Remembering the Past with a Stake in the Future - Zionism, Jerusalem, Multiculturalism and a New Palestinian Vision

Birzeit professor Albert Aghazarian prepared the following reflections on the past and future of Palestinians and Zionism at the request of a lifelong friend Afif Safieh, Palestine’s envoy to the UK and the Holy See.

Anniversaries marked Jerusalem in 1997. With imperial pomp, reminiscent of the late Shah of Iran’s Persepolis festivities, for official Israel it was “Jerusalem 3000”, a festival marking 3,000 years since King David ‘founded’ the city. The events, exclusively emphasizing the Jewish thread of life in the city, were in dire need of recognizing that a myriad of other threads also decorate the rainbow-colored tapestry of the landscape. The blunt message, exclusion of the other, was wholly in line with Israel’s insistence to continue to spread its cloak of legitimacy wider than any other group, and thus to lay superior claim to Jerusalem. Once more, exclusivist myth overtook reality, and symbols ruthlessly won the day, to the detriment of the needed, long-absent, and common sense conclusion of sharing the land.

The official Palestinian reaction to the events echoed the same, off-key tune reverberating in the field: if David showed up 3000 years ago, it went, the Can`anites (who were Palestinians of course) were around 2000 years longer than that!

Speaking of 2000, let’s turn to the preparations for the celebration of Bethlehem 2000. Such events tend to diminish the true making of things. In a CNN-ized world, the value of the components is marginalized. Five thousand, three thousand, two thousand, a handshake and signing ceremony were all portrayed as if daily problems of common people had been dismissed.

For those focused on the rationale of five thousand and three thousand, and assuming that new archeological evidence reveals that another people preceded both, does this mean that the time has come for everyone to pack up and leave, while the original tenants move back in? And what does it take for a people associated with the land to be fully accepted and recognized by all interested parties?

1997 also saw the celebration of 100 years of Zionism which, we are told, was and is the liberation movement of the Jews, best expressed by their right to return to the “promised land." Despite all the negativity events in this region provoke, we Palestinians still feel enough optimism to suggest this phrase be substituted with the more appropriate “promising land”!

The participants in the Zionist Congress of Basel in 1897, with all their dedication and grievances and dreams, lacked the proper touch of the East, whether it was Spain or the Arab-Islamic dimension, where diversity was predominantly the rule of the day. Their perception of Jews was as a single group rather than ‘a group of groups’. It was not accidental that they were mostly the byproduct of the Pale of Settlement (the area of Eastern Europe between Poland and Russia where a high concentration of Jews lived), and they considered their collective experience to be their own combined with that of the Jews of Western Europe. They considered the Eastern European pogrom experience, the ghetto and the shtetl, and the Western European experience of assimilation programs to represent evidence of both active and latent anti-semitism worldwide. In Basel and later, these East Europeans prevailed. Scars caused by Christians of the West were still fresh and painful, a fact not mentioned openly at the time, as they depended on support from the West for their new enterprise.

The Basel meeting initiated the second Aliya (Heb. lit. “ascent”, fig. ‘the return to the land’). With their sense of community and work ethic they trekked to the land. This wave of Jewish immigrants laid the cornerstone of Jewish institutions, their value system, perceptions and misperceptions alike. It established kibbutzes and moshavs, Keren Kayemet (the Land Authority), the Histadrut and, more importantly, the Haganah and Hashomer Hatzair (the Young Guard), which made it a point to rid early settlements of “non-Jewish” guards, for instance.

For them the Palestinian was invisible. When he resisted, he was the terrorist, the communist, the assassin, or the fundamentalist; anything except a person whose life on and association with the land should be recognized, let alone valued or respected.

The Labor movement had to be Hebrew. They were keen to discard dependence on gentiles and yearned to build a society of their own. They were non-religious or even anti-religious, yet they did not mind and even favored using religious symbols in their discourse and working platform. One thing they did not seek to conceal was their utter contempt for the Orient, the Levant, Arabs and Islam.

When these pioneers of Zionism orchestrated the return of Arab Jews from Iraq, North Africa, Yemen, Syria and Persia between 1950-54, they welcomed them by spraying them with DDT, while still on the boat in the ports of the “promised land.” They were heralding from infested lands. The use of DDT was a costly undertaking, but sanitation and hygiene were important. The motto was to drain the marshes, make the desert bloom and build a new and effective society based on Western models.

Their most prominent poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, stated that he resented Arabs because they reminded him of Sephardic Jews. A systematic plan of cultural uprooting of the Jews coming from the Orient was put into action. Ironically, the rise to power of the Likud, in 1977, indicated that the plan did not work as it should have. Once more the power of culture was gaining at the expense of the culture of power. Oriental food, music, humor and cosmic view slowly but steadily started to replace the goulash, gefilte fish and classical music.

The Arabic word keif alone, with the mystic qualities of Rabbi Kedourie, penetrated into the Israeli psyche. To the horror of the remnants of the founding fathers and mothers, Israelis were becoming more and more Arabized or Mediteranianized, irrespective of how much they resented that. With an exclusive worldview, they failed to understand about life, in the words of a wise Jewish man I came to know, that “It is not as simple as that." This would be an adequate answer in almost any situation here.

While there is a noticeable trend of Israelis adapting to their habitat, an element of the ethnic cleansing orientation of post-1492 Spain clearly lives on. The 400 settlers in the heart of Hebron, in the middle of 150,000 Palestinians, declare that this is the land where their ancestors lived and where Jewish generations will live for years to come. Yet their protestations are devoid of real life. Metaphorically, the post-Oslo terminology of “H1” and “H2”, the latter short for the “Hebron 2” area for Jewish settlers in Hebron, lacks ‘the oxygen component’ for breathing, and sustaining water is noticeably absent.

Speaking in terms of forever and ever, Hebron’s settlers declare that Palestinians are squatters who have to go. Abraham bought the land in an irreversible deal for a number of shekels. Baruch Goldstein, the most brutal killer of Muslim worshippers, prostrating in prayer, has a shrine where these people render homage in.

A new immigrant from Russia, living in Hebron, boasts of desecrating the Koran and portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a pig to a cheering audience. With such an attitude, the settlers in Hebron stride through the city in a most intimidating manner, protected by thousands of soldiers, and declare that they are “surrounded by enemies.” Again, as the wise Jewish man stated, “Things are not as simple as that.”

The launching of the Zionist enterprise never excited the Jewish religious establishment. While the bulk of this establishment was traditionally anti-Zionist, successive Israeli governments gradually penetrated this camp by coopting parts of it. By subsidizing religious schools, exempting certain religious groups from army conscription, making special status quo arrangements for Sabbath observance and protecting the supremacy of the Orthodox, at the expense of the conservative and the reform, significant non-Zionist or Zionist religious groups emerged.

As a result of the “miraculous Six Day War” (1967 War), a rekindled line of biblical exegesis was newly appropriated, and took hold and flourished. From Merkaz Harav Yeshiva - founded by Rabbi Kook, the first Ashkenezi chief rabbi in the country - it was declared that. “We are living in Messianic times”. The interpretation focused on the idea that for the first time in 2,000 years, Jerusalem and Hebron were in Jewish hands. This could not have been an accident, went the reasoning. Religious Jews had the mission of redeeming the land. A kind of ‘Super Zionism’ emerged, a seeing of the hand of God behind contemporary Israeli historical developments.

The first public appearance of such a group was in 1972, when a number of settlers squatted in Hebron and demanded the re-establishment of a Jewish presence there. The Labor government backed down and Kiryat Arba was established.

Since then messianic religious groups started to proliferate under different names. Ateret Cohanim (“The Crown of the Priests”), Ateret Le Yoshna (“The Crown of Settling”), Neot David (“The Seeds of David”), and El Ad (an acronym for “Towards the City of David”) are some of the apocalyptic groups coming from this stream. With a heavy percentage of American and French recruits, this movement seeks to monopolize the interpretation of the will of God. Supported by Christian fundamentalist and sometimes even anti-Semitic religious groups, a significant inroad was laid within Israel’s political establishment.

The failure of the Labor government to move the 400 extremist settlers from the heart of Hebron after the Goldstein massacre at the Ibrahimi mosque indicates the entrenchment of such groups in the Israeli landscape. With slogans such as “every soldier in Israel’s army must be a Yeshiva student” and “every Yeshiva student must be a soldier”, religious Zionism has become a force that has to be reckoned with.

Such groups are staunchly against the Oslo process. Many tacitly or openly condoned the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. They have no hesitation to hold Israel’s democratic character in contempt, as something outside the framework of Jews. Labor and the left are represented in their ideology as defeatists willing to surrender the land of Israel to its enemies.

These realities reflect deep divisions within the Israeli body politic, tensions that are bound to be exacerbated, if and when outside threats subside. Military threats and terrorist operations defer discussion on crucial issues concerning the future of Israel’s role and character in the region.

At the operational level, it is the army and the security establishment with its internal Shabak, the external Mossad and the defense intelligence branch, Aman, which is the true Israeli establishment, together with the capitalist entrepreneur class that has largely graduated from these security organs.

On the ground, Israel’s defense establishment has grown out of proportion, with its own economy, intelligence, and military educational system, involving thousands upon thousands of salaries and other sources of expenditure. The macho psychology, power hungry ideology and past combat experience make most of the top officers contemptuous of a civil life that they consider to be second-best. Securitism has emerged the dominant ideology of the day.

In what was termed ‘the peace process’ a basic question remains unanswered: are we operating within a framework of sharing the land - no matter how unfair the division - or is the process merely another manifestation of the Israeli occupation that seeks to assert its domination and control of our lives. On the land, by controlling the flow in every domain possible - water, electricity, information, people and merchandise - Israel’s securitism is seeking to ascertain control and hegemony.

On a personal level, this is the 40th anniversary of my taking my first communion with Afif Safieh, Palestine’s current envoy to Britain and the Holy See. This event took place near Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, in May 1957, at the Latin Patriarchate which this year celebrated 150 years of its revival.

We were seven years old, both studying at the College des Freres. I remember Afif and myself, sporting black bowties and shining black shoes, and the smell and feel of the starched collars of snowy-white shirts. Exactly ten years later, we were told that we had collectively entered Israel. Laws applying to “alien residents” now applied to us. At the time I thought that Afif got the better deal for being able to enroll in the University of Louvain La Neuve. I had to settle with Birzeit, which was a college at the time. Yet, Afif spent the following thirty years struggling to return, while I spent the same period trying to stay.

During our years in the College des Freres before 1967, we curiously observed the Jewish side of the city. The wall of our basketball field was the wall of the Old City. Israeli soldiers were stationed on the other side, separated only by a short strip of no man’s land.

Since 1967, Israel unilaterally declared that the city had been ‘reunified’. Using terms such as uniting, dividing, reuniting and redividing, implies by common sense either bringing two or more parts together or setting them apart. No such thing has happened in the case of Jerusalem. In reality the city remains more religiously, ethnically, culturally, and politically divided than ever. It is this issue that has to be tackled if a reasonable solution is sought for the city.

To forge our way into the future, there was never so much need for a vision as there is now. It is remarkable to trace the role some Jews played in the 18th and 19th centuries as pioneers of large humanistic dreams. In a way the Zionist movement replaced big dreams by small ones. Some might say: “ It is better to have a successful small dream than unrealizable big dreams.” That may be true. But the real and most fundamental question is: Has Israel been successful and, if so, in what sense?

Is Israel bringing more security to Jews in a deep and long-term sense? Is not Israel, by pressing for a unilateral ‘victory’ for itself, losing the opportunity to achieve a more lasting and more real peace which is built on firmer foundations?

That history of the Jews, when they advocated and worked for big dreams, is part of what should go into the making of the new dream in the Middle East. For me, what exemplifies Judaism, are actions like that taken by a Rabbi who supported academic freedom for Birzeit University. When the committee staged a demonstration in Ramallah in January 1982, he pedaled all the way on his bicycle so as not to desecrate Sabbath and register his protest.

Another instance is an action taken by Jay Schnitzer, a Jewish medical doctor who volunteered his time and expertise for a year, and went to Gaza at the peak of the Intifada to work in a hospital, tending to the wounded. His action is louder than all the speeches and books that are written to convince me there is hope for peace.

Munir Fasheh, one of our visionary educators, has been arguing that all the ingredients and conditions are ripe for us as Palestinians to initiate a new blueprint for a sane future. This is our challenge, and it is worth every effort we put into it.

We are the natural inheritors of the three great religions, born at the crossroads of three continents, and we live at the intersection of several civilizations and cultures. For us, multiculturalism is a way of life. Sometimes it is very hard for me to know where my Christianity ends and my Islam starts, or vice versa. The same thing goes for Judaism. The thing that currently stands in the way from my making this connection with Judaism is Israel and its current ideology and behavior.

Palestine can certainly contribute to the creation of the new-old vision. We are living in a spiritless world, a world that is working hard to empty everything of its essence. The world is thirsty for a vision and I believe we are equipped to offer this vision, not because of any special qualities in us, but exactly because of our conditions and our history.

Marking anniversaries should not deprive us from striving towards wholeness, having a sense of responsibility and considering every individual as a contributor to the making of the world. The purpose of all of that is to regain our humanity with all its diversity, beauty and connectedness.