Middle East and Islam lecturer Idit Bar at her home in Jerusalem, 2019 (Ohad Ramati / courtesy)
Middle East and Islam lecturer Idit Bar at her home in Jerusalem. (Ohad Ramati / courtesy)

To stand up for Israel, Mideast expert agrees to be ‘punching bag’ for Arab media

Since Oct. 7, Idit Bar has engaged in intensive public diplomacy on BBC Arabic and social media. In the process, she has learned to hit the ‘soft belly’ of a hostile audience

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Middle East and Islam lecturer Idit Bar at her home in Jerusalem. (Ohad Ramati / courtesy)

A BBC Arabic news panel last month featured former Egyptian ambassador to the UN Moataz Khalil, the head of Fatah’s Media Office Munir al-Jaghoub, Qatari journalist Abdullah Al-Khater — and Idit Bar, the only Israeli woman to regularly appear on Arabic news channels to make the case for the Jewish state.

That night, Bar was called to respond to accusations regarding Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories, to comment on the government’s war strategy in Gaza, and to explain divisions within Israeli society — the latter being a favorite topic for discussion in the Arab world, where democratic debate is mostly stifled or non-existent, she noted.

“Each time, before going on air, I ask myself if it’s worth the effort — to put myself through that humiliation,” she admitted in an interview with The Times of Israel. “I am treated like a punching bag, shouted at. I have to sit and listen to convoluted five-minute-long questions containing very harsh allegations against us. And then I have to reply to all that slander in a language that is not my mother tongue.”

Since Hamas’s October 7 atrocities in Israel and the subsequent war on Hamas, Arabic-language media outlets have almost invariably embraced the Palestinian narrative, depicting the ongoing conflict as an unjustified Israeli aggression against Gaza. They have been largely dismissive of the crimes committed by terrorists on October 7 and their systematic brutalization of Israeli civilians.

That denialist narrative has been espoused not only by media outlets historically hostile to Israel, such as Al Jazeera, but also by the supposedly fairer BBC on its Arabic-language channel, where Bar regularly appears as a guest panelist.

The BBC Arabic channel came under fire in mid-October, after it emerged that some of its reporters endorsed and shared social media posts justifying the killing of Israeli civilians on October 7, by implying that all young Israelis were combatants and therefore legitimate targets, despite overwhelming evidence that most of the victims murdered by Hamas were not soldiers, and included children and the elderly.

Bar made her first appearance on BBC Arabic to replace another Israeli commentator, a friend of hers, and has been a regular ever since.

“They took a shine to me,” she said. “At some point, I wondered why they kept calling me — until I realized that they probably want me to boost their ratings,” she said, adding jokingly: “I should get a share of the earnings.”

Bar, who holds an MA from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in Arabic and Middle East studies, has years of experience teaching Arabic in defense-related establishments and at Israel’s Open University. Today, she gives lectures on Arab society and culture, and as a side gig runs a Hebrew-language podcast on the status of women in Islamic societies. She is an avid collector of Arab political caricatures, which she analyzes and shares on her X account.

Bar explained what motivates her to persist in her public diplomacy efforts and debate hostile commentators and news anchors to counter their portrayal of the Jewish state as “Satanic,” as she described it.

“When I go on air, I tell myself that the State of Israel rests on my shoulders. I am not there to represent the government or the army. I am there to represent my love for Israel. If I don’t go on those panels, who will?” she said.

“Even if I get to speak for just five minutes before I am interrupted and not allowed to further plead Israel’s case,” she continued, “in that short time, I get to say something different from the channel’s monotonous narrative. An Arab viewer in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon will perhaps prick his ears and think, ‘Wow, maybe she is right.’”

Bar’s interest in the Arab world and Islam runs in her blood. On one side of the family, her grandparents were Iranian crypto-Jews forcibly converted to Islam, who returned to Judaism only after emigrating to Israel. Her childhood was filled with stories from the mosque and the Islamic practices her grandparents were coerced to adopt.

On the other side of the family, her grandmother was living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan in the early 1920s, when gangs of Arab rioters rampaged through the Jewish section, torching houses, pillaging and raping women, Bar recounted. Her grandmother was spared only because she could speak Arabic. As Bar was growing up, her grandmother inculcated in her the idea that mastering the language could one day be a life-saving skill.

Bar’s intimate knowledge of the Arab and Muslim world enables her to approach with confidence her Arab interlocutors, she said, and to know not only how to fend off their tirades, but also how to strike back and hit their “soft belly.”

“Whenever someone mentions the Israeli ‘occupation,’ I point out that the real occupation in the Middle East is that of Iran, which funds and trains not only Hamas, but also paramilitary groups in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Castigating the Iranian occupation resonates with many in those countries,” she said.

Hezbollah supporters wave their group and Iranian flags during a protest on the Lebanese-Israeli border near the southern village of Kafr Kila, Lebanon, May 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

Another sensitive issue Bar likes to raise in debates is Islamic fundamentalism, such as that embodied by Hamas, a spin-off of the radical cross-border Muslim Brotherhood movement.

“The Brotherhood is the arch-enemy of ‘normal’ Arab countries, since its goal is to regress to a puritanical form of Islam, and religious fervor is often perceived as a threat to rulers and to stability,” Bar explained.

“Throughout the Middle East, regimes have hit the snake on the head,” she said, referencing the outlawing of the Brotherhood in various Arab countries. “Only in Gaza has it been allowed to thrive. Whenever I bring up the fact that Hamas is an emanation of the Brotherhood, I know I am touching a delicate spot, since many Arabs fear its influence.”

Bar’s outreach expanded to new fields after October 7, when she responded to a call for Arab-speaking volunteers by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), a hawkish think tank.

In her latest role, she deals with her passion, political caricatures. Working in tandem with an Israeli illustrator, they draw irreverent caricatures that aim to provoke Arab netizens and get them to rethink the dynamics of the Middle East – with a particular focus on the pernicious power game played by Iran through its proxies.

Bar’s ability to bridge the culture gap between Arabs and Israelis also has a business angle. She has been a lecturer on Arab society for over a decade, training Israeli businessmen on how to approach Arab partners in an appropriate, culturally sensitive way. The main source of friction between the two communities, in her view, lies in the perception of religion.

“Israelis often underestimate the religious sentiment in Muslim societies, even among non-observant people,” she said, noting that mocking faith is an absolute taboo for Arabs. “Mainstream Israeli society is Western-oriented, rationalistic, and not religious, so for us, it’s hard to understand.”

Religious fervor is also a preponderant element in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that Israelis sometimes ignore.

“Many Muslims are driven by a messianic ideology, an apocalyptic vision that Israel will eventually be vanquished by Islam. Many believe it’s imminent — think of the clock in a Tehran square counting down the days to Israel’s destruction,” she said.

Iranian protesters unveil a digital countdown showing 8,411 days until Israel is destroyed at the Palestine Sq. during an annual rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran, Iran, June 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

In 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei predicted that after 25 years — by 2040 — there would no longer be a State of Israel. In 2017, a huge digital countdown display was inaugurated at Tehran’s Palestine Square, counting down the days to Israel’s supposed demise.

“We Israelis find that ludicrous, but for many Muslims it’s a certainty. The same goes for the belief that Jews are the descendants of ‘apes and pigs,’ based on a curse that Allah pronounced against them according to three Quranic verses,” she said.

“It’s a belief that goes a long way in explaining the dehumanization of the Jews: It’s much easier to brutalize and slaughter, the way Hamas did on October 7, if you think that Jews are apes and pigs,” she said. “In our rational Western way of thinking, all of this is unfathomable.”

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