How Arab intellectuals are failing their publics

Neglecting the conflict's complexity and the suffering experienced on both sides is a form of laziness – even cowardice
Moroccans demonstrate on November 26, 2023 in Casablanca, calling for a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and the suspension of diplomatic ties with Israel. (AFP)
Moroccans demonstrate on November 26, 2023 in Casablanca, calling for a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and the suspension of diplomatic ties with Israel. (AFP)

The Palestinian people are currently experiencing a level of devastation that is impossible to ignore. All wars, by definition, are synonymous with extreme suffering, loss of life, broken families, and pervasive destruction. But for Palestinians, whose periods of peacetime are marked by the latent conflict and tension that is inevitable under occupation, the current war feels like it is being executed to the extreme. It feels personal.

Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel was not intended to be a secret operation. It took place during the day, and it was streamed live on social media. They wanted the world to know what they were doing, and they had their reasons for using this strategy: First, Hamas wanted to put an end to the progress of the Abraham Accords, which were normalizing Israeli-Arab relations. They were especially concerned about the progress being made towards Saudi Arabia becoming a signatory to the Abraham Accords. Second, Hamas wanted to disrupt the idea that Israel is the “safe” home of the Jewish people globally. Third, Hamas is an Iranian proxy. Iran and all of its proxies flourish in volatile environments. This attack, therefore, was intended to destabilize the region even more and ideally allow for Iran and its proxies to fill the void.

Despite this strategy, Hamas did not anticipate the scale of Israel’s response. They had witnessed the domestic turmoil taking place in Israel and believed that it was a society and a political system too fractured to respond effectively to an attack. Hamas also believed that by taking Israeli hostages, they had an insurance policy, so to speak – counterattacks would be precise and minimal so that the hostages could be kept safe. Lastly, Hamas assumed international pressure and popular support of the Palestinian people would ultimately prevent Israel from responding in a heavy-handed way. Specifically, Hamas believed that a ground invasion and the destruction of their underground tunnel system in order to destroy Hamas fighters were outside the scope of an Israeli retaliation. Israel surprised them and the world with the totality and force of its response, which is still raging nearly eight months later.

As a millennial, I have witnessed numerous Arab-Israeli wars in my lifetime; we in the MENA region are accustomed to the Arab public’s response of unwavering support for Palestine, not only at times of military conflict but as a constant state of being. At its core, this support can be explained as both cultural – we feel connected to the Arab population in the region – and religious. The city of Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque, both located in Palestine, hold deep significance within Islam. This support for Palestine is inherited from our families and absorbed through our education systems, state-run news channels, and the books we read. It is then echoed in the discourse on the streets and in the homes.

Alongside this support for Palestine, however, many within the Arab public subconsciously assume anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, and antisemitic sentiments. Oftentimes, being pro-Palestinian becomes enmeshed with these other destructive beliefs. Many Arabs, therefore, view them as two sides of the same coin – to be pro-Palestine is to actively wish harm upon Israelis and Jewish people. Discourse around Palestine and Israel in the streets devolves quickly to extremist anti-Zionist and, yes, unfortunately, antisemitic rhetoric.

Unfortunately, the conversations being had by the Arab public lack any direction from our region’s thought leaders. I have witnessed a tremendous intellectual vacuum surrounding the dialogue about Israel and Palestine post-October 7th. The reactions to and analyses of October 7th from Arab intellectuals and the ensuing months are, quite frankly, a regurgitation of Arab nationalist propaganda. This is best encapsulated by a letter released on October 15th and signed by more than 2,000 academics and thought leaders from the MENA region. They offer a one-dimensional understanding of Israel, referring to its government as criminals, and they pledge support to Hamas. They also neglect to mention anything about the Hamas-initiated attack that took place on October 7th, only eight days before the letter was issued.

One of the signatories of this letter is Dr. Hassan Aourid, a Moroccan professor of political science at Mohammed V University in Rabat. He recently sent me a copy of his 2024 book about the current Israeli-Hamas war. He wrote to me that “these pages exude suffering.” The entirety of the book focuses on “the crimes committed by Israel and the hypocrisy of the West.”

Dr. Aourid’s book is an example of the aforementioned intellectual vacuum that exists in the MENA region. I expected an academic like Dr. Aourid to, at the very least, introduce the reader to the beliefs and perspective of the Jewish people and those who support Israel; to strengthen his own argument by presenting the other perspective and analytically but unemotionally dismantling it in favor of his own. Instead, he offers a black-and-white depiction of the conflict, one that presents readers with information without any context that could possibly add shades of gray to the Israeli identity. His narrative begins on October 8th. Put simply, Israel is an evil, bloodthirsty predator, and Palestine is an innocent victim.

When a society’s respected voices distill historical, complex, cultural relationships into these types of oversimplified narratives, the national and regional dialogue becomes similarly diluted. We as a society lose the ability to empathize, to understand, and work together with people when we view them as purely evil. The conflation of Israel’s government and its people, of all Jews and Israelis, of all Jews and Israelis and Nazis – these are the direct consequences of the writings of individuals like Dr. Aourid.

To be clear, I am not accusing Dr. Aourid and other Arab intellectuals of antisemitism. What I see is an intellectual laziness or rather cowardice that fails to reflect the complexity of the situation and the suffering that is being experienced on both sides.

Eventually, this horrible violence will come to an end. In anticipation of that eventual end, it is the responsibility of thought leaders to be working right now on the inevitable question: how do we move forward, together, towards a goal of lasting peace? It is my firm belief that we need more people to invest their time and energy into understanding the other side – not to agree with others, but to be able to see where they are coming from. To recognize their pain, their historical perspective, and the rationale behind their choices. We need more Arab and Islamic thought leaders who have a deep understanding of Judaism and Israel, just as we need more Israeli and Jewish thought leaders with a similarly deep understanding of and empathy towards Palestine and its people. This is the only path forward.

About the Author
Mustapha Ezzarghani is the Founder & President of The Moroccan-Israeli Friendship Association.
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