[The Hebrew original of this essay may be found here.]
Three books I read during the past year marked what I see as an important breakthrough that indicates a shift which is taking place beneath the surface, as always indicated first by literature, art and research that direct discussion to an unexpected place. The books are Hillel Cohen’s 5689 : The Zero Year in the Arab–Jewish Conflict (Jerusalem: Keter, 2013); Amos Oz’s The Gospel According to Judas (Jerusalem: Keter, 2014); and Gish Amit’s Ex Libris: A History of Theft, Conservation and Appropriation in the National Library in Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuhad Publishing House, 2014).
The common denominator of these three disturbing books, which are so different in their subject matters, their genres, and their styles, yet so similar in that they’re written with much wisdom, with bold daring, with compassion and breadth of vision, are based on comprehensive, multi-lingual research and excel in complexity of argument and clarity of expression, is that they tell unfamiliar, alternative stories which create a crack in what seems to be a known reality. These stories are based on attentive listening to silenced voices raised from the archives that preserve forgotten memories, and on reading inner pages of newspapers from the period that reveal forgotten positions, as well as on study of protected documents and unknown testimonies, all of which tell familiar stories from a different, unfamiliar angle. All three engage in exposing unexpected perspectives on the complex story that underlies our existence here.
The three books, which deal with the tragedies connected with riots and wars, with the terrible price of bloodshed, and with the suffering that has stemmed from various injustices that occurred in the 20th century and with their complex contexts, pave an indirect road to understanding, to dialogue, to reconciliation and apology/forgiveness, by virtue of the supremely important acknowledgment that in Palestine/Israeland until 1948 and in the State of Israel since 1948 there is more than one historiography with which people know who is right and who is guilty in everything concerned with relations between Jews and Arabs before and after the establishment of the state, and relations between the various Jewish ethnicities that arrived here from all over the world as to a land of sanctuary, or as to the land and the home of the Jewish people, and not infrequently found it – as their testimonies horrendously reveal – to be, for them, a land of desolation.
All three books clearly show that that there are many more perspectives than one certain and decisive narrative of the complex reality in a period of catastrophe, war and destruction, in a place of suffering, bereavement, injustice and loss. In such a complex period and a place so full of such challenges and difficulties, it is of great importance to listen attentively to alternative stories of individuals, peoples and groups, which tell of diverse experiences and memories, and recount contradictory, subversive and diverse national stories about the same stretch of land in which different cultures and different languages exist and in which different nations live, just as it is supremely important to become acquainted with the stories of repressed or forgotten ethnic or other groups that feel they have suffered injustice, that feel excluded, silenced, humiliated, robbed or dispossessed. It is most advisable to become acquainted with the arguments of the various sides, which are based on diverse memories and initial claims – and to examine these, even if one is not obliged to agree with everything, to justify uncritically, or to identify automatically with the alternative stories. This is necessary because it is our duty to remember and to remind others that in an open society no person, body or institution has a monopoly on the truth, and diverse truths can co-exist peacefully beside one another. It is very advisable, too, to remember that any attempt to make the other side – be that a nation, or people, or ethnicity, exile or dispersion, culture or language – forget its life experience and its testimony, to erase its story, to delete its memories and to deny its experiences, or to make it give up its past and its pain, is doomed to failure, not only because this position is immoral, but also because it isn’t practical or effective and isn’t possible as long as even only one witness or one testimony remains. On the matters that these three books deal with, there exist since 1882 thousands of documents and thousands of written and oral testimonies in archives and libraries throughout the world, in a multiplicity of languages.
Hillel Cohen, 5689 : The Zero Year in the Arab–Jewish Conflict (Jerusalem: Keter, 2013)
Hillel Cohen’s 5689  deals with the ‘riots’ that occurred in 1929, when the Arab offensive against Jewish communities in Palestine began. The author sees this as the zero year in the Arab-Jewish conflict, when Jewish communities – old and new, Zionist and ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, religious and secular, socialistic and traditional (which were known as ‘the old Yishuv’ and ‘the pioneers’) – were attacked without distinction of political tendency or length of residence in the country, because in the eyes of the Muslims in the late ’20s – who most probably identified the potential for Jewish unity in the framework of Zionism even before it first became a reality during the ’30s – what was common to all these Jewish groupings, which were very different to one another – that all of them believed in the existence of the Jewish people and in its right to immigrate to the land of its fathers and to establish a Jewish state there, whether by human agency or divine agency – was far greater than what was different.
The uniqueness of 5689 lies in the fact that its author – who deserves all praise for his meticulous reading in the State of Israel Archive, the Central Zionist Archive, the Meiri House Archive in Safed, the British National Archive, the Archive of the Supreme Muslim Council, documents published in the Havliyat Alquds periodical, historical and literary research studies, and many other newspapers in Arabic, English and Hebrew – has juxtaposed two opposed national narratives as well as alternative stories that arose in each of these communities, in order to propose a comprehensive and less one-sided view than the one that is common in Israel. He has shown that from the point of view of the Muslim attackers in 1929–30, the Arabs were targeting not Jewish neighbors, but enemies and invaders who were trying to take control of their land. To the attackers – according to testimonies from the period – the attacked, because of the protection they had received from the British since the Balfour Declaration, were allies of a foreign power and agents of a colonialist regime that had to be resisted, and were therefore a legitimate target for attack. From the point of view of the Jews, who saw themselves as returning to the land of their fathers of their own will, and certainly not as enemies or invaders doing the bidding of others, and as victims being slaughtered although they’d committed no injustice, the Arab offensive accelerated Jewish unity in the framework of Zionism, because after the bloody offensive all the diverse currents in the Jewish Yishuv understood that as Jews they had no political home other than the Zionist home. They could participate in it actively or merely shelter in it at times of storm, but they could not propose a real political alternative in the form of joining with the Arabs in the country, because the Arabs, who saw all the Jews as enemies trying to take control of their land, were not interested in this.
Many in the Jewish Yishuv with all its branches saw the massacres that occurred in places where no secular Hebrew/Jewish defense force sponsored by the organized Jewish workers movement was active, and the successes of the Jewish defenders in warding away attacks in places where they were active, as decisive proof that only the Jewish fighters of the ‘Haganah’ stood between the continued existence of the Jewish Yishuv and its annihilation. The Zionist movement, which always saw itself as a national liberation movement and as a project to rescue a persecuted people that was seeking sanctuary in the land of its fathers to escape the threat of anti-Semitism, has always rejected the colonialist analysis framed by the Arab side.
This book, which conducts a broad and deep analysis of all that has not been told about what happened at this turning point in the relations between Jews and Arabs, proposes not only a comprehensive and less one-sided view, but also a new point of view, one that show how a very bold moral position has been revealed surprisingly at times on both sides, and attests to the ability at every given moment to make a different choice and decision in a universal human context that transcends national affinity, and to act quite differently to what is usual in cases of bloody clashes between two nations living on the same piece of land: the acts of individuals and of groups on both sides who adopted an alternative approach to the power-oriented national one and attempted to shift the peoples from the path of bloody conflict, or rescued Jews and Arabs who were being attacked from their attackers. These acts teach us that beneath the national enmity, the nationalistic power-orientation, the familiar religious hostility, there always also exist deep currents of universal feelings, of human partnership, of hope for peaceful coexistence and of recognition of the value of human life. Hillel Cohen, who has written the first book devoted entirely to an analysis of the events of 1929–30 from a many-sided point of view, concludes his book with the sentence: “In this sense one can say that the killings of 1929–30, and other killings of Jews by Arabs and of Arabs by Jews that have occurred and may yet occur, are not decreed by fate. Perhaps this is the lesson of 1929.”
Amos Oz, The Gospel According to Judas (Jerusalem: Keter, 2014)
Amos Oz’s latest book, The Gospel According to Judas, deals with human aloneness beyond the everyday discourse, with the trenchant muteness that lies behind polite speech, and with the incurable abysses of pain and despair borne by bereaved parents and spouses of people killed in riots and wars, people who mourn all their lives for their fallen children or loved ones and for whose suffering, pain, anger and feelings of guilt there is no consolation. This is even stronger in the cases of those who opposed the war and its aims, those whose children, relatives and/or loved ones paid the terrible price with their lives, in opposition to the opinions and beliefs of their relatives who protested against it with all their might, and tried in every way possible to halt it and them. The book, which deals with these tormented people and their bitter fate, also deals with an alternative story about what could have occurred in the decades prior to the War of Independence and during it, had people listened to one of the leaders of the Yishuv who opposed the establishment of the state at the cost of a war that endangered the existence of the entire Zionist project, and had they followed him and his colleagues from the circles such as Brit Shalom [the “Peace Covenant”] that supported peaceful coexistence with no sovereign borders.
The story revolves around two protagonists, one alive and one dead. The former, Shmuel Asch, is a student at the Hebrew University. He is a proponent of peace who is aware of the limitations of power and opposes violence, sides with a policy of non-identification with the colonialist West and opposes the ties made by Ben-Gurion with the Western powers, which he sees as ties of vassalage and slavery. His subject of research is treachery and loyalty, with a focus on Judas Iscariot in the ‘New Testament’. He says: “The truth is that all the power in the world cannot turn a hater into a lover… and all the power in the world cannot turn someone who thirsts for revenge into a friend… Power can only prevent. It cannot settle or resolve.” He understands the Arab resistance to the sudden invasion of hundreds and thousands of foreigners into their land during the ’40s with “the strange claim that their holy books, which they brought with them from distant lands, promise the entire land to them and only to them.”
The dead protagonist is actually two: Shealtiel Abravanel, a renowned lawyer, Orientalist, and a senior member of the institutions administering the Yishuv, who died as a tormented and despised traitor because he opposed with all his might the war entailed in establishing the state; and his son-in-law Micha Wald, a brilliant researcher of mathematics at the Hebrew University, a cripple who volunteered for combat and was slaughtered and castrated in the battles at Shaar Hagai on April 2, 1948. The living protagonist, Shmuel, researcher of treachery and loyalty and opponent of wars, is very interested in the fate of the dead protagonist Shealtiel Abravanel the “traitor”, in whose former home he lives as a tenant, together with Abravanel’s daughter, Atalia, the widowed bride of the war victim Micha Wald, and Micha’s bereaved father, Gershom Wald, an old, solitary, crippled, scholarly man, a retired teacher of History at the Gymnasia Herzlia high school in Jerusalem, whom Shmuel takes care of and keeps company several hours a day for his rent and a modest allowance.
The former owner of the house, the learned Orientalist Shealtiel Abravanel, who viewed the entire war as “Ben-Gurion’s madness and the madness of an entire people. Actually the madness of two peoples”, and who, during the ’30s and ’40s believed with his entire being in Arab-Jewish co-existence, tried in vain to convince Ben-Gurion in ’48 that it was still possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs on expelling the British and constituting a joint community of Arabs and Jews. He believed it was possible to propose an original solution in peaceful ways, “If we only agree to abandon the idea of the Jewish state”. He too believed that the acts of killing, of Jews by Arabs and of Arabs by Jews, that had occurred so far and could still occur, were not the decree of fate, and “in his opinion the youth on both sides should throw all their weapons to the ground and refuse to fight.” And “For this reason he was expelled from the Zionist Actions Committee and from the Directorate of the Jewish Agency” of which he had been a member, and was branded as a traitor by the Yishuv’s leadership, because he opposed the establishment of the state and the war it entailed, and viewed Ben-Gurion as “a false Messiah who will bring a disaster upon all of us, Jews, Arabs, and in fact the entire world. A disaster of continuous and unending bloodshed.” The story depicts Abravanel – who knew Arabic since his childhood and lived for many years among Arab and Jewish friends, and saw himself as the last student of Ahad Ha’am – as a dreamer who dreamed of a different life for the children of Ishmael and of Israel, and acted in every way possible to promote ideas that deviated from the way accepted by the Yishuv leadership, because he believed that “it will be impossible to realize Zionism through confrontation with the Arabs.” According to his widowed daughter and his bereaved in-law, “He died alone, hated and slandered and dead”, and was “a rejected and hated man who lived out his last years in total solitude” because “no-one wanted to be in contact with a traitor”.
The book tells the story of Atalia, Shealtiel’s widowed daughter, who every day and night relives the horror of how her beloved was slaughtered in the battle of Bab el Wad. She too had opposed and still opposes the war and its terrible price, and claims that “the entire existence of the Jews in the Land of Israel is based on an injustice.” It also tells the story of Micha, Shealtiel’s son in law, Atalia’s husband, who was tortured before he was killed in a war that he had opposed with all his might, and Micha’s bereaved father, Gershom, who understood that “it will be impossible to realize Zionism without confrontation with the Arabs,” and therefore supported the war and supported Ben-Gurion – until the night of April 2, 1948, the day his son was killed, when he said about himself “I’ve already become a dead man”, and from then on tormented himself each day anew with the wounding question “Do I still believe all this was worthwhile?”
The book goes deeply into the themes of bereavement, mourning, death, guilt, punishment, fissures and doubts, and explores missed opportunities that might have constituted an alternative reality. It deals with dead people who determine the fate of living people as bereaved parents, as grandparents without grandchildren and as tormented, childless widows of men who fell in battle, and asks profound questions about the meaning of sanctified basic values of the first order, while rethinking the concepts of loyalty and treachery, love and duty, and reflecting on the self-sacrifice of the dead and the self-punishment of the living for their loss of those they loved. The author does this while discussing Judas Iscariot, the Christian world’s ultimate ‘traitor’, about whom Shmuel Asch is writing a seminar paper titled “Jesus in the Eyes of the Jews”, provoking his readers to re-examine their moral positions and to ask: What is the supreme value? What is loyalty, and why? And in the name of what? And at what price? What is ostracism and what is one ostracized for? What is treason? Betrayal of what? And why? Amos Oz says, in the character of Gershom Wald: “In every language that I know, and also in languages I don’t know, the name Judas has become a synonym for ‘betrayer’. And perhaps also a synonym for Jew. In the eyes of millions of simple Christians every single Jew is infected with the virus of treachery.” In the character of Shmuel, he adds: “Throughout history, from time to time courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were therefore called traitors… Herzl was called a traitor… Abraham Lincoln the emancipator of the slaves was considered a traitor… Even Ben-Gurion, who twelve years ago agreed to the partition of the country into two states, a Jewish state and an Arab state, was called a traitor by many people here.”
The juxtaposition of the warp threads – of the relations of Christianity to Judaism and of Jews to Christians since the time of Jesus, the ultimate victim of betrayal, and Judas Iscariot, the absolute betrayer, after whom in the Christian world all the Jews were called “perfidis Judaeis”, “perfidious Jews” (and Shmuel Asch sees him as the truly loyal disciple) – with the weft threads – of the relations of Jews and Muslims who generally see one another as enemies, invaders, treacherous and murderous neighbors, and only in rare instances see one another as good neighbors, comrades, and partners in coexistence – provokes thought from unexpected angles.
The trenchant sentence that initiated the writing of the book, “But he was a traitor”, which was uttered by the spokesman of the leadership about Shealtiel Abravanel when he explained the erasure of the memory of the far-sighted dreamer from the archive – the dreamer who believed in the sanctity of the life of both sides and viewed the casualties of the war as “people who died completely in vain”, […] and envisaged an alternative reality of peace and partnership based on a historic compromise between the two peoples living in the land […] – is one of the deepest threads running through this book, which courageously poses the question of the price of war that is paid by those who are killed and wounded and by their bereaved and mourning relatives and the people who loved them; the question of the chances of peace in a reality where the common and universal overcomes the differentiating and separating national; as well as the question of loyalty and betrayal to and of what and whom, in everything related to the daring entailed in a different perspective that deviates from the commonly accepted one, and an understanding of the point of view of the other, who is perceived from different points of views of the people of the period who are loyal to diverse values, national or universal, and who betray other values, human or nationalistic , as a possible ally or as an enemy that has to be exterminated. Shmuel, the researcher of betrayal, says: “Someone who’s willing to change, someone who has the courage to change, will always be considered a traitor by those who are incapable of any change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand change and loathe any change.”
Gish Amit, Ex Libris: A History of Theft, Conservation and Appropriation in the National Library in Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuhad Publishing House, 2014)
Gish Amit’s Ex Libris deals with three events that occurred inside the National Library in Jerusalem between 1946 and 1955, about which it may be said “The more you know, the more you grieve”: the “Treasures of the Diaspora” project, in which hundreds of thousands of books belonging to Jews plundered by the Nazis were brought to Jerusalem after the Second World War; the collecting, in the course of the 1948 war, of some 30,000 books that had been privately owned by Palestinians, and of thousands of abandoned books that had belonged to Moslem and Christian educational institutions and churches, and making them part of the National Library’s collections; and the collecting of thousands of books and manuscripts of Jews from Yemen who immigrated to Israel in 1949–1950, which were transferred without their owners’ knowledge and certainly against their will to the cellars of the National Library.
The author argues that these three historical projects are closely inter-related, in that they show the ways in which Zionism appropriated the treasures of cultures and heritages that it negated – the heritage of the European Jewish diaspora, the native Palestinian heritage, and the heritage of Jews from Arab and Islamic countries. All three cases, he says, display a movement that separates people from their cultures in a framework of shaping a new national identity and a sovereign national culture.
Two opposing points of view about the books that were brought to the National Library in 1948 from private and public Palestinian libraries illustrate this. During the War of Independence the National Library saw itself as having “developed extensive action of rescuing books from ruin in the abandoned Arab neighborhoods. As a consequence of this, tens of thousands of books were collected, and they are being preserved safely until their fate becomes clear” (Shlomo Shumani, “The National Library”, The Hebrew Encyclopedia, 1957). For the Palestinians, on the other hand, ever since 1948 “this was an event of cultural dispossession and a disaster that the war brought down upon Palestinian culture”. The question of the victor’s right over the cultural property of the enemy (and equally over that of the refugee, the occupied and the exiled) is an important part of the international law that was consolidated following the world wars, and “absolutely prohibits the confiscation or looting of private property and demands that this property be returned to its owner at the war’s end. The confiscation and appropriation of the Palestinians’ books as part of the National Library’s collections thus constitutes a violation of international law. … The questions about identity that these books and their ownership represent are an inseparable part of a national struggle over culture and heritage,” writes Amit. The debate about the status of the books’ owners and their heirs who live with us in this country or outside it, and who have failed in their efforts to get their libraries back, is described at length in this book and illustrates the saying “The more you know, the more you grieve”.
That saying applies just as strongly to the collecting of manuscripts of Jews from Yemen, which stemmed “from the Zionist perception of the Yemenites as ancient Jews, bearers and preservers of an ancient culture, but also as inferior in cultural, religious and national terms”; hence it was best to take their cultural property from them in order to preserve it for the nation. The book, which expatiates on these cases, the circumstances in which they occurred, and their meaning both then and now, presents an alternative view on these issues of theft, preservation and appropriation of cultural treasures. The author argues that “the National Library is not a site for impartially and innocently collected knowledge; it is a site for the creation of power and the institutionalizing of identity. It is the place where knowledge is produced, organized and divided into vertical and horizontal ethnic, class and national categories,” because the library, like every other national library, maintains a dialectical relationship between preservation and plunder and between rescuing and stealing – and preserves the traces of the injustice and the memory of the disaster.
These traces that are preserved in the library, says Gish Amit, also preserve a possibility of reparation with regard to the stolen book collections of Palestinians, as well as of those stolen from the immigrants from Yemen. This last chapter, which is amazing in the cruelty and arbitrariness reflected in it of the attitudes to the immigrants from Yemen who live among us, describes the thefts by the absorbing institutions (the immigration department of the Jewish Agency, and other departments) of cultural property of the arrivals from Yemen, who to this day repeat “They stole children too. Why shouldn’t they also steal sacred books?”, as Yosef Dahuah Halevi, editor of the Afikim periodical for the study of Yemenite Jewry, once wrote. In the years that have passed since the arrival of the immigrants from Yemen very little has been done to undo the injustice, also “because the archives that might have cast some light on this case – among them the Jewish Agency archive in Sarafend and the archives of the Medical Service for Immigrants – were thrown away as garbage or destroyed, some of them in the ’90s, ‘under the nose’ of the State Investigative Commission into the case of the disappearance of Yemenite children.”
Amit opens the discussion with a quotation from Mary Beard: “Libraries are not simply the storehouses of books. They are the means of organising knowledge and … of controlling that knowledge and restricting access to it. They are symbols of intellectual and political power, and the far from innocent focus of conflict and opposition,” and concludes it with a quotation from Mary Douglas: “Objects are always coded signs of social meanings”. Amit adds: “The National Library is a place that turns objects into an inseparable part of a social world that weighs them and accords them their value according to its own values and needs”, and adduces the Archbishop of Capetown Desmond Tutu’s statement that apology/forgiveness is a very powerful third way between forgetting and revenge, one that could extricate communities from historical cycles of violence and counter-violence.
I’ve cited only a little of the detailed, complex and illuminating discussion in this book, which draws on archives, documents, books, stories, interviews and memoirs in several languages. Clearly one could argue with the author and present the entirely different viewpoints of the library’s management and staff, who believed they were engaged in work of rescue and preservation in relation to all three cases that the author discusses, but it’s impossible not to be astonished at the new angle of vision that is revealed to those of us who use and love the library, things we didn’t know about regarding how the library’s open and hidden collections were created, about the circumstances in which they were collected, and about their origins and their disputed political, national, cultural and legal status.
Some Thoughts in Conclusion
Getting to know the alternative stories– as painful, horrifying and illuminating as they may be – in the three books reviewed above shows us that there are many ethnic stories and several national stories, not only one: not only the hegemonic national-Zionist story about what happened in the first half of the 20th century and not only the national-Arab story; not only the story of the Ashkenazi hegemony that wrote the history books in the first decades after the establishment of the state, but also alternative stories of groups which feel that injustice has been done to them in various contexts, in a period in which they were excluded, discriminated against, silenced in the public discourse or dispossessed of their cultural property. The three books, which courageously confront some dark and decisive moments in times of crisis and tragedy, show , from different angles, that everywhere, beyond the darkness of enmity, beyond the incitement, the nationalism, and the religious or ideological tension, and beyond the dispossession, the stealing and the injustice, there were and there are various possibilities of apology/forgiveness and reconciliation, and there were and there are unexpected displays of mercy and grace and of universal humaneness; of recognition of the value of human life and of a complex approach to the other’s culture, identity, story and point of view.
I will conclude this review of three books that I’m recommending for Book Week with the words of a loyal Zionist, who was in the Scouts, a supporter of Betar, a member of Herut, a senior Intelligence officer, son of an Orientalist, a lawyer who studied at the Hebrew University – President Rubi Rivlin, who recently said:
“The mission of building trust between the Jewish and Arab communities is not solely the task of the left or any particular political camp. It is the mission of all to whom this land is dear. No single political camp can be allowed to take ownership of this task or to dictate its language, just as no other camp can shake off its responsibility to it. The fact that the subject has become associated with a particular camp, both on the Jewish and Arab sides, is nothing short of tragic. For the building of trust between Jews and Arabs in the State of Israel and in the Land of Israel [i.e., Palestine (Tr.)] is the key to our very existence here, to our fate and to our future. Anyone who is truly interested in promoting a change cannot dig themselves into accusations, guilt feelings or a sense of sanctified righteousness. In the situation of the relations between Jews and Arabs in the State of Israel and between the Jordan and the sea there is not just one guilty side. There are two peoples here who have focused too much on the past and too little on the future; too much on their sense of righteousness and too little on the other side’s story; too much on vain hopes that the other side will disappear and too little on taking it in that the two sides are here to stay; too much on pain, bereavement and remembering and too little on hope and on the joy of mutual discovery. Self-punishment and international court processes will not be able to burst through the gates of the hearts of the majority on both sides. And without a majority on both sides, without a mobilization of new, diverse forces from the central avenues of the two societies, we will not be able to reach the goal. The cultivation of Arab-Jewish relations has to rise onto the central avenue of political, public and media consciousness, and anything less than this is no more than our negligence and our abandoning of our future and our children’s future.”