A Purim Story
Last week, I went to a panel organized by Breaking the Silence on the 20th anniversary of the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron. One of the panelists, Merav Michaeli, whose critical feminism, genuine humanism and committed anti-occupationism combined come close to making up for the fact that she is a member of the Labor Party, and succeed in making her one of individual Members of Knesset most worth listening to, told a story. In February 1994, Michaeli was one of the hosts of Channel 2′s program, Friday Live (ששי חי), and in preparation for Purim, the program was planning a festive episode, in which all of the hosts would dress up in silly costumes. On the Friday morning of Purim, Baruch Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and opened fire as the Palestinian Muslim worshipers prayed their morning prayer, murdering 29 people and injuring between 125 and 150 more. Back in Tel Aviv, when Michaeli heard the horrific news, her assumption was that Friday Live’s festive Purim episode would be cancelled in the light of such tragedy. To her chagrin, she was the only one who thought it should be so, and after arguments with producers, the Channel’s President was called in, and an ultimatum was issued to the 29 year-old Michaeli: You do the show, or you lose your job. So it was that in silly costume, Michaeli and her co-host opened the show with a moment’s recognition of the massacre, genuine sadness turned lugubrious by context, and then continued the celebratory Purim broadcast as planned. In case the subtext was not strong enough here, Michaeli articulated for the audience last week why she was telling this story: “Because we don’t care about Arab deaths in Israel. They don’t matter to us. Whether it is a horrible car crash in an Arab town in the Galilee, or a massacre in Hebron, Arab deaths don’t really matter to Jewish Israel.”
On the act of reading Shavit
This past weekend, I read Ari Shavit’s ”authoritative and deeply personal narrative history of the State of Israel,” My Promied Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Gritting my teeth through the book’s “centrist” introduction (”The ones on the left address occupation and overlook intimidation, while the ones on the right address intimidation and dismiss occupation. But the truth is that without incorporating both elements into one worldview, one cannot grasp Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” ie., the truth is that with thinking like the “centrist” Ari Shavit, one cannot grasp Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), I tried my best to suspend skepticism and immerse in the book’s arguments and anecdotes for the remaining 400-some pages of interviews, family history, personal reflections and political prognoses. I won’t claim to have succeeded: I read with a bias, just as Shavit writes with a bias. But unlike Shavit, I make no pretense at holding some omnipotent center-ground of truth. I am a Leftist Jewish American-Israeli 24 year-old college-educated Arabic-speaking refusenik male. That is who I am when I read, and who I am when I write. Obviously I am more than the sum of these identities and experiences, but placing these identities in the explicit front and center allows me -and my readers- a heightened awareness of what blindnesses I might have. And it is the lack of self-awareness which leads Shavit, despite his gifted storytelling, compelling writing, apparent intellect and intriguing analyses, to write an “authoritative” book on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with one staggering blindness. Namely, Shavit’s writing falls into the mode that Michaeli so poignantly described during last week’s panel: Israeli Jewish indifference to Arab death, and thereby also to Arab life. Let’s call it Arab-blindness.
But Shavit castigates Arab-blindness!
In the first chapter of his book, Shavit tells of his great-grandfather, Hebert Bentwich, a British Zionist on his first trip to Palestine in 1897. Shavit writes:
“He does not see the Land as it is. Riding in the elegant carriage from Jaffa to Mikveh Yisrael, he did not see the Palestinian village of Abu Kabir… And in Ramleh, he does not really see that Ramleh is a Palestinian town… How is it possible that my great-grandfather does not see? There are more than half a million Arabs, Bedouins and Druze in Palestine in 1897. There are twenty cities and towns, and hundreds of villages. So how can pedantic Bentwich not… see that there is another people now occupying the land of his ancestors?” (pp. 12-13).
The answers that Shavit suggests, asserting that he is “not critical or judgmental,” are (1) that Bentwich cannot see nonwhites as equals, (2) “A stronger argument: In April 1987, there is no Palestinian people. There is no real sense of Palestinian self-determination… no cogent national identity… [or] mature political culture” and (3) “My great-grandfather does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see,” (pp. 12-13).
These descriptions are largely fair, when it comes to analyzing Bentwich. The first and the third point – colonial haughtiness and European Jewish desperation – correspond to my own academic analyses of early Zionism. The second point is an odd one: whether or not there was a “Palestinian people” in 1897 (an historical debate which I do not know enough about to confidently enter, but I do know that some scholars, including Rashid Khalidi -who young Jews want to hear from, but who scares the establishment- see history differently), there were certainly Palestinian people in 1897. Human beings and communities exist just as existentially whether they are affiliated with “a politically mature people” or not. But even this odd point can be forgiven, as it seems that Shavit, the great-grandson, will surely rectify his great-grandfather’s blindness, acknowledging, as the book winds through more modern history, the complete existence of both a Palestinian People and Palestinian people.
Two Palestinian People
Indeed, throughout the first 100 pages of his book, spanning from the year 1897 until 1948, Shavit mentions the names of many Arab villages. Throughout the same pages, Shavit’s history is rich with personal stories (Bentwich, Tebenkin, Smilansky, Katznelson, Shmaryahu Gutman and more), bestowing an element of humanity to the narrative. But throughout the same pages, Shavit only names and gives narrative to two Arab Palestinians. Let us investigate these two stories, and what they can tell us about Shavit’s [non] vision of The Arabs.
Arab #1: Abed
“One Arab is different from the others: Abed. Abed is the guardian of the orange grove [in Rehovot]. He is totally loyal and enjoys the [Jewish] owner’s total trust… When the orange grower is away, Abed is in charge. He is the one who starts the formidable pump in the frosty mornings, the one who walks the grounds when they are still covered with dew… In a knitted white cap, billowing Oriental pantaloons, and proud black mustache he rules over his fellow workers with stern dignity,” (pp. 57).
That is Abed. His mustache proud, his pantaloons billowing, loyal Abed helps the Jews farm the land. Continue reading