Diplomatic contacts with various Arab nations no longer sound like science fiction to Israelis, but professional exchanges with people in some of these countries still have the flavor of an adventure.
Members of a Weizmann Institute delegation traveling recently to a scientific conference in the Moroccan town of Essaouira (Mogador) were apprehensive. After all, they were going to a country that only a year before had established official ties with Israel.
Two Moroccan physicists harbored similar fears prior to their recent visit to the Weizmann Institute. They were among the very first Moroccan scientists to visit Israel, and they were prepared for a cool reception.
Both the Israeli and Moroccan researchers were astonished by the extent to which their anticipations were proven wrong.
Not only did they find a most warm and even cordial welcome in their respective host countries, but both had unique and moving experiences when they told people where they were from.
Prof. Mohammed Saber of the Moulay Ismail University in Meknes and Prof. El Hassane Saidi of the Mohammed V University in Rabat came to the Weizmann Institute upon the invitation of Institute scientists they met at the Sinai Meeting on HighEnergy Condensed Matter and Environmental Physics held this past November in Dahab, a seaside Egyptian resort in southern Sinai.
In addition to participating in workshops and seminars at the Institute, the two Moroccan physicists spent about two weeks traveling around the country.
Raised on images of an Israel torn by constant conflict, they were surprised to see that Israelis led a "normal, peaceful" day-to-day life. "I wish more people in the Arab world knew what Israel is really like -- I'm sure that would benefit relations between our countries," Saber said.
Moreover, they were truly overwhelmed by the friendliness with which they were treated by Israelis everywhere -- in hotels, on buses and in the street.
The ultimate expression of this welcome was an invitation to visit a kibbutz in northern Israel, which amazed the Moroccan physicists because it came from a total stranger, a woman they met at their Jerusalem hotel.
Weizmann Institute researchers who attended the conference on genetic diseases in Essaouira -- marking the dedication of the Ibn Maimon International Institute of Science -- also had plenty of reasons to be moved and amazed.
Not knowing what to expect, they were touched to hear their Moroccan hosts talk about the town's Jewish history and their desire to restore links with Jewish culture.
Institute molecular geneticist Prof. David Yaffe, who toured Morocco after the conference with his wife, said his interactions with the people exceeded all his expectations. The mention of being Israeli elicited the warmest reactions from Moroccans, with people often approaching him to shake his hand.
Saber, Saidi and Yaffe all agreed on one thing -- if one short visit could dispel so many of their misconceptions, prejudices and psychological barriers, continued scientific exchanges could constitute a true force in fostering ArabIsraeli relations.
"I believe in the peace process, and I'd like it to lead to fruitful scientific cooperation between our countries," Saidi said.
The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot, Israel.