Category: Reviews and Responses

Between Pacifism & Privilege, Hebron & Jaffa, Personhood & Peoplehood: Five Lessons from “1929” for 2014

I just finished reading Dr. Hillel Cohen’s 1929: Year Zero of the Jewish-Arab Conflict (תרפ”ט: שעת האפס בסכסוך היהודי ערבי) and, like many other readers who have written reviews of the book and with whom I have spoken, I was alternately moved, shocked, enlightened and challenged by many parts of Hillel Cohen’s reexamination of the Events of 1929 –events whose central occurrence (the massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron on August 24, 1929) is well-known and frequently cited in Jewish and Israeli frameworks, but whose context and layers are generally regarded as unimportant, by both the Left and the Right (as Cohen states in the introduction, his is the first complete Hebrew book dedicated to understanding the Events of 1929 since 1930). Hillel Cohen makes the case -convincingly, to my esteem- from the book’s title and throughout its almost-400 gripping pages, rife with primary documents, archival reports and his own sober-but-never-removed analyses, that an examination of these events and their context can elucidate and explain much of the Jewish-Arab conflict as it exists today.

As should be the aim of a serious history book, Cohen’s 1929 succeeds in shattering any comfortable national narrative to which one might cling. In the final chapter of the book, Cohen castigates two well-know historians’ attempts at categorizing the Events of 1929. First is Ilan Pappe, whose fervor to discredit the Zionist movement allows him to make the morally-warped claims (my words) that the Jewish killings of Arabs were as cruel as the Arab killings of Jews in 1929. “Is that right?” Cohen asks, “If the measure for cruelty is the killing of innocent, unarmed people, then the numbers that Pappe presents [7 and 90 respectively] do not support his claim but rather refute it” [not to mention the fact that the numbers are inaccurate]. On the other hand, Cohen addresses Benny Morris, whose analysis minimizes and even ignores the instances of Jewish violence against innocents during 1929, including a number of lynches in Jerusalem and the murder of five members of the Al-Awan family in Jaffa. And so it is throughout the book: Cohen lets no simplified narrative, moral or political, stand. Even as the reader feels disgust with the Arab community’s glorification of the murderers, Cohen reminds her that the Jewish collective did the same with Shlomo Hinkis, the policemen convicted of murdering the unarmed Al-Awan family of five in Jaffa. On the other hand, when the reader finds himself empathizing with the ways in which Arab Palestinians viewed the Zionist movement as inextricably linked with colonial projects and as a threat to Palestinian communal life in the land of Palestine, and the ways in which the Palestinians of Hebron viewed the Jewish Community in Hebron as inextricably linked to the Zionist movement, Cohen interjects: “Does this justify acts of massacre? No. It only explains why one should not see the events in Hebron as an onslaught of illogical savages upon a serene community that threatened no one.”

In short, the book is a must-read. Unfortunately, as these things go, it will likely be a long time until an English translation of the book is published. I would highly recommend that Hebrew-readers (including second-language Hebrew readers like myself – the book is written in language and style that are eminently accessible) go and get a copy of this book right away, and that English readers plan to do so when the translation is released. Meanwhile, I wanted to share a number of reflections that I had while reading the book (reflections that are influenced by -but not necessarily the same as- those provided by Cohen throughout the book). This is not to be seen as a book-review, per se, but rather as a elaboration of where this brilliant (Ok, that’s my review) book met me in my process of growth, activism, understanding and questioning.

1. Pacifism, like Activism, is a Circumstantial Privilege. In the first chapter of the book, one of the many primary documents included is a seemingly marginal letter by Zvi Nadav (Nadav was a leader of the Haganah in Haifa in 1929; Haifa was barely mentioned in the entire book), but one which I found to be powerful and personally problematizing. In this letter, Nadav writes of his experiences during a pogrom in Russia, about the humiliating laughter of the drunken pogromchiks, and about his desire for revenge, but of a specific type [My translation]:

“I dreamed of a revenge of remorse, their consciences awakening. ‘They’ feel what they have done. Remorse consumes them… They come in haste, asking forgiveness for the awful sin of humiliating, hurting a human soul. My heart fills with compassion and love. I am filled with compassion and love. I want to love everyone. I love them. I comfort them.”

My admiration for and resonance with the views expressed by Zvi Nadav was compounded when I read that he was not only able to open his heart towards his European tormentors, but also towards the Arabs: Quoting a Bedouin saying, “What is heaver than heavy?” (وشو ثقيل من الثقيل), Nadav emphasizes that there is nothing “heavier on a human heart than the spilling of blood.” He declares: “I in no way want blood.” (pp. 83-84). As Cohen points out, Nadav’s letter illustrates the differences between views held by Nadav and those held by many others in the Yishuv (“[Nadav] was far from relating to Arabs as only rioters…”). This letter also struck a very personal chord: I can imagine (of course I can’t know, but I can imagine) that if I were transported back to 1929, I probably would have: (1) like Nadav, moved to Mandatory Palestine rather than stay in Russia, (2) like Nadav, learned Arabic and found points of resonance in Arab culture, (3) like Nadav, had no desire for blood or to kill, and (4) like Nadav, joined some part of the Jewish armed movement, at least during the attacks of 1929, during which the main reason that more cities did not turn out like Hebron was the presence and action of armed Jewish groups and individuals. I say all of that along with the fact that today, in 2014, I still self-define as a type of pacifist. I think that Zvi’s letter, and the entire description of the events of 1929, reminded and sharpened for me the fact that my pacifism is circumstantial, which is to say: In the current political reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am unwilling to join any organized violent body (be it Jewish, Palestinian or otherwise). This is not to say that there are not circumstances in which violence becomes necessary: There are. Just like activism, which is often a privilege enabled by resources, circumstance, education, finances, and more, pacifism is a privilege related to circumstance. And, like activism, pacifism is a circumstantial privilege that should be utilized. I hold that choosing circumstantial pacifism when the circumstances allow is both morally and politically critical. Perhaps 1929 would have looked differently if Zvi Nadav and others like him had publicized their views on spilling blood and enacted campaigns to influence and change their comrades who saw Arabs as invisible, at best, and as primitive beasts, at worst, in 1909 or even 1919. Or perhaps not (there were those who did try to do so, most notably the members of Brit Shalom and the Communist Party). But perhaps 2015 will be less violent if more people in 2014 declare their Circumstantial-Absolute opposition to violence. I do not aspire to be a No-Matter-What pacifist. I don’t think I aspire to be a No-Matter-What anything, except maybe a Person: “In a place where there are no people, try to be a person.” ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש.

2. In a place where there are no people, try to be a person. The Palestinian man in Hebron who sat on his horse and faced off violent attackers in order to protect the Jews in the house behind him. The dozens of other Palestinian men and women who took action to save Jewish lives and without whom, most of the Jews of Hebron at that time may have been killed (as was, about one third of the community’s members were murdered). The Jewish woman in Mea Shearim who hid a Palestinian man in her house as he fled from a Jewish mob (yes, there were Jewish mobs during the Events of 1929, and no, these mobs were not nearly as prevalent or violent as the Arab mobs: most of the Jews killed during the Events were innocent and unarmed, most of the Arabs killed were taking part in attacks, but there were instances of Jews who murdered Palestinian innocents, most notably the murder of five members of the Al-Awan family in Jaffa by Shlomo Hinkis). The quarrymen from Sur Baher who risked their own lives to save four Jewish colleagues from other quarrymen who wanted them dead. The Jews and Palestinians who expressed regret and spoke for peace and reconciliation after the horrors of the late-summer week in 1929. The takeaway here is both simple, and deeply unsimple: when everyone around you has allowed themselves to join with the current, as many people do (there were hundreds and hundreds of people who took direct part in murder during that week), or at least to float with it (there were tens of thousands of people who didn’t do anything during that week), it is upon each and every one of us to swim. I don’t know if I could swim in such a case, but I do know that reading books like this, allowing my thoughts to immerse in the waters of history, and my soul to meditate on questions of right and good and evil and justice, is one of the best swimming-lessons I have found. So, that is another reason to read this book: to re-encounter the stories of violence and murder and, through them, to be doubly stunned and, God willing, molded by the stories of good.