When Arabs and Mizrahi Jews Dreamed of a Joint Homeland

Before Israel’s establishment in 1948, some Jews and Arabs saw each other as ‘brothers’ and had a utopian vision of a shared future.

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Arab and Jewish construction workers at the site of the YMCA in Jerusalem, 1929.
Arab and Jewish construction workers at the site of the YMCA in Jerusalem, 1929.Credit: National Photo Collection/GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Ninety-five years on, the sentiments expressed by Palestinian politician Jamal al-Husseini in his 1922 article in Arab newspaper Al-Sabah would surely raise a few eyebrows. In “Come to Us,” Husseini exhorted Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) to form a united front with Arabs against the Zionist movement.

“To our Jewish compatriots, who have understood the goals of the Zionist movement and the damage it will cause, we open our arms to them today and call: Come to us! We are your friends!,” he wrote. “You have the same rights in Palestine as we do, the same duties as we do because we and you share the same homeland, whether the Zionists like it or not.”

As the Zionist movement gained strength and as fear grew among Arabs that they would be pushed out of British Mandatory Palestine, Husseini sought to appeal to Mizrahi Jews by emphasizing the estrangement between them and Ashkenazi Jews, and highlighting the closeness between them and Palestinian Arabs.

All these years later, it’s hard to know if Husseini’s vision of a Jewish-Arab alliance ever stood a chance of being fulfilled. His article was destined to be stowed away as a dusty archival artifact that, at this point, evokes a bittersweet pang of nostalgia given all the bloodshed between Jews and Arabs that has occurred in the near-century since it was published.

With 2017 marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan vote and the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, new historical research is seeking to shed light on some of the silenced and forgotten voices that were part of the lively Jewish-Arab discourse in British Mandatory Palestine.

“These voices spoke of another option, the road not taken, which centered on a Jewish-Arab identity. It’s important that we recognize it, particularly given today’s fragmented reality,” Prof. Moshe Naor of the University of Haifa told Haaretz last month. “We want to underscore the complexity of this debate and not let the dichotomy of ‘Arabs’ and ‘Jews’ be viewed on such a simple level,” added Dr. Abigail Jacobson of the Van Leer Institute.

Their English-language book “Oriental Neighbors: Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine” (Brandeis University Press) was published last December. It contains a wealth of examples of attempts at dialogue between Arabs and Mizrahi Jews – efforts that emphasized their ethnic, linguistic, cultural and geographical closeness, despite tensions between the Zionist and Palestinian movements.

Mediating Mizrahim

The Mizrahi Jews who lived in British Mandatory Palestine – which existed from April 1920 to May 1948 – fell into three main categories: descendants of Jews who had arrived after the expulsion from Spain and Portugal; immigrants from Arab countries; and Yemenites. At the start of the mandate era, they made up 40 percent of the Jewish population. As more waves of aliyah arrived from Europe, this percentage was reduced by about a quarter.

The political, social, economic and cultural cooperation documented in the book illustrate how, at the time, some aspired to create a “New Middle East” in which Mizrahi Jews would make use of their dual Jewish and Arab identities to mediate and bridge between the two peoples and movements.

An immigrant from Bulgaria chatting with an Arab man in Jaffa, 1949.Credit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO

One such person was David Avisar, an educator and writer of Iraqi-Jewish origin. The organization he headed, Pioneers of the East (Haultzei Hamizrah), maintained that Mizrahi Jews had always lived with Arabs in “brotherhood and friendship,” and that “strangers are sowing conflict between us.”

In 1923, Avisar published a manifesto titled “The Arab Question,” in which he discussed the “racial and cultural affinity of the two peoples – Jews and Arabs” – and the “possibility of forging a shared life in Palestine.”

In 1929 – the year of the Hebron riots that shook Jews living in British Mandatory Palestine – Avisar published a plan for a binational state, called “A Proposal for Understanding and Agreement with the Arabs of Palestine.” He wrote that the Mizrahi Jews should directly address the Arabs, and was critical of the Ashkenazi Jews from Europe whose actions “had been taken over the heads of these masses,” without consideration for “the Arab settlement that has been in Palestine for 1,300 years.”

His plan called for the declaration of a single state on both sides of the Jordan River, in which Jews and Arabs, who share “race, creed, history, language and hope,” would live side by side.

Could an outlook such as Avisar’s, who championed cultural and social cooperation between Jews and Arabs, have done anything to prevent the escalation of hostilities between the two peoples?

A Bulgarian cobbler, who had recently immigrated to Israel, speaking with an Arab man in Jaffa, 1949.Credit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO

“As a historian I am wary of getting carried away by saccharine nostalgia that could be misleading,” said Jacobson. “But our research indicates that there was a missed opportunity here.”

“In light of the rise of Jewish and Arab nationalism, which was too strong and powerful, these voices didn’t stand a chance,” said Naor. “But it’s important to acknowledge the view that said that in order to achieve peace, we need to recognize each other and respect one another.”

Another prominent voice of the era belonged to Eliyahu (Elias) Sasson, who came to British Mandatory Palestine from Syria in 1927 and headed the Arab division of the Jewish Agency’s political department (and subsequently became an MK, minister and diplomat). In 1928, he wrote, “Great responsibility lies upon the shoulders of the Arabic-speaking Sephardi Jews in our national revival,” because European Jews “are strangers to the ways of this land and do not know its language.”

‘Anti-Zionist intrigue’

In 1932, representatives of Mizrahi-Jewish groups met in Jaffa to discuss convening a “Jewish-Arab summit.” The Jewish newspaper Al-Alam Al-Israeliyi, published in Beirut, reported on the initiative and said that Jews of Arab lands could come to understandings with Palestinian Arabs because “their psychology, traditions and customs are not essentially different from those of the Arabs.”

The initiative did not stir much interest among Jews in British Mandatory Palestine. Among the few who publicly referred to it was Haaretz editor Moshe Gluckson, who labeled it an “anti-Zionist intrigue” and said that the Arabs were trying to use it “to break our national front, and come to an agreement with the Jews from the East against their Ashkenazi brethren.”

The initiative was ultimately dropped. But there were still a few people who weren’t prepared to give up. A decade later, in 1942, Middle East scholar Yosef Yoel Rivlin – the father of Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin – published an optimistic article in the journal Hed Hamizrah. “The Mizrahi-Jewish laborer is relatively similar in his way of life to the Arab laborer in Palestine. They are close not only in their verbal language but in their mental language in their way of thinking and way of life. In a place where there is a single language and a single mode of thought, there is still some possibility of finding a solution.”

David Abulafia, president of the Council of the Sephardi Community in Jerusalem, expressed a similar position four years later. “We carry a special role and destiny of Zionism in terms of nurturing peaceful relations and understanding with the Arabs of this land,” he said, adding: “We will be able to ... provide important assistance in promoting cooperation on the basis of equal relations between the two brother peoples.”

Not long afterward, though, when the United Nations voted on the Partition Plan and paved the way for Israel’s founding, this hope vanished. All the fine talk about cooperation and understanding was replaced by reports of riots, murder and looting against Jews in Arab countries. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes for British Mandatory Palestine. And subsequently, during the War of Independence, many of the local Arabs either fled or were expelled.

Nearly 70 years have passed since then. The voices proposing another way, which had seemed to have completely disappeared, are starting to reappear, in various publications. The Sumer 2016 edition of the Zmanim journal was called “Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.” Its editorial noted: “An examination of the shared history of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East cannot ignore the wars and erasure of ancient historical communities. But it also cannot ignore the cooperation and subjective shared experiences.”

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