Tag Archives: Jews

Identidad

Para JP

I have a good friend who recommended that I read a book entitled Identity by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Coincidentally, this year, while reading an essay by James Baldwin in the book Collected Essays, I had realized how much Baldwin, who I had read intensively in high school, had influenced my decision to come to Israel. His discussions of the battled identity of blacks in America had made me question my own uneasy identity as a Jew.

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I often say that every year I discover a new reason I came to Israel. This was the year of Jewish identity. I very well remember reading S. Y. Agnon’s wonderful story “The Kerchief,” and being astonished by the marvelous sense of wholeness, I had never experienced, that was conveyed even in translation by the story. My Judaism was fragmented, occasionally oppressive (would my world always be divided pointlessly into milchadiche – milk products – and fleyschediche – meat?). In Amherst, being Jewish was accompanied by shame. It was not really what one wanted to be.

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Moreover, I wanted to be a writer – but I knew I could not encompass the enormity of America, the very chaos of it, its multiple voices. I wanted to write about New York City, a cacophony of voices, and not with the elitist diction I was taught but something else, something much cruder – and yet, in imitation of Whitman, singing. But I had no stable, unmoving point from which to view the chaos, that capitalist beautiful monstrosity, both beautiful and monstrous, where everyone became a commodity and moved about from place to place, and where that safe haven of s. Y. Agnon had no possibility. The best piece I wrote at that time was probably a description of Bloody Mary’s birthday party in the subway caverns underneath New York. Bloody Mary was one of the homeless, and since the ulcers on her swollen legs bled, I called her Bloody Mary. There was also a rabbi who colored himself black and pretended he was an African American. And a white young man who in the best Russian tradition represented innocence. I could never succeed in putting the novel together.

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So that was one of the reasons I came to Israel – to get away from the melange of identities and find one I could like. I studied Jewish Studies and learned about the religion I really knew little about. I had my first cholent, I visited synagogues. In New York, I had visited Chabad; here, I tried Yemenite, Moroccan, and eventually settled on Ashkenazi. And I learned Hebrew – the language of the Jews. In the end, I became what in Israel is called a secular Jew but more than that, I became part of the workers movement. That was the ethos that placed its imprint on me and my family.

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The question of identity (in its original meaning) ceased to be relevant. There is a certain comfort that comes with knowing Hebrew. It is the language not only of liturgy but of a tribe so that speaking Hebrew gives one immediately the illusion of a closed community, in which all its speakers are somehow related. In addition, the civic holidays in Israel are the Jewish ones, so that there is a feeling of wholeness one can never achieve outside of Israel unless one is religious. On Yom Kippur, nothing runs. The silence is uplifting. On Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, the roads are jammed with traffic, as everyone celebrates with family. Knowing Hebrew puts you closer to the sources – you are implicitly part of a community over 3000 years old.

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But of course, politically, this sense of wholeness is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous one. Israel is not only the home of Jews but of Arabs. The total identification of the nation with Judaism implicitly denies their existence. If you’re on the side of the majority, the feeling can be great; but if you are in the minority, you are constantly reminded of your status.  Arabs know Hebrew; Jews don’t know Arabic. In many respects (without considering the Occupied Territories), Israel retains the characteristics of a nineteenth century nation, which is one of its difficulties when confronting 21st century nations in the West. The only diversity Israel celebrates is diversity among its Jews.

A Reasoned Approach to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict VI

Part VI

The current situation

The current situation is unhealthy for both sides. Israel under Netanyahu is interested in extending the settlements in the Occupied Territories, that is, the West Bank, while the military and the Israeli police seem to be aiding the destructive activities of Jewish activists in the West Bank. The cadre of Jewish terrorists, which had been handled with kid gloves by the government, lately has become even more violent.

Internally, Israel has undergone a drastic shift due largely to demographics, as the number of religious Jews and the Jews from African nations (called mizrachim) has steadily risen. This population is joined by the Jews from Russia (who ironically include a large number of Christians). None of these groups are influenced by the democratic socialist secular ideas of the founders of the Jewish state, and in fact, the Russians, in general, have no appreciation for democracy. In short, they, like the new king in the Bible, “knew not Joseph.” The Zionism of the mizrachim always differed as it had a religious base.

In addition, an Israeli Jew today is unlikely to know an Israeli Arab. Jews live in Jewish communities (and many think it’s perfectly all right to refuse permission to Arabs to live there), and Arabs live in Arab communities. Nearly the only exceptions are Haifa and Jaffa, but even there, the familiarity is limited. I would imagine that at least nine out of ten Jews have never been inside an Arab house. Often when watching television commentators interviewing Arabs, I’m utterly embarrassed by their ignorance and implicit bigotry. They will bluntly ask, “Do you feel like an Israeli?” as if being an Israeli is a prerogative of Jews (like the commentator or interviewer). In short, for most Israeli Jews, Arabs are the other, the stranger, the one they can easily identify with terrorists.

Moreover, the Jews are beset by tribal divisions. The ultra-orthodox hate everyone who is not ultra-orthodox—including the Hasidim, and the State (especially Bibi’s party) has inflamed the discontent of the Jews from Northern Africa (mainly Moroccan Jews, called “mizrachi”) against the Ashkenazi establishment. The Jews in Israel are a people with little consensus and an underprivileged populace of “mizrachi” Jews who hate Arabs—and, as all underprivileged people everywhere, find solace in their hatred.

On the Palestinian side, it is also not in any way clear that the Palestinian leaders have given up the goal of reclaiming all of Palestine, so that today, Israel is led by someone who believes in a Greater Israel (including the West Bank) and the Palestinian Authority by leaders who believe in the return of all the Palestinian refugees to the area of Israel, which would end the existence of a Jewish state. The Palestinian Authority, which is quite corrupt, is also short of cash, so that there are constant rumors of its collapse.

Young Palestinians have opened a third Intifada, characterized by individuals knifing passersby. The Israeli government has ruled that in such cases the police can open fire with intent to kill. As a result, the number of killed Palestinians far exceeds the number of killed Israelis. In general, it seems that the general goal of the Israeli government is to make life as difficult for Palestinians as possible and in this way encourage emigration. Benyamin Netanyahu regards them as vicious, and the Israeli government frankly doesn’t give a damn about them. In an article in Haaretz, the noted sociologist, Eva Ilouz, compared life for Palestinians in the West Bank to that of slavery.

On 2 January 2016, Nidal Zahran wrote the following in “Quora,” when describing the difficulties of life in the West Bank.

Not only that the economy is unstable, but the level of Israeli control over the economy is just ridiculous. Israel, for example, does not allow telecom operators to provide 3G services. To this day we only have 2G!
A friend of mine tried to establish a farm. for 17 months he was running back and forth trying to get approvals from the military.

Freedoms
The Palestinian Authority is not the most democratic government. It is a slow moving oligarchy that is corrupt and often oppressive of freedoms. This however, is very little to what we face from Israel.

The entire Palestinian economy is captive to the Israeli military. We are subject to Israeli military law. Israel controls what and who is allowed in or out of the country. It controls who you can marry. Everything! so, being jailed for criticizing the government, is little compared to having every aspect of your life controlled by a foreign military.

To give a couple of examples. We have a house in our village which is classifies as “Area C”, When we requested a waterline to be connected to the house, they could only install the line until the end of “Area B”, the remaining 5 meters require an approval of the military commander of the area, which is almost impossible to receive on any “construction” project!

For me to visit my wife’s family in Jerusalem, I need a permit from the Israeli Military.

A Reasoned Approach to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict IV

Part IV

1948-49

In 1948-49, everything comes to a head, and what in some respects was quite clear or might be described in relatively compatible terms for both Palestinian and Jews altered radically.

The Jewish Claim

For the Jewish yishuv, there were three critical events that defined their perspective on their State: a. the UN proposal to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab section; b. the attack by neighboring Arab states; c. the victory.

  1. After the British threw up their hands, the UN decided on a partition plan for what was defined as Palestine. In the plan, the areas that were mostly Jewish were consolidated into one area, and the remaining area was designated as an Arab state. The Jewish area was quite small, while the Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem, and the Negev remained under the Arab administration. Jordan remained under King Abdullah. The Jews, under David Ben-Gurion, accepted the plan. The Arabs rejected it.
  2. When Israel declared its independence as a state (in the small area designated it), the armies of the neighboring Arab states attacked. In theory, they should have easily wiped out the Jewish army with its paucity of arms; and their goal, as they told their Arab listeners was to quickly overwhelm the territory and wipe out the Jews. Those Arabs who left of their own free will could speedily return to their homes.
  3. The Jews won and with the win acquired relatively vast areas (for a tiny country) without much Jewish population.

To a great sense, the Jewish viewpoint is as simple as that stated above. We agreed to partition, we were attacked by Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi armies, and against all odds, we won. Regarding the Palestinians, many fled as refugees do in any war; the relatively wealthy (such as in Jaffa) fled expecting to quickly return, and toward the end of the war, Palestinian Arabs were also expelled as a possible fifth column, especially in areas with a small or even negligible Jewish population.

The Palestinian Claim

The Palestinian version is quite different as anyone who is at all acquainted with the Palestinian narrative knows. The Partition Plan often does not appear (or when it does, it is dismissed as the product of Western colonialism) nor does the attack by Arab armies. In the Palestinian narrative, Israel, a creation of the West and therefore of Western imperialism/colonialism is solely responsible for the loss of Palestine and the expelling of all the rightful natives from its midst.

There are numerous reasons for this blatant hole in the historical account.

  1. The first is that the Palestinian moral position of its right for self-determination in 1918-1919 has, among many of its proponents, essentially remained unchanged. If anything, it switched from 1919 to 1948; i.e., we were in the majority at both times, and therefore by right, we should have had a state.

There are, however, several other equally important factors:

  1. The fight against Israel was not fought by the native population.
  2. With minor exceptions, the native Arab population had no national identity until after the land had been lost.

The Palestinians were pawns of their fellow Arabs, who planned on dividing the territory among themselves and had no intention of creating a Palestinian state. It is normal for a national identity to be forged when fighting against the foreign invader or those who come to colonize, for example, in Kenya, Algiers, or even the Netherlands. But in this instance, the national identity was forged out of defeat. The great Palestinian event is the nakba, the catastrophe. The name says everything. When catastrophes occur, the victims are in no way responsible. The Jews acquired the role of the colonialist oppressor—they and only they were responsible for the catastrophe. And thus, it is important that all the Palestinians who left were expelled. They were the majority—and they were expelled. If they were also responsible for the nakba, if they had left of their own free will or if they had left because of battle, then they would have had themselves to blame, as well, and not only the Jews.

There are an additional two factors that must also be considered..

The first, which in the course of nearly 70 years has had its ups and downs in influence, is the religious aspect. In strict religious terms, Israel can never be legitimate as this region is part of the historical Islamic hegemony. There can can be no relinquishing of the land. This is essentially the position of Hamas, the Hezbollah, and Iran to this day.

The second begins primarily with Haj al-Husseini, and that is the anti-Semitic aspect. I am quoting from a booklet he authored for Muslim soldiers enlisted in the Nazi SS division in Bosnia. The quotes are relatively long, but they reveal the pernicious core of much of the extreme Palestinian criticism of Israel today. Note also the mixture of religion and nationalism, which characterized the Grand Mufti.

For us Muslims, it is unworthy to utter the word Islam in the same breath with Judaism since Islam stands high over its perfidious adversary. Therefore, it would be wrong to carry out comparison of those two generally different counterpoints…

Jews are known in history only as a subjugated people. Their vulgar nature and insufferable stance toward the nations that offered them hospitality, and toward their neighboring nations, are the reason that those same nations had to resort to [certain] measures in order to suppress a Jew’s efforts to obtain his desire by force.

The history of antiquity shows us that the pharaohs were already forced to use all means against Jewish usury and Jewish immorality. Ancient Egyptians finally expelled the Jews from their land. Led by Moses, the Jews then arrived in the Sinai desert…

Following that, the Jews spread like locust [sic] all over the Arab peninsula. They came to Mecca, to Medina, to Iraq, and to Palestine, which is the land of milk and honey. The group of the Jews that came to Syria and Palestine was now under Roman rule. The Romans, however, soon discerned the peril that threatened the land from the Jews, and so they introduced harsh measures against them. Besides that, a serious, contagious illness of plague erupted, which was by common opinion brought into the land by Jews. When even medical doctors stated that the Jews were indeed the source of the infection—and their opinion was obviously correct—there arose among the people such upheaval against the Jews that many Jews were killed. In addition, that event is the reason why the Jews have been called “microbes” in Arabia to this very day.

The Arabs have a particular understanding for introducing forceful measures against Jews in Germany and for their expulsion from the country. After the [First] World War, England and America enabled the Jews to settle in Palestine and to establish a Jewish state there. Jewish excrement from all countries assembled there, rascally striving to seize the land from Arabs. And indeed, they succeeded in buying land from the poorest of the poor and from unscrupulous landlords. By doing so, they took poor widows’ bread and stole food from children to fatten themselves. When the Arabs opposed the Jewish settlement, the Jews did not shun bloody murders. So they robbed many families of their livelihood and threw the families into misery and troubles. (God will punish them for those disgraceful deeds).

The Jewish struggle against Arabs is nothing new for us, except that as time passed, the location of the battlefield changed. Jews hate Muhammad and Islam, and they hate any man who wishes to advance the prosperity of his people and to fight against Jewish lust for possessions and Jewish corruption.[1]

The article continues with descriptions of Jewish conspiracies against Muhammad, including an attempt by a Jewess to poison him!

I have one other historical note regarding the 1948-49 conflict. Recent releases from French archives have revealed that British agents in Arabic countries, working without the knowledge of 10 Downing Street, were instrumental in encouraging the Arabs to attack the Jewish settlement and proposing the division of the conquered land among the victorious nations. I mention this because even here, colonialism played a decisive role. The claim by Palestinians that only Israel is the ugly creation of Western colonialism is a false one; their wanderings are also the result of the invisible hands of colonialist agents.

[1] Havel, Boris, “Haj Amin Husseini’s Anti-Semitic Legacy,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2015

A Reasoned Approach to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict III

Part III

Up to 1948: the arguments of critics

The Palestinian claim

The number one argument against is that the Palestinians were never a people or a nation or anything cohesive, neither in 1918 nor in 1948. Even today, there’s a different dialect for Jaffa, Gaza, Jerusalem, and the Galilee. This is true but irrelevant. If it were relevant, then there would be no Kenya, no Angola, no Lebanon, probably half of the African countries of today. It’s further said that the Arabs in Palestine, despite claiming to have lived here for centuries or even thousands of years are relative newcomers. If we take, for example, the number of Muslims in Jerusalem in 1896, which was 8,560, it is quite clear that the population mushroomed in the twentieth century. Whether the population flourished beforehand depended on the investment of the Ottoman Empire in the region. For instance, in the 16th century, when the Cotton Market prospered in Jerusalem due to trade with Egypt, Safed flourished as well as a textile center. In addition, the Arabs in Palestine and in the Middle East in general moved around quite a lot. Jaffa was destroyed in the 19th century and was largely settled by Egyptians (the neighborhoods have Egyptian names); Acre was attacked as well; Haifa was a fishing village. In the 18th century, the Galilee was ruled by a Bedouin. No doubt, the oldest residents in Israel/Palestine are the Samaritans. Palestinian claims that they have been here thousands of years are mostly nonsense; just as are Jewish claims pointing to David’s kingdom as giving Jews legitimization. But the falsehoods (however loudly proclaimed) do not deny the Palestinians right in 1918 at the end of WWI to a state.

The Jewish claim

There are numerous arguments against the Jewish claim, and like the arguments against the main Palestinian claim, none of them hold water and many of them show a profound misunderstanding of the history of the Jews.

The first is that the Jews are only a religion and not a people. This is false. It is true that in every Western country, Jews are regarded as members of a religion, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially in the U.S., is proudly proclaimed from both civic and religious pulpits. But this does not mean the portrayal is fully accurate. The first mention of the word “Jew” is in the Book of Esther, where Mordecai is called, “hayehudi, the Jew.” The initial meaning was both geographical and political: he or his ancestors came from the State of Judea. Over the centuries, there were Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean basin, and they maintained their ethnic and religious identity through marriage, custom, and ceremony. I’ve been told that Jews are “tribal.” Because of its negative connotations, I don’t like that appellation. The Jews are a people, much like, let’s say, the Thai, who wherever they go maintain their local customs and religion. Anyone can join Thai Buddhism if he or she wishes.

In addition, although the Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 19th century were religious, those who came in the early 20th century and were the ones who established the foundations for a state, were not. The opposite: they were often anti-religious. Religious Jews remained in Europe. Jews who rejected the religion and defined themselves as a people became Zionists.

The other complaint often leveled at Israel is that it is a colonization and a creation of the West and Western imperialism.

As I have stated before, the settlement by Jews is unique; no settlement other than that of American blacks in Liberia is comparable. Like the settlement by the American blacks, it was a return to a homeland. On arriving in Liberia, however, the American blacks discovered that despite Africa being their homeland, they were culturally apart; in this regard, they were colonialists. Similarly, the Jews were also culturally colonialist. They didn’t speak Palestinian Arabic (although several would learn), and they regarded themselves as culturally distinct. The best example of this is the creation of Tel-Aviv, which began as a Jewish suburb of Jaffa. The Jews wanted better sanitary conditions, better roads and schooling for their children—in short, they wanted to be modern, and they regarded the modern as a Western attribution. So—the Jews were not colonialist and yet colonialist, and certainly, the Palestinians regarded them as such, although it should be mentioned that in the 1930’s, there was already a conscious attempt in Jaffa to imitate the better aspects of Tel-Aviv.

It should also be noted (as this is often ignored) that from the end of WWI to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews were diligently building the infrastructure of a state: that is, there was an indigenous, local development not dependent on the decisions of Western powers. The opposite: the British Mandate tried to severely limit the number of Jews allowed into the country. It’s true that the development of the Jewish yishuv (settlement) was also encouraged by monies collected from Jews throughout the West (including Eastern Europe) to purchase land. Until 1948, all the Jewish land was legally purchased. The Arabs, under Haj Amin Husseini, asked for help from the wrong imperialist, as he courted Hitler to encourage him to enter Palestine and kill all the Jews.

A Reasoned Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Introduction

Amidst all the clamor and mutual accusations, I thought I would set out clearly, in an unbiased a fashion as possible, the claims by both Palestinians and Jews regarding Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. My father taught me that there are always two sides to every story. And, of course, this liberal position, weighing one side’s claims against the others, is in itself a bias that many on both sides will find fault with—and even, perhaps, insult. This blog will have six parts (one part appearing per week):

  1. Introduction
  2. The basic Palestinian and Israeli positions (historically up to 1948)
    1. The Palestinian Position
    2. The Jewish/Israeli Position
  3. The Arguments of Critics
    1. The Palestinian Claim
    2. The Jewish Claim
  4. 1948-49
    1. The Israeli Position
    2. The Palestinian Position/Understanding of the Events
  5. 1967 and afterward
    1. Israel
    2. Palestine
  6. The Current Situation

Several disclaimers are in order. The first is that I am in Israeli, and therefore, however hard I try, there will obviously be some bias in my presentation of both sides; in fact, the very attempt to present both sides as equal will most likely be held against me. In addition, I’m not going to talk about the atrocities committed on both sides or about the supposed ethnic cleansing because quite frankly, they don’t interest me and I’ll let historians squabble over this for centuries to come. I am making one exception, since I mention PLO terrorist acts. My excuse is that historically this was a role the PLO deliberately played out, and when it failed to reach its goals, the PLO changed course. I realize, as well, that from the Palestinian viewpoint, Israeli air attacks, which also killed innocent victims, were labeled terrorism.

I’m not going to discuss Gaza, as well.

This little essay began with a goal of being quite brief, and to my dismay, the more I wrote, the more explanations I found necessary to include. Nevertheless, obviously, there are many events I do not cover nor wish to cover here.

Please if you comment, reasoned arguments would be appreciated. I realize this is a volatile subject for many in this world.

A Swarthy Jesus

A confession:

When I came to Israel many years ago, having been raised on literary misconceptions of Jews, I searched among my fellow compatriots for swarthy types. They were mostly to be found among Yemenite Jews and Jews from northern Africa. To my dismay, I was to learn that Yemenites were most likely converted in the fifth century, and swarthiness among Jews from North Africa usually meant intermarriage with the local Arab population. So where were the swarthy Jews of literary complexion?

Swarthy, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose when placed against the pallid yet rosy-cheeked Englishman whose skin challenges tomatoes when exposed too long to the Mediterranean sun, even I might seem swarthy. But I doubt most others would think as I passed by, “there goes a swarthy Jew.” They might think, “Nerd.” They might think, “Old,” but swarthy, hardly.

So I looked around some more and decided to concentrate on Ladinos, that is, the Jews who trace their ancestry to the expulsion from Spain, as the oldest, “purest” example I might find. Being of a phenomenological bent of mind, after taking a representative sample of about five, I concluded that the Ladino type had black, curly hair, black eyebrows, and ivory-colored skin with pink tinted cheeks. Not to my eyes swarthy, but perhaps northern Europeans, scandalized by the ebony of the hair, apostrophized these strangers as swarthy, for if the hair was so resolutely black what darker pigments might taint those bodies? Or perhaps this was merely another way of designating these people as strange and of vague Mediterranean origin?

I write this because an African-American friend commented in Facebook about the probability of a swarthy Jesus. Another friend replied that this was an old argument, and from his response it seemed that the die had been cast, at least among African-Americans, that Jesus had, indeed, been swarthy. Obviously, Jesus the Christ figure can be and often is any color one wishes, and I can understand the need for a copper-skinned Jesus among blacks when Jesus in the states is so often represented as the last of the Vikings, but as someone who trusts in history and who has suspected ever since discovering how white my swarthy Jews really were that part of the determination of Jews to persist was racial, I have to express my doubts.

So what shade of white or pink or copper was Jesus? The original Hebrews claimed their origin in Mesopotamia, in the area of present-day Iraq. To this day, although often hairy in relation to northern Europeans, the skin color of Iraqis is hardly any browner, despite the roughness of their beards. The Hebrews wandered west to the land of Canaan, and, afterward, some of them (but not, modern scholars agree, all) ventured farther west to Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. Egypt was the meeting place of black Africans and white natives of North Africa, and, as often happens among the lower strata in society, it is quite likely that a number of the Hebrew slaves married black Africans. It is clear that Moses’ wife was not a Hebrew, and it is quite possible as well that Moses was an Egyptian, as his name is derived from Egyptian and not from Hebrew. The Hebrew slaves escaped and joined their compatriots in Canaan, and the miracle of their escape became the myth establishing a national and not a tribal identity rooted in a specific geographic area.

But our understanding of any physical type ends here. The Assyrian kingdom of Babylon conquered the 10 tribes of Israel. The kingdom of Judea was conquered by Babylon and the residents went into exile. In the Babylonian tablets, the Hebrews appear with distinctively curly hair and beards, but this may well have been an artistic convention

Modern rabbinical Judaism begins with the return from exile under Cyrus the Persian. What did these people look like? We have no idea. What would they have looked like three centuries later? No one knows. The best clue, however, can be found in portraits on the Egyptian graves of early Christians. It is safe to assume that many of the followers of Jesus were originally Jews. Swarthy? Not in the least. But all have black hair, black eyebrows, and brown nearly black eyes. They are definitely not European, at least not northern European. So perhaps to northern European eyes, that was swarthy enough, for “swarthy” certainly defined what the Europeans were not.

But for a modern African American searching for the trace of a common tint, the search is most likely in vain.