The Brief Moment in History When a Common Israeli-Palestinian Identity Existed

Terror, enmity and fear were not always dominant in the Jewish-Arab narrative, maintains Middle East expert Menachem KIein. He tells Haaretz who brought about the erosion of those fraternal relations but also, despite everything, offers a glimmer of optimism

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Prof. Menachem Klein.
Prof. Menachem Klein.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In 1927, nine years before he spearheaded Palestinian nationalism in the Arab Revolt, and almost 90 years before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned him into a conceiver of the Holocaust, the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, did business with Jews. One of them was Baruch Katinka, an architect and contractor who built the Palace Hotel for the mufti in the center of Jerusalem. Together they also plotted to conceal the fact that graves had been found on the construction site, which was part of the city’s vast Muslim cemetery. In a 1964, Hebrew-language memoir, Katinka recalled that from the time of the hotel’s construction to the day the mufti left Jerusalem – in 1936, for fear he would be arrested by the British in connection with the ongoing revolt – he was invited annually as his private guest to the mass procession each spring from Jerusalem to Nebi Musa (a Judean Desert site that Palestinian Muslims associate with Moses – Musa in Arabic). In addition, every year, on the night that Pesach ended, the mufti sent him a large tray with fresh pitas, cheese, butter, olives and honey.

At that time, there was nothing unusual about the relations between the Jewish builder and the Palestinian national and religious leader. Muslims took part in Jewish religious celebrations and vice versa; believers from both faiths prayed together for rain at Nebi Samwil, the tomb of the prophet Samuel, north of Jerusalem. Businessmen from both nations conducted transactions, Jewish and Arab families shared backyards, Jews and Arabs attended the same schools and sometimes also intermarried.

Those complex relations, which are absent from both the Jewish and Palestinian national narratives, are the focus of the book “Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron,” by Prof. Menachem Klein, a historian and Middle East expert, now available in Hebrew. (The English edition was reviewed here on February 25, 2015). Klein traces the history of the three cities mentioned in the title over the past 150 years from the perspective of ordinary citizens – history from below.

Muslims gather on Temple Mount before starting a pilgrimage to the tomb of Nabi Musa in 1918. Credit: Library of Congress

Klein, 64, a religiously observant Jew, was the only child of Holocaust survivors. He lives in Jerusalem, teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and helped formulate the Geneva Initiative, an unofficial 2003 proposal for the framework of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. Some of the Bar-Ilan faculty tried (unsuccessfully, ultimately) to block his promotion on account of his views. Klein obtained his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – his dissertation was on intellectuals in Egypt during the Nasser period – and he is also considered an authority on Hamas.

In the book, Klein maintains that the rift between the two communities did not occur until 1948, and that even afterward, including during our contemporary knife-wielding era, personal relations between Jews and Palestinians have continued. The narratives of both national movements may disavow these ties, but they have always been there, Klein writes. He also elaborates on the concept of “Arab Jews,” arguing that for a brief historical moment a common local identity of all the country’s inhabitants existed: Arabs, both Muslim and Christian; and Jews of Mizrahi (North African or Middle Eastern origin) and Ashkenazi (Eastern European) background. Zionism and the Palestinian national movement worked very hard to undermine those relations, in order to split the communities, and in the end they succeeded, Klein says.

At the height of the War of Independence, Reuven Mas, the Jewish mukhtar (headman) of Talbieh, a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, tried to protect the rights of his Arab neighbors who had fled. He issued special neighborhood-residence certificates to the Jews who started to move in to the empty houses. The newcomers pledged to Mas that they would store the belongings of the departed homeowners in one room, which they would seal with wax. They also promised to evacuate the house within one month if its lawful owner so requested. Klein notes that Mas took this action just three months after his son, Danny Mas, an officer in the Palmach pre-state underground militia, was brutally killed in the battle for the road to the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem. "[Mas] did not perceive the Arabs as a collective who had murdered his son,” Klein says. “In his consciousness, it was inconceivable that the previous situation would suddenly end.”

The dramatic encounters between Palestinian refugees who visited their homes after the 1967 Six-Day War and the Jews who now lived in them.

Klein devotes an entire chapter to dramatic encounters between Palestinian refugees who visited their homes after the 1967 Six-Day War and the Jews who now lived in them. An example is George Bisharat, a law professor in San Francisco, who in 1977 paid his first visit to his family’s former home in Talbieh, the magnificent Villa Harun ar-Rashid. The occupants were retired Supreme Court Justice Zvi Berenson and his family. Berenson, who died in 2001, “permitted me to enter the foyer but no further, saying there was no need to see any more of the house as it had all been changed anyway. The couple insisted that the house had been in terrible repair, and that they had done much to fix it up, a claim I had no reason to doubt,” Bisharat wrote in an article in Haaretz in 2004 that is quoted in the book.

Villa Harun ar-Rashid in Jerusalem.Credit: Ariel Horowitz

“The house was cold inside, and as I stood there, I tried to imagine the sounds of my father’s and his siblings’ voices, and the smells of grandmother’s cooking. I left after no more than five minutes. Walking back out into the blazing sun, I felt no specific hostility toward the old man and woman living in Papa’s home.”

Usually, the Palestinian visitors were politely sent on their way after a short visit, though sometimes they also had more empathetic receptions. In some cases, the Jewish occupants returned objects and mementos to the displaced Palestinians.

Jews, too, went to visit former homes across the Green Line, in the Old City of Jerusalem and in Hebron. However, in contrast to the Palestinians, they had the power to evict the occupants. Under Israeli law, Jews are allowed to demand their property back, and settlers’ groups continue to invoke the law to evacuate Palestinian families from their homes.

‘What we don’t know’

I asked Klein about the book’s origins. “I was invited to deliver the keynote address at a conference on Jerusalem at the University of Arizona,” he recalls. “One trivial possibility was to sum up what we know about Jerusalem. But I decided to talk about what we don’t know about Jerusalem, and I came to the conclusion that there are very large gaps in our knowledge of the city.”

What do we not know about Jerusalem?

Klein: “For example, we don’t know what things were like in Jerusalem in the period before the national movements’ takeover, but after modernization had arrived. What went on in the neighborhood, on the street, what language did people speak? Another black hole is the period from 1949 to 1967. After 1967, we decided that we were nostalgic for the complete [undivided] Jerusalem, and it somehow became illegitimate to talk favorably about the preceding two decades. But in the pre-1967 years, we accepted the city’s partition and thought it would last forever. We established David’s Tomb as a substitute for the Western Wall, and we thought it was for all time.”

What prompted you to expand the term “Arab Jews,” to include all Jewish residents of the land, and not just those from the Arab countries?

“The term was developed by Prof. Yehouda Shenhav and is in wide use by Israeli scholars, mainly in the United States. It’s taking root outside Israel, because in Israel there is a mental block that prevents us from seeing it. The filters are less potent abroad. But Shenhav and his colleagues want to forge a new identity, not go back to the past. At present there is both Israeli supremacy and Ashkenazi supremacy [in Israel proper and the territories], and those who are developing the Arab-Jew identity are working against Ashkenazi hegemony. They want to create something new within the Israeli framework on the basis of belonging to Arab culture.

“In the book, I show that part of the identity that developed here, both before and after the advent of the national movements, is a local, native identity that includes Ashkenazim. Both nations are ‘landlords’ here; they are natives and we are natives. But at the moment, we are also the masters. The identity of the Arab Jew ceased to exist. We cannot go back to the past, but we are obliged to take elements from that identity in order to habituate ourselves to the fact that we are not a Western Crusader fortress amid a hostile Arab world, but are part of a Mediterranean space that intertwines both Western and Arab cultures. We are not a Western villa in the Middle Eastern jungle, we are part of the Eastern Basin of the Mediterranean, like Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Alexandria. The Zionist dream of 1930s’ immigrants from Central Europe of building a branch of Berlin here, or Herzl’s dream of creating a copy of Vienna, are untenable.”

High price

But the Palestinians will not agree with you that the Jews are natives here. They claim that the Jews are interlopers.

“Well, I have a surprise for you. I was the coordinator of the Geneva Initiative negotiations on Jerusalem. The section on Jerusalem contains a statement of principles in which both sides recognize the religious and historical connection of the two sides to the whole city. They recognize our connection to East Jerusalem, we recognize their connection to [the West Jerusalem neighborhoods] Baka and Katamon. Once you arrive at agreements on sovereignty, you can reach agreements on connectedness – provided you don’t use historic roots as justification for rule.”

You concluded your 1999 [Hebrew-language] book “Doves in the Skies of Jerusalem,” on an optimistic note: “The solution of the Jerusalem issue is not preordained to failure; on the contrary, the key is already in the door.” Do you still believe that?

No one is confronting the question of how to prevent an Israeli civil war.

“It’s still possible, but the price is much higher now. I wrote that book before the [failed 2000] Camp David talks, when we were on the way to negotiations on a final-status settlement, which many believed was attainable. I still think it’s attainable, but the price Israeli society would be called upon to pay is increasing apace. The Palestinians’ demands have remained as they were. But the intensification of the occupation and the expansion of the settlements will multiply the dimensions of armed resistance by radical [Jewish] groups in Israel. At present, neither the society nor the government is confronting seriously the question of how to prevent a civil war. There is no doubt that an attempt to reach an agreement entailing withdrawal would foment a crisis. This is an issue that we should be addressing.”

Prime Minister Menachem Begin (L), Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan (C) and Attorney General Aharon Barak take a stroll at Camp David during the peace talks with Egypt in 1978.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

Is it possible that you made a mistake in the Geneva Initiative by proposing Jerusalem’s [physical] partition and thereby demonstrating to all its opponents how complicated it would be?

“You could be right. We should have gone to the next stage, which would describe not only the boundary line and the method of partition but also the passages and connections. We should have suggested friendly passages and sought ways to create them. We didn’t give enough thought to that. The challenge of the future negotiators will be to bind the two cities in a way that will encourage movement from one side to the other and not hamper it.”

Recently, proposals for unilateral moves have come from the left side of the political spectrum. Labor leader Isaac Herzog advocates separation and former minister Haim Ramon wants “to save Jewish Jerusalem.” Maybe the solution is for us to set the borders without a partner?

Haim Ramon.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“Herzog is proposing a unilateral move of dismantling settlements that lie outside the separation fence, leaving the army in Area C, where there is now full Israeli control, and then waiting for negotiations. The occupation would remain, but would be strictly military. The army would stay, the Shin Bet security service would stay, it would be a military occupation without a civilian arm. That solves next to nothing. Ramon’s proposal is even more problematic. He treats human beings like objects – just throw them away. The Palestinians will have no rights of residence and no human rights. The proposal is accompanied by a rhetoric of hatred. The Palestinians are perceived as our skinners of hides, as leeches and not human beings, or as Netanyahu puts it, as the wild animals all around. Whereas in the book, I talk about the importance of the humane face. These proposals refuse to see Jerusalem’s complex urban reality.

“It goes back to the judicial conception regarding the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The status they were granted in 1967, of residency and not citizenship, as a result of the Entry into Israel Law, as though they had entered Israel and had not been conquered by Israel, is a legal fiction. But it’s a fiction that has created a consciousness that they are foreigners, not indigenous, that they are here by grace, as guests. That is a twisted approach and conflicts sharply with the reality that existed in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron from the end of the 19th century. Both Jews and Arabs viewed each other as indigenous, authentic and legitimate.”

Other elements on the left are talking about a solution of two states in one space, divided sovereignty but without rigid borders. They say it is no longer politically or physically viable to dismantle the settlements.

In a one-state situation, a large Jewish minority will have a problem ruling an Arab majority.

“The problem is that there is one strong side in this space, with an economy 15 or 20 times as large as that of the other side. You can call it ‘apartheid’ or ‘colonialism,’ but one group is riding the back of the other group. To correct that, the privileged group will have to equalize with the other group, and that is very difficult. When I’m asked, ‘How will you evacuate so many settlers?’ I reply, ‘How will you prevent the uprising of the discriminated group?’ In a one-state situation, a large Jewish minority will have a problem ruling an Arab majority. Even a superstructure – a federation or confederation – will require separation, because the economic and technological disparity is immense, and we have to avoid economic colonialism. First we have to withdraw, retrench, differentiate ourselves, and only then open doors and windows. Our proclivity is to rule them, and we have to free ourselves of that. The process involves not only their becoming independent but our recovering from the illness of ruling.

“I understand that it’s necessary to recognize the historic and religious connection of Jews to Nablus and Hebron, and the Arabs’ connection to Jaffa. Mutual agreement can be reached stating that both nations have a connection to the whole land. Possibly those who wish to would be able to live in the others’ state. But I don’t like the equation [drawn by advocates of two states in one space] between settlers and refugees. They are two different categories, with no basis for comparison. The settlements can remain, but only under full Palestinian rule, not as exclusive Jewish ghettos. That solution is categorically rejected by all the security personnel, and the Palestinians too say they would not take responsibility [for the Jews' safety]. Accordingly, the settlements would have to be dismantled. I see no other possibility at the moment. The price will be steep and painful, maybe even civil war, a form of violence in the society; certainly, it will be traumatic.”

Jews wave Israeli flags outside the Old City's Damascus Gate as they partake in the so-called 'march of the flags' to celebrate Jerusalem Day in 2012.Credit: Emil Salman

You write about the mixed religious processions before the nationalist domination, but now we see the opposite in the “flag processions” on Jerusalem Day, when thousands of religious-Zionist Jews parade through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City singing nationalist, sometimes racist songs.

“Back then, the Jews celebrated the banners of Musa and Abraham, but today they march and shout, ‘Mohammed is dead.’ That’s the difference. The identity of these young people is ethno-nationalist. The relations between the settlers and the state have also been transformed. It’s amazing how Moshe Dayan, the defense minister in and after 1967, controlled the settlers, how much time and energy he devoted to managing the West Bank on a day-to-day basis. Dayan forbade Rabbi Shlomo Goren [head of the army rabbinate and afterward chief rabbi of Israel] to pray on the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av. Goren then requested permission to go only to the Mahkama [a building that overlooks the Temple Mount]. Dayan gave his consent but limited the entourage to 10 people, including guards.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1969.Credit: AP

“Dayan grasped the potential harm in connection with the Temple Mount. In another case, settlers pressed to be allowed to pray in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron at Rosh Hashanah. Again Dayan refused, because it was the day of Egyptian President Nasser’s funeral. Finally, he limited them to 10 people and ordered them to start at 5 A.M. In contrast to the present, we had a defense minister who grasped the danger, who was ready for confrontation [with the settlers] and who devoted most of his time to managing the territories, not leaving it to his aides. I am very critical of Dayan for many reasons, but he understood what was most important for Israel’s future, and that is absent today.”

In the final analysis, have you written an optimistic book or a pessimistic one?

“I’m not sure. Many of the readers of the English-language edition told me it’s optimistic, because I suggest that if this is how things used to be, they can be that way again. That is indeed one of the things I show: that in contrast to the prevailing notion that they always hated us, that it was like this from the beginning and will always be this way, it’s not so – and that’s cause for much optimism.”

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