Can Arab and Jews live together?

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Jerusalem, 2001

A mixed street in Jerusalem, 2001

This question might seem absurd in the light of the appalling slaughter of Palestinian civilians by Israel in the past months. Indeed hasn’t the entire history of the Israeli state since its foundation in 1948, and of the British sponsored Zionist colonial project in the earlier part of the 20th century, been all about the forced dispossession of the Palestinian people from their own land — what the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe called the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine”?

The answer of course is a resounding Yes. But look carefully again at the question. It doesn’t mention “Zionism” or “Zionists”. This has to be our starting point. Jews don’t have to be Zionists. Before the Second World War the majority were not — and this included European Jews as well those from the Middle East.

European Jews can be proud of their contribution to European and world civilisation. Just name names such as Spinoza, Marx, Einstein, Freud, or study the contribution of Jews to the arts, medicine, science and education; not to mention their contribution to the working class, trade union and socialist movements.

In the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire, where the Zionists developed their cadre for the conquest of Palestine, they were in a minority. It’s true Jews were the victims of vicious pogroms, whipped up by Russia’s Tsars, desperate to rescue their rotten empire. But it was the Jewish Socialist Bund, not the Zionists, which commanded a majority support among the Jewish workers.

The Bund was aggressively anti-Zionist, recognising it as a colonial trap. It also attacked the Zionists for collaborating with their tormentors by agreeing that the Russian Empire “had too many Jews”.

The Bund insisted that the route to Jewish emancipation depended upon an alliance with non-Jews in the rising revolutionary movement. When the Bolsheviks took power even the Zionist leader Ben Gurion was forced to admit that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were uncompromising fighters against anti-Semitism.

In other words, in Europe as well as the Middle East there is a Jewish history, in stark contrast to the Zionist version, that takes as its start point cooperation with non-Jews.

This tradition has also to be rediscovered among those European settlers who call themselves Zionist in the land of Palestine. It is a tradition which, by its very definition, cannot tolerate the institutionalised racism and violent elitism that are at the foundation of the Zionist state.

This is one reason why the so-called two-state solution in Palestine was always a non-starter. Even those Zionist leaders who have been half-heartedly ready to accept a truncated Palestine state have always refused to recognise the right of return for the 1948 refugees — a key demand of any lasting peace settlement. In other words, an exclusive Jewish elite state, in some form, has to be preserved.

In any case, successive Israeli governments have made it clear that they are not interested in recognising any kind of Palestinian state. Israel refuses even to discuss sharing Jerusalem.

Zionists insist that Jerusalem has to be the Jewish capital of a Jewish state. Even on the West Bank the Israeli occupation has lasted so long and has grabbed so much territory that a Palestinian state would be more akin to a native American reservation.

Even John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, authorised to try and get some kind of two-state solution, warned Israel that without some concessions theirs would become an “apartheid” state. Pathetically he later apologised. But the label is sticking and it reminds us of the black majority struggle against white Apartheid South Africa.

That struggle eventually led to a black majority government. Sooner or later the Palestinian Authority, that has a few token powers, is going to have to recognise the two-state solution is dead. If it doesn’t, it will be swept aside by a new generation of Palestinian activists who will be demanding equal rights in a single Palestinian state.

Its vision may be based on the demand for one person one vote that includes all Israelis, as well as all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, in pre-1948 Palestine and the millions of refugees scattered around the Middle East and beyond.

In other words, elementary democratic rights that so many Jews in Europe fought for so courageously and protected so enthusiastically would eventually come to Palestine — reviving a European Jewish tradition of Jewish and non-Jewish cooperation that Zionism has done so much to destroy.


"We must fan that spark of hope from the past"

These words were written by Walter Benjamin, the great Jewish Marxist philosopher who tragically committed suicide just before the Second World War. They were inspiration for Ammiel Alcalay, an Arab Jewish writer who has written probably the best book on the Zionist suppression of Arab Jewish identity, After Jews and Arabs, Remaking Levantine Culture.

He sees the spark of hope in the rediscovery of this identity to lighting up a different future, where Arabs and Jews are equal citizens. It is a vision in sharp contrast to a Middle East collapsing ever more rapidly into barbarism. Levantine culture was prevalent in the Middle East before the British seized Palestine in 1917 and began turning it into a Zionist colony designed to suit the needs of the empire.

This culture was more tolerant of the three great Middle East religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, than we see today. British and French imperialism manipulated these religions, cynically privileging Judaism and Christianity to consolidate its rule and laying the foundations for today’s chaos and carnage.

Alcalay confirms the view that most Jews from Arab countries, and other Islamic countries such as Iran and Turkey, became willing participants in suppressing their own pasts. He mobilises the tiny minority, nauseated by Zionist racism, which withstood this pressure to tell a different story.

Take Eliyahu Eliachar, deeply unhappy with his homeland. He says that it has betrayed the essential unity of the wider region. “The land of Israel is a small portion of the region in which many people dwell, most of them having one faith, and a strong desire to be united. Our land has never been a limited geographical unit: it was and still is at the crossroads of East and West, between Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia in the past.”

The cache of the Geniza documents — nearly 1,000 years old and discovered in the remains of a Cairo synagogue — confirms “a long and great period of Jewish Arab symbiosis”.

The same theme appears in Ya’aqob Yehoshua’s Childhood in Old Jerusalem, describing the city before the British arrived: “Everyone enjoyed the works of the Arab poets...and led poetry and music get togethers in the Arab coffee houses, back when the audiences used to sit on back cane stools and smoke narghilleh... The coffee houses of the Old City and Damascus Gate served as cultural and entertainment centres for Arabs and Jews alike.”

Jews from Arab countries who “converted” to Zionism also faced racism from European settlers. One of them, the poet Sami Shalom Chetrit, penned a lament with the apt title “Prisoner of Zion”.

Courageous minority
Occasionally an Israeli Jew from a European background tells the truth. Lova Eliav wrote, “We snatched from them a valuable treasure that they brought with them — Arabic...we have made Arabic and Arabic culture something hateful and despicable.”

Can this courageous minority support the struggle to liberate Palestine? Some remain simply artists, cautious about engaging openly with uncompromising political commitment. Others, like the Israeli novelist Shimon Ballas, have thrown caution to the winds: “I have never denied my Arab origins or the Arabic language. Arab identity has always been part of me.” He identifies completely with the Palestinians.

Ballas has an unlikely comrade here in Britain with similar views, though from a completely different background. He is Sir Gerald Kaufman, the British Parliamentary Labour Party’s most senior Jewish member. Kaufman, formerly an ardent Zionist and a practising religious Jew, became so disillusioned with Israel that he has changed sides.

Not only does he support the Hamas fighters in Gaza, but during the last Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009 he likened the Palestinian resistance movement to the Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. That’s quite something: a European Jew supporting Islamic led resistance to Zionist terror. That’s a spark of hope in the present.

John Rose is the author of The Myths of Zionism (Pluto press, 2004).