Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Unity in the Land of Struggle

Following the advice of some website I decided to compare the Israeli and Palestinian national anthems:
Israeli National Anthem:

While yet within the heart - inwardly
The soul of the Jew yearns,
And towards the vistas of the East-eastwards
An eye to Zion looks.
It is not yet lost, our hope,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem,
To be a free people in our land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Palestinian National Anthem:

My country, my country
My country, the land of my grand fathers
My country, my country
My country, my nation, the nation of eternity
With my determination, my fire and the volcano of my revenge
The longing of my blood to my land and home
I have climbed the mountains and fought the wars
I have conquered the impossible, and crossed the frontiers
My country, my country, the nation of eternity
With the resolve of the winds and the fire of the guns
And the determination of my nation in the land of struggle
Palestine is my home, Palestine is my fire, Palestine is my revenge and the land of eternal
My country, my country, the nation of eternity
I swear under the shade of the flag
To my land and nation, and the fire of pain
I will live as a guerrilla, I will go on as guerrilla,
I will expire as guerrilla until I will be back
My country, my country, the nation of eternity

What struck me is that the Palestinian national anthem could very easily double as the Israeli national anthem. "The nation of eternity" could be the Jewish nation, and "the land of struggle" is a plausible rendering of the land of Israel (sometimes translated as "struggling with God").

A Times Online article reports on an Israeli who argues that the Palestinians are the descendants of Arabized Jews:
Khamis Aboulafia, a well-known figure in the Israeli Arab community, listens politely as Tsvi Misinai, a retired computer expert and pioneer of Israel's IT sector, reveals the burning vision that has consumed him for years. He believes that the Palestinians with whom Israel is at war are, in fact, descendants of Jews who stayed on the land when the Roman legions sent most of their countrymen into exile 2,000 years ago.

When he hears that he may be a long-lost relation of a Jew, rather than of Arab stock, Aboulafia - an educated man who speaks Hebrew as fluently as Arabic - does not ask his guest to leave. Instead, he nods slowly. “Why am I willing to accept the idea?” he says. “Because all of the other ideas have fallen down.”

After a century-long struggle with guns and tanks, human bombs, soaring walls and settlements on remote,windswept hilltops, a small group of Jews and Arabs are now using an old theory and new genetic research to redefine - and, they hope, end - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the death toll from the latest round of carnage in the Gaza Strip topping 900 people, Misinai believes that his quixotic cause is more pressing than ever.

The theory was originally developed by David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister. But it has gained a new lease of life since a study into a rare blood disorder shared by Jews and Palestinians revealed a closer genetic match between the communities than between Palestinians and other Arabs. “It's all a tragic mistake, a tragic misunderstanding,” said Misinai, who divides his time between tracking down Palestinians who acknowledge their Jewish heritage, and lobbying ministers, ambassadors, religious leaders and activists in both communities.

The Ashkenazim are not "purely" old-stock Hebraic and neither are the Palestinians. We have been Europeanized, they have been Arabized. We followed the legacy of the Pharisees into exile and Rabbinic Judaism, they followed the legacy of the Zealots into autochthony and Islam:
According to his theory, when Jewish fighters waged a series of unsuccessful campaigns against the occupying Roman forces in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Romans exacted a heavy price: they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and exiled the vast majority of Jews.

Those who ended up in the Diaspora - mostly city dwellers - were determined to keep their Jewish identities during exile. But according to Misinai, many were allowed to stay behind to work the fertile uplands of Judea and Samaria - now known as the West Bank - to supply Rome with grain and olive oil.

Gradually, these people lost their ethnic identities, converting first to Christianity under Byzantine rule and then to Islam, as power in the land changed hands and rulers sought to homogenise the population, either through force or the offer of social privilege and tax incentives.

“We, the Jewish people, have kept our Israeli or Jewish identity by the book, by our religion, but we disengaged from the country,” said Elon Yarden, a lawyer and close associate of Misinai, who has also written on the subject. Those who stayed behind, in what became Palestine, “did not leave the country, but lost their identity”.

Misinai first heard the theory from his father, a German Jew who fought in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. He rekindled his interest after the 1991 Gulf War, when world leaders were talking about a new order in the Middle East. After the failure of the Oslo Accords a decade later, he gave up his career and threw himself full time into his new brainchild. “From 2000, this has taken over my entire life,” he said.

The theory challenges the definition not just of Palestinians but also of Jews, always a contentious issue in a country based on Jewish identity but deeply divided among religious and secular strands. Misinai's ideas have met with interest and scepticism. Some ultra-religious Jewish settler leaders welcome the idea with open arms, since they believe that once all the biblical land of Israeli is populated with Jews, a new era of peace on Earth will be ushered in. “They like this, they are starving for this,” said Misinai. He insists that by emphasising Jewishness as a nationality, he can sidestep the thorny religious issue of who qualifies and who does not.

“If they want to stay Muslim, let them stay Muslim, we don't care about your religion,” he told The Times at his large villa in a flower-filled street in Rehovot, a sleepy town near Tel Aviv. “But the majority will stay Jewish from the national, ethnic point of view. An individual can be ethnically Jewish and his religion can be Muslim, or Christian. As in the UK, someone can be a British citizen and be a Muslim or a Jew.”

There is ample precedent for Misinai's idea. Both the early "Jewish Christians" and the Samaritans who survive in small numbers to the present day were/are ethnically Israelite but religiously non-Jewish (or at least non-Jewish in today's understanding of the term). The Reform Jews in Germany called themselves "Germans of the Mosaic faith." Why not "Israelites of the Mosaic faith" and "Israelites of the Mohammedan faith" in the land of struggle? After all, the latter already exist whether they are recognized as such or not:
A number of Palestinians acknowledge their Jewish roots, although many say that doing so is more risky since the two intifadas, or uprisings, fought against Israel. In Hebron, the main city in the southern West Bank which was a renowned city in biblical days, several families and tribes quietly acknowledge their Jewish background.

“Avi” is from one of them. From the village of Yatta, near Hebron, he speaks fluent Hebrew and has even adopted a Jewish name. He has a family in Yatta but works near Tel Aviv as a welder. With his piercing blue eyes, many of his Israeli friends are unaware that he is Palestinian.

“It didn't surprise me,” he said, when his grandparents told him that the family had moved to Yatta centuries before from the Jewish kingdom of Khaibar in the south-western Arabian peninsula. Khaibar flourished in the centuries after the destruction of the Jewish temple before being destroyed by the Fatimid Muslim dynasty in AD1037.

To clarify matters, Judaism should be conceived purely in terms of religion, and the Jewish ethnicity rebranded Hebrew or Israelite. Thus an Arab who converts to Judaism would be an Arab Jew, and an ethnic Jew who converts to Islam would be a Muslim Hebrew or Israelite. Such a configuration would be helpful not only in the Middle East, but would also end the confusion surrounding atheist Jews, "Jews for Jesus" and converts. We would finally have a way to articulate the obvious distinction between Sigmund Freud (atheist Israelite or Hebrew) and Sammy Davis Jr. (Jewish African-American). Israel would be a homeland for Israelites instead of simply Jews, and the land of struggle would finally become the land of hugs.


  1. If only. The problem is what Muslims are taught about Jews. I don't think enough Palestinians will be able to get over the anti-semitic parts of the Koran, as well as recent history and anti-Jewish political propaganda. But certainly if those issues could be overcome, it would be ideal.

    There's another issue, though. Ashkenazim have diverged from Middle Eastern Jews, so thinking of ourselves as Hebrews or Israelites doesn't honor our European heritage. How can American and European Jews identify with Middle-Eastern Jews and Palestinians, except in a large sense of wanting peace between long-lost relatives? It's not the same relationship as what I have with American Jews, which is based on similar culture and physical appearance, not just idealism.

    Regarding the German Reform Jews, I read an amazing book about that, How Jews Became German. It shows that their idea that they were Germans who belonged to the Jewish faith wasn't accurate at all, and didn't last. After a brief honeymoon, things went back to the usual anti-semitism.

  2. A good number of Palestinians will certainly never give up their anti-Semitism or Arab identity for that matter. However, based on the names mentioned in the article there are at least a few rational souls on the other side who would be willing to look at things differently. Whether that number would ever be enough to make a lasting difference, I don't know.

    I agree about the Ashkenazi divergence. However, I still consider Eastern Jews to be precisely what you say: relatives. Consider Americans and Englishmen. Both are content with their divergent historical paths, but still wish the best for each other (at least the majority do). That is the kind of relationship Eastern and Western Jews should strive for.

    I don't want to live in Israel, but I don't want to see it destroyed (which is what will happen if the current state of things continues) either.