Outgoing Mossad chief Tamir Pardo (photo: David Vaaknin)
The outgoing Mossad chief Tamir Pardo has been talking to the press. Much of what he said deals with existential threats to Israel. But this passage, quoted in the Times of Israel, caught my eye.
Pardo recalled meeting an Arab official who bemoaned what he saw as Israel’s refusal to integrate into the Middle East, or fully understand its culture.
“When I first started as Mossad chief, I met with a senior official from the Arab periphery [Maariv speculated that this could be Saudi Arabia or another Gulf state], who asked me if we had actually chosen to live in the Middle East, as he believed we had not,” he said.
“When I questioned him on why he thought this way, he asked me: ‘How many Jews born in Israel know Arabic? How many are familiar with Arab culture? How many even want to know about it? How can you want to understand me when you live in the Middle East and don’t know the language spoken by hundreds of millions around you? How many of your people have ever opened the Quran? Not to pray, but to try to understand what is written there — to understand the culture, understand that we are not all the same, and there is a difference between the Egyptian and the Jordanian, Palestinian, Saudi or Lebanese. You are not familiar with anything. You don’t know anything. It’s easier for you to move to Canada. You will feel culturally more at home there than you do here; what the hell are you doing here? You still haven’t chosen to be part of the Middle East.'”
Although the younger generation has not shown much enthusiasm for the language, plenty of Jews do speak and understand Arabic. Some have even been top Arabic grammarians. But as the Iraq-born author Naim Kattan lamented in his book Farewell Babylon, a Jew's grasp of Arabic did not prevent Jews being excluded from Iraqi nation-building, despite the Jews taking a full part in the Nahda, or Renaissance of the 1920s. Israel has plenty of Arabic-speaking political scientists and intelligence experts who analyse what the Arabs say and do day by day.
In his statement to Pardo, perhaps it is the Arab official who has betrayed his ignorance of Jews and their intimate connection - linguistically, culturally, historically - with the Middle East.
We don't know what Pardo said to the Arab official in reply, but it is a cause for concern if he nodded in agreement, as the article might imply. The Arab official's words betrays ignorance of who Israelis are, and the fact that half of all Israeli Jews come from Arab and Muslim world.