Street smarts

An organization of which I think very highly e-mailed a poorly worded headline this week.

“Arab Mobs Attack Israel on All Fronts,” screamed the subject line of a May 15 e-mail alert from The Israel Project.

The attached story reported how “tens of thousands of Arab protesters marking Palestinian Nakba Day (the day of the catastrophe) have marched on Israel, from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.”

The story neglected to mention that Israeli police and soldiers opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 12. Some of the protesters had stones and slingshots; most were unarmed.

The Israel Project does a good job providing fair context of the Middle East crisis to international (including Arab) journalists. In this case, it stumbled, assuming that the words “Arab Mobs” would automatically sway journalists to the Israeli point of view.

The reality that The Israel Project, Israel’s supporters and Israel had better get used to is this: the Arab mob has been rebranded.  What used to conjure up images of bearded, flag-burning, hate-filled and violent men now connotes something much different: brave men, women and children, standing shoulder to shoulder as they face down tanks, secret police, snipers and thugs of autocratic regimes. The Arab spring has redefined the Arab mob.

The same goes for what used to be the central address of the Arab mob, the Arab street.

For decades, the West viewed the Arab street as a roiling, bloodthirsty thoroughfare. The Arab street! Run for your lives!  Whereas in English the idea of “Main Street” or “the man on the street” conjures up homey, Rockwellian charm and common sense, “the Arab street” only appears paired with words like “angry” and “erupts.”

This year, that all changed, beginning in Tunisia, where the Arab street overthrew a corrupt government, then in Egypt, where unarmed Arab mobs clashed with government thugs, then in Bahrain,  Libya and Syria, where the sustained bravery of the Arab street is threatening one of the world’s most corrupt and backward regimes.

“The mob characterization of the ‘Arab street’ especially evident in Western usage, simply does not fit the current uprisings in the Arab world,” professors Terry Regier and Muhammad Ali Khalidi wrote in The Middle East Journal. “Demonstrations have been largely peaceful, disciplined, organized — and in Tunisia and Egypt, ultimately successful. Those violent confrontations that have occurred appear to have been instigated by the regimes rather than by protesters.”

Through blood and sacrifice, these protesters have convinced the world that what they really want is what we all want: economic opportunity, free speech, honest government. In other words, the Arab spring has planted in the Western mind the radical thought that Arabs are people, too.

None of this is to say the revolutions won’t backslide into more oppression, religious fundamentalism or chaos. Those are worries, but not givens. Much depends on the internal dynamics of fragile societies ground down by decades of (often American-supported) despots. I am hopeful we have a president who understands that a historic opportunity has occurred on his watch, and history is watching for his response. If President Obama doubts that, he can read the glowing historical accounts of the George H.W. Bush presidency, due to Bush’s handling of the fall of the Soviet Union.

As for Israel, it, too, faces historic choices. Simply put, it is no longer open season on the “Arab mob.” Whether the circumstances are different, similar or the same, the world looks at those Arabs commemorating the Nakba differently now, and answering them with gunfire, as a Mubarak would, as an Assad would, is a tragic mistake.

In the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla shootings almost a year ago, in which nine people were killed aboard the MV Mavi Marmara, many Monday morning quarterbacks suggested ways in which Israel could have dealt peacefully with the flotilla campaign. One I especially liked was to send a “peace” flotilla of private Israeli sailboats out to block the “Freedom Flotilla.”  Good press for Israel, no shots fired.

I know ideas like these come easier in hindsight, but Israel must strive to pre-think how it will deal with what The Economist reported as an awakening of nonviolent Palestinian protest, Facebook-organized mobs, and what is looking like a steady march toward Palestinian statehood.

Israel must think and act fast to stay on the right side of history, because it is on the right side of history. The members of the Boycott, Sanction and Divest (BDS) movement who relentlessly target and defame Israel, as they have again this month at UC Irvine, should be ashamed that they utter not a peep as Arab regimes have killed, beaten, tortured and imprisoned thousands of Arabs and dozens of journalists over the past year.

Israel, a country that prides itself on innovation, needs to innovate nonviolent actions that meet, address and defuse the issues these protesters raise. The country that perfected preemptive warfare cannot indulge in reflexive violence. Next year, the marchers at the northern border should be met with a giant stage and a “Concert for Free Syria” featuring top entertainers, blasting out across the hilltops.

Of course, all this works when Israelis and the world are convinced Israel’s leaders are doing all they can to address not the past, but the future. Israel needs a new strategy to face its own Arab street, because, nowadays, “the Arab street” is the road to a better future.