Today’s topic: Both of you have personal connections to the history of the Holy Land. Please expand on your experiences. Click here to read previous exchanges of this week’s Dust-Up.
Judea Pearl: What Israel means to me
I was born in Tel Aviv in 1936 and, quite naturally, my feelings toward Israel are suffused with the love, pride, memories, music and aromas that nourish and sustain all natives of any country. As the years pass, I discover that these same feelings toward Israel are echoed by people everywhere, including many who have never set foot in that country. My family’s love affair with Israel began in 1924, when my grandfather, a textile merchant and devout Hasidic Jew from the town of Ostrowietz, Poland, decided to realize his life dream and emigrate to the land of the Bible.
Family lore has it that my grandfather was assaulted one day by a Polish peasant wielding an iron bar and shouting, “Dirty Jew!” My grandfather crawled home, wiped his blood and announced to his wife and four children, “Start packing; we are going home!” In the weeks that followed, he sold all his possessions and, along with 25 other families, bought a piece of sandy land about four miles northeast of Jaffa. That land was near an Arab village called Ibn Abrak, which was described by the newspaper Haaretz in July 1924 as “a few mud-walled huts surrounded by a few scattered trees.”
The Arab real estate broker in Jaffa probably had no idea why a group of seemingly educated Jews, some with business experience, would pay so dearly for a piece of arid land situated far from any water source, which even the hardy residents of Ibn Abrak found to be uninhabitable. But the 26 Hasidic families knew exactly what they were buying. Ibn Abrak was the site of the ancient city of Bnai Brak, well known in the biblical and rabbinic days, the town where the Mishnaic scholar Rabbi Akiva made his home and established his great school. It is said that it was to Bnai Brak that Rabbi Akiva applied the famous verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”
The vision of reviving the spirit of that ancient site of learning was well worth the exorbitant price the broker demanded, the dusty winds, the merciless sun, the lack of water and all the daily hardships that pioneering agricultural life entailed.
My father was 14 years old when his family arrived at Bnai Brak in 1924, and whenever he reminisced about that early period of hardship, he always referred to it as the “rebuilding of Bnai Brak,” as if he and my grandfather had been there before, with Poland and the whole saga of the Jewish exile merely an unpleasant nightmare.
We, the children who grew up in Bnai Brak, had not the slightest doubt that we had been there before. Every Passover, when our family’s reading of the Haggadah reached the story of the five rabbis who were sitting in Bnai Brak reciting the story of the Exodus, my grandfather would stop the reading, look everyone in the eye, issue one of his rare mysterious smiles and continue with emphasis, “Who were sitting in Bnai Brak.”
The message was clear: We never really left home.
A short distance from our school, there were two steep hills that almost touched each other. The older boys told us that the two hills were once a single one that got separated when Bar Kochva -- the heroic figure who led a futile Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 2nd century -- rode through it on his lion, creating the gully between. We had no doubt that we would eventually find Bar Kochva’s burial place; we needed only to dig deep enough into these hills -- which we did enthusiastically for hours. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before the Earth would unravel the mysteries of our historic infancy. It was this cultural incubator that shaped my childhood -- an intoxicating enthusiasm of homecoming and nation-rebuilding.
Those who say that this sort of culture no longer inspires youth are mistaken. Seventy-eight years after my grandfather first set foot in Bnai Brak, in a shed in Karachi, Pakistan, his great-grandson Daniel Pearl stood before his eventual murderers and said, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Then, looking straight at the eye of evil, he added one last sentence: “Back in the town of Bnai Brak, there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town.”
Was a page of history ever chanted with greater pride? Was a more gentle love song ever sung to a homeward-bound founder of a new town?
My mother’s story was different, yet still driven by the same forces of history. A resident of Kielz, Poland, she applied to British authorities for immigration to Palestine in 1935, when anti-Semitic intimidation reached unbearable proportions. Adolf Hitler came to power two years earlier. His threats were broadcast all over Europe; the writing was on the wall, and masses of Polish Jews applied for emigration to their biblical homeland: Palestine. Ironically, the British government, which then controlled the region, was bending to Arab pressure to stop Jewish immigration, and my mother’s hopes of leaving Poland before the storm fell at the mercy of a political controversy that has not been settled to this very day.
I recently read the argument the Arabs used in that debate, as published at the time in the Arabic newspaper Carmel: “We know that Jewish immigration can proceed without dispossessing a single Arab from his land. This is obvious. And this is precisely what we object to. We simply do not want to peacefully turn into a minority, and European Jews should understand why.” The counter-argument by the Jewish leadership was equally compelling. Zev Jabotinsky said in 1937: “This sort of morality is morality of cannibalism, not one of the civilized world, for it dictates that the homeless must forever remain homeless; we beg merely for a small fraction of this vast piece of land.” But the British sided with the stronger, allowing a trickle of only 15,000 immigration certificates a year.
My mother could not wait and paid a huge sum to a cousin who had an immigration certificate to arrange a fictitious marriage that would later be annulled. Fortunately, her father intervened, and she found a better prospect -- my father, a suntanned young “Palestinian” who was searching the towns of Poland for a refined European bride. My mother’s parents, brother and sister were not so lucky. Stranded by the British-Arab blockade, they perished in the holocaust with 6 million other victims of cannibalism and selfishness.
I once asked my mother how she felt when she arrived. “I came to Israel in the eve of Hanukkah, 1935,” she said. “The first day after my arrival, I went up to the roof, and I could not believe my eyes -- how deeply blue the sky was, compared with the gray sky that I left behind in Poland. I was breathless!
“Then I met a neighbor, a teacher who invited me to visit her kindergarten. There I experienced one of the happiest days in my life. Scores of children were standing there loudly singing Hanukkah songs in Hebrew, as if this was the most natural thing to do, as if they had been singing those songs for hundreds of years.”
“Why the wonder?” I asked. “Didn’t your family celebrate Hanukkah in Poland?”
“Not exactly,” she said. “Yes, we lit the candles, but it was in a dark corner, with my father whispering the blessing and mumbling the songs quietly. You see, the neighbors were Gentiles, and he did not feel comfortable advertising that we celebrated a Jewish holiday. And here I come and suddenly find these toddlers singing ‘Maccabee, My Hero!’ in full volume, and in the open courtyard.”
About three years ago, as I was preparing for a Muslim-Jewish dialogue, I read that many Palestinians have decided to view themselves as descendants of the Canaanite tribes conquered by Joshua. I couldn’t help but imagine how lonely it must be for a Palestinian boy not to be able to sing “Canaan, My Hero!” in the language of his ancestors, not to have Canaanite role models after which to name songs, towns and holidays and, more lonely yet, to be taught by teachers who had never heard of his Canaanite ancestors. At that point, I understood the root cause of the Palestinian tragedy: underestimating how sincerely indigenous those children were in Bnai Brak, singing “Maccabee, My Hero!”
Throughout my childhood, we had wonderful symbiotic relations with the Arabs in the village of Jamusin, about half a mile from Bnai Brak. Jamusin supplied labor and farm products, and Bnai Brak produced commerce and technology. We often played with Arab children our age, riding donkeys in the citrus groves and playing soccer in vast empty lots, though language was a barrier. I do not recall a single religious or ethnic skirmish.
The day that Israel was proclaimed -- May 14, 1948 -- I spent in a bomb shelter, traumatized by the sound of Egyptian war planes that were attacking Tel Aviv and its suburbs. The next day, Arab peddlers did not show up with their merchandise, Arab children were not seen in the orange groves, and the village of Jamusin, we found out later, was totally abandoned; even donkeys, goats and chickens were not to be found.
I was too young to join the Israeli army then, but all my friends who were 16 and older volunteered, many of whom came back in black coffins. Israel lost 1% of its population in that war. Whenever I listen to speeches by pacifists and other anti-violence activists, my mind sees those young kids from around the block and the number of lives they helped save with their instinctive sacrifice.
Today, Israel is a land of contrasts. My hometown of Bnai Brak, a bustling replica of an extremely orthodox, Eastern European town, is situated among totally secular neighborhoods, in which International Workers Day on May 1 is celebrated every year with school ceremonies and marching bands. At the same time, it is not uncommon to find youth groups in Marxist-leaning kibbutzim engaging in a nightlong trance of Hasidic melodies interspersed with Arabic Debka dances. This marvelous blend of an intense reverence of the past with an innovative, indeed revolutionary and optimistic outlook to the future is the essence of what Israel means to me.
The optimists among us say that the world will never abandon Israel because civilization cannot afford to dispose of such an innovative project, one in which the noblest aspirations of mankind have been brought together to develop. Pessimists tell us that the fate of Israel is the fate of civilization itself, and the latter does not look very promising. As a member of a stubborn tribe of survivors, I take the optimistic side. True, the world may not fully appreciate the importance of such noble projects. But I am nevertheless convinced that, beneath the criticism and the rhetoric, it is the heroic example of Israel’s struggle and progress that currently fuels the will of civilization to survive.
Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is a frequent commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the president and co-founder of the Daniel Pearl Foundation -- named after his son -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to dialogue and cross-cultural understanding.
George E. Bisharat: The hope of a victimized people
I am the son of a Palestinian father. Through countless stories about his family, I absorbed the ethic that the strong must help the less fortunate.
My grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat -- “Papa” to us -- was fluent in Arabic, English, French, German and Turkish and had studied agriculture in Switzerland before World War I. He began introducing mechanized farming to Palestine and dreamed of establishing his own agriculture school. During World War I, our family harbored Australian and New Zealander soldiers who, while fighting the Turks in Palestine, were caught behind enemy lines. They offered refuge to a Syrian sheik who was fleeing powerful enemies. During the riots in Palestine in 1929, Papa sheltered Jewish friends in his stately home in the Talbiyeh quarter of West Jerusalem. Little did he expect that this home would be expropriated in 1948 and serve as the home of Golda Meir -- she of the famous quip that the Palestinian people “did not exist.”
Christian soldiers, a Muslim sheik, Jewish neighbors -- they were all human beings in need, and we were blessed to be able to help them.
My Palestinian family, in its tradition of compassion and hospitality, is not exceptional. During my last trip to the West Bank, I met a man whose parents had been driven out of what became Israel in 1948 and had settled in the Balata refugee camp outside Nablus. The Friday before, as he was taking his son to prayer, an Israeli tank suddenly wheeled into their empty street, spewing heavy machine-gun fire. The man saw his son stumble, then plunge face first into the stairs ahead of him. When the father reached him, the boy had swallowed his teeth and blood blossomed across his shirt. Within minutes he turned blue, his internal organs destroyed. Amid Abu Sayr, age 7, died before reaching the hospital. No protests nor disturbances had preceded this incident, and no one could explain the tank gunner’s zeal.
As the father related this to me and my companions, he saw my eyes film with tears. Then this humble man -- a mechanic, as I recall -- embraced me and patted my back. Two days after the most searing experience of his life, he offered comfort to me. “Just tell the world how they stole my heart,” he whispered gently. I was reminded, yet again, of the deep courage, resilience and magnanimity of the Palestinian people.
I am also the son of an American mother, who is from an early settler family. Our ancestor, Samuel Johnson, participated in this country’s constitutional convention. From my mother’s side I took the ethic of civic responsibility -- the conviction that in a democratic society, we are the government and that when we fail to exercise true popular sovereignty (by educating ourselves, voting, challenging political leaders and speaking out) we lose the right to call ourselves a free people.
Both of these family traditions meld in my concern over Middle East peace.
I have already suggested that the United States should respectfully counsel Israel to abandon ethnic separatism and embrace equality. Not the equality and pluralism among Jews from different origins that Judea described the other day, but equality between Jews and Palestinians and among all human beings, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity.
I understand why some Jews turned to the vision of ethnic separatism that Zionism offered, particularly after World War II; the reasons are obvious. But Zionism has been a tragic deviation from Jewish universalist ethics, a never-ending nightmare for Palestinians and a source of tension and instability in the Middle East and the broader world. A growing number of Jews and even some prominent Israelis -- like Avram Burg, Meron Benvenisti and Daniel Gavron -- concur in this assessment.
What does it say that the most prosperous and secure Jewish community in the world is here in the multicultural United States, flourishing under a regime of equal rights, while the Jews of Israel, armed to the teeth, live in chronic insecurity and are fortifying an apartheid wall?
Those who have dominated others always resist losing their monopoly of power and fear vengeance from those they have oppressed. White South Africans defended apartheid on just those grounds. But as South Africa has shown, a blood bath need not ensue, especially when the movement for political change is firmly committed, as was the African National Congress, to equality and reconciliation. If Israelis could muster the courage to admit moral responsibility for the injustices they have inflicted on the Palestinians, they could not find a more forgiving and generous people.
Israelis have comforted themselves over time with a series of myths, among them: that Palestine was a “land without people for a people without a land;" that the indigenous Arabs they encountered upon arriving in Palestine were little but a scattering of individuals with no sense of collective identity (as Judea put it a few days ago, peasants who had never heard the word “sovereignty”); that the settlers’ European outlook and culture made them superior custodians of the country; that Jewish settlers knew the country’s landscape even better than the Palestinians who had cultivated it for centuries; and that Palestinians loved their fields, orchards, villages and towns less than Zionist colonizers, and thus, fled in 1948 not in response to the massacres, rapes and systematic campaign of terror mounted by Jewish militias, but simply walked away from them to mysteriously disappear. The first step toward genuine equality between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs involves liberation from this colonialist mind-set.
I am impelled in equal parts by foreboding and hope. Far from modeling equality for Israel, the United States instead is following the Israeli model of a permanent “war on terror.” Now, like Israel, we have our military occupation of an Arab country. Israeli jurists counsel our State Department on the legal justifications for targeted assassinations. Israeli colonels train our Iraq-bound Marines in urban warfare tactics developed in the Jenin refugee camp. Israeli security contractors teach American police chiefs and airport personnel how to racially profile Arab and Muslim travelers. Israeli policymakers -- who strongly supported the Iraq invasion -- now egg our leaders on to a new confrontation with Iran.
There is only pain ahead for everyone on this path of confrontation and violence. We must find a way back from the brink and guide Israel back with us. Nothing could enhance the security of the United States more than a just and therefore durable peace in Israel and Palestine.
I am hopeful. In the West’s shame over the Nazi Holocaust, we relaxed our normal skepticism and, deferring to Zionism’s demands, accepted principles we would have denied anywhere else. But more people are recognizing that a Jewish state built on expulsion, repression and ethnic privilege will never know rest. Justice, equality and mutual respect are the salvation of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Ahead, perhaps distantly, a bright future awaits them.
George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.
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