Book Review: Menachem Klein's History of Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron

 

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This is another in a series of reviews of new books on Middle Eastern affairs. We asked Dr. Gail Weigl, an APN volunteer and a professor of art history, to review Menachem Klein's new book on the history of relations between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron.

Menachem Klein, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Hebron (Oxford, 2014), 290 pages. $30.00.

Menachem Klein’s Lives in Common is an extremely important, extremely difficult book. Important because it painstakingly charts the history of the state of Israel from the dream to the implementation of a concerted campaign to erase features of a defeated culture, which was an integral part of Israel’s birth. Difficult because the author’s penchant for amassing data in support of his arguments often renders the narrative overly complex and tedious. Nevertheless, this is a valuable book for anyone who loves or is concerned about Israel. It is a clear-eyed account of the breakdown of relations between Jewish and Arab inhabitants of what once was a Palestine in which the two communities lived as one.

 

After providing the overarching narrative, supported by both primary and secondary records and voices, Klein himself at the end of his “Epilogue” offers at best the tepid wish that interaction between “equal human beings” can “enable co-existence between nations and enable them to cope with past wounds.” (290)  The “Epilogue” itself is useful for understanding the thematic shape of Lives in Common, and reading the “Epilogue” first might help the reader to grasp the outline of this often unwieldy account, its complexity perhaps a metaphor for the many-stranded threads of the conflict itself.

 

Focusing primarily on Jerusalem, secondarily on Jaffa and Hebron, the author approaches his subject thematically, beginning with the story of “Arab Jews,” Jews who identified culturally as Arabs, whose identity was shaped by local daily life in a predominantly Arab environment. It is imperative that we understand this largely Sephardic Jewish history, not only because it renders the current alienation of Jews and Arabs that much more tragic and poignant, but also because it contextualizes the chasm that existed between “Arab Jews” and the European Zionists who built the state of Israel.

 

Several themes emerge from the opening section of the book, where the author focuses on Jerusalem as the nucleus of roads linking to Jaffa and Hebron (a map of the 19th century city and environs would have been helpful here): nostalgia for the communal warmth and clamor of Arab life in contrast to the commercialism, and soulless modernity of contemporary Israel; the Israeli government’s deliberate obliteration of Muslim and Christian history of habitation in order to establish the narrative that Jews returned to cities and to a country they continuously inhabited; and the irreconcilable differences between Arab and European culture, fostering deep prejudices and misunderstandings reinforced after the fall of the Ottomans and the inauguration of British rule.

 

Professor Klein begins with a definition and description of 19th century, primarily urban “Arab-Jewish” communities that flourished in the Arab world prior to the Zionist-Palestinian conflicts of the 1930s.  These Jews, whose lives centered on a common identity rooted in community and place, found their lifestyle, language and culture threatened by European Ashkenazi Zionists. European individualism and nationalism ultimately overcame and destroyed Arab-Jewish and local patriotism, as alien invaders co-opted the culture of Arab-Jews, relegating them to inferior status as the means of creating their own Zionist identity as natives of the land, a process aided by the cooperation of prominent Arab families who rented and sold Palestinian land to European Jews.  A wealth of first-person narrative—characteristic of the book throughout—provides touching anecdotes of these shared lives, and is important for understanding post-1948 and 1967 Israel, when the conquerors have adopted a constructed Jewish history and governmental policies and politics. Again and again, Professor Klein demonstrates how in contemporary Israel, old connections fail to soften the rules and regulations that deprive Palestinian Arabs of their history and honor. A thorough, perhaps too thorough a narrative of every insult, every misunderstanding between Muslim and Jewish players marks this section of the book, and demonstrates the author’s method throughout: present a thesis or theme supported by a mind-numbing cornucopia of detail.  At times, the time-line suffers from this approach, resulting in an unclear differentiation of Jerusalem under the Ottomans and under British Mandate.

 

What emerges from this section is the important distinction between national aspirations and local cultural identity. Significant differences between Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron nevertheless demonstrate the degree to which Arab-Jewish identity was rooted in the texture of lives among equals, in some cases more tense, in others unconcerned with Sephardic-Ashkenazi differences. This is of interest because the European nationalist-Zionist movement ultimately would destroy Arab-Jewish solidarity, subsuming that identity under the banner of a Jewish nation-state, sundering even the remnants of a common communal world-view and prompting the rise of counter-nationalism among the Arabs.

 

Arab-Jewish conflict was exacerbated under British Mandate, not least because the British failed to reconcile conflicting expectations of increasingly rival communities. Professor Klein presents a compelling argument assigning responsibility to the British for the “accelerating bloodiness of the Jewish-Arab conflict,” by failing to honor the 1919 Faisal-Weizmann agreement to establish an Arab kingdom under Faisal and autonomy for Jews in Palestine. (115) One explanation for that failure introduces the irony that at the time, when Britain was caught between contradictory promises to both peoples, she favored the Zionists, who were looked upon as agents of an enlightened West, “…assigned by God and history to bring culture to the Orient.” (114) Not only did this bias inform ill-informed policy, it provided the context for the British to deal with Arab-Jewish conflict through the means most familiar to them, as well as the model for the future state of Israel : barriers and fences, checkpoints and roadblocks, categorization of Jerusalem’s inhabitants according to nationality and ethnicity.

 

The Zionists saw themselves as the British saw them, and this introduces another theme of Lives in Common: the failure of the Arabs to translate their demographic superiority into a national state, in part because in the years leading up to the 1948 war, Arab culture increasingly was unfavorably compared with that of Europe. Arab collectivism, propriety, passivity, generosity and humility contrasted unfavorably with Western values of individualism, initiative, ambition and commercialism. While the Arabs were seen as unhygienic, backward and lazy, Jews were seen as clean, modern and progressive. This cultural alienation has contributed to Israeli bureaucratic arrogance and Arab humiliation, as well as to the development of Jaffa and West Jerusalem as cosmopolitan, secular cities. 

 

Professor Klein believes the 1967 war was the climax of the unfinished 1948 campaign, completing the vision of a Jewish state with a united Jerusalem as its capital, while noting that the old Jordanian Arab city was of no interest to the early Zionists as its traditionally Arab environment was inimical to the view of Israel as a modern European nation. The crux of Lives in Common is found in the chapters covering what Klein views as an extended 1948-1967 war, and the subsequent erasing of Arab history in Palestine, to establish what Klein says is a myth of a continuous Jewish presence in a Palestinian homeland. This is a homeland, Klein writes, which the conquerors did not create, but to which they returned. These chapters are painful to read as the author charts the destruction and appropriation not only of the physical presence of Palestinian Arabs—their homes, land and businesses—but also the eradication or only minimal acknowledgement of their history.

 

A constructed Jewish history replaces the centuries of Muslim and Christian life in the region, nowhere more egregiously than in the takeover of Jerusalem’s Old City.  Thus, the imposition of Israeli military culture and Jewish valor in what once was a multicultural city, thus a “right of return” granted to Jews and Jews alone.  From controlling the educational system to the creation of museum and architectural tours that ignore or barely mention a Muslim presence in Jerusalem, from the naming of streets to the “restoration” of “Jewish” sites and monuments, Israeli governments have made the annexation of East Jerusalem a permanent fact. At the same time, the conquest of Jerusalem also makes clear the reasons for Muslim resistance to Jewish acts, and the centrality of Jerusalem to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

 

Jaffa tells its own story of a manufactured Jewish history, for it was always an Arab city, with no Jewish presence other than the immigrants who passed through its port. Professor Klein offers an instructive study of the relationship between Jaffa and its sister city, Tel Aviv.

 

Hebron, the poor stepchild of this account, comes last.  It too has suffered from the entitlement sensibility of Israelis who confiscated land and demolished mosques to make the city a Jewish pilgrimage site after 1948, but conflict has played out differently in Hebron, where Jews were a minority and not allowed to enter the Cave of the Patriarchs until after 1967. The lengthy negotiations centered on the cave clarify the conflict today, and again, the ways in which Israeli military superiority operates to protect and maximize Jewish control of the city and a site holy to Muslims as well as to Jews.

 

Professor Klein’s is a heartbreakingly thorough catalogue of the steps by which Israeli victors have decimated Arab lives, culture and history. One is left with the question: would it have created a different, a peaceful and cooperative Arab-Jewish Israel, had Israeli soldiers, administrators and political leaders made an effort not to eradicate , then deny the Arab history of the land they claimed? One is left, finally, with the irony of justifying the present by invoking--indeed creating—history, while resolutely denying history.

 

Klein demonstrates his brilliance and humanity by exposing the contradictions and ironies at the heart of Israel’s story. The tragedy of the current impasse is compounded by his superb narrative of the long trajectory from Jews and Arabs inhabiting the land in mutual accord to the gradual evolution (or devolution) toward mutual mistrust, hatred and violence. 

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