Muslim man reads the Koran during Ramadan at Al Aqsa Mosque
Muslim man reads the Koran during Ramadan at Al Aqsa MosqueSliman Khader/Flash90

Allow me to start this piece with a caveat: although I understand and speak decent Arabic and spent years reading the Arab press and watching Arab television, I have never lived a substantial amount of time in an Arab country or genuinely Arab environment. Therefore the words that follow, although insightful and helpful, should be read with the same degree of constructive skepticism that must accompany the reading of any column or article.

However, as a former resident of Jerusalem and high-school teacher in Berlin who every school day interacts, teaches and learns from Arab students, I believe I know what I am talking about. And that I understand what drives and motivates Arab Muslims qua Arab Muslims, almost as well as what motivates my fellow Italians.

There are two episodes in my teaching career which taught me two key aspects of Arab culture: love of honor and thirst for respect.

Two years ago there was an unruly student, whose name – let us say for the sake of convenience – was Abdallah. This 9th grade student was smart, but unbearably noisy and undisciplined. I could have told him that his behavior was disgraceful and (as many of my colleagues secretly wish) would that he vanished from Germany and returned to the Middle East. Nevertheless, I chose a different tack.

At the end of one of those days when Abdallah was particularly unbearable I summoned him at the end of the lesson to the front of the classroom and asked him, “Abdallah, today you misbehaved. I want you to give me your word of honor that you will behave differently from the next lesson onward.” Abdallah was more than happy to give me his word of honor and I was just as happy to expect him to behave no differently during the next lesson.

I was not disappointed. The next lesson, Abdallah literally behaved like a wild ass. At that point I could have chosen to yell at him, to tell him that he and people like him are unreliable, shameless liars and have no sense of honor. I tried a different tack. I summoned Abdallah once again at the end of the lesson and bluntly told him. “Abdallah, are you Muslim?” Abdallah was taken aback and with a blend of hesitation and pride said “Yes, I am.” At that point my real pedagogical task took flight: “Abdallah”, I added, “last lesson you gave me your word of honor that you would behave respectfully. You nevertheless misbehaved. Since when is the word of honor of a Muslim worth so little!?” Abdallah was quiet and left the room with a downcast head.

I am happy to share the news that after that brief second exchange, which actually breached all the conventions and pieties of contemporary political correctness, Abdallah literally became a model student in terms of respectfulness and good behavior. And whenever he was tempted to misbehave and return to his old ways I just needed to stare at him in the same way I stared at him during our second exchange to earn his good behavior again.

The second significant episode, which took place in the 10th grade, involved me teaching the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict to students who were both of German Christian heritage and Muslim students with roots in the Middle East. As a proud Zionist I made sure that the whole class would read the Israeli Declaration of Independence in order for the students to understand the lofty and humanistic spirit that inspired the founding fathers (and mothers) of the Jewish State.

The German students were deeply moved by the words of the Megilla. The Turkish and Kurdish students were taciturn. I was curious as to the reason for this, so I asked them to explain why they didn’t find the Declaration of Independence inspiring. A German-Kurdish teenager answered, “This announcement almost completely ignores the Arabs.” It was then that something so evident and clear for Arabs and Muslims became painfully obvious to me too: From a Judeo-Christian perspective, Zionism was a movement not just of political emancipation, but also of historical redemption. From a Muslim-Arab perspective Zionism was a movement that turned the Arabs populating the Land of Israel/Palestine into guests tolerated in the land they believed was their own even though they arrived in the seventh century at best.

I tried to argue that the former was not true and that in fact Zionism grants more rights and freedoms to Arabs than any Arab or Islamic movement has ever done or continues doing. Nevertheless, there is, from an Arab Muslim perspective, a fundamental difference between the oppression they face in neighboring Arab Muslim lands and the privileges they enjoy as citizens of a Zionist state.

Arab and Muslim autocracies will torture, kill and fleece citizens for many reasons, but not for them being Arab or (Sunni) Muslim. On the other hand, they believe that the State of Israel grants its Arab and Muslim citizens so many rights not because it really feels that they are equal partners, but rather to prove to itself and to the world that Jewish political ethics are both civilized and superior. In other words, the fact that they feel that Jewish pride is one of the key reasons Arabs are granted human and political rights, turns these rights into an affront and debasement for Arabs’ sense of honor and self-respect.

Since honor and self-respect are such crucial values in the Arab mind, Israeli and Jewish attitudes in this regard must be extremely sensitive. So extremely sensitive that care must be taken to avoid another form of humiliating Arabs: That is, treating their leaders and representatives indulgently, even though they are crooks and frauds, or explaining away terror attacks perpetrated by Arabs, just because in the back of our minds we assume that nothing better can or should be expected from them.

The anecdote involving Abdallah suggests that once their cultural values are sufficiently understood and valued, outcomes with Arabs are not immensely different to those obtained from members of other cultures whose values are also valued and understood. In other words, if you are a Zionist and care about the future of Israel, my first tip would be to learn colloquial Arabic. If you attain a level that is sufficiently good, and Arabs ask you why you know their language, I have always managed to break the ice by saying “I learned Arabic to understand the enemy”.

These words, spoken with an easy smile, have always disarmed the Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians I have met. Vis-à-vis Palestinian Arabs this is nevertheless not enough. But when I claimed that I was a “Yahudi min Filasteen”, at first they were nonplussed. Yet when it dawned on them that Eretz Israel and Palestine is the land we both love, they too eventually surrendered a smile.

Rafael Castrois a Noahide Italian-Colombian independent political analyst and English & Politics high-school teacher in Berlin. He is delighted to receive praise and criticism at [email protected]