Between His State and His People

In a new memoir, a former Arab-Israeli Knesset member tells his story, from the Nakba to heart-to-heart talks with Rabin and Arafat.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

In the spring of 1956, a new Arabic teacher arrived at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel; he came from Taibeh. Upon entering the classroom he was thunderstruck: The students were wearing undershirts and addressed him by his first name, Walid. A little dog ran back and forth between the tables.

“What is going on here?” wondered Walid Sadik, and threw the dog out of the classroom, along with one of the students. That was not the end of it: One day, when he was standing with his face to the blackboard and his back to the class, a student picked up a pencil, aimed it at the teacher’s back, as though it were a gun, and hissed “Araboosh,” a slang slur. A few of the other students demanded that “the shooter” be removed from the classroom for questioning, perhaps punishment. Sadik preferred to go home.

Years later, three of his former students came to visit him in Taibeh, including the one who had called him “Araboosh.” His name was Udi Adiv. Two days after that visit Adiv was arrested on charges of spying for Syria. Sadik heard about it on the radio. He anxiously anticipated that investigators from the Shin Bet security service would come to interrogate him as well. Nobody did.

Sadik, now 76, has just published his life’s story (“Exile in His Own Land: From Taibeh to the Knesset,” self-published in Hebrew); the book is worth reading. There are not enough books by Arabs on the Israeli autobiography shelf, and Sadik’s childhood memories are captivating and charmingly described. They begin in the village, during the days of the Nakba what the Palestinians call the “catastrophe” of the rise of the Jewish state; in adulthood he had heart-to-heart talks with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

Until he was around 30, Sadik was forced to contend with the vagaries of the Military Government. He studied sociology and international relations at the Hebrew University, became involved in the left-wing Mapam party, and later in Sheli and Meretz. He served as deputy agriculture minister and deputy Knesset speaker.

Sadik recounts that he strove for peace between his state and his people, and it even seemed to him once that he was about to make history. That was in 1994: Sadik, then an MK and deputy minister from Meretz, met a Jewish left-wing activist in Paris, whom he does not name, who offered to arrange a meeting for him with the daughter of the then-Syrian defense minister, Mustafa Tlas. Sadik found before him an attractive woman of about 32 years old; her palatial Paris home exuded astonishing wealth. Sadik offered to travel to Damascus to meet with President Hafez Assad.

“To my great surprise, the woman stood up, went to the telephone and without preparing me for anything, started talking to Assad,” Sadik writes. “He wants to think about it,” she said after putting the phone down.

A week later Sadik received a positive answer and rushed over to Rabin’s office. “Shall we smoke a Kent?” the prime minister said, greeting him. He placed a bottle of beer on the table, listened to Sadik, mused a bit and said: “If it works out, it will be the best gift we could get.” It didn’t work out. Assad was busy putting down his opponents.

In the summer of 1997, Sadik was among a group of Knesset members who visited Damascus and who, among other things, met with Assad. One night someone knocked on the door of Sadik’s hotel room, ordered him to get dressed, and drove him to the home of the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa. The time was 3 A.M.; according to Sadik, Shara told him that Syria was prepared to sign a peace agreement with Israel, in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

He writes of identity qualms and conflicted loyalties; nostalgic, occasionally droll, his story conveys good intentions and mainly disappointments. For instance, Sadik describes himself sitting in the shade of an oak tree in his yard, pondering the missed opportunities for peace: “After all we talked, met, went, initiated, wanted so badly ... “ he writes. He estimates that the oak tree has been in its place for some 1,400 years.

History in the making

Arik Bernstein spent 10 years climbing up into creaking attics and descending into dark basements in search of amateur home movies that people in Palestine/Israel made, beginning in the 1930s, with the help of a wondrous novelty that may be compared to the smartphone of our own day: 8-mm. home movie cameras. He uncovered treasures. The result is a film that he made together with Eliav Lilty, “Israel: A Home Movie,” now showing at cinematheques around the country.

The film documents what people looked like in the last century, how they dressed and did their hair, and mainly how they liked to see themselves. It inspires thoughts about the very compulsive and universal need of people to immortalize weddings and other family celebrations, good times at the beach and trips to Jerusalem. It is interesting to see the cars that they drove and the stores that they shopped at; too frequently historiography neglects the mundane routine of daily life.

In the nature of life in Palestine, people found themselves on more than one occasion in “historic” situations, and documented these as well: Convoys of Palestinian refugees and the destruction of the mosque minaret in Nes Tziona, Arab prisoners of war being abused and a first wedding at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Ezer Weizmann’s father filmed his brother Chaim, Udi Dayan filmed his father, Moshe. These are not the most interesting scenes in the film nor are the girls who were filmed on the Tel Aviv beach in 1948 interesting precisely because in the background you see the arms-bearing ship the Altalena burning: the style of the girls’ bathing suits is no less “historic.”

Walid Sadik, center, shaking hands with Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil in 1978. In front, Israel's Defense Minister Ezer Weizman.Credit: Andre Brutman



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