Ali Salem Speaks for Peace

This piece represents commentary and analysis of excerpts from Egyptian playwright and peace activist Ali Salem’s book My Drive to Israel.  The purpose of this book is to chronicle his journey to Israel and to challenge Egyptian stereotypes about Israel and the Jews.

He observes an Israeli peace activist asking drivers if he can place a bumper sticker on their cars supporting an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.  He notes that the young boy does not verbally or physically berate those who disagree with him but simply moves on.  He expresses admiration for the vigorous culture of intellectual debate, dialogue, and discussion which dominates Israeli Jewish society.

He also states,”It is a person’s right to hold differing views and ideas, as long as he doesn’t espouse violence or aggression. Let ideas do combat with each other, theory against theory, for the benefit of the nation.”  One major problem with Arab Muslim society is an attitude of rigid intolerance for one’s political and religious opponents.  This issue creates a chasm of disconnection and hostility between advocates of competing ideologies and belief systems.  But this problem can also interfere with cooperation between supporters of related issues.

He talks about how Arab nationalist military officers responded to their frustration about their inability to defeat the Jews in 1948 by overthrowing the civilian governments in their countries.  He condemns these militarists for eliminating human rights and replacing it with increased numbers of refugees and war widows.  He said,”Quickly or gradually, they eliminated human rights in their countries. But we would slight them if we didn’t also admit that they succeeded in adding several hundred thousands to the number of refugees, just as they added hundreds of thousands to the list of fatalities, the wounded and maimed. They naturally didn’t forget to enrich the ranks of widows, bereaved parents, and orphans.”  He notes with irony that they regarded the growing numbers of refugees and military casualties as a “success.”

He addresses extensively the way that the Arab nationalists create a constant state of mental war to justify their ongoing conflict with the Jews.  He says that this mental state of war causes Arab opponents of Israel and the Jews to suppress and surrender their capacity for independent thinking and intellectual discussion.  Dictators exploit this constant conflict with the Jews, turning it into an excuse to justify the suppression of human rights in their own countries.   He says,”In a mental state of war, you’re prepared to give up all your human rights, and this is the worst part of it.”  Moreover, the state of mental war creates the conditions under which actual war can flourish.

Egyptian intellectuals are also obsessed with the fear of an Israeli cultural invasion.  They make the absurd claim than an Israeli cultural invasion can expel the psychological impact of some of Egypt’s greatest writers. But of course the point of this claim is to intimidate younger Egyptian intellectuals into suppressing any discussion about Israel and the Jews among their work.  He writes,”It creates an atmosphere of tumult and blackmail among intellectuals, and sows fear without justification among the young generation. They are still in search of the truth and of themselves, at the beginning of their literary and artistic paths.”

This blackmail is accompanied by a campaign of boycott which has led to Ali Salem’s expulsion from the Writer’s Union and prevented the production of his playwrights and screenplays.   The goal of this boycott is to create an example out of Ali Salem and to intimidate and silence younger authors who may wish to write about Israel and the Jews.  The expulsion of Ali Salem from Egyptian intellectual society and the destruction of his literary career is intended to create a climate of fear under which younger writers will be afraid to speak their minds freely about Israel and the Jews.

About the Author
Rachel's educational background includes a B.A. in international relations from Brown University; she has been an independent scholar, analyst, and researcher about Middle Eastern affairs for 12 years; Her focus has been on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt.