For a United and Multicultural Middle East


This is an essay by Levana Zamir, published by MEI  the Middle East Institute – Washington DC, in its Viewpoints special edition: The Legacy of Camp David: 1979-2009.
This edition, marking the 30e anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, includes 21 essays by experts, policy makers and scholars from around the world, exploring the fruits and limitations of this agreement, as well as the role of the United States in fostering peace and cooperation between Egypt and Israel. Amongst the authors, eminent personalities and Israeli scholars: Prof. Yoram Meital, from Ben-Gurion University, Dr. Eyal Zisser, Tel-Aviv University, Dr. Menachem Klein, Bar-Ilan University, Ephraim Dowek, Israeli Ambassador to Egypt, as well as Sobhy Essaila, from Al Ahram Center in Cairo the renowned Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, Iman Hamdy from the American University in Cairo, William B.Quandt, University of Virginia, etc.

by: Levana Zamir (the article appears in pages 57-59)

It all began on November 19, 1977, when President Anwar Sadat landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. After 30 years of war and bloodshed between Israel and the Arab countries, a dream had come true. I remember the intense emotion. Thousands of Israeli citizens in the streets acclaimed the ra'is on his way to Jerusalem. For two days, millions all over the world watched TV reports of this visit and witnessed a beautiful page being written in history.

In the face of Sadat's act of heroism, the Israeli leaders of 1977 bravely took up the challenge. They all agreed to sit down and talk, without preconditions, until a peace agreement was signed between Israel and Egypt in March 26th 1979.

The exchange of Embassies in Cairo and Tel-Aviv in February 1980 led to the establishment of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, a non-profit organization in Israel. Like any other such association, it was formed with the intent of facilitating cultural exchange, the basis for a real and lasting peace.

During the first years, the enthusiasm from both sides was great and the cultural exchange fruitful and intensive, with many cultural activities in Israel as well as in Egypt. The Association initiated and organized numerous events, including cultural evenings in Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem on Egyptian Literature, featuring Egyptian guests such as the renowned intellectuals Dr. Hussein Fawzi and Dr. Ahmed Gomaa. An exhibition by the Egyptian painter Mahmoud Said was held at the National Theatre Habimah in tel-Aviv and was attended by the Egyptian minister of Culture Mahmoud Radwan (February 1982). An Israeli-Egyptian Exhibition of paintings was held at the Meridien Hotel in Cairo in May 1982, under the auspices of the Egyptian ministry of Culture and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Under the auspices of the Friendship Association, the National Egyptian group of folklore Dance gave a Gala performance at the Mann Auditorium in tel-Aviv (1982), attended by Dr.Youssef Shawky, Deputy Minister of Culture; and an Egyptian play by Naguib Mahfouz was performed in Hebrew at the Haifa theatre (1983). In addition, the Friendship Association hosted many official Egyptian guests on their visits to Israel.

As President of the Israel-Egypt Friendship Association, I had a personal meeting with Jehan Sadat, the wife of the President, at the presidential Palace in Giza, Cairo (1982). I also met with Egyptian officials; together we initiated joint cultural activities. President Ezer Weizman invited me to be part of his entourage on his visit to President Moubarak in Cairo in December 1994.

However, during the years of "cold peace" and with the stagnation of Israel-Egypt normalization, cultural exchanges slowed down on the Egyptian side. The Association's activities continued to take place, albeit in Israel only. We held many conferences on the Israel-Egypt Economy of peace in order to encourage business between the two countries, with the participation of Egyptian ambassadors, Israeli ministers and professionals. We offered scholarships and grants to Israeli students for studies on Israel-Egypt relations. We also continue to hold annual gala events on Egyptian folklore and culture in Tel-Aviv, in cooperation with the Egyptian Ambassador in Israel introducing oriental and Egyptian folklore to the Israeli public.

The Qiz agreement (Qualified Industrial Zone) signed in December 2004 by Israel, Egypt and the United States, provided for an industrial joint venture allowing free trade of products to the United States, certainly warmed Israeli-Egyptian relations. In the third millennium, ideological solutions no longer work.

Thirty years after the signing of the peace treaty, "normalization" between the Israeli and Egyptian governments continues developing in all fields except for culture. Egyptian artists' and writers' organizations still ban any kind of relationship with Israel. Normal interaction with Israeli citizens is out of the question. Those who do interact with Israelis are followed by the Mukhabarat (the Egyptian security authorities). A special permit is needed from the Egyptian ministry of interior for Egyptian citizens to visit Israel. Unless the permit is sought for official business, it is difficult to obtain.

Egyptian Authorities' opposition to normal interaction at the popular and cultural level with Israel is officially linked to the Palestinian conflict. Lately however, some Egyptian intellectuals have noticed that the authorities' opposition to popular and cultural normalization reflects the latter's concern about the "non desirable" influence of Israeli liberalism. As a result, a number of these intellectuals have raised their voices about the importance of coexistence and the recognition of "the other". In his book 'The Other Opinion' published in Egypt in 2001, Amin el-Mahdi, an Egyptian publicist in Cairo whose point of view often creates controversy in the Arab media, argues that only with a return to liberalism and democratic policy in Egypt could peace occur in the middle East. He deplores the "second Exodus" of Jews from Egypt and the lack of normalization of relations between Egyptian and Israeli citizens: "A durable peace has to be on a basis of culture, historical roots and mutual influence as a bridge for mutual understanding".

Amin el-Mahdi is not alone. In another book published in Cairo, 'The Jews of Egypt', Muhammad Abul-Ghar describes the prosperous era of the Egyptian Jews and their contribution to Egypt. This new trend is now reaching the Egyptian movie industry, with movies like 'Imarat Yacoubiyan (The Yacoubian Building) expressing longing for the liberal epoch in Egypt. In a recent interview on Egyptian TV, the famous artist Hussein Fahmi expressed openly his longing for the bygone age of monarchical liberalism in Egypt. In the second part of her film Salata Baladi, which received many international prizes but is still banned in Egypt, the courageous Egyptian producer and director Nadia Kamel asks: "Why is normalization with Israel still forbidden to Egyptian citizens, while the Egyptian Government is enjoying such normalization in almost every other field?"

Normalization between Egyptian and Israeli citizens at the popular and cultural level is the essential vehicle for fostering mutual recognition of "the other". Unless and until normalization proceeds – enabling multicultural exchange and sharing of historical roots, arts, music and folklore, – mutual recognition and, therefore, the prospects for peace in the region will be further delayed.
A united and multicultural Middle East is not a new concept. During the London Conference in 1939, attended by representatives from all Arab countries, David Ben-Gurion – then Chairman of the Jewish Agency – advocated four guiding concepts. One was "a Jewish State willing to belong to a future Middle Eastern Confederation". In the third millennium, when countries from the European Continent are merging to become a single entity after years of animosity, the "Mediterranean Option" – Israel's Western culture merging with its Oriental surroundings and Arab countries turning more towards the West (with each side retaining its own identity) – eventually could lead to peace in a united Middle East.