Israel the invisible?

When a group of prominent Jordanian journalists returned from a visit to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in September, their welcome-home greeting was an order expelling them from the Jordanian journalists association.

The three were not reinstated until they signed a formal apology for participating in the forbidden dialogue. The apology included these words: "We believe that the opposition to normalization is a crucial matter, which is done to prevent the 'weak hearted' from falling into an Israeli trap. We still view Israel to be a conquest state, and hold that it's impossible to conduct policies of normalization with her. We know that our profession enjoins us to reveal Israel's racism. We believed this task could not be done without visiting Israel...."

Stripping the journalists' credentials until they agreed to sign their "statement" at best smacks of the insidious pressure of the United States House Un-American Activities Committee and at worst is reminiscent of the admissions of misguided Bolsheviks at the height of Soviet repression or the confessions of China's Cultural Revolution. The travesty of the Jordanian journalists coincided with the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty.

President Clinton recently noted the significance of the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations to the lives of "hundreds of thousands and millions" in the Middle East. But interaction between leaders is only a first step; it must be allowed to filter down to individuals of each country. When such discourse is prohibited, peace becomes a hollow concept.

Ever since the borders opened with Egypt in 1979, Israelis have been flocking from Giza to Abu Simbel, and there's hardly a traveling Israeli who hasn't been to Petra at least once. As soon as peace feelers with Syria emerged, tour companies put Aleppo on their drawing boards. But the traffic is all one way: Tourists from Arab countries to Israel are practically nonexistent.

Israeli tourists may be tolerated, but interpersonal contact, whether organized or impromptu, is discouraged. Arabs who transgress may face severe consequences. If an Egyptian applies for a visa to visit Israel, he becomes the subject of an internal loyalty investigation.

When the head of the Fulbright Foundation in Israel visited the Egyptian Fulbright offices last fall, he was not given the visible welcome accorded the other guests of honor. At the 1999 international film festival in Cairo, Israel was not invited to participate. The American International School in Israel is not welcome as a member of the Mideast region's international school association. At an international medical conference to be held in Cairo this month, the Israeli physicians invited as faculty by the American organizers appeared minus their country of origin on an official printed list. Despite assurances from the American society organizing the conference of efforts to send out a midnight-hour correction, none arrived.

These are but a few examples of the deliberate and open ostracism practiced by the two Arab countries that maintain formal peace with Israel and among which there exist full diplomatic relations. As the Jordanian journalists learned the hard way, what they thought was dialogue became forbidden "normalization" and almost robbed them of their livelihoods.

So why keep trying to go where you are unwelcome, to gain entry into the club that doesn't want you?

At least peace means there are no armies shooting at one another. But bowing to this status quo is too facile a response. Peace in name only is no peace. If dialogue in the present is prohibited, bullets in the future are inevitable. Hatred can only die by de-demonizing stereotypes.

A few years ago the blind Egyptian Nobel laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz was injured while breakfasting in a Cairo cafe, the victim of a terrorist attack by his compatriots. The author's crime? He had been indiscreetly outspoken in supporting the peace process. In December a tribute was held in Jerusalem in honor of Mahfouz. An Egyptian playwright in attendance said he heard the flapping of the wings of peace, and journalists termed the event an auspicious occasion.

In light of the concerted policy of cultural and personal exclusion practiced with official sanction in Egypt and Jordan, such optimistic predictions smack of naivet - or delusion. As long as Israel and Israelis are personae non grata across the border, what masquerades as meaningful dialogue is merely a sham. Like love, neighborliness is a two-way street.

*Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer living in the Tel Aviv area. She writes an opinion column for The Jerusalem Post.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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