Lives in Common

Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron

by Menachem Klein (Hurst and Co London) 336 pp

THE TITLE of this book, Lives in Common, was truer of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs before 1948 – when the state of Israel was established – than today, Indeed the notion has been replaced by ‘lives in parallel’. This separation, emphasising what is different, was initiated by the rise of 20th-century nationalism. Zionism for the Jews and pan-Arab nationalism for the Arabs.

The book is divided into two parts. Before 1948, which the author depicts in quasi-idyllic terms, and after the Six Day War in 1967 in which right-wing Israeli governments and their allies in the settler movement overwhelmed those Jews and Arabs who believed in fair play, based on coexistence, in a drive to construct a greater Israel.

Klein argues that an Arab-Jewish identity developed in mixed-population cities such as Jaffa and Hebron, which exhibited distinct cultures, traditions and a bonhomie towards Arab neighbours. Jerusalem was seen as a multilingual, multicultural location. Gypsies lived in Wadi Goz, Americans read the Bible in the east of the city and businesses in the Jaffa Gate area were owned by German Tem plars, Greeks and Armenians. African girls could be purchased in the shuk until 1889. Jews lived in 70 per cent of homes in the Armenian Quarter and 30 per cent of the Muslim Quarter. Arabic words (kiftah, ‘meatball’) were¬† integrated into the local Yiddish dialect, while the Jerusalem Arabs learned the meaning of meshugineh (madman). Mixed marriages occasionally occurred up to the 19405, mainly of Palestinian male elites with European women. The second wife of Raghib Nashashibi, Arab Mayor of Jerusalem, was Jewish.

This veritable Garden of Eden evaporated with the rise of nationalism. The influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe after the First World War – regarded by conservative Arab society as Bolshevik agitators – as well as the simultaneous rise of a Palestinian national movement, led to killings of Jews in Jaffa. Jerusalem and Hebron in the 19205. The Arab Revolt of 1936-39 finally cleared Jews from Hebron, while Jaffa suffered economically. All this set the stage for the war between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs in 1948 in which the term ‘Arab Jew’ became redundant and was rendered meaningless. National affiliation superseded personal interaction. Thus in June1997 an Israeli-Palestinian group found it impossible to find an art gallery willing to host the exhibition To Live Together in Jerusalem: Two Capitals for Two States.

Klein, an Israeli academic,has attempted to capture the imagery of this lost world before national polarisation took hold. While fascinating to behold, since it appeals to the best in the human condition, Jews in the broader Arab world did not always live in harmony with the majority society. Life was particularly hard for Jews during periods of religious intensity when ‘the other’ was the object of discrimination. Are these examples of inter-communal benevolence in Palestine and therefore isolated episodes, or a general manifestation? Is an imagined perfect past preferable to the harsh reality of the present? Despite such questions this book sows the possibility of a different Middle East in the maelstrom of inter-ethnic conflict.

History Today May 2015


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