Commentary: When Middle East 'enemies' get to know each other

Allow me to tell you something you are not going to like; something that shocked me. But don't despair when you hear it, because deep inside the disheartening revelation lies hidden a promising discovery about the prospects for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

Last year as part of its annual survey, the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked people throughout the Middle East and beyond how they feel about members of other religious groups. It will come as no surprise that Arabs don't exactly overflow with love for the Jews, but this was on a scale that I found stunning. Remember, the pollsters didn't ask people what they thought about Israel or about Israeli policies, Israeli leaders or even regular Israelis. The question was about Jews.

In Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel more than 30 years ago, an astonishing 95 percent of the people said they have unfavorable views of Jews. In Jordan, the other Arab country at peace with Israel, the anti-Jewish sentiment stood at 97 percent and in Lebanon at 98 percent. In non-Arab Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey, much smaller majorities, but majorities nonetheless, shared negative views about Jews.

But here's the most surprising -- and potentially the most important result: Of all the Muslim populations questioned by Pew, the one with the most favorable feelings for the Jewish people was none other than the Muslims who live inside Israel.

Only 35 percent of Israeli Arabs had a negative opinion of Jews. Israeli Arabs, to be clear, are not the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli Arabs are full citizens of Israel, making up 20 percent of the country's population. They, among all the Arabs and Muslims in the world, are the ones who have more everyday contact with Jews. They are the ones who have personal knowledge to refute the slanders that pass for news in too many places.

These results show the importance of co-existence, human interaction, democracy, a free press and even education. They show the powerful impact of real-life experience, in contrast with a diet of propaganda and conspiracy theories, stories of blood-thirsty Jews and other sordid tales, fed on a daily basis to Muslims, Arabs and increasingly much of the world.

The survey showed that the power of personal knowledge extends to views about extremist organizations. When pollsters asked Muslims what they think about Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, and Hezbollah, the Shiite extremists operating in Lebanon, the results were fascinating. Hamas received positive reviews from Egyptians and Jordanians living beyond the realm of the militants. But Palestinians, who live under Hamas rule, felt differently. The worst numbers for Hamas came from Gaza, where only 37 percent expressed positive views about the organization.

The same was true for Hezbollah. More than 60 percent in the Palestinian Territories had a positive opinion of the Lebanon-based, Iranian-backed group. But in Lebanon, where people see Hezbollah in action, only 35 percent favored Hezbollah.

Once upon a time, the Middle East was a place where people from different nations, tribes and religions met and traded and learned to live together. During centuries when most people spent their lives where they happened to be born, the Levant, the crossroads of caravans of traders, pilgrims and fortune seekers from across the world, became a hub of cultural interaction. The gateway between East and West saw Muslims, Christians and Jews rubbing shoulders, learning about each other and discovering, sometimes after bloody battles, how to live in relative peace.

The reasons why hatred and mistrust have taken residence in people's hearts are many. The corrosively bitter divisions come from very real political and territorial disputes, manipulative politicians, hate-spewing extremists and uncompromising political ideologies. But pure, old-fashioned religious prejudice has become an inextricable part of a brew that is poisoning attitudes and making reconciliation more difficult.

It's not all bad news, however. Despite a history of a thousand and one lies in the Middle East, and despite the best efforts of extremists, the truth -- with great effort -- has shown it still has the power to break through. That's the happy secret hiding in this sad story.