An Arab Answer to the Question, ‘Why Israel?’

Award-winning journalist Khaled Abu Toameh and attorney-at-law and veteran of the Israeli diplomatic corps George Deek will lead a discussion “Why Israel? An Arab Perspective” at Adath Israel.

On Feb. 28, award-winning journalist Khaled Abu Toameh and attorney-at-law and veteran of the Israeli diplomatic corps George Deek will lead a discussion “Why Israel? An Arab Perspective” at Adath Israel.
Len Zimmerman, director of development at Gratz College, whose Stern Family Institute for Israel Studies is putting on the program, said this will be a different take on an Israel-centered program.
“We have two speakers that are not traditionally heard within the community,” he said. “It was an excellent opportunity to show Israel from a different perspective.”
The program boasts a large list of co-sponsors — 22 different organizations from around the area, including the Jewish Exponent and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — that Zimmerman said he and other Gratz faculty had approached.
“I think it’s just an interesting topic and point of view that a number of organizations wanted to support — it’s become a collaborative effort throughout the community,” Zimmerman said.
As of a week before the program, Zimmerman said there are about 300 pre-registered attendees.
“I think it’ll be interesting to hear a perspective on Israel from a non-Jewish point of view,” he said. “It’s certainly a pro-Israel talk and to hear pro-Israel comments from Christian Arabs and Israeli Arabs is something the community needs to be aware of.”
Khaled Abu Toameh is a journalist for The Jerusalem Post and the Gatestone Institute in New York. He mostly writes about the “the Israeli-Arab conflict in general and relations between Jews and Arabs inside Israel in particular,” he wrote in an email.
A journalist for more than 30 years, he plans to speak at the program about his own experiences and insights, as well as the role of the media in covering the conflict.
The program will, he hopes, provide a way to share a different side of the story.
“I’m hoping that people will learn more about what is happening on the Arab side and why we haven’t been able to move forward with the peace process,” he wrote.
Deek served as an Israeli diplomat for seven years, spending time in Nigeria and Norway. Now a Fulbright scholar pursuing his master’s in international law at Georgetown University, he was “intrigued” by the program, particularly its title.
“I think a lot of times,” he said, “when we think about Israel, we think about Israel as a Jewish state, as a Jewish project — something that speaks to the Jews and Jewish issues. I think an Arab perspective, trying to see Israel, could be beneficial to the Middle East most practically but also intellectually by forcing us to face the challenge of tolerating people who are different.
“Israel and others have to find a way to create a better environment for the minorities that live among them,” he added. “As an Arab Israeli, we have a lot of challenges, just as minorities have challenges in the Middle East or the Western world.”
Deek has spoken before about the dangers of the narrative of victimhood.
“Victimhood as a defining characteristic is dangerous because victimhood brings lack of responsibility,” he said. “Victimhood blocks us from being able to fulfill our great potential. If you cannot see beyond the past, you will not be able to build a future.”
This is something he learned from looking at the Jewish experience and thinking back to the Holocaust.
“Instead of sitting and weeping and crying, they came to the land of their forefathers and built a future,” he said. They were “able to create a country that leads the world in innovation and culture and technology.
“We, the Arabs, are not any less good or talented than the Jewish people,” he continued, “but the thing that is stopping us most is that we are struggling in getting over the narrative of victimhood that has been a defining characteristic.”
Growing up in Jaffa, Deek and his family have long been connected with their Jewish neighbors. He went to a predominantly Jewish high school, where he was the only Arab in his class.
“That gave me the perspective of my Jewish friends and how they thought about the world,” he said, while also being given the opportunity to share his thoughts with them as an Arab. “We shared a lot of fears and concerns, but we also shared the same hopes and dreams.”
Decades earlier, with the 1948 War of Independence, his grandparents left — as did many of his other relatives and Arabs in the area — and ended up as refugees in places like Lebanon. When it became clear that the widespread rumors that the Jews would kill the Arabs weren’t true, Deek’s grandfather wanted to move back to Jaffa.
“It was a very unusual decision, because the rest of my family did not come back,” Deek said. (He has relatives today in Jordan, Dubai, Canada and the United States.)
With the help of his Jewish coworkers from when he worked at a Jewish factory, Deek’s grandfather returned to the city and even returned to work. His grandfather spoke Yiddish — one of the first Palestinians to do so, Deek believes.
As for Deek’s personal journey, he began his diplomatic service after realizing being a lawyer — his previous career — wasn’t giving him the enjoyment he wanted. He saw an ad for training for diplomats in a newspaper and thought it might be something he could do, though he was met with opposition.
“People started to say, ‘There’s no way they’re going to accept you; you’re Arab, you didn’t serve in the army,’ ” he said. “The more I was told I couldn’t get it, the more I wanted it.”
A year later, he was in.
“This job allows me to make a big closure in my life,” he said. “It allowed me to do things I never dreamed of doing.”
For instance, he worked on the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal agreement, which would help make the water from the Dead Sea potable and accessible in Jordan as well as Israel and in the Palestinian Authority — although the agreement is contested among environmentalists who believe that would damage the water basin of the sea.
For Deek, it was a personal feat. When he was 13, he recalled going to visit family in Jordan, where he washed his hands as he normally did at home — holding his hands under the running water, soaping, rinsing, all the while keeping the water on. His cousin said to him afterward that since they didn’t get that much water, maybe he could  try to conserve a little bit next time.
“I wanted to bury my head in shame,” he said. He had the opportunity while working at the legal department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem a few months ago to be helpful in concluding the agreement between Israel and Jordan and bringing his experience full circle.
“I took the message with me and I was somehow put in a position where I could make a difference,” he said. “I am grateful for this job. I could make a difference for my family and see in my own eyes as an Israeli diplomat to make the Arab world a little bit better.”
Deek hopes the audience will gain a new perspective and hear a new side.
“I hope people will learn something new and to realize there are different perspectives of Israel that are not necessarily Jewish ones but also Arab ones of the country,” he said. “There are multiple voices in the Middle East and it’s OK not to agree all the time. Disagreeing is fantastic, that’s how we grow.
“When Israel will be tolerated is the day that Israel will appear in the discourse of the Arab world in a way that says, ‘Can we live with a nation that is different?’ and the answer will be ‘Yes.’ Where the Jewish kids and the Arab kids and Christian kids and Druze kids can say we are Israeli — we are different, and this place is our home.”
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