The Long Road to the Promised Land:
Peace Among Cousins?
As Israel and the Palestinians sit down yet again to discuss plans for a possible renewal of peace talks after years of failed negotiations, one needs to recall memories of friendship once enjoyed by these Semitic cousins, Arabs and Jews.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced recently that any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will have to be approved by his country’s voters. Government approval won’t be enough, he said. This procedure could complicate matters, possibly hindering a positive outcome. Years of wars and on-and-off negotiations for peace tend to overshadow centuries of the past.
It was the Jews to whom Mohammad turned first upon founding the Islamic religion. He considered them a holy people and adopted some of the tenets of their faith. During Spain’s golden era of cultural supremacy, in the days of the Arab empire, Jews were treated with respect, and many became advisers to the Arab rulers. In Egypt, the famous philosopher Maimonides was personal physician to the Sultan Saladin.
Even when the Jews began to move to Palestine from Europe in growing numbers at the turn of the 19th century, they were welcomed as the sons of Abraham, the Patriarch who also fathered Ishmael, the Biblical ancestor of the Arabs. Over time, Palestinian Arabs sold their privately held parcels of land to the Jews, and at good prices, too. At a meeting with Dr. Chaim Weitzmann, later the first president of Israel, shortly after World War I, King Faisal of Iraq called him “brother” and expressed support of a Jewish return to Palestine.
There are similarities between Arabic and Hebrew. Both are Semitic languages, written from right to left. The Hebrew greeting is Shalom. In Arabic it is Salaam. Both mean peace, a condition that has eluded both peoples for so long. Many other words are similar or identical.
The deep enmity that exists between Israel and the Arabs has its roots elsewhere. It is the result of a series of economic and political developments in which Great Britain, seeking to extend and later preserve her empire, played a major role.
The stage was set during World War I. Great Britain, in an effort to defeat Turkey, which had been aligned with Germany, promised to support the national aspirations of the Arabs, in return for an Arabic revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
In correspondence from the British commissioner in Egypt to Husein, the Arab sheriff of Mecca, the vision of a great Arabic kingdom over the Fertile Crescent was held up as a prize. In return, the Arabs’ military action helped the British, at least in some measure, bring a successful end to Turkish rule in the Middle East.
At the same time, Great Britain, as the result of efforts by the Zionist leadership, and partly as a reward to Dr. Weitzmann for his scientific contributions to the war effort, issued the famous Balfour Declaration. As expressed by Lord Balfour, the foreign secretary, it announced Britain’s support of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The British reasoned further that a Jewish entity would safeguard for British interests in the Suez Canal.
The Arabs considered the Balfour Declaration a clear double-cross, maintaining that Britain was giving away what was not hers to give. A subsequent clarification that Palestine had not been included in the Arab kingdom the British had promised to support was rejected by many Arabs.
As a result, relations between Arabs and Jews in Palestine began to deteriorate. There were concentrated attacks on Jewish settlements. Additionally there was the displeasure of Arab businessmen at the high standard of living introduced into the area by the Jews. Arab laborers went to work for Jews at higher wages than paid them by their brethren.
By the late 1930s, a chill had set in between Arabs and Jews. There had been a time when Arabs on their camels traversed the sands of northern Tel Aviv. Arab women sold wares in the city streets and collected leftover bread at Passover time, when Jews ate only Matzoth. On the Sabbath, Arabs provided transportation with horse and buggy with a fringe on top. There were, instead, three years of “meoraot,” of “disturbances,” during which Jewish settlements became fortresses, and the groundwork was laid for the Hagana, the future Israeli military. The meoraot lasted until the outbreak of World War II.
The British government, seeking to maintain its hold over Palestine because of its proximity to the Suez Canal, the life-line of the empire, did nothing to quell the disturbances. It operated on the time-honored “divide and conquer” theory: so long as Arab and Jew could not get along, the mandate over Palestine would remain in British hands.
The mandate, a trusteeship, was granted to major powers by the League of Nations, a forerunner of the United Nations. Its purpose was to groom natives for independence. It was to remain in effect as long as independence was not practicable. Eventually British efforts to hold on to Palestine failed. The British withdrew in late 1947, a few months before Israel became independent.
By now, the military defeats suffered by the Arabs at the hands of the Israelis, along with the series of failed negotiations, have intensified the bitterness between the two. Hopefully the ancient brotherhood of Arabs and Jews is not doomed forever.
Gunter David and his parents fled Germany, their native country, as soon as Adolph Hitler rose to power. They settled in Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine, where Gunter grew up. He subsequently moved to the U.S., where he worked on major newspapers for 25 years. The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize. He has returned to Israel numerous times, as a newsman and to visit family and friends, and covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His second career was as a family therapist and addiction counselor. Dalia, his wife of 60 years, is also from Israel.