Neigh­bours: build­ing blocks of peace — or war

Liv­ing side by side is not enough: Is­raelis and Arabs must meet, talk and learn from each other

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - LYN JULIUS

AT THE Na­tional The­atre in Lon­don, Our Class is telling the story of the 1941 mas­sacre of the Jews of the Pol­ish vil­lage Jed­wabne — all the more painful for be­ing true. What makes the play so hard to watch is that the mur­der­ers and vic­tims knew each other. Catholics and Jews sat in class to­gether, flirted, shared dreams and as­pi­ra­tions. Even­tu­ally, though, deep-seated an­tisemitism and prej­u­dice caused one half of the class to turn on the other. The idea that fa­mil­iar­ity leads to mu­tual re­spect un­der­pins the work of some 30 Arab-Jewish co­ex­is­tence projects in Is­rael alone. If Jews and Arabs talk to each other, live to­gether, play mu­sic to­gether — so the think­ing goes — there could be peace.

Co­ex­is­tence is not new to the Mid­dle East. Jews and Mus­lims lived cheek-by-jowl for 14 cen­turies. Arab mythol­ogy holds that the Golden Age in Mus­lim Spain was a model for peace­ful co­ex­is­tence. But the re­la­tion­ship was not equal. Jews were sub­ju­gated, self-abas­ing dhim­mis, ex­ploited for their tal­ents. They had to buy their phys­i­cal se­cu­rity from the ruler of the day. Mai­monides fled from fa­nat­i­cal Mus­lims, not Chris­tians.

In mod­ern times, Jewish-Arab co­ex­is­tence broke down com­pletely. Roughly half the Jewish pop­u­la­tion came to Is­rael not as refugees from the Holo­caust, but flee­ing Arab and Mus­lim an­tisemitism. A mil­lion Jews once lived in Arab lands. To­day, their com­mu­ni­ties, pre­dat­ing Is­lam by 1,000 years, are al­most ex­tinct.

The pe­ri­odic vi­o­lence that has erupted in the Mid­dle East has tested in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tions to the hilt. Just as Righ­teous Gen­tiles saved Jews from the Nazis, some Arabs saved Jews: 300 Jews shel­tered in 28 Arab homes dur­ing the He­bron mas­sacre of 1929. Hon­ourable Mus­lims res­cued Jews from ri­ot­ing mobs in Arab coun­tries. While the au­thor­i­ties failed to in­ter­vene to pro­tect Jews — or even in­cited the ri­ot­ing — the friendly neigh­bour stood as the last line of de­fence.

But fa­mil­iar­ity also breeds con­tempt, re­sent­ment and greed. Among sto­ries of neigh­bourly be­trayal in He­bron was the Jewish doc­tor mur­dered by his own pa­tients. The Mak­l­eff fam­ily near Jerusalem was slaugh­tered by the Arabs they worked with. Jews ter­rorised by the 1941 Farhoud in Iraq (179 Jews dead) and the Libyan pogrom in 1945 (130 Jews dead ) recog­nised, among their as­sailants, the lo­cal po­lice­man, butcher and milk­man.

Yet there must be a place for co­ex­is­tence ini­tia­tives. Projects such as Daniel Baren­boim’s East-West Di­van Or­ches­tra play a role in hu­man­is­ing Arabs to Is­raelis, and Is­raelis to Arabs — whose coun­tries ha­bit­u­ally de­monise them. The co­op­er­a­tive vil­lage of Neve Shalom in­tro­duces Arabs and Jews to each other’s cul­tures.

Un­less the di­a­logue is bal­anced, how­ever, co­ex­is­tence can be­come an ex­er­cise in Jewish self-abase­ment. It can lead to Jews sup­press­ing their rights, iden­tity and suf­fer­ing while em­pow­er­ing Arab griev­ances. Jews may feel the pain of a Pales­tinian refugee and even “un­der­stand” ter­ror­ism, while there is no cor­re­spond­ing shift on the Arab side — be­cause Jewish rights, suf­fer­ing and the pain of ex­pul­sion of Jews by Arabs, may be ig­nored.

The prej­u­dice at the root of re­jec­tion­ism and ter­ror­ism can turn a neigh­bour into a mon­ster. Only if we con­front this un­palat­able truth can peo­ple live as equals in true peace and mu­tual re­spect.

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