Zenga Zenga

On Sunday, I posted a blog about a video on YouTube that had captured the attention of the Libyan resistance movement and become the unofficial anthem of its youth.

“Zenga Zenga” takes Libyan crackpot Muammar el-Qaddafi’s bizarre Green Square speech of Feb. 26, puts it through Auto-Tune, re-edits it to a disco beat and fills out the frame with a gyrating go-go dancer. At the time I first wrote about it, the homemade music video had 500,000 YouTube hits. As of Tuesday, it has nearly 2 million.

What many Libyans didn’t know at first was that the video was created and posted by a 31-year-old Israeli Jew in Tel Aviv named Noy Alooshe.

As that fact became known, the comments section on Alooshe’s post became a founding document of the new Middle East, the history being refashioned each day before our eyes, the one very few policymakers, pundits and Jewish activists seem to get.

Plenty of comments attacked Alooshe for being Israeli, but more defended him and his video. Anyway, the majority of the Arab comments said, the point is that Qaddafi is a fool and a tyrant, and if “Zenga Zenga” can help bring him down, they’re all for it.

Something is happening here: The Internet’s astonishing power is breaking down borders and “flattening” the Middle East. Years ago, it took months of expensive long-distance phone calls, circuitous third-party interventions, and snail-mail letters to get Israelis and their Arab neighbors together. Now, with YouTube, Facebook and a quickly improving Google Translate, the connections are instantaneous. The implications of this force us to take a fresh look at what is possible in the region.

Consider what happened a  few days before the “Zenga Zenga” phenomenon, when Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem posted online a “Letter to the Egyptian People.” The rabbi laid out his hopes for future understanding and cooperation with Egyptians.

“We don’t know, first and foremost, who you are,” Hartman wrote. “You see, for the last 30 years it seems, we never got a chance to talk. We spoke with your leaders, but as you so aptly proved, they don’t speak for you anymore, if they ever did.”

Hundreds of Egyptians wrote back.

Typical of the many responses was this one from “Hisham — An Egyptian”: “I appreciate your wishes for us. Let’s keep in touch and work together to resolve our differences and build upon achievements of the past.” 

And yes, there were “flames” too:


OK, the last place to go looking for kumbaya is the comments section following any blog. But the exchange shows the importance of beginning the process of winning hearts and minds.

I ran my theory by Yigal Palmor, a spokesman at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the branch of government in charge of the country’s branding efforts. 

“Reaching out to the Arab world is particularly difficult in the case of Israel,” Palmor e-mailed me from Jerusalem, tossing wet hummus on my enthusiasm. “Anything Israeli is systematically distorted when reported in the Arab media, with painfully few exceptions.”

Palmor said the Ministry tries to connect to Arabs through official social media outlets — an Arabic-language Web site and a Facebook page. But he said that the results of these efforts have been negligible. 

“Fear of backlash from neighbors or government prevail,” he wrote. “We haven’t seen any signs so far that the widespread use of social media in the Arab world makes for a more open-minded approach to Israel.”

Palmor might want to recalibrate his pessimism slightly in view of the “Zenga Zenga” reality. What he said is true if the idea of connectivity is limited to state-sanctioned or pro-Israel activist Web sites. Those money pits of communal dollars don’t get traffic or interest from most Jews I know, much less Arabs.

Plenty of pessimists look at what’s happening in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli and elsewhere and point to failed revolutions past, from 1917 Russia to 1979 Iran, to make a point that after liberation comes just one election, then another tyrant. But what’s different this time is that two revolutions are going on simultaneously: real and digital. 

For most of human history, we knew people first by their place of origin. My own last name derives from Oshmyany—a town near Vilnius where my ancestors once rolled cigars and stole horses. On the Internet, countries still matter, but less than values and interests. It occurs to me as I glance over my list of Facebook friends and Twitter followers that I couldn’t tell you for certain what country many are from, much less what state or city.

As social networks improve and deepen, and if the Internet stays open in the Middle East, Arabs and Jews will identify first through interests, values and “Likes,” rather than through nationality. Some 24-year-old Libyan DJ will find he has more in common with Noy Alooshe in Tel Aviv than with the religious kook down the block. What I’m talking about is the unofficial, user-to-user connections, the social network, if you will. The Internet has overwhelmed the old model of “top-down-only” official contact with “all-at-once” unofficial, unfiltered contact.  

It is the frequency, intensity and quality of these connections that can break down barriers and help Israel finally integrate into the Middle East. If that happens, Mark Zuckerberg will take his place in Zionist history, right beside Theodor Herzl. Thanks to him, the free flow of information will open up the blind alleyways of hate.

Oh, the word for “alleyway” in Arabic? Zenga.