Image of the Enemy

Despite persistent tensions between the Israelis and Arabs, Hillel Schenker examines the possibility

Perhaps there were people around the world at the beginning of the 20th century who believed that the land of Israel/Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land,” a phrase frequently attributed to the early English Zionist author Israel Zangwill.

However, anyone living on the ground knew otherwise. Early Tel Aviv painters such as Reuven Rubin and Nachum Guttman romanticised and idealized the Arab, and Rubin even darkened his image in self-portraits out of identification with the natives.

At the time of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, 55 percent of the population slated for the future Jewish state was Jewish while 45 percent were Arab. As a result of the war and the nakba, the proportion changed to about 80 percent Jewish and 20 percent Muslim and Christian Arab, a proportion which has remained till this day.

Before the war, only a small minority of the local Arabs, most noticeably the members of the Communist Party, supported a bi-national solution, and then followed the Soviet Union’s lead in being the only Arab party to support a two state solution as early as 1947-48.

When the armies of five neighboring Arab countries attacked the fledgling state, it was clear both to the government and the people of Israel that “the enemy” was “the Arabs”.

When the war ended, Israelis turned inwards, focusing on building the new state and absorbing the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and the mass wave of immigration of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.

To a great degree, "the other", the enemy, was off the radar.

Following the second Arab-Israeli war in 1956, a group of Israeli Jews and Arabs, led by Simha Flapan, today considered the father of the Israeli new or revisionist historians, founded a monthly magazine called New Outlook, whose goal was to promote dialogue, understanding and peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. They were inspired by Hebrew University professor Martin Buber’s belief in dialogue as the key to interpersonal and international relations.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion actually used the Knesset as a platform to attack the initiative for “sewing seeds of illusion,” since it was “impossible to have a dialogue with the Arabs.” This was the period when Israeli academics who participated in international conferences discovered that their Arab counterparts refused to be seen appearing alongside them in public.

Flapan came to Buber and asked – “how can we promote a dialogue in such circumstances?” Buber’s response was “for a dialogue to take place you don’t have to have the actual dialogue with the other, you need the existence of the other. The rest will follow.”

After the 1967 war, the rest followed in ways which neither Buber nor Flapan could have anticipated. The occupation which has lasted now for 41 years brought Israelis and West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem Palestinians (before they had no name) into close, if involuntary proximity. The surprise of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 brought both fear and a new respect for Egyptian and Syrian capabilities.

Despite IDF Chief-of-Staff Mordechai Gur’s paranoia in 1977 that President Anwar El-Sadat would step out of the plane in Ben-Gurion Airport and his forces would take out machine guns to mow down the entire Israeli leadership waiting to greet them, the Egyptian president brought about a sea change in the average Israeli’s attitude towards the enemy. As Sadat said, the question is 90 percent psychological, of course provided that it is asked in the context of a peace agreement.

After the Oslo Accords and the Declaration of Principles were signed in 1993, even PLO leader Yasser Arafat was humanized in the eyes of the Israelis when he was featured as a sympathetic puppet character in the Israeli version of the Spitting Image show.

The failure of Camp David 2 in the summer of 2000, the outbreak of the second intifada and the rise of an Islamic fundamentalism which refuses to accept an Israeli state in the heart of the Muslim world have caused a serious regression in the Israeli attitude towards the other. Of course, the general anxiety felt about a possible Iranian bomb and the threat to “wipe the Zionist regime off the map”, fears which are fanned by right-wing politicians, hasn’t helped any.

Yet, as a recent study noted, Israeli Jews have unconsciously incorporated over 500 Arabic words into their vocabulary. The so-called Israeli cuisine is frequently a Middle Eastern cuisine. Israeli TV recently featured a prime-time satirical sit-com written by Palestinian Israeli author Sayed Kashua with Arab and Jewish actors and over half the dialogue in Arabic. The sports pages are filled with everyday items which feature Palestinian Israeli football players who star on almost all of the Israeli clubs, and Muslim Turkey is the most popular tourist destination for the average Israeli.

So, all we need to cultivate a healthy relationship between Israeli Jews and their Arab and Muslim neighbours is to end the occupation in the context of Israeli-Palestinian and comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace. It’s that simple. And that difficult.

Hillel Schenker, Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, lives in Tel Aviv.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel