The concealed links between Israel’s “invisible” citizens

 
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By Khaled Diab

An electoral campaign video targeted at Israel’s “invisible” poor unwittingly highlights the long-neglected links between Mizrahi Jews and Arabs.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel's marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel’s marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

Friday 6 February 2015

It is a very powerful electoral message. The ad features middle-class Israelis complaining about how tough they have it, while phantom figures around them beg for money, scan their shopping at the supermarket checkout, fill their petrol tanks and clean their homes.
[YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4PyeR1YsD8]

This savvy appeal to the almost 1.7 million “invisible” Israelis who live below the poverty line was not produced by Meretz, Hadash, Labour or any other party on the left of the political spectrum. Surprisingly, the video is the work of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party on the right, most closely associated with Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrahi populations.

Analysts suggest that this video is part of a bid to break free of Shas’ traditional image of being a religious and ethnic party, and to appeal to a group not explicitly targeted by most of the other parties: Israel’s economically marginalised.

“The target audience is obviously broader than anything any ultra-Orthodox party tried before,” Israeli journalist, blogger and analyst Dimi Reider observed. “The ad’s inclusivity is particularly startling when one looks at the other parties hoping to swoop in on the social-economic protest vote,” he adds, pointing to how Labour, for example, has fielded only one Mizrahi candidate, who occupies the unelectable 23rd position on the party’s list.

Shas’s rehabilitated leader Aryeh Deri, who was imprisoned on bribery charges, is credited with this apparent shift to the left, though much of the party does not seem to share his politics, while his leadership is in doubt.

Despite Shas talking the talk of the poor, it is still solidly, like religious parties across the Middle East, walking the walk of the neo-liberal business elites, as reflected in its backing for Likud-led privatisation programmes and austerity measures. “Their campaign is a great one but it is really far away from their politics in the real political world,” notes Mati Shemoelof, a progressive Iraqi-Israeli poet, writer, journalist and activist. “They are part of the problem and not the solution.”

While Shas’s campaign video features poor Jews, there is an elephant in the room. Missing from the picture are Palestinian-Israelis, the invisible among the invisible, who make up the bulk of Israel’s poor.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel account for 44.5% of Israel’s poor, according to a report by Adalah, an NGO that advocates for the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Over half of Arab families in Israel are classified as poor, compared to a national average of 20 percent, according to the report. This is a reflection of the fact that Arabs on average earn 32% less than Jews, while the net income of Arab household is less than two-thirds of what their Jewish counterparts take home, the report observes.

Although the Mizrahim are generally somewhat better off than the Arabs of Israel and their relative situation has improved, they still lag considerably behind the Ashkenazim. This is reflected in the fact that Ashkenazi Israelis earn 30 percent more on average than Mizrahim.

Despite being in a similar socio-economic boat, it is highly improbable that the Mizrahi and Palestinian citizens of Israel will find common cause – at least not in the forthcoming elections. The bulk of Israel’s Sephardim and Mizrahim sit firmly in the anti-Arab, nationalist right. After decades of jettisoning their Arab and Middle Eastern heritage to assimilate into Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated “melting pot”, and expressing bitterness at how their native societies rejected them, few have the appetite to admit that they share much in common with their Palestinian compatriots.

Previous attempts to make this link essentially failed. Take the Israeli Black Panthers, a radical political group that emerged to agitate for Mizrahi rights. Many Panthers believed that the Mizrahi class struggle was intimately connected to that of the Palestinian-Israelis and that social peace in Israel was not possible without peace with the Palestinians. “There will be no equality and no chance for the Mizrahim as long as there’s an occupation and a national struggle,” believed former Black Panther Kokhavi Shemeskh. “The national struggle will not be over as long as the Mizrahim are at the bottom of the ladder, and are practically an anti-Arab lever.”

However, this view was not common or popular among the Mizrahim, and the movement faded into obscurity, though it is notable that Mizrahi intellectuals helped pave the way to the peace process.

Were they to set aside their nationalist narratives and embrace their common struggle for socio-economic and cultural equality, the Mizrahim and Palestinian-Israelis could form a formidable voting bloc that would carry significant weight, since together they make up an estimated 60% of Israel’s citizenry (about 40 percent Mizrahi and 20 percent Arab).

Beyond their shared socio-economic woes, Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis have in common that they believe that their history is insufficiently taught in Israeli schools, and that their Middle Eastern culture is still, despite improvements, regarded as inferior. But the younger generation are taking greater pride in their heritage, which could pave the way to joint action to end discrimination against them, dilute the “us” and “them” formula of the conflict, and drive home the realisation that Israel, rather than being a Western “villa in the jungle” of the Middle East, actually possesses a very Middle Eastern socio-cultural complexion.

Moreover, in the bitter identity politics that have resulted from decades of conflict, both the Mizrahim (sometimes referred to as “Arab Jews”) and Palestinians in Israel, contradict the simplistic narrative that Arabs and Jews are completely different animals. In fact, as anyone who has lived in the Holy Land can attest, Israelis and Palestinians share much in common culturally and socially, and the differences within each society are greater than the differences between them.

As I outline in my book, Intimate Enemies, in which I also explore these “conflicting identities, if the civil rights path to liberation is pursued, rather than being stuck in the nationalistic abyss dividing Arabs and Jews, the Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis may well become the future bridge to peace and justice the two sides desperately need.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 3 February 2015.

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Lost in confrontation in the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

As tensions mount, it’s hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians share a lot in common – even the dreams of their great writers.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Monday 10 November 2014

You could tell by the chaos and confusion in the aisles that it was a flight heading back to the Middle East. Passengers milled about noisily in search of space for their excess hand baggage or chatted animatedly by their seats, causing a significant delay as the perplexed cabin crew tried to gain order.

During take-off, an argument broke out between two passengers because one of them was using his mobile phone. Pretty soon, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, others were drawn into the altercation, each contributing their penny’s worth on whether or not phones should be switched off.

Despite the familiarity of the scene, this flight was not heading to my hometown of Cairo or any other Arab capital but was destined for Tel Aviv.

What this incident highlights is that the differences between Israelis and Arabs are more about politically coloured perceptions than they are about social or cultural realities, especially when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian and Levantine neighbours.

With so little contact between Arabs and Israelis, this will undoubtedly come as a surprise to people on both sides of the political and ideological chasm separating the two sides. But having lived in the Holy Land on and off since 2011, I would hazard to say that, in many crucial respects, Palestinians and Israelis have more in common with each other than they do with their kin further afield, say Gulf Arabs or Diaspora Jews.

That is one reason why I describe the protagonists in this decades-old conflict as “intimate enemies” in my new book: partly because of their close geographical and physical proximity but also because of their surprising social and cultural symmetry.

Confronted with a reality on the ground which conflicts with the simplistic prevalent political narratives, I wrote the book as a modest corrective to all the distrust, misapprehension and miscomprehensions in the air. I am also of the conviction that seeing the human faces behind the conflict is a vital prerequisite to the long process of organic, grassroots peace-building.

The manuscript was well-received by reviewers. One of my favourite responses I received was from the prominent Israeli historian and dissident Ilan Pappè. “I was deeply moved and impressed by the chapters,” he told me. “You are doing justice to their experience, complexities… and impossible reality.”

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving, as if they are recommendations and not actual legislation, not to mention their almost innate distrust of authority. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Even Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals share some surprising traits, such as when it comes to their daydreams. One intriguing example is the fantasy entertained by both the late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz. “One of my recurrent fantasies… was to be a book, whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes,” Said wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

Echoing this sentiment, Oz confessed to me in his study that, as a child, he wanted to “grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival”.

This conflicts with the common Arab perception of Israel as being a slice of Europe transplanted into the region, not to mention the Israeli self-image of being a supposed stronghold of Western enlightenment in the Middle East.

When viewed dispassionately, these similarities, symmetries and parallels are hardly surprising. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have lived side by side for decades and so, even if they regard each other as enemies, they are bound to influence one another.

Add to this the fact that around half of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi (Eastern), then Israel’s Middle Eastern flavour becomes more comprehensible.

Mizrahi, or “Arab Jews” as many were once known, like the Palestinians, also fell victim to the conflict between Zionist and Arab nationalism – so much so that few Arabs alive today realise that they once shared their societies with a dynamic and integrated Jewish minority.

“When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, Al Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” Sasson Somekh, the accomplished Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic, who helped put the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the map of world literature, told me.

“We felt even more Arab than Arabs … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us,” believes Baghdad-born Israeli author Sami Michael.

But in the unforgiving reality of the conflict having the words Arab and Jew in such overlapping and interwoven proximity was too close for comfort for enemies who sought to take the Arab out of the Jew and the Jew out of the Arab.

But it is not just Mizrahi Jews who find themselves trapped unenviably in the no-man’s-land of the conflict, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are also caught in the middle, with one foot on either side of the widening Israeli-Palestinian abyss.

Probably the most famous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose powerful verse earned him the title of Palestine’s national poet. One under-appreciated aspect is the enormous impact growing up in Israel had on Darwish’s identity, both negatively and positively.

This was reflected in his love of the Hebrew language, not to mention the passionate love affair he once had with an Israeli woman. And it is this ambiguity in a situation that does not generally tolerate it that makes Palestinians in Israel not just “fifth columnists” in the eyes of their Jewish compatriots but also distrusted among some of their Palestinian brethren.

Only last week, the Mufti of Nablus, Ahmed Shobashi, stirred up anger and calls for his resignation when he demanded that Palestinians in Israel be barred from entering the West Bank because of their “negative moral impact”.

This incident illustrates how the differences within Palestinian and Israeli societies are often greater than the disparities between them. This is reflected in the sharp and polarised secular-religious and right-left divides. In fact, with attention focused on the headline conflict, most overlook the brewing civil strife in both societies which manifests itself, for instance, in the increasing “price tag” attacks by settlers against peace activists and leftists or the bitter Hamas-Fatah schism. That is not to mention the conflicts between the haves and have-nots and those in favour of justice and equality, and those opposed to them.

Despite the significant amount of common social and cultural ground, politically Israelis and Palestinians have perhaps never seemed further apart. This summer turned into a heated season of hate and open warfare.

Even now with hostilities over in Gaza, the situation in the besieged enclave has not changed – except for the massive amounts of wanton destruction there. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the West Bank witness daily protests and clashes, with al-Aqsa acting as a symbolic centre for the rising tensions.

With the worsening reality on the ground, people may be excused for believing that this conflict will just grind on forever. Although the situation is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, I believe the status quo is untenable.

The most promising way out of the quagmire, in my view, is what I call the “non-state solution” in which talks of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement. Once this has been achieved, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, long sidelined and ignored in efforts to resolve the conflict, can begin a people’s peace process in which everyone is involved in the quest for coexistence.

Although it may take generations, I am convinced that a new dawn of peace and justice will come, but this dawn will arrive in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream.

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

On Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intimate-Enemies-Israelis-Palestinians-Guardian-ebook/dp/B00OXQJYUE/?tag=smarturl-gb-21

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 November 2014.

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Palestinian history ✝ – Christians are Arab too

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite what some in the Knesset think, Christians in Israel are Arabs too and have been prominent in Palestinian politics, society and culture.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 March 2014

“This is a historic and important move that could help balance the state of Israel, and connect us and the Christians,” said Yariv Levin, the Likud Knesset member behind the controversial new law to distinguish between Israel’s indigenous Christian and Muslim minorities.

While being a minority within a minority does make Palestinian Christians more vulnerable than their Muslim compatriots, the issues facing the two are generally the same. Besides, the law seems to be about anything but the enfranchisement and empowerment of a shrinking minority – otherwise its sponsor would’ve made some effort to understand the group he was targeting.

In fact, for someone who calls a law “historic”, Levin shows precious little understanding of history.

“I’m being careful about not calling [Christians] Arabs because they aren’t Arabs,” Levin asserted confidently, throwing prudence, intelligence and knowledge to the winds of his bigotry.

My incredulity was driven by the fact that not only are Christians in this part of the world as much Arabs as Muslims, there were actually, it would shock Levin to learn, Arab Christians, as there were Arab Jews, long before there were ever any Muslims.

In the modern era, it might perplex Levin to discover, that Christians actually invented and defined “Arab” in its modern meaning… at least in part. Whereas once “Arab” referred solely to the inhabitants of Arabia and those descended from the Arab tribes, in the modern era, the word took a far, far broader and more inclusive meaning.

The Ottoman millet system divided people according to their religious faith, giving each community autonomy over its own affairs. But as the Ottomans turned into the original “sick man of Europe”, the subject peoples of the empire, influenced by ideas imported from 19th-century European nationalism, struggled for independence. These included the Arabic-speaking peoples of the region.

The Arab struggle against the Ottomans took place at three levels: Islamic, local nationalist and pan-Arabist. Unsurprisingly given their traditional dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state ) status, Christian intellectuals were among the leading proponents and inventors of the idea of secular Arab nationalism, in which all Arabic speakers, regardless of religion, would be equal citizens in a utopian Arab nation which would stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the grassroots Arab uprising against the Ottomans were Christians. One of the earliest Arab nationalists, the Syrian Christian Ibrahim el-Yazigi, who eventually became a member of a secret anti-Ottoman society, penned a rousing patriotic poem which was incredibly popular in the mid-19th century, Arise, ye Arabs and Awake.

Today, the pan-Arabist movement of the 20th century is generally associated with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But Nasser actually started off essentially as an Egyptian nationalist. The roots of pan-Arab nationalism actually lie in the Levant.

Jurji Zaydan – a Lebanese Christian intellectual and one of the Arab world’s first media moguls who was interestingly a prolific writer of novels themed around Islamic history – is often credited as its founding father.

In Palestine, though a relative cultural backwater at the time, Khalil al-Sakakini – who would eventually be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church – pioneered a progressive schooling system based on collaboration, rather than competition, and Arab nationalism.

As a coherent secular political ideology, pan-Arabism was first formulated by three Syrian thinkers – Constantin ZureiqMichel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi – all of whom belonged not to the Sunni Muslim majority, but to the Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the Palestinian context, many of the leading champions of the Palestinian cause, especially on the left, were Christian, as were many of its most prominent figures in all walks of life. For instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction in the PLO, was founded by George Habash, who, like Che Guevara, was a doctor turned Marxist revolutionary. Without a single Islamic or Islamist bone in his body, Habash advocated, following the crushing 1967 defeat, the idea of armed, revolutionary struggle, including spectacular acts of terrorism, as the only way to liberate his homeland.

One of the first intifada’s most eloquent young leaders, who marked the shift to a new generation of more savvy, media-genic Palestinian politicians, Hanan Ashrawi, is also a Christian. Ashrawi is also a prominent Palestinian academic, who was the protégé of Edward Said who, though he became an agnostic, was raised as a Protestant.

In addition to being a pioneer in the critical study of Orientalism and one of the founding figures of Post-Colonialism, Said was the face of the Palestinian cause in the United States for much of his life.

Given the contempt in which many Israelis and pro-Israel activists hold Edward Said and George Habash, it is puzzling that Yariv Levin should claim that: “We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies.”

But perhaps the situation is different within Israel? While Christians in Israel have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state, this can often be critical. Take Elia Suleiman’s bleakly beautiful Divine Intervention, which highlighted how love can conquer all, with the exception of checkpoints and occupations.

Nevertheless, Christians in Israel are “a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within”, insists Levin.

And Levin has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect Israel against these efforts “to destroy the country from within”. He was the co-author of the “Bishara Law”, which stripped an Arab MK of his pension following allegations of “aiding the enemy”.

The enemy in question was Hizbullah and the Knesset member who was allegedly using “state resources to destroy it”, in Levin’s words, was none other than Azmi Bishara.

The trouble for Levin is that Bishara was no Jihadist Muslim but happens to be a Christian from Nazareth who identifies very much as an Arab and a Palestinian, being the founder of the Balad party, as he is.

If Levin truly believes that Christians are “our natural allies”, why did he not stand up for Bishara, whom many believe was the victim of a political witch-hunt which lead him to flee the country, instead of leading the charge against him?

The cavernous contradictions in Levin’s discourse and positions suggests that he is either engaging in classic divide-and-rule politics or is ignorant. Most dangerous of all, I suspect that he is both.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 March 2014.

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Refuge in exile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Is it possible for Israelis and Palestinians to find common refuge in their shared notions of exile and return?

Thursday 23 August 2012

Like for Palestinians, refugee camps became a part of the Mizrahi Jewish experience. Photo: Zoltan Kluger

The United States House of Representatives is now considering a bipartisan bill, submitted last month, that would effectively equate the plight of Palestinian refugees with that of Jews whose origins were in Middle Eastern countries.

Although the tragedy that befell Jews in Arab countries following the creation of Israel certainly requires recognition and redress, many Mizrahi Jews resent the linkage.

“The basis of this equivalence is spurious. Arab Jews and Palestinians have two different histories and their experiences are not similar,” insists David Shasha, who directs the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn. “Israel has maintained that Arab Jews are members of the Jewish nation and are part of Israel. The fact that they were or were not expelled from Arab countries should not then be relevant to any peace negotiations.”

Peace activists see in this latest initiative a transparent political ploy to undermine the claims of Palestinian refugees. Noting that congress has never proposed such a bill for Palestinian refugees, Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now points to a similar Israeli foreign ministry initiative whose “focus is not only (or even primarily) seeking justice for Jews from Arab countries. The main goal is to impose new terms of reference on future peace negotiations.”

Despite this manipulation of the tragedy of the Middle East’s ancient Jewish populations, there are clear parallels between that calamity and the one that befell the Palestinians. In fact, you could say that Arab Jews are the Middle East’s “other Palestinians”.

“Both Palestinians and Jews from Arab lands were at the mercy of competing nationalisms – Zionism and Arab nationalism – sweeping the region at the time, playing off each other and insisting on reductive definitions of identity,” observes journalist and writer Rachel Shabi, herself of Iraqi Jewish descent, who is the author of Not The Enemy, a book on the history of Israel’s Mizrahi Jews.

Recalling how well-integrated into the fabric of Iraqi society and relatively successful Jews were, the prominent Iraqi-Israeli poet, academic and translator of Arabic literature Sasson Somekh told me how in light of World War II, and the fascism it unleashed, and the conflict in Palestine: “Everything changed forever. In 1948, I was 15 and I recall how people would curse Jews and throw stones at them.”

By 1951, the situation for Iraqi Jews had become so untenable that most agreed reluctantly to give up their citizenship and property in return for safe passage out of Iraq. By the 1970s, the Middle East’s rich Jewish heritage had all but disappeared, though fairly sizeable Jewish communities continued to exist in Iran and Morocco.

Although Palestinians and Arab Jews do have the loss of their homelands in common, the Mizrahim, particularly those in Israel, generally do not wish to return to their ancestral lands – indeed, many Mizrahim are actually situated on the anti-Arab end of the Israeli political spectrum. Some do visit their places of origin, such as Jews of Yemenite descent (who are the only Israelis allowed to travel to that country), as well as Moroccan and Egyptian Jews, but it should be recalled that Israeli Jews from most Arab countries are not allowed to visit their ancestral lands.

The majority of Mizrahi Jews today appear to be ideologically committed to the idea of Israel as their homeland. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that the Mizrahi vote brought the settler-friendly Likud to power in 1977 and has acted as a core power base for the party ever since. This implies that most Mizrahim no longer qualify as refugees, though they once were.

However, there are some, albeit a minority, who do still regard themselves as refugees and dream of unlikely return. Take Mati Shemoelof, a second-generation Iraqi-Israeli poet, journalist and activist who defines himself as “Arab” and believes that Mizrahi Jews went “from exile to exile.”

He wants Iraq, which he wishes to visit “more than anything in the world,” to make up for its historic crime by granting Iraqi Jews the right of return and full citizenship, while allowing them to retain their Israeli nationality and identity. His vision: “I want to live in two worlds.”

Shemoelof’s sentiments echo those of many Palestinians. Not only do many of them dwell in perpetual limbo in refugee camps across the Middle East, but the experience of exile and dream of improbable return is a central pillar of Palestinian identity. In his evocative memoirs of exile and return, I Saw Ramallah, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who was stranded in exile due to the outbreak of the 1967 war, reflected upon his return how Israel “took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land” and that the “long occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine”.

“[Exile is] a feeling that I have to carry my roots with me, so to speak, but can never fully put them down anywhere,” describes Jennifer Jajeh, a Palestinian-American actress.

Many in the diaspora feel that both they and their homeland have become phantoms. “I feel like I’m a visitor to my own home, like a ghost walking around in a land where other people refuse to see us even when we’re talking with them,” says Ray Hanania, a prominent Palestinian-American columnist, broadcaster and comedian from Chicago who visits Israel and Palestine regularly.

Those who cannot live in or visit the old country dream of being allowed at least to make it their final resting place. “When we die, bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us,” the parents of a Jordanian-Palestinian friend used to tell her.

And this sense of exile can be just as acute among the Palestinians who stayed behind, as they watch the land of their forefathers morph into another country. For instance, one young Palestinian I know from a village near Bethlehem lives frustratingly within eyeshot – across a railway line which became part of the Green Line – of what was once his family’s farmland but became part of Israel.

“When I go to Jerusalem and walk around certain parts of it, I don’t feel that I belong to that place, because it has been colonised,” says Hurriyah Ziada, a 22-year-old Palestinian student and activist in Ramallah.

Living within the boundaries of her historic homeland does not blunt Ziada’s keen sense of being an exile and refugee, perhaps partly because the movement restrictions imposed by Israel mean she has not been able even to visit her ancestral village of Faluja, near Gaza but now part of the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat. In 1948, Faluja’s residents had refused to flee the fighting but were subsequently driven out following the 1949 armistice.

Echoing the early Zionists, Ziada dreams of making Faluja her home – even though the town does not exist anymore and the surrounding area has become completely Israeli – and living the life of a Palestinian pioneer there. “It’s true that I’m used to living here [Ramallah] and all that, but it is my right to return to the village,” she insists, noting that “I’m willing to pay the price, and to start from scratch because this is the only way.”

It is unclear how representative Ziada’s views are of Palestinian refugees in general, since little research has been carried out on the taboo question of actual versus symbolic return and recognition of the historic wrong committed against the Palestinian people.

For most Israelis, even peace activists and pacifists, the idea of Palestinian return to what is today Israel is a complete non-starter. The creation and development of Israel “entails an essential injustice to the Palestinian people,” Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists, told me during a long and riveting conversation in his basement study.

In Oz’s view, it is essential for Israel to maintain “a Jewish majority” – though he diverges from the mainstream in his belief that Israel should be a state for all its citizens – even if it means shrinking its territory. His reasoning? That Jews have a right to live free of persecution and to determine their own destiny.

Palestinian return, in his view, should be to a Palestinian state within the full pre-1967 borders, referring to the armistice lines before the 1967 Six Day War. He argues that this is the pragmatic and realistic thing to do. But for an influential segment of Palestinian society, the idea of refugees not having the right to return to anywhere other than the actual homes and towns they abandoned is anathema.

So what’s the solution? According to some, compromise on both sides is the only way to ensure “a means of both of us surviving”, as Ray Hanania puts it.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 August 2012.

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Shlomo Sand: “I am not a Jew. I am an Israeli.”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bestselling Israeli historian Shlomo Sand on identity politics, political despair, why Lieberman is right… and drowning sorrows with Mahmoud Darwish.

Monday 12 March 2012

Shlomo Sand. Photo: Khaled Diab

Entering Shlomo Sand’s office at Tel Aviv university, the first thing that catches the eye are the numerous language versions of his controversial book, The Invention of the Jewish People, which has been a bestseller both in Israel and internationally. As an Egyptian with a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had read his book with great interest  – and now I was meeting the man behind this intellectual earthquake.

Despite the title of his book, Sand, with his neatly cropped beard and air of the anti-establishment academic, is not polemical, neither in his writing or in person. Rather, he projects the image of what academia should be ultimately about, intellectual scepticism and deep questioning. However, his willingness to stand up and challenge sacred cows have left their mark, and he comes across as a deeply pessimistic person, although  he is highly approachable and possesses an irrepressible passion for debate and conversation.

The polemical reactions to his iconoclasm overlook numerous important points, including the fact that, although he does not believe that a “Jewish people” exists per se, he holds firm to the notion that the existence of an Israeli people is a concrete reality, but that these Israelis are both Jewish and Arab, and that Israel should not identify itself as the homeland of the Jewish people, but should, instead, define itself as the state of the Israeli people. Also, for Arabs and opponents of Israel, it is also crucial to point out that the “Jewish people” were not the only people who were “invented”. Sand stresses that similar cases can also be made  for other peoples, including Arabs and Palestinians, and that inventing mytho-histories is a central component of modern nation-building, especially the 19th-century model in eastern and central Europe.

Although I don’t agree with everything he asserts, his vision of two independent Israeli and Palestinian republics of all their citizens, with a minority Jewish and Arab population of equals in each, is a refreshing option to consider, as is the urgent need not only to reinvent the Israeli people but also the Palestinian people.

Without further ado, I’ll let Sand speak for himself.

Shlomo Sand: It’s very difficult for me because I have started to lose hope. If we jump to the end, if you want, I don’t believe peace will be reached.

Khaled Diab:  You mean, in the short term, in the long term?

In the long term, I don’t know, I’m not a prophet. In the short term, I mean. This is the subject of my latest book. I’ve finished it pessimistically. Even the Oslo agreement was a bluff.

Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the doctor, was the leader of the Palestinians in Gaza. He was in the delegation of 1989 to Madrid. I met him 23 years ago. He died a long time ago. I remember, I went with a few academics to Gaza – he invited us. He was a secularist from a kind of Marxist background, not a communist. I remember he said that he was against the Oslo agreement. I asked him if it was because he didn’t want to recognise the Israeli state.

He started laughing. He said, “I have recognised the Israeli state since 1948.” By the way, he had a Jewish lover… woman?…

Girlfriend?

Yes. He said, I recognised it before Arafat. “No, it’s not because of this that I am against it,” he said. “I think that the Israelis are going to manipulate us again.”

“We promised to try to stop the violence. Israelis did not promise to stop the colonisation,” he said. Arafat wanted to go back to Palestine so much that he signed it, and he lost.

When you say that it’s a bluff, how much of it do you think was an intentional bluff and how much of it do you think was down to the fact that the extremists within Israeli society were more organised and…

You have to know that this is the subject of my book, and it’s not about the extremists, it’s about the centre of power, especially the Labour party. I read, during my research, Rabin’s last speech in the Knesset. When he proposed the peace, he insisted that Jerusalem would be united with Ma’ale Adumim under Israeli sovereignty. There would not be any discussion about this point. And also the Jordan Valley would belong to Israel. That was the last speech of Rabin before he was assassinated.

They accept a kind of Bantustan – all of them, all of them. This doesn’t mean that Rabin could not have progressed after this if he wasn’t assassinated. But Rabin, at that point, proposed more or less what Bibi Netanyahu is now doing.

But isn’t he going even further than that?

Yes, he is going a little bit further than Rabin in ’94.

The concept of the Land of Israel, and also the power, the emitted power, cannot bring a coalition with the goodwill to deliver the rights of the Palestinians. This is because the “Land of Israel” (“Eretz Yisrael”) is seen as the land that belongs to Israel, do you understand? I didn’t use to understand this. I thought that pragmatism would prove stronger. No, no, it’s very deep. It’s not only deep among extremists. There is not a single political party that can make peace on the Israeli side.

Beyond political parties, do you think the people themselves, the Israeli people, have a desire to…

They have a desire to live in peace. At the time when the terror was very, very strong, a lot of people became very tired of the occupied territories. Now the impression of the average Israeli is that they can continue to live like this for another hundred years.

So they think the conflict is manageable?

Yes, the average. But more and more people not on the left feel that there is no solution. They feel that it is going to end, in some way or another, badly. There is, if you want, 20% of the population, I think, which is not proposing a solution but don’t believe in any solution. They are very pessimistic.

Now the majority. It’s one of the paradoxes, and I don’t like paradoxes, that Israeli society cannot sacrifice… has stopped wanting to and being capable of sacrificing soldiers, on the one side. On the other side, they don’t fight for peace.

You have to know, all of us studied the Bible for something like 12 years at school. The curriculum is based on a historical narrative that the land belongs to Jews. Basically, an average Jewish citizen of Israel cannot understand why we have to divide the land.

By necessity, if there was pressure from abroad, if the Americans really wanted to push Israel, I think there could be some compromise.

So you think no compromise is possible from inside, it has to be forced from the outside? So, do you think, for example, that the Jewish and Arab communities in America could help in pushing Israel in the right direction?

No… Young people in universities, professors like me are very critical of Israeli policy. But organised Judaism is very, very pro-Zionist. This development began in ’67. And they are on the right wing of the Israeli political system.

There is a movement now, J Street and the likes, but it is not serious and they are contradictory.

Don’t you think it could get stronger, something like J Street? And these young people, as they get older and take on positions of influence…

No, no, because there is also something very strange about this. Somebody who wants to take part in Jewish politics in the United States, and not mainstream American politics, you have to understand. Why is Woody Allen not active in Jewish politics, for example? Because he’s very American. Most professors I know who are critical of Israel do not organise themselves to fight against Israel.   

So you mean that American Jews are either organised and pro-Israel, or are apathetic and critical of Israel?

Exactly. Apathetic or critical but not organised…  There is J Street which is kind of leftist Zionism or liberal Zionism, in someway, but I don’t think that it will become a very strong movement. Because if they understand what’s happening in Israel, in some ways, they become less interested in Israel.

Is this because it conflicts with their principles?

Yeah. The only way this will change, because I know the history of Judaism in the United States before 1967 when it wasn’t so pro-Israeli. If there were to be a massacre in the Galilee and an American Jew would go out of his garage and the neighbours would look at him with a bad eye, something might change.

So you mean things have to get a lot worse to mobilise…

When they begin to feel that the image of a Jew cannot go with the aggressive politics of Israel, if it really becomes a contradiction, may be organised Judaism will start to change its politics.

Or if there is a net contradiction between the politics of Israel and American politics. For the moment, this is not really the case. Like it did in 1956 during the Sinai war. The Jewish community in the 1950s did not fight for Israel at all. It’s very important to understand this.

This is the only, only hope that I can see. Inside Israel, not. I think that Lieberman is right. He understands very well that the real danger for Israel is the Palestinian-Israelis.

Is that why he proposed those land swaps?

Yeah. He knows, and he’s right, that the real danger will be the Palestinian-Israelis and not the Palestinians.

Because they have a power centre within Israeli society and they’re frustrated?

Yes, and they are a better-educated and they have higher political awareness.

They understand Israeli society?

Much more. Relatively, they are less oppressed but mentally they are much more oppressed, because they have problems with their identity. They speak Hebrew. The young students, who are the most extreme, with every step, are becoming culturally more Israeli and they are becoming more active Israelis politically.

The problem is not only the occupied territories. Now, I don’t believe the leftists who are talking of a binational state. It’s a joke. I’m not against it. But to propose to Israelis to become, from one day to the next, a minority in their own state is a joke, do you understand.

But do you think they will become a minority?

It’s 5.9 million Israeli-Jews versus 5.6 million Palestinians. So, they are more or less equal in number. So, you can’t propose to Israelis to live in a state where they will become a minority, especially when the leftists are proposing the right of return. It’s a joke.

Do you mean it would never be accepted?

They would blow up the Middle East before, and they have the capacity.

You know, rationally, I’m for a two-state solution. But not a Jewish and an Arab state. An Israeli and a Palestinian republic.

And each one would have Arab and Jewish minorities?

Yeah. I say an Israeli state, and not a Muslim state or an Arab state, but a Palestinian state with Israelis living there. And, here, Palestinians living here as full citizens. Israel has to belong to its citizens and not the Jews of the world.

Isn’t that what the bi-national state is about?

No, the bi-national state, as I told you, is a very bad programme. The Arabs will become a majority, not as part of a gradual process.

Just at once…

Just at once. And I don’t think that this racist society, the Israeli Jewish society is a very racist society. You cannot propose this. First of all, if you are speaking about a bi-national state, okay, I’m not against it, but on one condition, throw out the Israeli army before. If not, it’s a kind of legitimisation of the occupation.

Well, how about, if you’re going to make it a state for all its citizens, that all the state institutions become open to all the citizens, like the army becomes a joint Israeli-Palestinian army.

No, I’m speaking about two states, two republics that are confederated. You cannot… We cannot live here without Arabs. If somebody doesn’t want to live with Arabs, I tell my students, he has to go to Paris and not live in the Middle East.

Well, even in Paris, you’ve got plenty of Arabs.

It’s a joke. Well, anyway, I say that living in the Middle East is living with Arabs.

So, what’s your vision? That we would have the two-state solution with the 1967 borders but the Jews who live in the West Bank can continue to live in the West Bank but under Palestinian rule, as Palestinian citizens.

Yes, with the same and equal rights, not with 16 times more water than the Palestinians, like they have today.

So, the settlements would become joint Arab-Jewish neighbourhoods, for example, under full Palestinian control, something like that?

They would have an option to go back to their homeland, Israel.

And those who want to stay can stay as Palestinian citizens?

With equal rights.

Not as Israeli citizens living in Palestine?

They can have dual nationality, citizenship. You know, I also have French citizenship.

So the same can also apply to Palestinian-Israelis?

Yes, they can have double nationality, and they can move if they want to, but they don’t want to.

But then there are a lot of barriers even to that idea. For example, I’ve met the settlers in Hebron and they refuse the idea of living under Palestinian rule.

They would have a choice. They could go back to the homeland. You know, in 1962, millions of Europeans had to leave Algeria, half a million Israelis can leave the occupied territories. Now, you say a lot of them will not. Okay, they can accept to live in a Palestinian state.

Do you think that the Palestinian state will accept them? That’s another question, because they fear they will be discriminated against or become second-class citizens.

They have to behave nicely so as not to become second-class citizens, and they have to submit themselves to Palestinian authority, to live without problems. Most of them will leave.

I don’t believe any of this will happen but it is the only rational proposition. The future is a state that belongs to all its citizens, like France, like Britain, like the United States.

Speaking of Britain, one idea I’ve had is that, one huge barrier to coexistence is identity, so I thought the way to make a two-people federation work would be to come up with an additional national layer. So you would have an Israeli identity, a Palestinian identity, with the two of them joined together in a supra-identity, if you like, which we could call something like Canaan, or New Canaan.

We can start with the form of Europe. Europe today is a confederation. It will finish up like Switzerland. But it is a process.

But how about using Britain as a model? Britain is a good example. The way four different nations exist together under an umbrella identity called “British”.

First of all, I want to create a real umbrella within Israel itself, the principle being that the state is an Israeli state and not a Jewish state. This is the first step to existing in the Middle East. The second step, as you say, is a process that my children and grandchildren have to build in the future. We have to live in the Middle East with Arabs.

As a historian, I can say that if Israel is not to disappear, it has to become something completely different in the future, a part of the Middle East, a part of the goodness of the Middle East, not of the badness. For the moment, the democratisation in the Middle East is developing according to Islamic beliefs, but it is a democratisation.

In my concept, there is a difference between democratisation and liberalisation. The process we are seeing is democratisation and, unfortunately, not enough liberalisation. I am for a liberal democracy, a social, liberal democracy.

I am also for democratisation. Every time in history that somebody tried to stop democratisation, it created perversion, like in Germany in the 19th century, like in Algeria in the early 1990s. Now, in Egypt, I am for democratisation. I am against the army. The United States is doing everything possible to keep the military in power, and Israel supports it.

When I speak about our world in the Middle East, Egypt can become like Brazil, with Saudi money, oil. Egypt with Saudi could become the Brazil of the Middle East, like Nasser dreamed. But Nasser was afraid of the masses.

Nasser was willing to make peace with Israel, but he was afraid of the reaction on the street.

He was always afraid of the reaction on the street.

That’s why he marched blindly into the 1967 war. He could’ve avoided war…

Exactly. I am very angry at him. Do you know Eric Rouleau? Eric Rouleau was one of the greatest journalists of the Middle East. He wrote for Le Monde. He was a personal friend of Nasser’s, as well as of Mitterand. He became France’s ambassador to Tunisia. He invited me to spend three days at his house. He is writing his memoirs. He read my book and he was fascinated by it. By the way, he’s originally Egyptian, a Jewish-Egyptian. He was very young when he left. He was a communist, like a few others.

He ran away and then became a very important journalist. He told me about the first time he met Nasser. The only thing that made me angry at Eric Rouleau, who is really a great journalist, is that he admired Nasser. I don’t admire him, at all. I think Nasser is one of those responsible for what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians today.

Now, during our discussions, he tried to defend Nasser. We know today that Nasser didn’t want war in 1967. But I judge him as a leader and not by his intentions.

This is what he told me: the first time he met Nasser, Nasser invited him to his house. He knew that Eric Rouleau was Egyptian, and Eric Rouleau asked him, why are you not freeing all the political prisoners. Nasser looked at him and said, at the end of this month, they will all be free. Second question: why don’t you liberate Egypt’s political life, why don’t you allow political parties? Nasser said to him that he would not stay in power for one month if he did that. They continued to be friends till the end.

Eric Rouleau said to me that Nasser was a real head of state. So, I asked him, how about Arafat? He said, no. Arafat is the chief of a tribe, he said. But I don’t agree with this admiration of Nasser.

You see, the 1967 war shows that he was not a real leader… The bankruptcy of Arab nationalism – Ba’athism and Nasserism – is tragic. You see, it’s tragic for the Middle East. That cannot change. I wanted the Middle East to be like South America today.

Speaking of Arab nationalism, you talk about the invention of the Jewish people, but when I was reading your book, I was struck that you could equally write a book called The invention of the Arab people.

Well, there is a book in French called The invention of the Palestinian people.

But I’m talking about the Arab, not the Palestinian people.

I’ll give you an example. They think they are shocking the world by saying this. Yes, I think that the Palestinians were not a real people a hundred years ago. If they had been a real people, then the Zionist colonisation could not have succeeded.

In some ways, the idea of an Arab people is a myth. There is Arab culture, or cultures in plural. There is Arab civilisation. But people started to develop themselves… See, when I say that the Jewish people don’t exist, and I don’t believe that the Jewish people exist, nevertheless, I think that the Israeli-Jewish people exist. They created their own culture, cinema, a language.

The Arab world is in a very tragic situation. On the one hand, there is no one Arab people with the solidarity which you can find among the peoples of Europe. Unfortunately, you don’t have one Arab people, but you also don’t have a real Syrian people, a real Egyptian people. It’s a process. You know, when I look at the demonstrations last year in Tahrir, I saw a lot of Egyptian flags. I saw that, with all the Islamic discourse, they kept the flag, the Egyptian flag. In all the interviews, on the street, there was always a lot of Egyptian national feeling. I am not a specialist, but I felt that it was a kind of national revolution – something that crystallised around the idea of Egypt, this mass movement.

I don’t believe in the concept of the pan-nationalism of my ex-friend Azmi Bishara. It’s a bluff. They have played with it for too long without any power, any power to resist foreign imperialism. Arab nationalism as a force didn’t succeed. It failed. A lot of people now think that the Islamic, the New Muslims will create a kind of anti-imperialism. I don’t believe it will.

Yes, it’s already failed. Some people haven’t noticed yet but it failed a long time ago.

Then, we have to start again from the beginning, on the basis of the Egyptian people.

I’m not a professional historian, but I’m struck by how once fluid ideas of identity have become so rigid and fossilised. For example, it was completely normal, even up to 60 or 70 years ago, for someone to describe themselves as both an Arab and a Jew. Today, you know, that’s complete heresy to say something like that.

One moment, it’s very important what you said because I’m dealing with it now, in my new book. I’m writing about how I stopped being a Jew. The term “Arab Jews”… By the way, I’ve met people that define themselves in this way, a long time ago. Abraham Sarfati, he was an Arab Jew, in some way, a Moroccan Arab Jew. I think that the immigrants who came here were Arab Jews because their language was Arabic.

It’s very interesting, and I’m trying to work on it. You take an immigrant who came from Egypt or came from Morocco or from Iraq to here. His secular, daily culture was Arab. His religious culture was Jewish. It wasn’t like in Eastern Europe where Jews had a daily secular life which was different from their neighbours.

Now, this immigration, this poor immigration which came here, to the Zionist enterprise, they quickly learnt that the very lowest level in society was the Palestinian Arab. So, they tried to separate themselves. In the ‘50s and in the ‘60s, these immigrants, these Jewish Arab immigrants, or Arab Jewish immigrants, tried to hide their Arab daily culture and put forward their Jewish religious culture. Then, Zionism, which is a secular nationalist movement, stopped the secularisation of these immigrants.

The process of secularisation stopped because they wanted to be Jews, and every sign of Jewishness was religious. They didn’t have a Jewish secular culture. An Arab Jewish secular culture did not exist. You know, in Iraq it was different, the intellectuals from the Maghreb went to France and to Canada, only the poor arrived here. They were crushed by the Ashkenazi culture. In Eastern Europe, they had a strong, Yiddish secular culture. Sometimes I use the word Yiddish people, and not Jewish people, because they had a language, a daily culture, they were different to their neighbours, they had theatre, they had literature.

But didn’t the Sephardim have Ladino?

You see, the Ladino phenomenon could have become like Yiddish but it was too sparse. There was no concentration like there was in Eastern Europe. It didn’t become like Yiddish for two reasons. First of all, the Jews in North Africa, who came from Spain, and in Turkey, in the Ottoman Empire, they were very integrated into the local cultures, not like in Eastern Europe. Under Islam, they lived completely differently than in Christendom. This is the reason, for example, that I try to fight against the concept of Judeo-Christianity.

In my first book, there is a sentence which asks why my aunt, when they took her to Auschwitz, didn’t know that she lived in a Judeo-Christian civilisation? Now a lot of French intellectuals of Jewish origin don’t stop talking about Judeo-Christianity. In my new book, I try to explain that the difference between Judaism and Christianity is much greater than the difference between Judaism and Islam. First of all, there is no Son of God, and the problem with the Son of God.  And also, if I look at the history of the Jews under Islam, it wasn’t at all a paradise, but you cannot compare it at all to the experience of Jews in the Christian world.

But Jewish life in Christendom also had its high points, like German Judaism prior to Nazism, American Judaism today.

You are making a mistake.

Is this a mistake?

Yeah, because it wasn’t Judaism. What do you mean by Judaism?

Well, I mean Jews…

They were so integrated that most of them did not consider themselves to be Jews. You know what is the most tragic thing that I read? It was about a comedian and an agent who were arrested in 1936 and sent to the concentration camps. He went to the concentration camp and said I met communists, socialists – the most tragic were the Jews because they did not know why they were in the concentration camp.

Because they believed that they were fully German?

They were. This is your mistake. They were. Who is more German Heinrich Heine or Hitler’s father?

I don’t know Hitler’s father but Heinrich Heine was a great German poet.

Well, you know, Hitler’s father was a petty clerk that spoke the local dialect of his region of Austria. He didn’t know High German, you know Hochdeutsche.

Well, some say that the Jews were really the most German of people because they were raised…

They built the German culture. They were much more in the city… They were not peasants. The concept of the nation, of the German nation, with the language started from… I’m becoming more and more convinced that the Nazi reaction, the antisemitic, Nazi reaction was not against the marginalised, it was the revolt of the marginalised against the centre. Jews were at the centre in terms of their way of life, they were citizens. They were Germans. They spoke German better than Hitler. By the way, they called themselves Israelites, not Jews. They didn’t like the term Jews. Even the religious said they were Israelites, the people of Moses’ religion. They didn’t describe themselves as Jews. Now you want to make them Jews again? After Hitler decided they were Jews?

Most of them, and I’m not speaking about Jews from Eastern Europe, I’m talking about German, French. They didn’t understand what antisemitism was doing with them. Now I respect everyone. If someone says that he is a Jew, I don’t care. Secular Jew, okay. But they don’t give me the right to define myself as a non-Jew.

You mean that people should have the freedom to define themselves the way they wish?

Yes. In reality, I don’t think that I am Jew because I am a non-believer. You know, I am of Jewish origin. This can be important sometimes. The fact that I am writing this book, it means that it was important for me. But, no, my horizon is humanity and my daily life is that of an Israeli – shitty Israeli culture, okay. But it is not Jewish. My grandfather, if he were before me now, he would start to laugh if I said that I was a Jew.

How can someone become a secular Jew? You can become a religious Jew. You can become a Muslim. You can become a member of the Labour party. You can become British. You can become Israeli. How can you become a secular Jew? And then I realised that it was a closed club.

In this age, at the beginning of the 21st century, I decided that I don’t want to belong to a closed club, if I have the choice.

So I can’t become a secular Jew, you mean?

You cannot.

But I could become a religious Jew by converting.

But you can’t become a secular Jew. And I don’t want to belong to a closed club. We suffered – I mean my parents and my grandparents – suffered too much from closed clubs. The Arian club was closed to them. German nationalism was closed. In our past, we suffered too much from closed clubs.

All my life I said that I would continue to be a Jew until the last antisemite was removed from this Earth. Now, I’ve stopped with this. I don’t want to be a Jew.

But others will continue to define you as a Jew.

Well, Hitler defined me as a Jew. That doesn’t mean that he was right. Yes, others will continue. They don’t let me. I cannot change my identity card. They won’t let me change my ID. I want to write Israeli as my nationality. But I have Jewish nationality. This is a good reason not to define myself as a Jew. I see that I am Israeli, a shitty Israeli citizen, a shitty Israeli writer and a shitty Israeli historian.

Speaking of defining a religion as a nationality, there is also a strong parallel between Jewish nationalism and Muslim nationalism in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan is very similar to Israel.

The nation of Pakistan is built on the principle of religion. Also, in Sri Lanka in some way. Ireland is also somewhat similar. But Ireland had to change its laws to join the EU. Israel cannot join the EU with its laws.

So, the original idea, the old idea of a “Jewish nation”, if I’ve understood it correctly, of “umma”, is similar to the idea of the “Islamic umma”, the idea that all Muslims have a spiritual link to each other.

Yes, yes.

So, in a way, Israel is like the idea of an Islamic caliphate.

[Laughs] Yeah, yes, in some way. Yes, because the word “umma” means the Islamic “umma”. They took this word to replace the word “nation”.

You talk about reinventing identities. Well, there was a time when Palestinian equally meant a Jew. Now it’s exclusive only to Christians and Muslims.

By the way, Golda Meir, at the beginning of the ‘70s when the word “Palestinian people” started to be popular, she was astonished. She said, “I’m a Palestinian.” She had a Palestinian passport issued by the British mandate authorities.

And you also said in your book, if I recall correctly, that the Zionist movement managed to create this creative, convincing identity in order to build a nation, so why not reinvent it. But can that equally be said for the Arab side, for the Palestinians, that the way to move forward is to try to creatively reinvent identities to make them more inclusive of each other?

You see, I hope, you know, the past 40 or 50 years, the idea of the Palestinian people was crystallised. I don’t believe that the Palestinian people existed 100 years ago. For example, the culture and identity of the Arabs of the Galilee was much nearer to the Lebanese.

Now, to create nations, you have to be an engineer in some way. All nations are a creation. My formula is, to create a nation, you need to invent people into the past. In order to create a future nation, you invent a story, you know, a mythological history. The Palestinians needed one too. You know a lot of Palestinians believe that they are the descendants of the Canaanites.

Some of them might be.

In my book, I say that most of them were Canaanites who became Jews and the later they became Muslims. This applies to part of them, some of them, because this is a part of the world where everybody moves. But to create nations, to crystallise a nation, you need myths. The idea that a people existed for 2,000 years is a myth.

I had a discussion with a Palestinian painter at the Bozar who tried to convince me that they are the real Canaanites. No, this is a myth. The concept of people is modern. You can imagine that a thousand years ago an agrarian society with a very low level of communication, without newspapers, without books, without schools, without TV, without the internet. You can imagine a village of your great, great, great, great grandparents, they knew that they belonged to the village.

A thousand years ago, every valley, every mountain had a different dialect. To speak about peoples in the modern sense of the word is unbelievable. When they speak about the Jewish people 2,000 years ago, you see they didn’t have a single language. In the capital of the kingdom, they spoke differently than in the villages. The vocabulary of a peasant was so poor – he didn’t need a broad vocabulary. Can you imagine speaking about a people without schools?

In your book and at the beginning of our conversation, you talked about, before we started recording, you talked about Mahmoud Darwish. You’ve met him a number of times and you were friends, right?

We were very young. He wrote a poem about me.

Yes, about an Israeli soldier who felt remorse.

I have here Majda al-Rumi singing this song about the soldier in front of Mubarak and all your generals. She sings it without mentioning it’s about an Israeli soldier.

Well, that brings me to an interesting point. You describe, after the war of ’67, the drunken night you had with him.

You remember that I mention he drank alcohol. You know that the Arabic translator, he took out the alcohol. But I said, sorry. He said, but it’s not important, we don’t need to mention the alcohol.

It’s absolutely important, I think. It shows that culture…

Yes, I insisted that they publish the story of the alcohol.

Well, in the Arab world, for decades, you’ve had the idea of a cultural boycott of Israel. Now they’re taking that even further by trying to get the West on board. But then you have someone like Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of the Palestinian people, had contacts with Israelis, with Israeli Jews, and had friends who were Israeli Jews. And yet many activists today think that’s a big no-no, a taboo.

Elias Khoury was attacked because he wrote nice things about me. Then, he wrote again, saying you attacked because I am a friend of Shlomo Sand, but he’s a friend of Mahmoud Darwish. He used this against his critics. “I am a friend of a friend of Mahmoud Darwish and you are against it?” he asked.

I don’t want to comment because I don’t want to insult Palestinians, but you know, the victims are not always clever.

So, you think that the cultural boycott is not productive?

Not completely.

 So, you think it should be targeted and not a blanket one?

They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv university.

Even though you wrote a book that was translated in Ramallah and is popular among Arab readers.

Now, any pressure that is not terror is welcome. But be careful. You have started to boycott the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture. It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic. Do you agree?

Well, I’m in your office, after all. The way I see it is that there can be no just resolution to the Palestinian cause without a strong Israeli involvement.

 

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Israel’s other Arabs

 
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By Khaled Diab

A new book lifts the veil off Israel’s Arab face and shows how, like the Palestinians, Middle Eastern Jews fell victim to political forces beyond their control.

April 2009

To the outside world, Israel stands, depending on your political perspective, as either a proud outpost of the west or humiliating western implant in the Middle East. Although Zionism was born and developed in Europe, up to 3.5 million Israelis trace their roots back to Arab lands – in fact, until the early 1990s, these Mizrahim and Sephardim, as they are known, made up the majority of Israel’s population.

 Not the enemy by Rachel Shabi, herself an Israeli of Iraqi Jewish ancestry, provides a fascinating account of the personal stories and h

Cover of Rachel Shabi's Not the Enemy
Cover of Rachel Shabi’s Not the Enemy

istory of Mizrahi Jews, whose world fell into the abyss of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while their dual identities as Arabs and Jews proved unable to bridge the ever-widening chasm.

 “The absence of the Mizrahi face from the global snapshot of Israel feeds back into a polarised position, serving those on both sides who favour the dichotomous formula of Arab versus Jew,” writes Shabi, who is also a regular contributor to the Guardian.

 Even though I knew about Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews beforehand, I was, nevertheless, rather taken aback by how Middle Eastern Israel seemed when I was there a couple of years ago. In fact, my first encounter was with a Moroccan Jewish taxi driver who could shame any Cairo cabbie with his colourful use of curses and expletives and his love of Umm Kalthoum, the Arab world’s legendary singing diva.

 Subsequently, I met numerous Mizrahi Jews, including a colourful oud player called Murad (Mordechai), nearly all of whom recalled fondly their previous lives before coming to Israel. These encounters sparked a fascination in me to learn more about their history and tragic plight, and Shabi’s book compellingly fleshes out how Middle Eastern Jews were first yanked out of Arab lands and then had the Arab yanked out of them in Israel.

 Shabi documents the ironic descent of Arab Jews from generally well-integrated and successful minorities at the very heart of Arab culture, politics and business to a relatively marginalised and disadvantaged population in Israel. Through a mix of personal narratives and historical research, the book examines how, despite its pseudo-messianic pledge to provide salvation for Jews, Zionism actually hurt Middle Eastern Jews as Arabs eventually committed the monumental crime – and one for which they need to apologise – of equating Judaism with Zionism and started viewing their Jewish populations as “enemies within”.

 In fact, some Mizrahim are very blunt about the link between Zionism and their plight. “If Israel had not been established, nothing would’ve happened to the Iraqi Jews,” opines the Iraqi-Jewish poet Me’ir Basri.

 But the suspicion and distrust did not end there. Their resemblance to Arabs – in fact, you could argue that they are also ‘Israeli Arabs’ – in everything but religion caused them to be viewed with a mixture of condescension, contempt and even fear. This kind of culture shock is, at one level, understandable, as it is a myth to expect the simple fact of belonging to a single faith automatically means that people are the same. “We have here a people whose primitiveness sets a record,” wrote a Ha’aretz reporter in 1948, not of the Palestinians, but of Mizrahi refugees.

 This anti-Mizrahi prejudice among the Ashkenazim (European Jews) elite translated into them being whisked away to live in the remotest parts of Israel and populate what are known as ‘development towns’ which failed to develop into anything beyond a receptacle for broken promises and shattered dreams.

 The Ashkenazi elite also set about ‘civilising’ the Mizrahi Jews and shaping them into modern ‘Israelis’. Of course, up to a certain extent, this happened to all immigrants, but since the Ashkenazi were calling the shots, it was their culture that most influenced the Israeli ideal. “I don’t have a cultural identity,” confesses Sasson, an ex-teacher from Sderot, the development town on the edge of Gaza whose population is almost exclusively Moroccan Jewish. “My heart is in the east and my culture is western… They dressed me up in a culture that wasn’t mine.”

 Things have improved significantly in recent years, and Mizrahi culture is growing in popularity and influence. They and Ashkenazi are increasingly intermarrying and there are plenty of successful Mizrahim around. But much as Israelis would like to bury this ‘ethnic demon’, it keeps coming back to haunt them like a “genie in a bottle”, Shabi observes.

 Mizrahim still make up the bulk of Israel’s poor and undereducated; they are often stereotyped in the media as pimps, hustlers and whores; their culture, despite making major inroads, is still seen as somewhat inferior; and their accent, although it is the more accurate form of Hebrew, is scorned.

 Although the disappeared Jewish presence in Arab lands was not quite a paradise lost, their migration to Israel was not a paradise found either. Despite certain episodes of oppression, such as the persecution instigated by the fanatical Almohads in North Africa and Spain in the 12th century, Arab Jews were an integral component of the region’s cultural, social and economic fabric.

 This was especially the case in Iraq, which arguably had the world’s oldest continuous Jewish presence. Babylonian Jews – who once made up to one in four of Baghdad’s population – were significant players in every walk of life, including politics, the arts, music and business. As Shabi’s father put it, referring to the famous Rivers of Babylon hymn – spread by the disco prophets Boney M: “They weren’t crying. They were singing and dancing and drinking arak.”

 Could this common cultural heritage and affinity aid the quest for peace with the Arabs – what Shabi calls the “Mizrahi bridge hypothesis”? She once hoped it could, but her research led her to abandon her “crashed pet theory”.

 “This theory is pathologically detached from reality,” she concludes soberly, “a type of falsely cheery wallpaper that refuses to stick to walls wet with blood”.

 Despite all the signs to the contrary, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the potential role Mizrahi Jews could play in building understanding and empathy. The fact that they are more likely to be ultra-nationalistic, ultra-conservative and ultra-right wing than Ashkenazis is partly due to their sense of betrayal at the hands of the Arab world and Israel alike.

 But as new generations of Mizrahi Jews discover a renewed pride in their heritage, this could lead to further corrosion of the simplistic polarity of the official narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This, in turn, could prompt more dialogue with Arabs, which could eventually build the kind of understanding required to provide a solid foundation for peace.

 Moreover, the Mizrahi experience resembles that of the Palestinians, and this is increasingly leading to joint activism at the grassroots level, such as when Israeli Arabs joined Mizrahi Jews protesting eviction in a village on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, even though it had once been a Palestinian village.

 In addition, a vocal Mizrahi minority have been at the forefront of the peace movement for decades. For instance, it was a Mizrahi organisation, the radical Black Panthers, which was the first Israeli group to recognise the PLO, and a couple of years before the Madrid peace conference, Arab Jewish and Palestinian politicians, writers and academics held their own informal peace conference in the Spanish city of Toledo.

 And even if it is misguided to believe that the chasm can be bridged, those who wish to work for peace and coexistence must continue to stretch as far across it as they can. As Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi-born professor of Arabic literature and long-time friend of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, expressed it: “I am aware that I did not produce any important results, but I’m not going to stop.”

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 2 April 2009. Read the related discussion.

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