Tour guide school may help solve the Israeli-Arab riddle

Understanding our Arab “cousins” and taking specific actions that focus on strength and common cause can bring us closer to peace.

The Jerusalem skyline seen from the Mount of Olives, May 19, 2008. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90
The Jerusalem skyline seen from the Mount of Olives, May 19, 2008. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

Tour guide school in Israel, as any graduate will agree, is quite an ordeal. It requires 60 full-day tours, over 200 hours of lectures and difficult written and oral exams. Yet what may be even more interesting is what tour guides learn from each other. While classes are a mix of haredi, national-religious, Sephardi and secular Jews, one-third are usually Arab Muslims and Christians. Lessons learned from classmates provide invaluable perspectives that are essential for Jews to understand if we are to make progress in solving the Israeli-Arab riddle.

The following are personally derived insights and their policy implications:

1) I said to Amin (names have been changed to protect colleagues), an accountant from Hebron, “I read that 70% of Jerusalem Arabs, if given a choice between Israeli citizenship and Palestinian Authority citizenship, would take Israeli.”

He responded, “Gary, what are you talking about 70%?” I asked, “Ok, then what is it?” He responded, “100%. Who wants to go with Ali Baba and his 40 thieves?” Amin’s concerns about corruption in the P.A. leadership were shared by virtually all.

Why then is Israel waiting to use the P.A. as a peace partner if its own people don’t support it? Why not work within the Arab family clan structure or individual cities, as the IDF was planning to do before Oslo?

2) Common language is critical. It was great that students in our tour guide program were fluent in English, because it allowed us to communicate openly about sensitive topics, including religion and politics. Yet one’s native tongue creates the strongest links.

One Christian Arab reminded me that “Arab” was an invention espoused by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser some 60 years ago, based on the idea of pan-Arab nationalism. “Arab” means “Arabic-speaking.” Are many Sephardic Jews in Israel actual Arabs by that definition?

In our class, there was a level of respect between the Jews who could communicate in Arabic and the Muslim and Christian students. One of the primary reasons Arab Christians and Arab Muslims are aligned is because of language.

The message for us is that Arabic should be given a strong emphasis in Israeli schools. To understand and be understood in the “neighborhood” in which we live, it’s important.

3) Inter-Arab violence is much more common than many imagine. Arab students would share videos of shooting and rioting in or near their communities. According to fellow Arab students, gun collecting and gun ownership is widespread throughout Judea and Samaria.

While students spoke freely with fellow students, many admitted they could not speak freely at home. Fear is real.

The lesson is that Arabs are storing more than rocks at home. Law enforcement in Arab communities is sorely needed.

4) Teaching hatred of Jews is rampant. Jews are dehumanized in Muslim schools. One classmate said he was worried about his kids getting a warped view even in Jerusalem elementary schools. We discussed an invitation to a Shabbat meal so his kids could see that Jewish kids are not evil.

These schools are, in a very real sense, terrorist factories. Unless we modify the factories, they will keep producing terrorists. Why do we allow this? Can you imagine any Arab country allowing Jewish schools to teach hatred of Muslims? Why doesn’t Israel support separate Arabic-speaking schools for Christians?

Creating terrorists is crossing the free-speech line. Israel needs to either change the factories—i.e., review teaching and textbooks and ban the materials—or close the factories.

5) Religious Jews, Muslims and Christians have common cause in pushing back hard against the Woke ideology entering the culture. An Arab Muslim engineer friend told me about the anti-Quran and anti-Bible training he must endure working for a Western firm. He said that he “can’t take it.”

Virtually all religious Christians and Muslims in the class are somewhere between highly concerned to horrified by the Woke aspects of Western culture. Religious Jews should politically align with them to support traditional values.

6) Arab colleagues look at the turmoil in Israel and overblown population data that inaccurately doubles the size of the Arab population in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Arabs question whether Israel will be able to control the situation in the long term. Israel’s strength is constantly being evaluated in the Arab world.  

7) Arab knowledge of Jewish roots is widespread. Nevertheless, as Harold Rhode recently pointed out in a JNS article, this knowledge doesn’t move the compassion needle.

Many in the class understood they likely had Jewish roots. One Arab Muslim colleague told me his grandmother still lights candles on Friday nights and his family had found tefillin in the basement. Others surmised they had Jewish roots due to DNA tests or other family information.

While this was interesting, it didn’t change or soften anyone’s perspective. It is important to understand that for quite a few Muslims, their commitment to Islam is strong. Yet they also greatly respect an observant Jew’s commitment to Judaism.

The Arab-Israeli riddle seems unlikely to be solved by an externally imposed peace plan.  Understanding our Arab “cousins” and taking specific actions that focus on strength and common cause are more likely to bring us closer to peace.

One additional note: My classmates have become business colleagues and friends. While most Israelis and Arabs aren’t likely to take two years to go to tour guide school, there are key lessons to learn there.

The most important lesson is that developing relationships with the other, while not papering over the differences, creates real connections of respect, trust and caring that can lead to actual friendships and help diffuse an otherwise acrimonious political situation.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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