An Israeli Jew fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, with a unique understanding of Arab society and culture, Avi Melamed is a strategic intelligence analyst and an expert on the modern-day Arab and Muslim worlds, and their impact on the Middle East, based on his experience as a former Israeli intelligence official and senior official on Arab Affairs.
Ahead of a docu-series we’re producing for IZZY with Avi, we caught up with him to learn more about the author, educator, and strategic intelligence analyst.
IZZY: Avi, what’s your background?
Avi Melamed: I was born and raised in Jerusalem. I’m actually an ancient Jerusalemite. My ancestors used to live in the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1800’s. Growing up in Jerusalem, the 60s, the 70s were totally different times from today.
My professional career, at the end of the day, centers around the whole issue of Israel in the neighborhood, meaning this world and the Arab world in the Middle East. It started in a way to do with the fact that my grandfather from my mother’s side came from the northern part of Iraq.
IZZY: Do you think that Israelis and Arabs are more similar than most people would think?
Avi: That’s an interesting question. To a certain extent, yes. I mean, you start with words, you know, there’s so many similar words in Arabic and Hebrew. Some aspects of the cultures are in a way similar. Obviously, for Jews who came from an Arab state, it’s easier to affiliate more with our cultural tradition.
So there is a lot of, particularly among the Jews, the communities, at least the first generation who came from the Arab states. Not only Arab, also non-Arab states, like Iran or Turkey. These are non-Arab states, but Jews are part of them. So, yes, there are similarities. Some similarities. There are some differences.
But more than similarities, is real knowledge and understanding of the picture. And this is what I’m doing. My core argument is that, in order to understand Israel better, you have to understand the Middle East. The Middle East shapes the trajectory of Israel, and many things within Jews’ specific landscape of Israel. And I argue that it’s very important to really bring that knowledge about the Middle East to people. Because through this understanding, or more accurate understanding, of the very complex picture, most people can more easily understand Israeli Jews’ strategic reality, and many things that actually dictate Israel’s everyday life.
IZZY: People need more accurate information, in a world of “fake news” and fact-less narratives. What kind of challenges does that present for Israel?
Avi: Let me share with you a story. In 2014, I was briefing a group of students. It was in the middle of the war between Israel and Hamas. And I was explaining why do we had to divert the income flights because of the challenge of the rockets coming from the Gaza Strip.
And there was a student, an American student, he was a Jewish student, who was unable to understand what I’m basically saying. It was very clear that he was struggling to push aside the facts and the reality because it was replaced with some kind of inner narrative that he had to comply with. And it was very difficult for him to compromise. And basically, at the end of the day, he was actually saying, I’d rather push reality aside, and I prefer to stay with my narrative.
That’s part of the challenge. Real knowledge right now is being replaced with digestible slogans and sound bites and concepts and theories. That
sounds great, but in a way, they don’t pass the test of reality and validity. And unfortunately, more and more people, and particularly, for example, young people, are not being taught how to think. They’re being told what to think.
And that’s a major educational challenge. People basically are not provided with the right approach, the skills, the tools of media literacy, critical thinking that are are very much required if you want to really understand the complex world, and particularly when you’re talking about the Middle East.
It’s a very challenging reality. But even in this challenging reality, we can make a change, we can make a difference.
IZZY: What do you think are maybe some of the biggest misconceptions about the Middle East that negatively affect the image of Israel?
Avi: A very common narrative in the West, regarding the story of the Middle East, Israel, is that the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict shapes the geo-strategic landscape of the Middle East. And I’ve been saying all along, for many years, it’s the other way around: The Middle East shapes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We are doing a special program of a couple of sessions through Zoom that is called, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A View From the Region.” If you’re from the region, what we are doing is we are showing how developments, trends, and events that happened in the Middle East, at the end of the 19th Century, the 20th Century and right now, impact and shape the trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
And I think that the best example that we see right now in front of our eyes is, of course, the whole issue of the normalization and the peace agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the peace talks between Israel in Bahrain, normalization between Israel and Sudan, normalization between Israel and Morocco.
For example, there was a famous speech by John Kerry in 2016, when he was the U.S. Secretary of State. He was very decisively saying, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is not going to be solved, there is not going to be any peace between Israel and Arab states. Reality shows today that his observation was inaccurate.
We can make a change, we can make a difference. But, to make a difference in general, in order to make a positive impact on the trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in particular, one must understand the reality.
What are the factors involved? What are their interests? Who can be a positive partner and who not? And other questions. Subduing reality to concepts, narratives, and theories — though they may sound good and noble — but exempted from the test of reality and validity, is counterproductive and dangerous.
Learn more about Avi Melamed via his website.