versus Iran. The conclusion was simple: From the Arab world – which is mostly Sunni – no salvation will come either for the Arab world or for the Western world.

Salman Masalha

A Feeble Middle East

The king of terror is dead. He has many heirs in this region. They will crop up on the backdrop of the Arab world’s continuing failure to cope with modernity. This is a world that has been raised on the recitation of tales from a glorious past, but when it looks around it is astonished to find it is now somewhere near the lowest rung of the ladder. The point of contact between the imagined past and the degenerate present is the bottomless source of terror.

When the dust of battle has settled, everything will get rolling in the region again. Something interesting is happening here. On the one hand, NATO aircraft are killing Gadhafi’s son and some of his grandchildren. They have come to the aid of the Libyan people – that is what they all say. On the other side of the Mediterranean the “enlightened” world is not lifting a finger in light of the slaughter Bashar Assad is perpetrating among his people.

What does Gadhafi have that Assad doesn’t have? Why is he getting pressured personal treatment and the deployment of crushing force? Is this because Libya is Europe’s backyard and has lots of oil, whereas Syria has hardly any black gold? Is this the way of the hypocritical “enlightened” world?

Gadhafi is not a worse dictator than Assad. The difference between the two is like the difference between bubonic plague and cholera. Compared to those two Arab tyrants, Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, will be considered a pussycat and a pacifist.
And maybe there is something else here. In the Western world they’ve learned a thing or two during the past decade about the ways of life in the Arab world. This world, with all its types of regimes, has utterly failed the test of creating a nation state worthy of the name. The failure is seen on every screen. The revolts do not testify to a new Middle East at the gates but rather to a feeble Middle East. It is becoming increasingly obvious that there are only three strong nation states in the Middle East: Iran, Turkey an Israel. The common denominator shared by the three is that they are not Arab.

The West learned on its own flesh that this region conducts itself by other codes. Iran has continued to entrench its standing by means of its religious ideology. The toppling of Saddam Hussein shattered the illusion of the existence of a unifying “Iraqi identity” and gave an encouraging shot in the arm to Iran, which is forging ahead.

Thus in the West they realized it was necessary to rethink the region and act accordingly. The rise of Shi’ite Islam under Iran’s leadership necessitated encouragement to Sunni Islam, to step into the breach versus Iran. The conclusion was simple: From the Arab world – which is mostly Sunni – no salvation will come either for the Arab world or for the Western world.

Thus the way was paved for the rise of Turkish Sunni Islam. This was accomplished by weakening the power of the Turkish army, the guardian of Ataturk’s secular constitution and by Europe turning its back and posing obstacles to Turkey’s entry into the European Union.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party were glad of the role that became incumbent on them to fill. This is because the Turkish Islamists dream of the restoration of Ottoman glory. The slogan of concern for the Palestinians has always served as opium for the oppressed Arab masses. The Turks learned this method. The Turkish flotilla that set out for Gaza and the one that is planned are means for improving Turkey’s stature in the eyes of the Sunni Arab masses. And all this is in order to position Turkey as a counterweight to Iranian influence.

In this way it is possible to understand why United States President Barack Obama decided to address the Arab world through Turkey in his first speech. These days he is making a point of contacting Erdogan and expressing his concern about what is happening in Syria.

At the end of March a secret meeting took place in Ankara between the head of the Central Intelligence Agency and his Turkish counterpart. The two discussed the future of the Syrian regime, the situation in Libya, the relations between Israel and Turkey, the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and other matters of mutual interest. The head of the Turkish intelligence agency met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Erdogan, too, went on a visit to Iraq and discussed the status of the Sunnis there. He met with the Shi’ite leader ‘Ali Sistani and discussed the uprising in Bahrain.

It appears the world has come to the conclusion that there is nothing new in the Arab world. This is a weak and irremediable world. Only an Arab reckoning of conscience will distance the region from the danger.

published: Haaretz, May 6, 2011

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מיון החומרים


Selected Topics

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    First they came for the Communists
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a Communist.
    Then they came for the Socialist
    And I did not speak out
    Because I was not a Socialist.

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  • Salman Masalha

    Beyond my door which faces west
    Lives a woman who'll never rest.

    She likes to tease my nomad soul
    With words she keeps for gloomy fall.
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    He who loves flowers, has a tender heart.
    he who cannot pluck their blooms,
    has a heart that's noble.

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