How to get back to Mid-East basics

Political normalisation can wait. First, let’s open up, start trading and reclaim our roots

By Linda Menuhin, December 3, 2009

Two months ago, my sister and I were delighted to accept a wedding invitation from an Iraqi family living in Amman, Jordan. The groom’s grandfather, a distinguished lawyer, had spent his internship with my father in Baghdad in the 1940s. A couple of years ago in London, I had approached this man to see if he could help unearth any clues about my missing father, who was kidnapped during the reign of Ahmed Hassan Al Bakr, Saddam Hussein’s predecessor, and of whom we have heard nothing since.

Our two-day journey to Amman was the trip of a lifetime, enabling us to re-connect with our countrymen for the first time in 40 years. We understood each other as only refugees can. Our intense conversations about such topics as the contributions of the Iraqi Jewish community to the modern state of Iraq, and our participation in the joyful Arabic dancing, could not but make us sigh for the loss of our heritage.

The next day, we stood mesmerised in front of an Iraqi goldsmith’s window in Amman’s modern shopping centre. Then we, Iraqi-born Israelis, shared happy memories with him, an Iraqi Arab, before shedding tears over Iraq’s present, tragic situation.

All of this prompted discussion of how opportunities for economic co-operation could be developed between the countries of the region; how a longer-term prosperity, so vital to both sides of the conflict, could be achieved; and how this could lead to normalising relations.

The intransigent Arab view that refuses even to recognise Israel has not yielded any positive outcome for Arab interests. Meanwhile, Israel has forged ahead as a leading nation in technology, overcoming the Arab boycott.

But the majority of Israelis seek normal relations with the Arab world and release from more than 50 years of enmity. We Jews from Arab countries have paid an especially high price — one not often acknowledged — namely the social and cultural deprivations we have had to endure. Even today, there are communities of Jewish refugees, who fled from Arab countries in the late 1940s and ’50s, still living in far-flung development towns, cut off from Israel’s economic, cultural and political hub.

But how will “normal” relations be achieved? The Arabs fear total Israeli dominance over the region’s culture and trade. Moreover, the concept of Israel as the common enemy serves to maintain Arab solidarity.

Israelis see normalisation as involving mutual visiting rights, economic co-operation and the dismantling of government-imposed trade restrictions in order to boost Arab economies. Business initiatives could then be left to the private sector, engendering higher employment and, in time, an improved standard of living.

In 1989, in the former Soviet Union, in the face of a collapsing economy, openness of national institutions — Glasnost — paved the way to genuine political transparency. This is more complicated and requires more time, tolerance and forgiveness. Even China, albeit painfully, gave birth to economic openness, while still resisting the introduction of democracy.

Today, we have a global economy. America has ceded ground to emerging nations like India and Indonesia. Big corporations travel long distances in search of cheaper labour. The distance between Israel and other countries in the Middle East is minimal and Israel’s trading know-how, combined with developing Arab labour skills, can attract new, lucrative international markets.

Just like other developing nations, the Arabs stand to gain from the far-reaching changes which have swept across the world’s economies. Normalisation — allowing the Israeli man in the street to be introduced to indigenous Arabic language and culture — can only follow economic openness. It is important for the parallels to be acknowledged between Jews from Arab countries and the Palestinians. We, too, have left behind vast amounts of property, as well as frozen portable and non-portable assets. Our losses in fact — estimated at $80 billion — in monetary terms stand far higher than those suffered by the Palestinians.

We will get nowhere without both sides opening up. Political normalisation can come later — and if we start by breaking down fear and mistrust, it surely will.

Linda Menuhin is a founding member of the Israel-Syria Peace Society

Last updated: 4:23pm, December 10 2009


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