Israeli pilgrim in Prophet Muhammad’s house

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By Khaled Diab

A visit by an Israeli Jewish blogger to some of Islam’s holiest sites has stirred up controversy and anger. But should it have?

Wednesday 27 December 2017

A photo of a smiling man dressed in a traditional Arab thawb, keffiyeh and agal while standing in the middle of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Islam’s second holiest site, has sparked online outrage among some Arabs and Muslims.

That’s because the man in question, who has posted his photo posing with a bag emblazoned with Hebrew letters reading ‘Ben Tzion’, is not a Muslim worshipper but an Israeli Jewish blogger.

Instagram, where Ben Tzion had been chronicling his escapades, suspended his account, he claims, and the account is, at the time of writing, no longer active, following a deluge of angry comments.

Under the hashtag ‘#صهيوني_بالحرم_النبوي (‘Zionist_in_the_Sanctuary_of_the_Prophet’), numerous Arab Twitter users expressed severe criticism of Saudi Arabia for allegedly breaking the Arab boycott of Israel, seeing this as a further escalation of the kingdom’s apparent attempts to normalise relations with Israel.

Some took it as an opportunity to spew bigoted anti-Jewish sentiment. “Umar Ibn Al-Khattab… expelled Jews from madina [sic] 1400 years ago and now Saudi government are [sic] allowing them back again,” wrote one Twitterer.

The incident became a battleground in the ongoing Gulf propaganda war between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance which has laid it under siege, supporters of which have accused Qatar of being an Israeli stooge. The truth is most Gulf countries have been discreetly cultivating relations with Israel for many years now.

“You prohibit Qataris from entering it but you allowed your cousin, the Jew, to enter,” wrote one Qatari user.

Despite (false) allegations that the Israeli blogger was on an officially sanctioned visit and that the Saudis had knowingly let him enter, Ben Tzion himself maintains otherwise. Speaking to BBC Arabic, he said that his trip, for which he used an undisclosed non-Israeli passport, was a private visit, to meet Saudi friends he had got to know in college in America (on a previous visit, he had visited a college friend in Iran).

In a telephone interview with the Times of Israel, Ben Tzion explained that the visit to Saudi Arabia was part of a regional ‘goodwill tour’ which also took him to Iran and Lebanon, both of which Israel defines as ‘enemy states’, prohibiting its citizens from travelling there, on pain of possible but unlikely prosecution – unless they happen to be political dissidents or Palestinians.

This two-sided rejection might be the reason why Ben Tzion keeps his full name and current location under wraps. In fact, a source close to the Times of Israel informed me that, although Ben Tzion occasionally blogs for the online news site, nobody there has met him in person.

Of Russian origin, Ben Tzion grew up in the United States, where he graduated from Babson College, a prestigious business school, and worked in real estate in the Boston area – he holds American, Russian and Israeli citizenship, my source informed me.

“No one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” Ben Tzion told the Times of Israel. “Among regular people, there is no hatred. I was in Beirut two weeks ago – there’s no hatred, people are friendly.”

This revelation will shock and dismay a large number of Israelis, many of whom, I have learnt through years of interaction, are convinced they would be lynched upon entering Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, let alone travelling deep into ‘hostile’ Arab territory. This is especially the case among Israeli Jews who equate contact with Arabs as a form of betrayal and self-hatred aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state by other means.

But such contact highlights the importance of direct, grassroots people-to-people contact. It helps demystify and humanise the other side. While this, in and of itself, will not solve the complex issues at the heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding and empathy are vital prerequisites to eventual resolution.

Many Arabs will protest that this whitewashes the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians and normalises the occupation. In my view, a distinction must be made between private, independent Israeli citizens and activists, and representatives of the state or members of organisations affiliated with the state or defending its crimes – and this distinction should be incorporated into the Arab boycott.

This does not mean that Arabs have to agree with Israelis or turn on the Palestinians. It simply means that they need to engage with Israelis and assist their Palestinian brethren in making their case.

Some Arab activists will counter that the boycott is effective and is working, as evidenced by the panicked anti-BDS legislations and activities of the Israeli state, including the recent decision to deny entry to a delegation of European parliamentarians and officials who had intended to visit jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti.

However, the limited successes BDS has scored lulls activists into a false sense of confidence. Even though Israel has become the subject of greater social and political opposition in Europe, this has scarcely made a dent in its economy and, as protection against possible but unlikely European sanctions, Israel has actively nurtured deepening ties with Asian and African states.

Moreover, the current situation empowers extremists, who increasingly call the shots, and opportunists, who take advantage of the chaos.

While principled Arab activists and citizens refuse to reach out to ordinary Israelis, the de facto Netanyahu oligarchical dictatorship is forging ever-deepening ties with equally unscrupulous Arab despots and dictators. And they are doing so not in the interest of peace, justice and security, but to further their own self-interest through conflict and war, injustice and insecurity.

Grassroots contacts founded on principles and dialogue are not simply about paving the way to a better tomorrow – they are also about sidestepping a worse and more destructive future from sucking our region even deeper into the abyss.

Another feature of the Arab backlash on social media was the rejection as somehow impure or contaminating the notion of a non-Muslim entering an Islamic sacred site. As someone who has entered the holiest sites of many other religions, I find this attitude bigoted and intolerant. While there are plenty of mosques, including the fourth holiest in Islam, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (Tunisia), which permit non-Muslims to enter, Mecca, Islam’s most sacred city, is the exclusive domain of Muslims.

This is completely unacceptable morally and counterproductive culturally and politically. Moreover, allowing non-Muslims into Islam’s most sacred heart would open up its soul to the rest of humanity.


This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 November 2017.

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

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By Khaled Diab

My body is seized by an overwhelming fit of shivering of epileptic proportions… “Don’t move,” a male voice commands, rather unreasonably, from amid the nervous crowd of weapons.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 30 September 2016

Gobsmacked, I realise I must have already swum at least six nautical miles. I hold my breath and hope this fast-moving ship, which I presume is Israeli navy, will just race past me. But as the ghost boat grows in size and clarity, it begins to slow down. I wonder whether they have somehow spotted me, perhaps with some kind of high-tech equipment I’m unaware of, or whether it is just a part of their patrolling routine.

The silver spectre comes to a halt in the water before it reaches me. Suddenly, a powerful beam hits the water a few hundred metres away, like a spotlight on a dark stage, or a fallen moon. A distorted, metallic voice shatters the stillness of the night and drowns out the sound of the waves. The incomprehensible words  fall on deaf ears. The engines roar back into action and the ship slices slowly through the dark water, like World War II search lights. Like an actor with stage fright who wants to escape the limelight, I ditch my bag, take in a lung-full of air and dive under the water. The beam remains suspended above me for what feels like an eternity. My lungs protest; they are on the verge of exploding. I feel the impulse to breathe. I want to suck in air. I sense the pull of the surface, but I fear death awaits me there. But death awaits me here, in this gloomy aquatic tomb. With the enemy above and the deep dark sea below, I realise that there is only one course of action. Metaphorically taking a deep breath, I struggle to the surface, where I am caught in the glare of the spotlight as I involuntarily cough, splutter and choke.

I hear the same metallic voice barking what I assume to be commands or instructions in Hebrew. Not comprehending what the voice wants me to do, I swim on the spot in an effort not to provoke any hostile actions. An unexpectedly high wave knocks me off kilter and pushes me away from the searchlight. A barrage of shots hit the water nearby. Terrified and shivering, I shout out in a quivering voice: “Stop shooting. Stop shooting. I surrender.”

Surprisingly, the fire dies out almost instantly and the bright light finds me again. I raise my hands above the water to show they are empty, in the international gesture of surrender. The light beam disappears back into the boat, rather like a spaceship in a science-fiction movie, or like a light sabre being re-sheathed, and a weaker, wider light illuminates the water around me.

A life ring is flung towards me by a dark silhouette. “Grab hold of the buoy,” the voice instructs me with a heavy Hebrew accent. Momentarily confused, my mind skips back to Faris before I realise he meant the ring. I swim towards the ring and the figure reels me in, as though I were a giant fish.

Shakily and wetly, I climb the short ladder onto the rocking boat. There, I am greeted by the steely cold, intimidating eyes of the barrels of half a dozen guns pointing at me in the slowly brightening gloom. My body is seized by an overwhelming fit of shivering of epileptic proportions. I don’t know if the tremors are due to terror, the cold pre-dawn air making contact with my wet skinsuit, or both.

“Don’t move,” a male voice commands, rather unreasonably, from amid the nervous crowd of weapons. The voice belongs to the silhouette who had thrown me the life ring. Aboard, his features become somewhat clearer. He is half a head taller than the others, giving him an air of superiority, even if he wasn’t their superior. His fatigues look beige, as does his hair. He is the only one dressed in just a shirt; the others all have waterproof coats on.

Despite the convulsions, or perhaps because of them, I find myself involuntarily wondering whether he isn’t cold. “Freeze,” he barks, as if he is ignorant of how the human body functions, or perhaps he was simply describing the state of my cold body.

“Tell that to my body,” I bark back, my voice quivering, despite my defiant tone.

“Who are you? What is your name? What are you doing out here? Where are the rest?” he asks in rapid fire.

“Mona… The rest?” I inquire, baffled, trying to regain control of my muscles.

“You’re a Khamas commando,” he says confidently. “Where are the others in your unit? Our Aqua Shield only detected you.”

Barely over the shakes, my body is again convulsed, this time by a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “Me? Hamas?” I manage between my giggles.

I hear the loud bang of a shot, which stops my laughter in its tracks. Luckily, it was a warning shot in the air.

“Remove your mask,” the beige officer orders.

I do as I am told, releasing my drenched, salted, knotted hair, which drops to my shoulders like a nest of Egyptian asps.

“You’re a woman,” he mumbles in obvious shock, even though he’s heard my voice several times. “How did you get here?”

“I swam.”

“You swam,” he repeats, doubtfully. “This far?”

“Yes, I’m a long-distance swimmer,” I explain.

“And where are you heading? To Israel? To take part in an attack?”

“No, to Cyprus, to start a new life,” I respond, with a calm certainty that belies the insanity of my project.

“Cyprus?” he asks in disbelief. “Do you really expect us to believe that? You must be on some kind of reconnaissance or infiltration mission.”

“And if I were, why would I have swum out this far?” This seems to stump him for a moment.

“But it’s impossible to swim to Cyprus,” he said, a tone of uncertainty creeping into his commanding voice.

“I know,” I reply knowingly.

“But that’s suicidal,” he adds, confused.

“I know,” I respond death-defyingly.

“So, why do it?”

“I may be breathing but I’m dead anyway. If I die for real, it’s no big loss for me or humanity,” I respond suicidally. “If, by some miracle, I make it or get rescued, then I will be reincarnated in a better, friendlier world.”

Looking at me like I’d just escaped a psychiatric hospital, he says something in Hebrew. A couple of the others holster their weapons, retrieve what look like handcuffs for giants, cuff my hands in front of me and lead me off into the bowels of the ship. There I am placed inside a small room or cell and left alone, my hands still cuffed. I feel the urge to rest my aching, sore, wet body on the neat bunk which has been made with such military precision that it seems almost a shame to mess up the bedclothes.

Wishing I could put on something drier, I lie down on the narrow bunk and get as comfortable as I can with the handcuffs restricting my mobility. I desperately want to sleep on my front and have my dry, warm comfortable pyjamas embracing me.

After what seems like a few seconds of complete blackness, I am awoken by shuffling and movement around. I open my eyes to find the beige officer beside me. In the  morning light, I now see that it is not just his fatigues and hair that look beige, his skin has a beigey hue to it and his eyes are somewhere between beige and hazel. Despite his rather unsettling monochromatic features, he has rather handsome classical features, as if he’s just stepped out of an old photo from World War II, with his beret tucked neatly under his shoulder strap. He is holding a tray with a steaming drink and a sandwich – my stomach growls in approval.

The tastiness of bland food is directly correlated to the severity of your hunger. And to my famished innards, which had swallowed a little too much salt water, it felt like I was consuming a mini banquet.

I thank Mr Beige. He flashes a smile, the first I’ve seen since I was hauled aboard. He begins to ask me again about the “real” purpose of my “mission”.

“Perhaps if you lived in Gaza, you would understand,” I tried patiently, while his back straightened in defensive irritation. “What I’m doing is no more futile than people who escape through the few unsafe tunnels left, put their safety in the hands of unscrupulous and criminal smugglers, and their lives on the cusp of unseaworthy boats that offer about as much protection as the open sea.”

“Tell me about these tunnels,” the officer requests, ignoring my comments. “How many of them enter Israel?”

Perplexed by his single-mindedness, I am momentarily at a loss for words. “I don’t know about any tunnels,” I say, deflated. “But you have tunnel vision,” I add angrily.

Unexpectedly, Major Beige erupts into  uncontrollable laughter, spraying sound bullets that ricochet and echo deafeningly around the tiny, tinny cabin. And the onslaught doesn’t stop. His long, loud haw-haws mutate into short giggly bursts, as his eyes tear up and he loses control of his breathing. There is something infectious about laughter. Even though I feel terrified, I too sense pressure build up in my belly before bursting through my lips. When his face turns an alarming shade of purple-blue, I point to his face, feeling a little giddy-headed myself. Unable to say anything, I giggle harder. Slowly, he regains control and I follow suit.

Looking self-conscious after his un-soldier-like outburst, the officer seems, nonetheless, to warm to me. “Can your life really be so desperate that you would attempt this hopeless mission?” he asked, curious on a personal level for the first time.

“I am immensely hopeful, perhaps delusionally so,” I explain. “That is why I am doing this.”

Seeing the confused look in his surprisingly gentle eyes, I elaborate: “In Gaza, hope has died. People call it an open-air prison. It’s much worse than that. It’s an open-air cemetery and we’re all slowly turning into zombies, even all those who bury themselves in their work and try desperately to cling on to purpose, they too are slowly succumbing.”

“I don’t want to be a zombie. And so I’ve decided to escape. I want to liberate my body and soul, but if that doesn’t work, then my soul is enough.”

Visibly moved, Major Beige goes on the defensive: “C’mon. Life can’t be that bad. We’ve loosened the blockade. You have shopping malls and smart restaurants.”

“And thousands of ruins and trauma and unemployment…” I stop myself. “Could you imagine yourself living like we do?”

“But we’re only defending our…”

“Can you imagine yourself in my shoes?” I interrupt, staring, flaring into his eyes. “Would you accept your lot or would you break out of your coffin?”

He falls silent for many long moments, as if struggling both with my demons and his own. “I don’t want to imagine myself in your shoes,” he snaps, causing me to experience a profound and unexpected sense of disappointment. Despite the bizarre scene; despite standing in the presence of a soldier who may well have fought in the war, who may well have fired some of the shells which landed near us, which shell-shocked us; despite his status as my enemy, I felt a strange bond, an intangible connection between us, but it must have been an illusion, a fantasy entertained by a woman who thinks she can swim her way to freedom.

“No, I don’t want to imagine myself in your shoes because it’s hard enough to do my job as it is,” he says, lifting my spirits. “Do you think I enjoy doing this?” Now it is my turn to battle with his demons, as well as mine. Until this moment, it had not occurred to me that behind the rain of fire that pelts down around us there could be those with doubt blazing in their consciences.

“I’ve never accepted my lot,” he admits, his eyes clouding over with a hurricane of thoughts and emotions which he remarkably manages to contain and stop from spreading to the rest of his face. I wonder what it is about his lot which creates such internal tumult and turmoil. “And I wouldn’t accept yours. I’d flee too.”

“So why don’t you release me?” I ask hopefully.

“I can’t do that,” he says simply, dashing my hopes against the rocks. “I have to take you back to shore, where you will be interrogated, detained for a while and most probably sent back to Gaza.”

“I can’t do that,” I say, parroting him. “I have to get out of here. I can’t bear the thought of spending any time in an Israeli prison or returning to my daily jail.”

Silence. His mouth twitches a little. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do. My hands are tied,” he says, a split second before realising that, at least physically, it is my hands which are tied. The officer gazes down at my wrists, then looks into my eyes apologetically before silently vacating the cabin.

To be continued…

Read part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl


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Podcast: The Israeli passion for Arabic music

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By Khaled Diab

Mizrahi Jews are reviving the Arabic music of their heritage and fusing it with new influences, which is proving popular with young Palestinians.


An Israeli magazine from 2104 has a cover story on Umm Kulthoum, with the headline "Enta Omri".

An Israeli magazine from 2014 has a cover story on Umm Kulthoum, with the headline “Enta Omri”.

Thursday 31 March 2016

Like Cold War Moscow was for the West, Israel is the location for many an Arab spy thriller. So, by rights, my first visit, nearly a decade ago, should have been accompanied by suspenseful, high-tempo incidental music.

Instead, as I watched the Tel Aviv skyline whizz by in a blur from the taxi window, my ears were telling me I was in a Cairene ahwa, or traditional teahouse, not in Israel. The dulcet, glass-shattering, tones of Umm Kulthoum bombarded my eardrums.

Enta omri,” “You are my life,” sang the taxi driver, undaunted by the enormity of the task of emulating the Arab world’s most revered singer. His gravelly, tuneless voice, thickened by too many years of too much smoke, jarred painfully against the deep, husky mystery of Umm Kulthoum’s own contralto voice.

Statistically speaking, of course, my surprise was unfounded, as I’ve discovered over four years of living here.

Although Israel’s image abroad and the self-image it projects is very Western, about half of its Jewish population originates in the Middle East, but it is coy of showing this Arab face to the world.

Known as Mizrahi, or Eastern Jews in Hebrew, the first generation were born in Arab countries, the second generation grew up in Arabic-speaking households, and many in the third generation are busy rediscovering their roots.

The first generation had it tough. They fled their homelands out of fear following the creation of Israel, landed in desolate refugee camps and were usually sent off to remote “development towns” which never developed into anything beyond a receptacle for broken promises and shattered dreams.

Their Arab culture, which was also the culture of the enemy, was shunned and looked down upon by the Ashkenazi pioneers who founded Israel. This led the Mizrahim to seek escape from the offending Mizrahiness.

However, even if their culture was shunned in public, the Mizrahim maintained it in private, speaking Arabic at home and listening to the music they had grown up with. This was driven home to me by Murad, a oud player I met, who performed Arabic music at weddings and bar mitzvahs for the Iraqi community.

Despite having left his native Baghdad as a child, Mordechai, as he was known in Hebrew, had a large repertoire of Arabic songs, spoke fluent Baghdadi Arabic and had picked up the Palestinian dialect.

Some of the musicians who moved to Israel were among the crème de la crème of Arabic music, but found no interest from the Ashkenazi establishment. These included Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti.

Born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-Jewish family, the Kuwaiti brothers were popular both with the political elite, including Iraq’s then King Faisal, and the masses in Iraq and the Gulf, though they were expunged for decades from the Arab collective memory. In Israel, they fared no better. Saleh and Daoud were forced to eke out an existence as shopkeepers in Tel Aviv and sang in small bars.

Decades later, Daoud’s grandson Dudu Tassa revived their memory by fusing their songs with the guitar riffs he had become famous for as a rocker. And Tassa is not alone. Recent years have seen Mizrahi music come out of the home and on to the radio, TV and the club scene. You can hear it at parties, weddings and even on Saturday nights at Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s covered market.

Numerous young artists have reclaimed the Iraqi, Yemeni and North African music of their ancestors, others have mixed it with other genres to create original new sounds. Some sing in the Arabic of their heritage, while others perform in the Hebrew of their present.  There are Israeli artists who cover classics of Arab song or take the tunes and plonk Hebrew lyrics on them.

Despite the distrust of Israel and growing hatred towards Israelis in Palestinian society, Mizrahi music in Hebrew has a surprisingly strong following among young Palestinians, a trend which confounded a Palestinian artist friend who hears it all around the Bethlehem area. Even more bewildering, a trickle of Palestinian artists are singing Mizrahi music in Hebrew, such as Nasreen Qadri, who has found mainstream success.

While some Palestinian activists I know dismiss this interest in Mizrahi music as a form of assimilationism with the occupier and an expression of self-hatred, I think its causes run deeper. Despite their disparate politics, young Mizrahim and Palestinians have a lot  in common: they are socioeconomically marginalised, their forebears were uprooted and their culture has been under threat.

As is the case with African-Americans, the fact that Mizrahi music has become hip and mainstream does not mean that the Mizrahim are no longer marginalised. Despite some success stories, the Israeli establishment and upper echelons are still firmly Ashkenazi.

This growing cultural pride has not translated into greater sympathy for Palestinians and Arabs. In fact, there has been a hardening of sentiment and a troubling surge in anti-Arab racism.

This is disheartening to Mizrahi activists I know who possess the dream that their communities’ Arab roots can help bridge the gaping chasm separating Israelis and Palestinians.

This is unlikely to happen for many long years to come. But one day the Mizrahim and Palestinian appreciation for the same music may help them find the cultural common ground to hit the same notes politically and work in concert towards a better future.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  26 March 2016.

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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,

On Amazon:


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Promised lands and chosen peoples

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By Khaled Diab

Protestants are the chosen people and Western Europe and America their Promised Lands, according to Israelism and Christian Zionism.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

The Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.

Thursday 3 July 2014

Israelis and Jews have it all wrong, apparently. The Promised Land is not where they think. It’s actually a few thousand kilometres to the northwest in the Netherlands and Belgium.

In fact, the Low Countries have the dual honour of being both paradise on Earth and the place where many of the Bible’s most prominent celebrities did their thing, at least according to Johannes Goropius Becanus (1519-1572).

This Renaissance polymath was not only a physician to the royals, he was also an amateur linguist. According to his bizarre theories, the Garden of Eden was actually located in Antwerp, and Adam and Eve spoke the Antwerp dialect of Dutch.

His proof? The etymology of their names. According to Becanus, Adam apparently derived from the Dutch compound Haat-Dam (Dam-Against-Hate) and Eve is Eeuw-Vat (The-Eternal-Barrel). He similarly “discovered” origins for Cane, Abel, Noah and other biblical figures. Becanus believed that these etymologies were self-evident; after all, he was convinced that Dutch was the oldest language in the world (Duits, i.e. De Oudst, or The Oldest).

He also theorised that Antwerp was founded by the descendants of Noah, though how they located this low-lying town – only 7.5 meters above sea level – after the reported deluge is unclear.

Though he did have admirers, Becanus and his theories were ridiculed even during his lifetime. His contemporary, Dutch religious leader and historian Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) scoffed: “I have never read such nonsense.” He derided Becanus as the man who “was not ashamed to criticise Moses for drawing etymologies from Hebrew rather than Dutch.”

The lost tribe of… the Dutch

While creating his alternative mythology, Becanus is also credited with debunking the popular myth at the time that Hebrew was the mother of all languages.

He is also recognised as having taken the first steps on the road to discovering the Indo-European roots of many languages. “Both with respect to his methods and ideas … Becanus can be considered a pioneer of comparative language studies,” says Kees Dekker, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Besides, Becanus’ ideas didn’t sound as absurd back in his own time as they do today. Adriaan van der Schrieck (1560-1621), another Flemish language researcher, reportedly claimed that “the Netherlanders with the Gauls and Germans together in the earliest times were called Celts, who are come out of the Hebrews.”

According to Dutch Israelites, the Dutch were one of the lost tribes of Israel, namely the Zebulun. After all, one of the children of Zebulun was called Helon, who gave his name to Holland.

Some outlying Dutch fundamentalists still believe this, as this video purports to prove.


Biblical megalomania

Not to be outdone, across the North Sea the British soon developed their own variation, called British Israelism. The first to espouse a link between the British and the Israelites was an English Puritan by the name of John Sadler (1615-1674), Oliver Cromwell’s private secretary.

The ideas he set in motion proved amazingly enduring, enjoying their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the “sun never set” on the British empire. A sign of its cult popularity was the creation of the British-Israel World Federation in 1919, whose members included royalty, nobility and leading politicians.

In the interbellum years between the two world wars, the jingoism that British-Israelism promoted set alarm bells ringing among advocates of a more peaceful world order. “It must be said quite clearly that British-Israel turns the Bible into a handbook of national megalomania,” wrote theologian and scholar CT Dimont in 1933, “and that it is a determined foe to the League of Nations and all efforts for world peace.”

It wasn’t just nationalism, but colonialism too. In both Britain and the Netherlands, the rise of Israelism and the myth of descent from the lost tribes coincided with the construction of the two countries’ vast empires. This was no coincidence, some historians assert.

“This myth is a vital feature of colonial discourse throughout the long period of European overseas empires,” wrote the British historian Tudor Parfitt in The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth.

This link is perhaps most apparent in the conquest and settlement of what became the United States. “From the first landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, they called it the New Jerusalem and the City Upon the Hill,” says Arnon Gutfeld, professor of American history at Israel’s Max Stern Academic College. “So the theme of America being the world’s last and best hope was from the first settlement.”

The very imagery of these religious refugees and colonists as “pilgrims” is connected with the imagery of the New Testament, namely the Book of Hebrews’ reference to the “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth”.

Moreover, the Puritans may not have regarded themselves as a lost tribe, but they certainly saw themselves as the natural successors of the Israelites as “God’s chosen people”, some of whom were even carried off into captivity.

“For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew scriptures,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and a conservative commentator. “Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan.”

This also included prominent writers, such as Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” he wrote in his fifth novel,White-Jacket.

And the Americas, in Melville’s view, were the Promised Land of the Anglo-Saxons. “We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours,” he wrote, reflecting the then-common sense of manifest destiny, translating into the mass displacement and slaughter of the native American population.

Seeing themselves as the new chosen people, Americans felt a certain affinity with their Jewish predecessors. “One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another,” observes Mead. “The United States’ adoption of the role of protector of Israel and friend of the Jews is a way of legitimising its own status as a country called to a unique destiny by God.”

But mixed in with the presumed kinship, there is also contempt. “There were Americans who saw Jews positively and others who saw them as Christ killers,” notes Gutfeld.

Yet others had missionary positions. “In the 19th century, some saw [the Jews] as lost sheep who had lost touch with God,” Gutfield adds, noting that these Christians wanted to help the Jews “for one reason only so that they would embrace Protestantism”.

And then there was millennialism, some of which carried strong anti-Semitic tones. “These wanted Israel to be strong because the prophesies say that when Israel is strong, it’ll go to war with the rest of the world and be destroyed, harkening the second coming of Christ,” describes Gutfeld.

These variegate Protestant movements on both sides of the Atlantic in favor of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land were known as Restorationists and are now referred to as Christian Zionists.

In fact, Christian Zionism as a political movement predates its Jewish counterpart, and influenced it.

For example, a full two decades before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference professed that “the Lord Jesus will come in person to introduce the millennial age, when Israel shall be restored to their own land”.

But it wasn’t just religious. Like today, Western powers saw strategic advantage to a Jewish state in the Middle East. The earliest proponent of this secular motivation was reformist politician and philanthropist Lord Ashley, who was also the president of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, who saw a strategic opportunity for Britain as the Ottoman Empire faltered.

“The soil and climate of Palestine are singularly adapted to the growth of produce required for the exigencies of Great Britain,” he wrote.

Lord Ashley may have even been the first to coin the prototype of a famous phrase regarding Palestine and the Jews. “These vast and fertile regions [Greater Syria] will soon be without a ruler,” he said. “There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country.”

And efforts to create this Jewish state did not actually start with Theodor Herzl. Some 14 years before Herzl tried to deliver his letter to the Ottoman Sultan, another man had attempted the very same thing.

Though William Hechler, failed in his mission, this Anglican clergyman of German-British extraction who was born in India authored a treatise, in 1884, entitled The Restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Herzl’s more famous Der Judenstaat appeared a dozen years later.

Starting a pattern that would become common in future decades, secular Jewish Herzl pragmatically joined forces with prophetic Christian Hechler. “Hechler declares my movement to be a ‘Biblical’ one, even though I proceed rationally in all points,” Herzl complained to his diary. But he overcame his reservations because “I must put myself into direct and publicly known relations with a responsible or non-responsible rule – that is, with a minister of state or a prince. Then the Jews will believe in me and follow me.”

And Hechler delivered the goods, helping Herzl to gain access to the German ruling elite, including Kaiser Wilhelm II. “Without Hechler’s intercession and support, Herzl may have simply remained an obscure, eccentric Viennese journalist,” said Jerry Klinger, the president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, who had discovered the English-German clergyman’s unmarked and forgotten grave in London.  “The course of Zionism, and possibly the very founding of the modern state of Israel, may not have been successful.”


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 June 2014.

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The Christian Allah

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By Khaled Diab

Muslim and Christian bigots who don’t speak Arabic believe that “Allah” is only for Muslims. They are wrong: Allah is God and God is Allah.

"Allah" pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

“Allah” pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

Monday 7 October 2013

Malaysia is quite literally embroiled in a holy war of words – and the word in question is “Allah”. The government there wants to ban Christians from using what it regards as a word which should be used only by Muslims.

In 2008, the government threatened to revoke the publishing licence of the Catholic Herald, if the newspaper did not stop referring to God as Allah. This would be problematic, as it would force the newspaper to misquote the centuries-old Malay version of the Bible, and the local alternative, Tuhan, is used to refer specifically to “the Lord”.

Fortunately, Malaysia’s high court displayed more sense and ruled in the newspaper’s favour. Unfortunately, the authorities insisted on throwing sensibility to the wind and launched an appeal, which the appeal court began hearing in September, and is due to deliver a verdict on in October.

As is so often the case, the dispute is the symptom of deeper troubles. Despite the fact that Malaysians, in their kaleidoscope of religious and racial diversity, tend to “talk conflict, but they walk cohesion,” as one academic put it, the country has been experiencing rising tensions between its various groups.

In addition, though it is perhaps the world’s longest-ruling party, Barisan Nasional (the National Front) has seen its support base dwindle in recent years. In May, Barisan, whose three race-based parties play on sectarian grounds outside of elections, gained less than half of the popular vote.

Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, Prime Minister Najib Razak blamed the erosion on a “Chinese tsunami”. In addition, the Malaysian government has been under growing pressure from Islamic parties, and this has led the government, as has occurred elsewhere, to play the piety card and engage in identity politics.

But is there any validity to the case for limiting Allah to Muslims? Absolutely not.

The controversy is partly fuelled by confusion. Most Malaysians do not speak Arabic and so some of the Muslims among them may be under the false impression that “Allah” is exclusively Islamic.

But they are mistaken. “Allah’ is simply the Arabic word for “God”, or even “god”.

The word itself – which is probably a contraction of the Arabic al-illah (the God) – pre-dates Islam. It was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca, whom they believed to be the creator of the world and the giver of rain and was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

With the advent of Islam, Allah topped the list of the 99 names of God. But even under Islam, the word “Allah” has not lost its general sense. For example, the beginning of the shehada, or Islamic creed, tells us that: “La illaha ila Allah”, or “There is no god but God”. The word is also used in the plural form, ‘alleha‘, to refer to the Egyptian and Greek pantheons, for example.

It should then come as no surprise that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews have, for centuries, referred to God as Allah. In Egypt, for instance, Copts say “Allah mahaba” or “God is love” and I have met Christians whose name is Abdullah (Servant of God).

The fact that Arab and Maltese Christians worship “Allah” while Malaysian Christians have gone to court to defend their right to do so is likely to confuse many conservatives and anti-Muslims in the West.

This is reflected in the controversy in January when a Colorado school allowed pupils to recite the pledge of allegiance in Arabic, sparking anger that the kids were expressing their loyalty to “one nation under Allah”.

But this is just plain ridiculous: Allah is God and God is Allah.

That is why it sometimes irritates me when English translations of the Qur’an talk of Allah, not God. After all, English translations of the Bible do not tend to use the Aramaic or Hebrew words for God but employ a Germanic one, which derives from guthan, meaning “That which is invoked”.

But some conservative Christians will invoke in their defence that Muslims pray to a different deity to them and so this must be distinguished. But this is nonsense of the highest order. Though they may disagree on certain ideological and doctrinal issues, and even a little on the nature of God, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity.

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that the three religions are essentially branches of the same faith, as has been suggested by numerous scholars and writers. That is why Muslims refer to the “People of the Book”, and all three religions trace their roots back to Abraham, whom they believe to be their common patriarch.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 3 October 2013.

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Palestinian liberation through the Israeli ballot box

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By Khaled Diab

Despite their marginalisation or disenfranchisement in Israeli politics, Palestinians can use Israel’s democratic tools to their advantage.

Thursday 31 January 2013

The expected massive swing further to the right in Israel did not materialise, with, according to some estimates, an even 60-60 split of seats in the Knesset between the “left” and “right”. Although incumbent prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not quite out, he is definitely down – and there exists the theoretical, though unlikely, scenario that he might not retain his position as prime minister if the famously fractured centre and left join forces.

Meanwhile, the new kingmaker, though probably not the king, is not, as many had forecasted, Naftali Bennett or the ultra-nationalist and religious right, or at least not them alone, but the compulsively centrist Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which came in second, with an estimated 19 seats.

This gain for the centre, if not exactly the left, has enabled many secular and progressive Israelis to breathe a sigh of relief, though not necessarily to breathe more easily. “The Knesset as a whole looks like it will be significantly more moderate as a whole than after the last elections,” said on Israeli friend, Rifka, expressing a certain cautious optimism.

In fact, many on the Israeli left feel little elation, and some are gripped by a sense of deflation. “The public of floating voters went for the middle-class chauvinist TV presenter with good hair and mood music and the charming high-tech guy who calls them ‘achi’ (‘brother’),” believes Udi, a young British-Israeli. “This is a victory for banal, naïve, escapist anti-politics.”

And Yair Lapid, nicknamed Tofu Man by one commentator, is perhaps the greatest example of this escapist anti-politics. He is an actor, a journalist and a TV presenter. But when it comes to politics – he is a political novice and lightweight. He seems to have gained so many votes partly through his superficial charm and the fact that he is a household name, and partly by maintaining an almost pathological silence on the political issues dividing left and right during his campaign.

Another area of major escapism in Israeli politics relates to the Palestinian question – and the occupation hardly featured as an election issue, not even as a minor preoccupation, except perhaps with the religious and revisionist rights’ unapologetic determination to further extend and entrench the Israeli settlement enterprise and even to annex large swathes of the West Bank.

“It was a surprise to everyone that the centre and centre-left have revitalised themselves, but when it comes to Palestinians, no one is jumping with joy,” admitted veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi in an article, expressing a widespread sentiment among Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Faced as they are with an apparently unending occupation and its attendant machinations – walls, checkpoints, martial law, ever-growing settlements, the absence of sovereignty and self-determination – and the indignity this produces, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have little to no faith in the Israeli electoral process.

However, the lack of enthusiasm stretches across the Green Line to Palestinians living in Israel who, at least theoretically, enjoy equal citizenship and have the right to vote. They are frustrated by how the Israeli political establishment at best ignores them and at worst passes legislation that actively discriminates against them, despite the political leverage their votes should afford them.

In addition, even though they are generally better off materially than Palestinians living under occupation and enjoy greater freedom than Arabs living under autocratic regimes, they are nonetheless marginalised and stigmatised socially and economically. As one resident of Umm al-Fahm explained: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

This translated into widespread apathy – and a certain measure of active boycotting – towards the recent vote, with pre-election surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters would cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. At the time of press, it was unclear what the actual voter turnout among Palestinian-Israelis was, though indications were that it would be far lower than the nearly 70% national average, despite the efforts of Arab parties, politicians, community activists and even the Arab League to bring out the vote.

One young Palestinian who had not intended to vote changed her mind at the last minute when she got wind of how low voter turnout in her community was. “I got nervous and upset. I grabbed everyone I know who didn’t vote and drove them [to the polling station],” she admitted.

In total, Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish parties together managed to secure an estimated 12 seats in the Knesset: United Arab List (5), Hadash (4) and Balad (3). Some lament the low voter turnout as a missed opportunity.

“Let’s assume they had voted in large numbers and managed to get 20 seat, which is feasible, then the Arab parties would have had the power to impose their opinion,” believes Hamodie Abonadda, a television producer and Hadash voter. Abonadda speculates that armed with that many seats, the Arab parties would have become impossible to ignore (as Lapid has insisted he will do) by the left and could have made it, for the first time in Israeli history, into a ruling Israeli coalition.

It is my conviction that the political leverage of Palestinians in the Israeli system could be multiplied significantly if the 300,000 or so Palestinian Jerusalemites joined the fray and decided to claim their right to vote.

However, this would involve them applying for Israeli citizenship, which many oppose because it would, they fear, give legitimacy to Israel’s decision to annex Jerusalem. In fact, in the clash between ideology and pragmatism, even participating in municipal elections, which Jerusalem residents are allowed to do without becoming citizens, is still regarded as an unacceptable form of “normalisation”, as I have heard from numerous activists.

“For too long… there has been this taboo on voting for the municipal elections because if one does vote then he/she is seen as a ‘traitor’,” explains Apo Sahagian, an Armenian-Palestinian musician and writer from the old city of Jerusalem. “But this mentality has only worked to the Palestinians’ disadvantage… For example, the approval given to settlement construction starts on the municipal level. If there is enough opposition at that initial level, then that settlement enterprise can be stopped or interrupted.”

Though Sahagian believes that only “raw pragmatism” will save the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and equality, he opposes the idea of Palestinians in Jerusalem applying for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “in a different reality” the combined vote of Jerusalemite Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis would “shake the political landscape of Israel”.

And “raw pragmatism” is guiding a growing number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, as attested to by the plethora of posters advertising language courses, and even to apply for Israeli citizenship, which they see, in light of the vulnerable status of the permanent residence cards that can be taken away fairly easily, as a way of guaranteeing their presence in their beloved city, and hence preserving what remains of its Palestinian character. “What is the difference between having an Israeli ID and an Israeli passport? They’re both Israeli documents, but one gives you rights, the other does not,” one young Jerusalemite who had recently acquired citizenship confessed to me.

There are Jerusalemites I know who argue that the potential combined political clout of Palestinians in Israel and in Jerusalem could also help ease the suffering of their kin in the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite the fact that this emerging trend has sparked controversy, even within individual families, many Palestinians who are moving down this path are doing so out of principle, not just pragmatism, seeing it as an important step along the road to a single, democratic, bi-national, Arab-Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.

A friend and neighbour from Jerusalem, with whom I spent long hours dreaming of a better future, expresses this reality succinctly: “There will not be two states. There is already only one state. All the people of this one state should be represented at the ballot box.”


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2013.

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Learning about the Holocaust… in Arabic

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By Khaled Diab

A joint trip to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial provides Palestinians and Israelis with lessons in tragedy, pain and mutual respect.

Monday 24 September 2012

Participants learn about the Holocaust in Arabic… and Hebrew. Photo: Dara Frank

“Please excuse my broken Arabic,” our guide, Yehuda Yarin, told the mixed group of Palestinians and Israelis who had come to Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, to learn more about the Holocaust as part of a three-day, self-financed joint trip (Tiyul-Rihla) which had taken them to Acre, Haifa and Jerusalem.

Yarin, whose ‘day job’ is to guide groups of Jews and Israelis in Poland, including to Auschwitz, has the distinction of being Yad Vashem’s only Arabic-language guide. “I first studied Arabic many years ago, at high school. But, you know, at high school, the level is not very good,” he told me. “Later, I started to learn, ya’ani, logha ameya [colloquial Arabic].”

When the new Yad Vashem – the largest Holocaust museum in the world and Israel’s second most popular tourist site – was opened in 2005, the odd Arabic-speaking group would come to visit, and Yarin, who had begun working as a guide there, was asked to show them around.

Since then, Yarin has guided Palestinians, both from the West Bank and Israel, as well as the occasional visitors from further afield, such as Egypt. “Some of them know nothing. Some of them never heard about the Holocaust. Some of them know the history. It depends,” he notes.

Although Yarin is at pains to emphasise that he doesn’t know what his Arab visitors “think in their hearts”, he is generally impressed by the level of interest they exhibit and their inquisitiveness. “I’m glad when they ask questions,” he confesses.

With the help of Arabic-speaking Israelis and Hebrew-speaking Palestinians in the group, Yarin attempted to convey the magnitude and mindlessness of the one-sided slaughter to his audience.

He said that the Holocaust was unique among modern mass killings because it was completely ideological and was not an extreme manifestation of a political conflict – over territory or competing nationalisms – as other attempted exterminations were. “The Jews were not the enemies of the German people and they represented no threat to Hitler,” he explained.

Although in terms of Jewish history the Holocaust is unique, sadly, the annals of 20th century butchery are filled with genocides, classicides and other mass murders of defenceless groups.

Inside the sombre and sober pyramid-shaped, zigzagging galleries of the museum, the Tiyul-Rihla group of seven Israelis and six Palestinians, who had come on this three-day excursion which was organised by volunteers and largely paid for by the participants, wandered through Nazism’s hall of shame, starting with the rise of Hitler, through the Warsaw ghetto, to the horrors of the “Final Solution” and its death camps.

Familiar with this horrendous chapter in history, the Israelis followed the commentary and exhibits mostly in rapt silence. For the young Palestinians who were being exposed to the full extent of Nazi atrocities for the first time, their attempts to grasp the enormity led them to ply our guide with a constant stream of questions.

“If the Jews were so assimilated and successful, why did the Germans turn against them?”

“Was Einstein Jewish?”

“Why did the Jews believe the lies about the Nazi death camps?”

“Why didn’t the Soviets help the Jews?”

“Why did the West refuse to take in the Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors?”

The personal stories showcased in the museum gave the whole experience a human face which the Palestinians visibly appreciated, while the section dedicated to the “Righteous among the Nations”, which chronicles non-Jews who protected Jews – including Muslims in Bosnia, Albania, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and other countries – elicited the interest of both sides.

The Arabic being spoken by members of the group drew curious glances from Israeli visitors to the museum, who seemed to be trying to figure out what we were about. The passers-by included groups of young IDF recruits, apparently on motivational tours, who caused unarticulated yet visible stirrings of discomfort among the young Palestinian, whose only exposure to Israeli soldiers, though they are of a similar age, is as agents of the occupation.

Although some in the group had been to Yad Vashem before, experiencing it with this unusual group was an eye-opener. “It’s important to see something you think you know well through someone else’s eyes,” believes Dara Frank (22), an American-Israeli student who is currently working on a master’s in international relations at the Hebrew University, because it makes you “start questioning what you think you already know”.

“When it comes to the Holocaust, we only learn the basics about it at school, that Hitler slaughtered the Jews, so this trip has helped us acquire a lot of extra knowledge,” reflected Mohammed Mahareeq (23), who is originally from Hebron but works at a hotel in Ramallah and volunteers with the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The idea that Palestinians study the Holocaust at school, visit Yad Vashem and display genuine interest in the tragedy that befell the Jews of Europe is likely to come as something of a surprise to many Israelis who see regular reports in the media of Arab and Muslim Holocaust denial.

One recent example was Hamas’s angry response following the visit to Auschwitz by Ziad al-Bandak, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Describing the Holocaust as an “alleged tragedy”, a Hamas spokesman said the visit was “unjustified and unhelpful”.

While Hamas’s outburst, as well as the relative availability of literature questioning the Holocaust in some Arab countries, prove that there are certainly Arabs who insultingly deny that this horrendous crime took place. But fixating on Holocaust deniers, as many segments of the Israeli media tend to do, distorts the reality and downplays the importance of the work of the likes of al-Bandak, who visited Auschwitz and expressed sympathy for the historic plight of his people’s enemy, and he did so during a period of heightened animosity and distrust between the two sides.

And he is not a lone wolf. Many Palestinians are aware of the historic tragedy that befell their Jewish neighbours, but are often muted in expressing their sympathy due to the bitterness of the conflict or out of a conviction that it will be used as a political weapon against them. “Many Palestinians feel that sympathising too much with Israelis could lead to justification for the occupation,” Sami Adwan, a professor of education at Bethlehem University, was once quoted by the BBC as saying.

But there are those who point out that mutual sympathy is essential to building trust and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Determined to act on this conviction, one eccentric Palestinian-Israeli opened up his own tiny Arab Holocaust museum in Nazareth some years ago and tours the West Bank raising awareness about this dark chapter.

“When Palestinians learn about the Holocaust, they will understand the Jewish people better and can begin to develop a shared history,” Khaled Mahameed, the founder of the tiny museum he established with his own money, was quoted as saying.

And building understanding and compassion is exactly what the joint Tiyul/Rihla that brought these Palestinians and Israelis to Yad Vashem is about. “The idea behind the initiative is to expose each side to the other side’s narrative, and to have a very deep conversation about it,” explains Israeli journalist and activist Nir Boms, one of the originators of the idea.

“Personally, I think this trip is very interesting because it’s breaking down the walls between us: Israelis and Palestinians,” said Ibrahim Yassin, an activist and professional cook from East Jerusalem whose night job, as attested to by his hip hop look, is as a DJ.

There have been three join trips to date (two to Israel, one to the West Bank), and the participants brainstormed ideas for a fourth, to Palestine. The Palestinians wished to introduce the Israelis to al-Nakba (the Arabic for “The Catastrophe”), which is the term Palestinians use to describe perhaps the most defining trauma in their national experience: the exodus of up to three-quarters of Palestine’s Arab population, most of whom were not allowed to return following Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

However, they lamented the absence of a museum chronicling this painful chapter of Palestinian history. Some Palestinians suggested that the Israelis should join them on a trip to a refugee camp to enable them to gain a deeper insight into what contemporary life is like for many Palestinians.

“I want to introduce our Jewish friends to the suffering of the Palestinians… Just as they told us about their suffering in detail from an Israeli perspective, I’d like them to hear all the details about our stories,” reflected Mutasem Halawani, a student of business management from Jerusalem. “This helps build an exchange of ideas and tolerance.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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نصف يوم مع “آخِر” يهودي عربي

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بقلم خالد دياب

يعتقد ساسون سومخ، الشاعر والكاتب وصديق الأديب المصري الراحل نجيب محفوظ، ان الأدب  يتسامى على السياسة

الخميس 9 اغسطس 2012

English version

بوجود هذا الغموض الذي يكتنف الجو، هذه أوقات مزعجة للعلاقات العربي الإسرائيلية. ولكن رجلاً واحداً يصرّ على الحفاظ على أرجله مزروعة بعمق على جانبي هذا الصدع

يصف ساسون سومخ نفسه كيهودي وعربي في الوقت نفسه، كعراقي وإسرائيلي. دعاني هذا الشاعر والأكاديمي والكاتب ومترجم الأدب العربي إلى العبرية لقضاء “نصف يوم” معه في تلميح ذكي لقصة قصيرة غير شائعة كتبها نجيب محفوظ، المصري الحائز على جائزة نوبل. تسرد هذه الرواية الرمزية التي كُتبت في سنوات نجيب محفوظ المتأخرة الكثيرة الإنتاج، أحداث نصف يوم فقط يدخل فيها الراوي أبواب المدرسة للمرة الأولى كفتى صغير في الصباح ويخرج في المساء رجلاً كبيراً في السن

“كيف حدث ذلك كله في نصف يوم، بين الصباح المبكر والغروب؟”، يتساءل الراوي المسن محتاراً

تساءلْت مثله، بينما أبحر هذا الرجل السلحفاة المتقد ذكاءاً، البطئ في حركته والسريع في تفكيره عبر الزمن والمساحة ليأخذني في رحلة مذهلة من إسرائيل المعاصرة في سنواته الفضية عودة إلى عالم شبابه الذي اختفى في بغداد اليهودية، والذي يستحضره ببلاغة في مذكراته “بغداد الأمس”، عبر صالونات الأدب المصري في شبابه

يستذكر سومخ، الذي ولد في بغداد عام 1933 في أسرة يهودية ميسورة من الطبقة الوسطى، أوقاتاً قضاها يسبح في نهر دجلة العظيم ويذهب في رحلات ونزهات حوله. “تلك كانت أكثر أيام حياتي بهجة وسروراً”، يستذكر بحزن

شكّل اليهود في تلك الأيام حوالي ثلث سكان العاصمة العراقية. “عندما كنتَ تمشي في شارع الرشيد الرئيسي في بغداد، كان نصف أسماء المتاجر والمكاتب يهودية”، يشير سومخ

أدى الوجود اليهودي القديم في العراق إلى أشكال مثيرة للانتباه من التكامل الثقافي: كان اليهود العراقيون يكتبون العربية تقليدياً بالحروف العبرية، وكان اليهود البغداديون يتكلّمون لهجة عامية كانت قد ماتت بين المسلمين والمسيحيين. أثّر اليهود كذلك على حياة العراق اليومية. على سبيل المثال، يستذكر سومخ بعض الشيعة الذين عملوا لدى بعض الأعمال اليهودية وهم يحوّلون يوم إجازتهم الأسبوعية إلى السبت.

وخلال سنوات مراهقته، كان سومخ شاعراً واعداً قضى أوقاتاً في صالونات بغداد الأدبية النشطة، ونجح في نشر بعض أشعاره وقصائده. ولكن أحلامه الشابة الوردية بمستقبلاً أدبياً لامعاً في وطنه توقفت بوقاحة من قبل التاريخ والصفائح التكتونية للسياسات الجغرافية

ورغم أن الغالبية الساحقة لليهود العراقيين لم تلعب دوراً في ما حصل للفلسطينيين، إلا أن اللائمة ألقيت عليهم رغم ذلك، وأصبح الوضع غير محتمل لهم بحلول العام 1951

جرى إسكان المهاجرين اليهود في إسرائيل، مثلهم مثل الفلسطينيين في مخيمات مؤقتة، وكانت تلك خطوة هائلة إلى الأسفل بالنسبة لعائلة سومخ، التي انتقلت من وسائل الراحة والنفوذ والاحترام التي تمتعت بها في بغداد. ولكن الأسرة وقفت على قدميها في نهاية المطاف، ورفض ساسون سومخ الشاب الاستسلام وترك أحلامه الأدبية، “الأدب هو الأدب. السياسة لا تدخل به”، أخبرني ببساطة لا تترك لك مجالاً للنقاش.

لم ينخرط سومخ في المجلة الأدبية الإسرائيلية الوحيدة باللغة العربية فحسب، وإنما ضاعف جهوده لتعلُّم العبرية حتى يتمكن من ترجمة الشعر العربي إلى لغته القديمة الجديدة

كان الإنجاز الكبير لسومخ هو أنه أصبح واحداً من المراجع الرئيسية حول نجيب محفوظ. عندما اهتم سومخ للمرة الأولى بالكاتب المصري كان محفوظ ما يزال غير معروف تقريباً خارج العالم العربي

تفتّح الاهتمام الفكري بسرعة ليصبح صداقة خلافية (إذا أخذنا بالاعتبار المقاطعة العربية لإسرائيل) بين الكاتب المصري وناقده الإسرائيلي. حافظ الرجلان على تواصل لسنوات عديدة، وتمكن صديق المراسلة أخيراً من دعم صداقتهما عندما انتقل سومخ إلى القاهرة في منتصف تسعينات القرن الماضي

“عرف شعبانا صداقة استثنائية”، قال محفوظ لسومخ في إحدى المرات. “أحلم بيوم تصبح فيه المنطقة وطناً يفيض بأنوار العلوم، تباركه أعلى ميادين الجنة، بفضل التعاون بيننا”

كانت تلك هي رؤية التسوية العربية الإسرائيلية النهائية التي يبدو أن سومخ، الذي يصف نفسه بأنه “آخر يهودي عربي”، لأن جيله هو آخر جيل يهودي يتذكر بوضوح العيش بسلام بين العرب، قد كرّس حياته من خلالها، لبناء جسور التفاهم الثقافي

ورغم أنه يعترف أن جهوده لم تؤتِ أية نتائج ذات أهمية، إلا أنه يعمل بجد رغم ذلك. وربما في يوم من الأيام، وفي مستقبل أكثر سلاماً، سوف نلقي نظرة إلى الوراء على سومخ ومحفوظ وغيرهما من أمثالهما، ليس كغريبي أطوار مضللين، وإنما كأصحاب رؤية شجعان

This article which was first published by The Common Ground News Service on Tuesday 31 July 2012.

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Half a day with the “last Arab Jew”

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By Khaled Diab

Sasson Somekh, critic and friend of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, believes literature transcends politics and can bridge cultures.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

النسخة العربية

These are troubling times for Arab-Israeli relations. Arabs watch on with rising alarm as Israel continues to cement its hold on the occupied Palestinian territories and toys with the idea of denying that there even is an occupation. Meanwhile, Israelis look on with mounting apprehension as Egypt elects the unknown quantity of its first Islamist president and Syria slips further into civil war.

Amid all this uncertainty and distrust, one man insists on keeping his feet firmly planted on both sides of this chasm. Sasson Somekh describes himself as both a Jew and an Arab, as both Iraqi and Israeli.

This poet, academic, writer and translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew invited me to spend “half a day” with him, in a witty allusion to a little-known short story by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Penned in the latter years of Mahfouz’s prolific career, this allegorical tale relates the events of just half a day in which the narrator enters the school gate for the first time as a young boy in the morning and emerges as an old man in the afternoon.

“How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset?” the elderly narrator asked, perplexed.

I wondered the same, as this sharp-witted tortoise of a man, slow of body but swift of mind, snailed through time and space to take me on a riveting journey from the contemporary Israel of his silver years, back to the disappeared world of his youth, Jewish Baghdad (which he eloquently evokes in the first part of his memoirs, Baghdad, Yesterday), via the literary salons of his middle age in Egypt.

Born in Baghdad in 1933 into a well-to-do, middle-class Jewish family, Somekh remembers summers spent swimming in and loungingby the majestic Tigris, the river along whose banks some of the first human civilisations were born. When temperatures soared and water levels dipped, a patchwork of small islets would emerge, providing ideal seclusion for family picnics, consisting primarily of fish grilled on a special covered Iraqi barbecue. “Those were the most enjoyable days of my life,” he recalled wistfully.

At the time, Baghdad was a very Jewish city, with Jews – who were active in all walks of life, including commerce, the professions, politics and the arts – comprising as much as a third of the Iraqi capital’s population. “When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, al-Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” he noted.

Iraqi Jews were so enmeshed in their country’s social fabric that they described themselves, and were regarded, as “Arabs”, and viewed Judaism as a religion and not an ethnicity. As Somekh put it, he grew up with Arabic as his mother tongue and Arab culture as his reference point.

The ancient Jewish presence in Iraq led to some interesting cultural symbioses: Iraqi Jews traditionally wrote Arabic in Hebrew script and Baghdadi Jews spoke a vernacular that had died out among Muslims and Christians. Jews also affected Iraq’s daily life. For example, Somekh recalls, some Shi’ites, who worked for Jewish businesses switching their own day of worship to Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, during which Muslim neighbours often helped perform tasks Jews were ritually forbidden to carry out, such as lighting stoves.

Despite the image in Israel of Middle Eastern Jews being very traditional and religious, the educated or wealthy Jewish elites did not keep Sabbath and were very secular. Somekh, whose father was a senior clerk at a British bank, grew up knowing very little about his religious heritage, which was not even taught at the Jewish schools he attended.

During his teenage years, Somekh was a promising young poet who hung out in Baghdad’s vibrant literary salons and managed to get some of his poetry published. But his youthful dreams of a glittering literary career in his homeland were rudely interrupted by history and the shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics.

Though the vast majority of Iraqi Jews played no part in what befell the Palestinians, they were nonetheless blamed for it. And by 1951 the situation had become untenable.

Iraqi Jewish refugees in Israel were, like the Palestinians, settled in makeshift camps, a huge step down for the Somekhs from the comfort and prestige they had enjoyed in Baghdad. But eventually the family got back on its feet, and the young Sasson Somekh refused to give up on his literary dreams. “Literature is literature. Politics does not enter into it,” he told me with disarming simplicity.

Somekh not only became involved with the only Israeli literary magazine in Arabic at the time, one run by the Israeli communist movement, he also redoubled his efforts to learn Hebrew so that he could translate Arabic poetry into this new-old language.

Somekh’s crowning achievement was to become one of the foremost authorities on Naguib Mahfouz. When Somekh first took an interest in the Egyptian novelist, Mahfouz was almost unknown outside the Arab world. As there was so little information available on Mahfouz’s literature in English, the Nobel committee, according to Somekh, relied heavily on his PhD thesis to assess the Egyptian novelist’s work.

Intellectual interest soon blossomed into an improbable and controversial (given the Arab boycott of Israel) friendship between the Egyptian writer and his Israeli critic. The two men kept up a correspondence for years, and the pen pals were finally able to further their friendship when Somekh moved to Cairo in the mid-1990s, to head the Israeli Academic Centre.

“Our two peoples knew extraordinary partnership,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh. “I dream of the day when, thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

And it is this vision of eventual Arab-Israeli conciliation that Somekh – who describes himself as the “last Arab Jew” because his is the last generation of Jews that clearly remembers living in peace among Arabs – seems to have dedicated his life to through his attempts to build bridges of cultural understanding.

Though he admits that his efforts have not yielded any significant results, he labours on regardless. And perhaps one day, in a more peaceful future, we will look back on Somekh and Mahfouz and others like them not as misguided eccentrics, but as bold visionaries.

This is the extended version of an article which was first published by The Common Ground News Service on Tuesday 31 July 2012.
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