AMMAN, Jordan (JTA) — Near the Shariah Islamic law department at the University of Jordan, there is a blue Star of David spray-painted on a concrete path between the pine trees. The crudely drawn image is there so that students at the university, Jordan’s largest and most prestigious, can trample the symbol of the Jewish state. Just across the street, in a picturesque building with a limestone facade and an antique-filled, newly restored interior, researchers produce some of the most widely respected scholarship in Jordan on geopolitics and conflicts in the Middle East, at the Center for Strategic Studies. The center’s director, Mustafa Hamarneh, frequently rubs elbows with Israeli academics at conferences in Europe and North America. He has visited Israel, met Israeli government officials, and even hosted Jews from America in his home. After the war between Israel and Hezbollah, this is what Hamarneh had to say about Israel’s actions: “It reminded us of what the Nazis did in Europe — they would demolish entire quarters.” Explaining that there were men in Israel’s Knesset whom he considered “the other side of Osama bin Laden,” Hamarneh singled out Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for special opprobrium. “Israel produces parochial men who still think they’re in some ghetto in Central Europe, emboldened by American Jews and an American administration that is outside history,” Hamarneh said. “Our problem really is American Jewry. They are the cause of all the misery in the region,” he said. “Organized American Jewry blindly adopts Israeli policies.” “Israel is probably the last openly bigoted racist country today,” Hamarneh concluded. This is the voice of moderation in Jordan today. It is also a poignant illustration of how wide the gulf is between popular Jordanian sentiment toward Israel and the Hashemite regime’s relationship with the Jewish state. The two governments have developed close strategic ties since their leaders signed a historic peace treaty 12 years ago, but acceptance of Israel among rank-and-file Jordanians remains abysmally low. “The peace is between governments, not the people,” said Hani Hourani, director general of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center, in Amman. “It is not even between the elites. It is not even between NGOs.” Keeping a low profile A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 100 percent of those polled in Jordan have “unfavorable” views of Jews—more even than Lebanon’s 99 percent. This may owe in part to widespread disaffection with Jordan’s peace treaty with the Jewish state. “Israel is not a country. It is a terrorist organization founded by the British government in 1948,” said one student at the University of Jordan, Omar Al-Hinfi, expressing a commonly held view in his country. “Israel is not justified. It is something put in the whole Arab world to serve the colonial powers.” To be sure, there are some Jordanians who support their country’s peace treaty with Israel, and others who do business in Israel or with Israelis. But very few Jordanians advertise their ties to Israel, and with good reason. The country has a powerful lobby led by Islamists, professionals and leftists that vigorously opposes normalizing ties with the Jewish state. This anti-normalization movement controls Jordan’s professional associations and enforces a boycott against Israel that blacklists any members who violate the policy. Sometimes, violators’ families are threatened. “Extremists threatened to kill me for going to Israel,” said Faisal Al-Rfouh, vice dean at the University of Jordan and Jordan’s former minister of culture. Though a former colonel in the Jordanian army, Rfouh said he feared for the lives of the wife and children he left behind in Amman when he visited the Jewish state. As a consequence of such policies, few Jordanian lawyers are willing to do business with Israel, doctors from Jordan walk out of international medical conferences when their Israeli colleagues get up to speak, and legislators in Jordan regularly call for cutting ties with Israel and expelling Israel’s ambassador from the Hashemite Kingdom. Ron Pundak, director general of the Peres Center for Peace, a nongovernmental organization in Tel Aviv that coordinates projects with Jordanians, acknowledged, “The reality dictates that we do some of our activities in a low profile.” Things tend to get worse whenever Israeli-Arab conflicts flare up. Six years ago, after the outbreak of the second intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, an Israeli embassy official was shot in Amman. This summer, during the Lebanon war, there were angry demonstrations in Amman opposite the Israeli Embassy. In early September, a terrorist opened fire on a group of Western tourists in the capital, killing one and wounding six. “What Israel is doing in the West Bank or Lebanon embarrasses us. We are ashamed. We can’t say in a loud voice that we are a peace movement,” said Mansur Abu Rashid, chairman of the Amman Center for Peace and Development and one of Jordan’s few outspoken peace proponents. “How can we challenge the anti-normalization movement? We have to show the people what the fruit of peace is.” Abu Rashid, a former Jordanian army general, runs a women’s empowerment project where Israeli women help female Jordanian candidates run parliamentary campaigns. He oversees small enterprise projects designed to help indigent Jordanian women supplement their families’ incomes. He is involved in joint agricultural projects that marry Israeli technological know-how with Jordanian land and labor. Abu Rashid even coordinates a religious dialogue project that brings together imams and rabbis. “The idea is to maintain the continuity between the people in Jordan and the people of Israel,” he says, adding that the effort has been particularly difficult since the intifada began in 2000. Seeds of peace One notable success story in the Jordan-Israel relationship has been the Qualified Industrial Zones in Jordan, where goods produced with 8 percent Israeli labor or Israeli parts may be exported to the United States free of tariffs or U.S. Customs Service import quotas. These special cooperative projects have generated some 19,000 jobs in Jordan and sent Jordanian exports to the United States soaring to about $1 billion per year, making the United States Jordan’s biggest export partner. A similar Israel-Jordan project involving European Union sponsorship is under development, according to Israel’s former ambassador to Jordan, Yacov Hadas. But privately sponsored joint programs remain rare. And after Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, it will become much harder for Israeli-Jordanian relationships to gain traction, people here say. “How do people now justify their ties with Israel?” asked Samir Barhoum, editor of the Jordan Times, an English-language daily published in Amman. “These wars do not help. Instead of building bridges we are destroying them.”
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.