Last summer was, in fact, a watershed moment for the Middle Eastern blogosphere. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah not only brought attention to the many different Arab conversations that had taken place on homemade Web sites in the past two or three years, but also launched thousands more of them. And they were more than just a handful of aberrant voices. They reflected a new culture of openness, dialogue, and questioning. And unlike the neoconservative notion that these ideals can be dropped on a foreign population like so many bomblets, the push for change here is coming from within. Whether it is a Jordanian student discussing the taboo subject of the monarchy’s viability or a Saudi woman writing about her sexual experiences or an Egyptian commenting with sadness at an Israeli blogger’s description of a suicide bombing, each of these unprecedented acts is one small move toward opening up these societies.
Another aspect of this "new conversation" is that it includes dialogue between Arabs and Israelis. This, of course, has sparked realizations on both sides of the divide that their enemies are people too.
The blogger known as Egyptian Sandmonkey, the twenty-five-year-old son of a prominent member of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party, is on the phone from Cairo and laughing. "I didn’t know there was such a thing as a poor Jew," he says. "What? Poor Jews? How did that happen? I thought that at your bar mitzvah you got full membership and the manual for how to rule the world. And then they give you your shares in the media. I keep telling my friends, if the Jews really control the media, they are some of the most self-hating Jews I've ever met in my life."
Developing a complex picture of Jews, and of Israelis (the distinction between the two is not often made in the Arab world), is no easy task in Egypt. Even for someone like Sandmonkey, who comes from what he calls an "upper middle-class family," and was educated largely outside his birth country, the distorted perceptions run deep. "The Egyptians know nothing about the Israelis," he says. "We don't know anything about Israeli society. We don't know anything about their culture. And part of that has been our government trying to keep us away from the information. An Israeli can come into Egypt very easily. For an Egyptian to go to Israel, it's really, really hard to do. You have to go through a large bureaucratic process. And the point is to keep us in the dark. Don't humanize the people. It's easier to vilify the Jews in Israel."
And from the Israeli side:
Lirun Rabinowitz, who has been living in Israel for a year and a half ... shares his blog with a Lebanese woman and was recently invited to be a co-author on the United Arab Emirates community blog and, even more surprisingly, on an annual Ramadan blog, in which various bloggers write about how the Muslim holiday is celebrated in their countries. Recently, on the UAE blog, he was accused in the comments section of being needlessly provocative for putting the words "Tel Aviv" after his name at the end of his posts. To his surprise, a number of Arab readers rushed to his defense in the comments section.
Rabinowitz says that perusing the Arab blogosphere has deepened his understanding of what is happening inside Arab society. "When I go to them, I see what are they worrying about, what are they wondering, how they are feeling, what level of analysis they are putting on things, how keen they are to see my side, and when they are only prepared to see their own. Is there room for bridging? And I learn a lot about what their knee-jerk reaction looks like, what their analysis looks like, what their fears look like." And to him, that added layer of knowledge is a rebuke to the other forces in Israeli society that he feels are trying to define the "enemy" for him. "You want to tell me that these people are stupid? Well, they're not," says Rabinowitz. "You want to tell me that these people want to live in a dictatorship? Well, they don't. You want to tell me that they can't be Muslim and tolerant and friendly at the same time? Well, it's wrong. You want to tell me that they hate me just because they're Muslim and I'm Jewish? Well that's wrong, too. And they prove that to me every day. And I get this amazing opportunity to dispel every demonic myth and every stupid stereotype that I could have ever thought of, and that's amazingly liberating."
Of course, as the article admits, those who are blogging in the Arab world, and especially those doing so in English or French, are the elite and make up a very small percentage of the "Arab Street." But the fact remains that they are making a difference, and just because they're the elite, doesn't mean that they aren't also the vanguard of a larger movement towards homegrown democratic reform in the Arab world.