There Is More to the ‘Arab Jews’ Controversy Than Just Identity

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published February 28, 2008, issue of March 07, 2008.
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A recent column in these pages by Philologos rejecting the term “Arab Jew” has sparked a spirited e-dialogue among Forward readers and led the columnist to write two follow-up articles (including one in this week’s Arts & Culture section). Philologos’s point of departure was a Reuters dispatch of January 20 that cited remarks made in Germany by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom.

Turki was quoted as stating that comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace would be rewarded by the Arabs with extensive normalization and close cooperation, at which point the Arabs “will start thinking of Israelis as Arab Jews rather than simply as Israelis.” Philologos and most of his readers found the term “Arab Jews” offensive.

Turki made his comments at a conference in Kronberg, Germany, that I also attended. In fact, he was replying to remarks I made in which I had laid out some of the ways in which the Arab world, within the context of the Arab peace initiative, should interact with Israeli peacemaking efforts. Turki responded with a detailed and, frankly, very encouraging description of the way Arabs would react to a comprehensive peace.

When confronted with Turki’s comment about Arab Jews — which he did not make at the closed conference session itself, but rather tacked on in his remarks for publication — I stated to Reuters that “I was delighted to hear Prince Turki’s description of the comprehensive nature of normalization as he envisages it,” but that I hoped that after peace, “Israel’s Arab neighbors would accept Israelis as Jewish people living a sovereign life in our historic homeland and not as Arab Jews or European Jews.”

The debate among Forward readers about Turki’s “Arab Jews” remark has, quite understandably, focused largely on Diaspora Jewish perceptions of Judaism and Arab culture. But it is important to remember that Turki’s statement for publication was made very much in a Middle Eastern context.

The former longtime ambassador is a sophisticated and intelligent man. I believe he knows perfectly well that almost no Jewish Israelis identify as Arab Jews.

But in describing his vision of normalization for publication, which invariably means translation into Arabic for the Arab media, Turki threw in the “Arab Jews” reference for the benefit of his Arab audience. He threw it in to soften the bitter pill of coexistence with Israel for Arabs, many of whom, Turki told Reuters, “historically saw the Israeli state as a European entity imposed on Arab land after World War II.”

This, then, is the regional-historic context of “Arab Jew.” Most Arabs, and not a few Westerners and others, insist on seeing Jews as members of a religion and not of a people. For this they have both Islamic religious backing and the legacy of their pre-Zionist history, when they forced Jews into dhimmi, or second-class citizenship status, and, rightly or wrongly, considered the Arab-Jewish relationship to be tranquil.

Hence most Arabs view Israel as the artificial creation of Western Jews who had no business founding a state, and certainly not one on what Arabs believe was Arab, and even Islamic, land. Turki was selling normalization with Israel to his constituents by way of soft-pedaling the Israeli nationalist face.

While we Israelis may not like to be portrayed as Arab Jews, Turki nevertheless deserves a lot of credit for pointing the way for Arabs to live at peace with Israel.

There is also a specifically Israeli context to the Arab Jew debate. A very small minority of post-Zionist Jews in Israel does indeed envisage Israel so closely integrating into the region that we become Arab Jews. They can even draw encouragement from the naive remarks of a few peace-minded politicians like Shimon Peres — back during the euphoric Oslo days, not during his current presidency — to the effect that comprehensive peace could mean Israel joining the Arab League.

Then there are some Israeli Jews of eastern origin who harbor strong resentment of Ashkenazic dominance of Israeli life — which is hardly an item any more in view of the degree of integration in Israeli institutions like the military and the Knesset — or simply long for the language and culture of their or their grandparents’ land of birth, and call themselves Arab Jews. No one gets very excited over this; you almost certainly will not encounter them on a flight to Cairo or at the bridge crossing into Jordan.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest importance, there is a very immediate peace process-related context to the Arab Jew issue. When Turki talks about Arabs welcoming Israelis back into the fold as Arab Jews, when Arab citizens of Israel increasingly demand that Israel cease to be a Jewish state, when Palestinians and other Arab neighbors warn us that if the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail they will have to reconsider the entire two-state concept, when even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares that the collapse of his current negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will mean that “Israel as a Jewish state is finished” — they are in effect stating that the only alternative to a two-state solution is a single, bi-national state solution in which, eventually, an Arab majority determines that we are all Arabs, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian.

Yet nothing could be farther from the minds of 95% of Israeli Jews, who insist on continuing to live in a Jewish state. Most want it to be Jewish and democratic and therefore have supported withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. Even those settlers who have no problem subjugating Palestinians in order to hold onto the territories insist that the latter remain second-class citizens and that Israel remain Jewish, not Arab.

Moreover, were the current peace process to fail — a real possibility — Israel would not necessarily be confronted with a universal demand to consider a one-state solution. There could be another bilateral peace process with Palestinians or Syria, or greater Egyptian and Jordanian involvement.

The current ideological and geographic split between the Fatah-run West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza could become institutionalized in, effectively, a three-state solution. Not all warnings of the dire consequences of a failed peace process should be taken at face value.

But suppose, following the failure of the current peace process, the international community does indeed decide to try to impose a bi-national state solution on Israelis and Palestinians — a contingency we should make every effort to avoid. If it comes to pass, it is inconceivable that the Israeli political mainstream would agree to negotiate its own national suicide.

Rather, the Israeli reaction would be extreme and unilateral: probably some additional withdrawals, accepting the risk of ongoing conflict with the West Bank as well as Gaza, coupled with annexation of those territories and settlements deemed vital.

Israel’s relations with its neighbors and the world might suffer a severe blow, but Israelis would hardly agree to trade a Jewish state for the status of Arab Jews.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.


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