Israel's White Ashkenazi Left Doesn't Own the Peace Process

Only one group in Israel which believes that true peace trumps territories can bring a breakthrough in Jewish-Arab, Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. And it's not the disconnected elite that has failed up to now.

A memorial for Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Gil Cohen-Magen

I heard an elderly grandfather talking recently about how, in the prestate period, Jews used to visit the Temple Mount freely, using the occasion to have a cup of coffee with their Arab friends in the Old City. In 2015, long after the establishment of a strong, independent Jewish state, that natural and human act sounds like something out of a fairy tale.

In regard to Jewish-Arab relations and Israel’s place in the Middle East, we are at an impasse that, in my view, is an inevitable result of mistaken assumptions that underlie the conflict.

The major basic assumption is about the status of Jews as being outsiders in the Middle East – the “villa in the jungle” approach. According to this thinking, which of late has become the leading conventional argument of the “peace camp,” all our ambitions in the political sphere are geared toward creating a total separation between the two sides – the “cultured” Europeans and people from the Arab region and the Levant. The same thinking underlies the “melting pot” policy, which aims to erase every single Arab trait from the culture of the Jews who came to this country from Arab and Islamic states.

The Israeli left, which assumed ownership of the peace process, also harbors a secularist assumption that dismisses out of hand any spiritual connection that Jews might have with the Land of Israel. For the left, forgoing the territories means forgoing nothing, really. They are a public that lacks any attachment to holy places such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs or Rachel’s Tomb. For them, these are just pieces of land that primitive religious fanatics are fighting over for no reason and which we’d be better off without, anyway.

Four years ago, I attended an Israeli-Palestinian conference in Hebron. As a graduate of a yeshiva of the national-religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, I had visited Hebron earlier on Shabbat Chayei Sarah – the Sabbath whose Torah portion tells of Abraham’s purchase of land in Hebron as a burial site – and visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs for the first time in my life. The conference itself took place on the other side of the city.

Visiting Abraham in Hebron

As I sat in the spacious hall before the start of the event, trying to figure out who was against who, I overheard a conversation between a Jewish left-wing activist and a local Arab guy. “Were you ever in our city before?” he asked. “No,” she replied. “Really?” he said. “No, why should I come here? I’m against the occupation.” “But your father is buried here. How can you not visit him?” the Palestinian replied, amazed.

In contrast to the Palestinian street, which is perhaps expressed by that young man, the official Palestinian leadership has adopted with open arms the idea of a total separation between Jews and Arabs. According to the Palestinian political organizations, the Jews are indeed an alien implant in the Middle East, have no historic association with this land, and want only to dispossess the native Arabs – and, thus, are no different from any other colonialists. Experience has shown the Palestinians that the only way to expel a “cruel occupier” is by force of arms. Hence the end justifies every means, including the brutal violence we have witnessed lately.

Possibly the time has come to rise above the superficial, one-dimensional view of the balance of power between Jews and Palestinians as being based on occupier-occupied relations, and the attendant perception of the conflict as a struggle between the progressive sons of light and the violent sons of darkness.

A healthier view of the conflict can be seen even in the recent musical dialogue between Hamas and the Border Police, which for me has been the most interesting and most optimistic development seen in these parts lately – if only because, through this prism, the conflict, with the lofty ideologies it supposedly symbolizes, appears, at least for a fleeting moment, as a clan feud or a passing gang war. [In October, Hamas took an Eyal Golan song, “He Who Believes,” and turned it into a propaganda piece called “We are Soldiers of God.” Some Border Police officers soon responded with their own video, sending their own message to the militant group.] There’s no doubt that dialogue like this, with the common denominators of Eyal Golan and Real Madrid soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, is preferable to a dialogue between the disconnected elites of the two sides.

Precisely from the depths of despair, as vividly expressed in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s callous remark that “We will live by the sword forever,” an opportunity arises to rethink the basic assumptions that have led us to this point.

In a recent survey, 40 percent of the Israeli public categorized themselves as “traditionalist” – that is, neither religious nor secular. Cautiously, it can be said that the majority of those 40 percent do not espouse either the “Greater Israel” doctrine or the left’s liberal ideology. This is a moderate public, one that sanctifies life over the various ideologies. It’s the public that supported former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin when they furthered peace, and identified with the ruling by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a tsaddik of blessed memory, that true peace overrules territories.

Of course, “traditionalists” is synonymous with “Mizrahim” – Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent. We need to remember that, even in 2015, the Mizrahi-Israeli identity encompasses Arab traits. It’s the Mizrahim who listen to Arab music, who know Arabic from home, who remember where they came from. The Mizrahim will be the first to forge cultural and commercial ties with the Arab world immediately after normalization occurs, as has already happened in the past.

History shows that Jews lived in the Land of Israel for untold generations, moved freely in the region and were an integral part of the Arab world from the medieval days of Maimonides up to our own time. As a Jewish-Moroccan, I was raised according to the historical narrative of respectful neighborly relations between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, and was taught that Muslims viewed Jews as people who bring glorious abundance to their environment. To this day, there is a lively public debate in Morocco about the loss caused by the Jews’ departure.

Traditionalist, nonideological Israeliness remains absent from the central political discussion in Israel – and not by chance. The same guiding hand that sent the Mizrahim to the social, cultural and geographical periphery, also prevented their participation in the public discourse, which is taking place over their heads and disconnected from their inner thoughts.

The “Mizrahification” of official Israel is a basic condition for a breakthrough in Jewish-Arab dialogue. This is a necessary process, which will not only inject vitality into the disintegrating Israeli and Jewish identity, but also lead us to a society that is more just and egalitarian, one that will find its natural place in the Middle East.

To illustrate, we need only imagine the – almost utopian – possibility that a figure such as the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would sit at the negotiating table instead of the military figures and politicians who have been there until now – without displaying much skill, it must be said. Shimon Peres’ vision of a white and irrelevant “new Middle East” would be replaced by the Mizrahi-Jewish vision of Maran (as Rabbi Yosef was known). In another example, that of Amir Peretz, we saw how, at the moment of truth, the left eschewed the opportunity to create a broad consensus around him and, in a Pavlovian reflex, showed itself incapable of backing someone who did not emerge from its exclusivist circles.

Is the “peace camp” truly interested in peace, and will it agree to forgo its status for that end? Will the left understand that the white agenda it is relentlessly pursuing rules out any prospect of change? In this regard, my friend Roy Hassan wrote [the word arsim denotes déclassé Jews, effectively Mizrahim; translation by Ron Makleff]:

“An Arab friend said about them once

that they’ll never make peace,

because if there’ll be peace

all the arsim will come.”

The writer is an attorney and political activist, and founder of the cultural magazine Café Gibraltar.