Dmitri Shufutinsky

Is a Pan-Semitic Nationalism Emerging in the Middle East?

This year so far has been unprecedented in terms of Arab-Israeli cooperation and–dare I say–coexistence. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has both accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (the first Arab leader to do so) and blamed the Palestinians for the lack of a two-state solution, stating that the Palestinian issue is not of major concern to Riyadh. The former Qatari Prime Minister agreed with MBS, as he is often referred to, on the first point. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have sent a joint delegation to the Giro D’Italia race in Israel. Israelis are now regularly giving interviews on Saudi newspapers, and Riyadh is preparing for joint economic projects with Jerusalem. In another unprecedented move, a Saudi-backed Muslim organization also panned Abu Mazen’s racist and revisionist comments on Zionism & the Holocaust. Normalization is not “in the waiting,” as some commentators have said–it’s already begun.

The Arab World, once Israel’s staunchest opponent, has disintegrated and accepted defeat in its war against Israel. After failing to destroy the Jewish state for 70 years through acts of terrorism and repeated wars, it has watched as Israel has thrived economically and successfully marketed itself to many countries around the world. By contrast, the Arab countries languish behind socially and economically, plagued by terror and civil war in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. Beyond that, the rising twin specters of resurgent Turkey and Iran–both seeking to reclaim their imperial past–have reminded the Arab countries of who their real, historic enemies are–and it isn’t the Jews.

Many Western scholars have backed a traditionally Arab viewpoint that Jews lived well, for the most part, under Arab rule until the Zionist movement. While this minimizes the discrimination that Jews, like other non-Arabs or non-Muslims, faced in these societies, it is also worth taking note that the Arab “struggle” against Israel, Jews, and Zionism is relatively recent compared to their longstanding rivalry with Iran. During Israel’s earliest years, it adopted the “Alliance of the Periphery,” meaning it sided with Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia (along with the Kurds) in regional conflicts that involved the Arabs. Part of this was due to the racist pan-Arab nationalism (which drew much of its ideology from Nazi Germany) that incited against the Jews, Kurds, and Persians, in particular. Iraq’s war against Iran during the 1980s was in part due to the “humiliation” of Persians ruling over Arabs in Iran’s Khuzestan province. The rivalry between the two peoples itself dates back to the era of the Arab Conquest, which subsumed Iran and converted its population from Zoroastrianism (mainly) to Islam. Many modern-day Iranians still feel humiliated by this event and look with disdain upon the Arab people.

More and more Arab scholars, figureheads, and activists are coming to realize the benefits of cooperation, coexistence, and even friendship with Israel, in part due to the fact that the Jews are, like them, a Semitic people. We have had a presence in the region for millennia, contributed to their societies and cultures, share many of the same foods and customs, and even have languages that are related. Arab media outlets are even starting to use the term “Israel” more often, rather than “Zionist entity.” By contrast, Iran is referred to as “the Persian plunderer” or the “Safavid entity”. Iran has used Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to assist the heathen regime of Bashar al-Assad in its destruction of Syria, once a bastion of Arab civilization. By doing so, the Arab regimes and populations which once supported Hezbollah as a form of “resistance” against Israel now see it as an arm of a fascist dictatorship hell-bent on dominating, humiliating, and occupying the Arab World. A recent poll by Al Jazeera found that when viewers were asked if they’d support Iran or Israel in the event of a new regional war, 56% of viewers chose the Jewish state. Other than the Arab lands controlled by the “axis of resistance” (Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian Territories), it seems as though the Arab World is reconciling the fact that not only is Israel here to stay by might, but also by right. The Iranians, however, are increasingly viewed as malignant foreigners who have no place in the region.

It once was said that peace could come in the Middle East only when there was a winner in the “battle” between pan-Arab nationalism and Zionism. With the defeat of the Arabs in 1948, 1967, and 1973, pan-Arabism died. And with the Arab Winter, Islamism is seen as an illegitimate political system and a threat to the entire world. Zionism has won out–it has built the most powerful Middle Eastern military, one of the region’s strongest economies, and a stable democracy, as well as repatriating an indigenous people into its sovereign homeland for the first time in history. But something new is on the horizon: a pan-Semitic nationalism, slowly but surely uniting the Jewish state with its Arab neighbors. The two sides could coordinate to strengthen their economies and end the conflict with the Palestinians. But both are also allied against a common series of threats: an Islamist Turkey, allied with the Qatari-dominated Muslim Brotherhood; jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda; and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The entire history of Arab-Israeli hostility-turned-cooperation can be summed up with part of an old Bedouin saying: me against my brother. But the rest of the saying fits with the burgeoning Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran: me and my brother against the foreigner. 

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a freelance reporter with the Jewish News Syndicate, and a Junior Research Fellow with ISGAP. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019, and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution.
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