We have likely all heard it before: The Middle East is a land of oppressed women, taxi camels, and war. From another angle, the Middle East has been a region subject to decades of Western imperialism, the most pronounced example of which can be seen today in the Israeli occupation of Arab land. Such negative perceptions of both sides by the other have resulted in a long legacy of conflicting sentiments between the West and the Middle East.
One stereotype which I heard a lot about growing up was the idea that the majority of people living in the Middle East are poor and are hostile toward Jews. However, all this changed when I spent a year in my university’s International House and built friendships with about five Egyptian and Lebanese students studying at my school that year. Not only did these students come from comfortable families but they treated me just like a fellow resident and student rather than as someone with whom their home countries have experienced longstanding political tension. Furthermore, other stereotypes that I never necessarily believed in but which I’d been exposed to, were debunked. Namely, these students dressed no differently upon going to class than American college students would, and they used actual taxi cabs, not camels (though camels make for a great tourist attraction). Still, while not antagonistic toward me, these students admitted that they were not very familiar with Israeli culture and had come to view the state as an "other" in the region.
But has anyone focused on the similarities? Let us begin with the Palestinian Nakba or "catastrophe," a time of independence for the Israeli state and a happy day for Jewish people in the region, yet a tragedy for Palestinians whose homes were demolished to make room for Jewish refugees from Europe. After such a phenomenon in which one side feels total gain and the other total loss, it makes sense that the losing side would feel indignant. Indeed, many Arabs have referenced the existence of the State of Israel as the most potent evidence of lasting Western influence in the region. They equate the fact that many Jewish refugees fled to Israel from Europe, as well as U.S. support of Israel, with the Jewish state being a sort of watchdog for Western profit off Middle Eastern land.
However, what this argument fails to address is the existence of a Middle Eastern Jewish majority in Israel. Sasson Somekh, author of the popular memoir Baghdad, Yesterday is such a Jew who tells of his journey from Iraq to Israel in light of the growing oppression of Jews within Iraqi society. Why would immigrants such as Sasson wish to support Western imperialism? Surely, they had another reason to escape to Israel. Indeed, in the face of such events, one must consider origin of Jews in the Middle East. Even today, the majority of Jews in Israel are of Middle Eastern origin, not because they wished to serve the interests of imperialism by a country to which they had never been, but because they felt safer in their newly established homeland than in their countries of birth. In fact, Middle Eastern food and music are a primary part of Israeli culture, as Israel is truly a Middle Eastern country. When we disregard religious differences, from falafel to traditional Arab music, contemporary Israeli culture is basically one and the same as its neighboring cultures.
So we have a dichotomy of perceptions coming from both East and West, based upon misconceptions of culture and bitterness over past imperialism. Only the players of both sides can succeed in dissolving this illusion, an illusion so deeply ingrained into our melded histories.