I had originally planned on writing about Haj Amin el-Husseini’s legacy, but, after wandering about Wikipedia for a while, I realized that the historical facts would be too confusing to narrate and I’d probably lose my way.
So I thought instead I would not try this time to tell a story.
An Arab Israeli friend came to visit, and although we generally avoided politics, at one point he stated that when looking around — at Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan — he was glad he lived in Israel. He was a Muslim who lived in an apartment building where everyone else was Jewish, and he knew that in every other regime, he would not have the same freedoms as in Israel.
He reminded me of a gay Moroccan I once met who had accidentally arrived in Israel (a long story), who brought his former employer to court for not paying him the salary he was due. When I exclaimed at what seemed the near preposterousness of his action, since he was neither Israeli nor Jewish, he retorted, “This is a country of law, not like Morocco.”
And to my friend that evening, I spoke about the devastating effect of families and clans on Arab society. Several years ago, I was a guest in Bethlehem of someone who turned out to be a high-ranking official in Fatah. Over dinner, he told me several stories that in retrospect he may have wished he had not related. As we looked out at the street, he pointed out that whether one got a ticket from a policeman for parking illegally (or parking at all) depended on which family you belonged to. In addition, in the offices in Hebron of the Palestinian agency corresponding to the Israeli Mossad, there was an officer responsible for gathering information. But that town was also controlled by a family to which the officer did not belong. As a result, no information reached him. In the end, the PLO had to replace him with someone else, who was a member of the family, was not an officer, and hadn’t the same experience or knowledge.
My Bethlehem friend estimated that the problem of the clans would take a hundred years to change.
That afternoon at home, I spoke about Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Knesset, who, to the best of my knowledge, has never done anything benefiting Arabs in Israel; and, in fact, has done more harm than good, since her obstreperous support of the Palestinian cause only convinces Jews that Arabs are essentially set on undermining the state. It’s well-known (to those who care) that Israeli Arabs are mostly interested in integrating themselves into society and improving their economic lot and their security (the absence of a functioning police force in Arab communities is a serious problem). But Zoabi will have none of this. Her self interest and demagoguery about Palestinians are all that matter. So how was she elected? Simple. She belongs to the largest clan in Nazareth, one, by the way–for those who often beweep the thousand-year presence of Palestinians in Palestine–that originated in Iraq.
In response, my son Yochai would no doubt say that Arabs are tribal, and although it’s somewhat of a catchall phrase he uses for non-Western societies, in this case, it is true. Unfortunately, his conclusion that, therefore, there is no Palestinian identity is false. One can ask, for example, whether, in a no less tribal society such as Kenya or Ghana, there is no Kenyan or Ghanaian identity, and whether the tribal nature of a country, while it no doubt hinders the successful running of the country, makes its existence illegitimate.
Yochai often says Palestinian nationality is a European creation, but, although there may be some truth in this, his statement ignores history. After the creation of French Syria and Lebanon, the local Arab intellectuals and the Mufti began referring to a Palestinian entity not as part of Syria. The major events, however, that created a Palestinian identity were what Palestinians call the “Nakba,” the victory of Israel in the war of independence and the expulsion of Palestinians (most of whom fled) , and the creation of a Palestinian diaspora. As David Hume (I believe) commented, one’s nationality is only meaningful when one is in a foreign country. The Palestinians who did not stay in refugee camps dispersed to Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and eventually to Europe and the states. They, naturally, are the most patriotic of Palestinians because they have carried their identity like a wound and because they are the freest of clan loyalties.
When I used the Hebrew word for the Occupied Territories, “hashetachim hakvushim” (literally, the “conquered” or “captured” territories), a friend exclaimed that they couldn’t be “kvushim,” because we were attacked. It took me days before I realized this was a non sequitur. Was she implying that it was given to us on a silver platter and therefore not captured? Or rather, because we captured the area in self-defense, we could not occupy it? Neither made sense. Both are silly claims. But one thing I’ve discovered in my life is the profound power of outrageous, silly claims.