Israeli portrait of rose-tinted past gives way to rage at settlers

It is unusual to read a book on Israel and the Palestinians — perhaps the most documented conflict in world history — that starts by focusing on commonalities rather than divisions: on marriages rather than feuds, festivals rather than riots and municipal housing plans rather than the demolition of homes.

Menachem Klein’s Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron (Hurst Publishing) is a loving, albeit rose-tinted, depiction. By conveying past realities, the book offers a vision of a future for the area that was the British Mandate of Palestine that needs to be visualized if it is ever to come close to being realized.

The overt point that this book makes could be summed up in the platitude: Peoples of Different Religions and Ethnicities Can Get On Together. They can form friendships; learn from each other; be schooled together; speak common languages; rescue each other in times of crisis; establish businesses in times of prosperity; enjoy the same cafés and cinemas; fall in love.

A reader may wonder why a thoroughly researched academic book like Lives in Common is needed to point this out. However, this title was published at a time when one of Klein’s colleagues at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv was met with student and faculty protests for saying that thoughts should go out to those suffering in Gaza as well as Israel.

Never has a platitude needed to be stated as diligently.

A peoples’ account

Lives in Common provides a people’s account of the changes that came about in Palestine from the last decades of the Ottoman Empire until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

The stories, taken from primary source material such as diaries, newspapers, memoirs and letters, as well as from secondary materials, fill the book with vivid imagery. They capture the voices, smells and sounds of a former world, written joyously and imbued with a sense of wonderment.

It is not a depiction that shies away from prejudices or ignores growing tensions, but alerts the reader to many of the misconceptions that existed at the time. In speaking of the rival cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Klein writes:

“Jaffa’s residents, for their part, believed Tel Aviv to be ruled by communists and viewed it as a territory occupied by European invaders. As far as they were concerned, it was a city whose streets were full of morally corrupt and licentious people. The fact is that Jaffa was ahead of Tel Aviv when it came to modernity. The Arab city had Bauhaus buildings before the Jewish one did.”

The chapter “Mixed Cities” works particularly well when describing Tel Aviv and Jaffa. It does not just show the interrelationship between Jews and non-Jews in Mandate Palestine, but also the growing complexity of relationships between Arab Jews and immigrant Jews, and the attitude of Palestinians of different religions towards the newly arrived immigrants.

The example is given of a fight that occurred in 1908 between a Jewish couple and Palestinian youths, set in the context of the shared conservatism of Palestinian Jews and Muslims in the face of the perceived shamelessness of new immigrant women. The complexities of the brawl drew in the Russian consul, Arab police, Ottoman police and Jewish community leaders. What could have been just a bar scrap turned nasty and acquired international ramifications.

Unequal analyses?

As he describes the parties to the conflict separating into religious groupings — whether chosen or thrust upon them under the British Mandate’s divide and rule structures — Klein’s own analysis becomes more apparent.

It is here that my Palestinian sensibilities stop feeling soothed by his anecdotal accounts. This is frequently because of omissions, rather than selections, on Klein’s part. But the assumed parity between “Jew” and “Arab” within the title dictates the overall approach.

By focusing on those urban centers where the Jewish population and heritage is significant, the overall picture of a tiny Jewish minority backed by outside support and boosted by overwhelming immigration is obscured.

Klein does not subscribe to a view that the creation of Israel was that of a colonial-settler state. That the extensive bibliography lacks scholars like Nur Masalha, Sara Roy and Avi Shlaim reflects his position. Palestinians are quoted extensively throughout. But the approach, by tacitly assuming almost parity of presence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, and possibly also of arms and opportunities, is less critical of early Zionism and less revelatory of the centrality of the transfer (of Palestinians) in Zionist thought than it could have been.

Rage and frustration

However, Klein’s rage at the current state of Arab-Jewish relations, its roots in choices taken by the Jewish people who went on to form the State of Israel and the current policies being pursued by the Israeli government, is palpable by the end of the book.

In the final chapters, Klein describes with disgust those West Bank settler organizations who “see Jerusalem as a theater of military-messianic operations,” and of Hebron settlers who “act like lords of the land, using fear to rule the neighborhood. They benefit from state-funded private guards and from direct contact with the police and the Border Guard.”

The frustration is also felt in the last chapter when Klein documents the eradication of Palestinian history from textbooks, museum and heritage sites, and estate agents’ descriptions. Jerusalem, he notes, is said in schoolbooks to have Christians and Muslims but no reference to Palestinians is made.

I am not a historian and came to this book as a lay reader looking for signs of symbiosis and hope. I found that the early chapters offer much of the past that is vibrant and new. This is a charming book to dip into to hear voices from more harmonious times and to visualize the potential for a better future.

Klein’s sensitivity and concern is critical when put in the context of the fascistic-nationalistic trends on the rise around him. He goes far further, and far more bravely, than many Israelis would dare or wish to go in challenging the whitewashing of Palestinian history. He does not go as far as this writer would have wished. But this may indicate how difficult it is for all of us to step fully out of our ethno-national allegiances.

Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer. Her debut novel, Out of It, is published by Bloomsbury (2012).




Ms. Dabbagh,
Thank you for this in-depth review. As an aside note, I believe that in the British Mandate, White Paper, and Balfour Declaration the word "Palestinian" is never used, though the name "Palestine" is used. Palestinians are referred to as "Arabs" or "other Arabs." It seems to me that the British did not put the Jews and Palestinians on a parity at any time, though they pretended that intention.