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Language as a Bridge: How My Grandfather Helped Prevent a Riot

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David Keller
David KellerCredit: Courtesy of Steven Klein
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

When I think of the nation-state law and the way it damages the relationship between Israel and its Arabic-speaking citizens, I think about how such legislation would have troubled my grandfather, an ardent Zionist who was the commander of the Jewish unit of the Mandatory Palestine Police in Safed in the 1920s.

My grandfather, David Keller, was born in raised in Rosh Pina, and while Hebrew was his mother tongue, he also learned to speak Arabic fluently. It was only natural to do so at the time because the residents of Rosh Pina were in constant contact with their Arab neighbors in nearby Ja’una. His father, Aharon Keller, had cofounded Ge’oni, Rosh Pina’s predecessor, and had lived with the mukhtar of Ja’una for two years until his home was completed. He instructed his children and grandchildren to address the mukhtar with respect – in Arabic. My 99-year-old cousin Aviv, who lives in Rosh Pina, still remembers the greeting.

Learning Arabic and speaking it wasn’t just a matter of respect back then – it could also be a matter of life and death.

Every Israeli schoolchild is taught about the deadly 1920 Nebi Musa riots in Jerusalem. The religious Muslim festival, which included a procession that started in Jerusalem’s Old City, turned violent amid political opposition to the Balfour Declaration. Six Jews and four Arabs were killed over the next few days. The 1921 Nebi Musa festival might have gone down the same violent path, yet it didn’t, perhaps partly in thanks to my grandfather.

The Nebi Musa procession in Jerusalem on 4 April 1920Credit: WikiCommons

When David was at the police academy in Jerusalem in 1921, he was called upon to be a part of a detail of 30 mounted policemen to keep order at the Nebi Musa procession that April. Percy Bramley, the commander of the Palestine Police Force, was concerned that tensions could boil over into violence again. And with good reason – there was a mob up on the Temple Mount. He sent David to handle the situation. A group of Arabs from Nablus had arrived waving “big flags,” David noted in his memoirs, yet those symbols did not distract him from doing his job: keeping the peace.

David wrote that he went to the “Mosque of Omar” (the Dome of the Rock) and asked to enter, but that the mob, armed with sticks and swords, cursed him and didn’t let him in. At that point, the sheikh who was the head of the shabab, the young rabble rousers, came out and asked David what he wanted. David answered him, in Arabic of course, that “Col. Bramley was very happy with the orderliness of the procession, such that he had sent me to invite him [the sheikh] to his home.” Understanding the cultural context and speaking his language, my grandfather knew how to appeal to the sheikh’s sense of honor. The tension was broken, the crowd calmed down and the sheikh visited Col. Bramley.

“What Col. Bramley told him I don’t know, but the procession that day passed totally peacefully,” David recalled, noting that the 30 policemen and Bramley joined the procession.

Now think about how a police officer imbued by the spirit of the nation-state law, which doesn’t see Arabic as a bridge between peoples but rather as a threat to Israel’s identity, might have responded in my grandfather’s place. Seeing the weapons and not understanding the language, that officer might have panicked and fired into the crowd. Casualties would have ensued.

David KellerCredit: Courtesy of Steven Klein

Eventually, force would have prevailed, leading to a narrative that the violence had been unavoidable and incited by the Arabs. Today, our schoolchildren would be learning about the dozens of Jews who died in Jerusalem in 1921.

This scenario is the legacy of the nation-state law – which denies the status of Arabic as an official language, thereby further separating Jews and Arabs, and hindering opportunities for real mutual understanding. Laws ideally work to ensure peace, prosperity and tranquility. This one, besides formalizing policies Israel has carried out for 70 years, only serves to sow more seeds of conflict. It also goes against the philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the right’s spiritual father, who advocated full equal rights for Arabs and warned that if things fare badly for Arabs, “then things will fare badly for the entire country.” And if we look back at Zionist history, we may find other tragedies that might have been avoided with knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture.

David KellerCredit: Courtesy of Steven Klein

The other day I saw my daughter, who like her great-grandfather speaks Arabic, talk to a street cleaner from East Jerusalem. Maybe his own great-grandfather was on Temple Mount that day, who knows? But what I do know is that his demeanor became so much more comfortable being because he was able to use his native tongue with a Jewish Israeli.

If peace is ever going to reign over this land, it will come from the government reaching out to its Arab constituents, not shunning them.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation.

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