Tribal Tribulations

Salman Masalha

Tribal Tribulations

On May 2nd, 1860, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a Jewish boy was born to Jacob and Jannet in the city of Pest, which later joined Buda to form Budapest. They called him Theodor. Young Theodor wandered in many places and settled in Vienna where he studied law, a profession in which he never worked.

This young Jewish intellectual quickly became aware of the “Jewish question”, and started working within the Jewish community, making great efforts to find a suitable answer to the question. He drew up a program that could provide an answer to the Jewish problem, and put his ideas in writing. The term “Jewish question”, used by the founder of the Zionist movement, required an answer that had to be Jewish as well. His awareness of the Jewish fate led him in 1896 to write “The Jewish State” (Juden Staat), in which he drew the lines for his solution to the Jewish problem, a dream that came true five decades later.

Theodor Herzl did not trouble his mind with the “Jewish question” as an intellectual game only. The question came up because of the hostile attitude toward the Jews in all the places they had settled in Europe. Anti-Semitism, as he stated, surely will be found wherever the Jews go and settle no matter what they do: “No one can deny the gravity of the situation of the Jews. Wherever they live in perceptible numbers, they are more or less persecuted... Shades of anti-Jewish feeling are innumerable... The nations in whose midst Jews live are all either covertly or openly anti-Semitic.” (The Jewish State, Chapter II).

Thus, as Herzl saw it, the solution for the Jewish question should be part of the interests of all governments in the countries that have Jewish subjects and face tension on an anti-Semitic background. Therefore, he added, there is a need to find a place where the Jews can live together far from those hostile feelings and animosities. He stressed that such a solution should be brought about in collaboration with the super-powers of those times.

On one hand, it is amazing to see how the Jewish boy from Pest thought through all the details needed for building a state for the Jews. To accomplish this, he proposed forming two organizations: the Jewish Society and the Jewish Company. The former would be responsible for ideology and political arrangements with governments, and the latter would deal with the whole process that is needed to make the dream come true on the ground. He thought about the way settlements should be run, he thought about shopping malls, and about paving roads and about the hours that employees are supposed to spend in work, and about ways of bringing the Jews to the Holy Land. He did not forget to remind the Sultan in Istanbul that the Jews would even think of paying the debts and loans of Turkey, if His Highness, Abdul Hamid II, would collaborate with the idea.

On the other hand, there was just one “small” thing that Herzl did not think about when he was writing his program for the Jewish state. He didn’t think of the people living in Palestine.

At that time, towards the end of the 19th century, my late grandmother was born in the Arab town of al-Maghar, a small village in those days, which lies 10 kilometers northwest of the Sea of Galilee. The people of this village, in the Land of Galilee at the end of the 19th century, were not aware at all of the “Jewish question” that troubled the mind of the Jewish advocate. In fact, why should they have been aware of such a question at all? They lived in a small community under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and their efforts were directed mostly towards making their living from their lands.

Some questions come to mind when thinking of what happened in the last century. What makes a young Jew at the end of the 19th century dream of the idea that may be summed up in the famous phrase: “A people without land to a land without people”? What made him dream of such an idea, while at the same moment my Arab family was living and cultivating the land of the Galilee that is said to be, according to him, without people? The absence of my existence, since the very beginning of the Zionist movement, is a major factor in the on-going conflict to this very day. Herzl died in Europe and did not live in Palestine.

Time passed and the Ottoman Empire passed away and into the Land of Galilee a new ruler walked –the British. During the course of the World War I, British policy became committed to the idea of establishing a Jewish home in Palestine. After some consultations with Zionist leaders, a decision was taken and on November 2nd, 1917, Lord Balfour sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, in which the British government recognized the Zionist aims, and expressing: “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” and views “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

My late father was born in the first decade of the 20th century. It was about the same year when David Ben-Gurion, who later became the first prime minister of Israel, went to Sejara, in the Galilee, and spent some time working on a farm. Ben-Gurion never met my father, and unlike Ben-Gurion who came from Poland, my father grew up in his land during the Ottoman Empire, then saw the British Mandate and died few years ago in the State of Israel. My father never left the village, and never traveled far away. He spent his whole life as a farmer, and had a very intimate relation with soil, trees and animals as well as people. Although he was illiterate, he knew the all names of the different kinds of clouds, the stars, the winds, plants, flowers, animals, soils, water springs and the like.

Unlike Herzl, who dreamed of a “land without people”, Ben-Gurion did in fact see reality as it is on the ground. About two decades after publishing Herzl’s program, and a year after the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion wrote: “The Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) is not empty of population... In the western part of Jordan alone there are three quarters of a million inhabitants. It is forbidden by any means and under any circumstances to violate the rights of these inhabitants”. But, in the same article Ben-Gurion mentioned a very important idea that may reveal the fundamental basis for the tension in this part of the world. There is a difference between the interests of the two communities, Ben-Gurion stated. “The “non-Jewish” (bilti-Yihudim) interests are preservative. The Jewish interests are revolutionary. The former are devoted to maintaining the existing order; the latter to creating the new, to changing values, to repair and building.” (David Ben-Gurion, Talks with Arab Leaders, Am Oved, Tel-Aviv 1975).

These remarks of Ben-Gurion’s are of great importance, because they uncover the deep roots of the conflict in Palestine. They reveal the original sin that created the tension between Zionism and the Palestinian Arab’s aspirations in Palestine. If we deal with these remarks from an objective point of view, we can state the confrontation thus: revolution versus tradition. This may have many progressive aspects when it occurs in a homogeneous society, within a single society that is struggling for the best of its future. But, in our case. this revolution that may have positive aspects from a Jewish point of view, shows its dirty aspects when it goes along with confrontations with the “natives” who live in their own homeland. This homeland happened to have been the place in which the Zionist revolution intended to take place.

Furthermore, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 in the place that is deeply rooted in the Jewish religion did not aim only at finding a place where the Jews could live among themselves. It also, and perhaps primarily, aimed at building a new society, or at least it tried to melt together Jews from many different cultures into one entity through transferring them from vastly different countries into the Holy Land, ignoring the existence of the people living in their homeland.

From the Zionist point of view, this is a process of transforming a merchant and wandering society, especially from the European countries, into an agricultural and industrial society that is based on land that is not empty. In principle and objectively speaking, such a process is, by its nature, a very revolutionary one and to some extent is aggressive. It resembles other cases that have occurred in the course of history of mankind. However, the interests of the “non-Jews”, i.e., the Arab people of Palestine, are preservative in nature. In a time prior to national local patriotism, the Palestinians were not crystallized as a distinct nation, and their main aim was to keep their land and culture in a homeland that was part of a larger entity. In our context the Zionist ideology, by its very nature, creates tension with the Palestinians who lived peacefully in their homeland and devoted their efforts to preserving their lands and hopes.

To this day, things have not changed much. There is a separation between different types of citizens in Israel. For example, formally I am a citizen of the state of Israel who was born in Israel and who holds an Israeli passport. But, like all Arabs in Israel, I am still considered “non-Jewish” in the Israeli media and official Israeli policy. This term implies that I can be at the same level as a Chinese, a Russian, an African, a European, or a foreign worker in Israel -- but not a Palestinian Arab who lives in his own homeland. This terminology did not come about by accident, as this term was the term used by Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister. From a Zionist point of view, using a national category to describe me and the “natives” in Palestine leads to a confrontation with the basic principle of the Zionist ideology. This attitude reveals the deep-rooted tribal-national system which stands behind the term “Jewish state” to describe Israel. This may also explain why it took so long to reach the point of mutual recognition with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and why we are still living the conflict.

Furthermore, there is another point that is worth dealing with, as it plays a great role in the socio-political arena in Israel. Unlike other cases, there is no separation between religion and nation in Judaism. At least, that is how the Jewish people see things, and I am not going to argue with them about this issue. But, at the same time, it is a part of the conflict we have been facing for many decades.

On my birthday, November 4, 1995, in Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv, three bullets were fired by a young Israeli at Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, with the aim of changing the course of history as it had been evolving in the country and in the Middle East after the signing of the Oslo accords. In order to understand the process that led to Rabin’s assassination, there is a need to look at some of the terminology used by the Israeli public, and by both right-wing and mainstream parties since the 1967 War, when Israel occupied Sinai, the Golan Heights and above all, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Examining the terminology used in the context of the Holy Land can provide us with some explanation of what has happened during the last decades, and what may happen in the future if the use of such terminology continues.

Note all the feminine and even sensual imagery used for the homeland and the country. The image of the homeland as mother is quite a common thing. The feminine image gathers sensual momentum when we encounter an image like “Israel’s narrow waist” and so on. Rabin, in the eyes of a Jewish fanatic, abandoned parts of the matriarch Sarah or Rachel or Rachab, or any other familiar woman one may choose, to Arafat and the Arabs. To do this he did not even hesitate to get help from Arab Knesset members. Didn’t all the fanatics of the Jewish tribe accuse him of not having a Jewish majority? Is it not the case that arguments of this sort are still often raised today, several years after the assassination? In a tribal society, and religious-fanatic Jewish society is no different in this respect from the other fanatical monotheistic religions in the world, the individual has no value as such, even if the individual happens to be a prime minister. The value of an individual in such a society is measured only by the extent of his integration and his behavior according to the rules of tribal morality. Any deviation from these strict rules leads to an extreme reaction, even to the point of premeditated murder. A murder of this sort is always planned in advance in great detail, and there is always an attempt to blur the evidence.

This is even more true when what are involved are sexual animal instincts that suddenly rise to the surface. Therefore, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is not at all different from the murder of a girl in Arab society for having desecrated the family’s honor. True, this was a political assassination, but it is called political only because the murder victim filled a political role. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin goes far deeper than an extreme reaction to a political disagreement. Thus: The truth of the matter is that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered for reasons of sexual jealousy. In other words, for reasons of “desecrating the honor” of the family or the tribe. Only in this context is it possible to understand the assassination. No other explanation gets to the heart of the matter. Rabin, as far as the assassination is concerned, is comparable to the Arab girl who tries to grasp a bit of modern thinking and modern behavior, while turning her back on benighted ideas from the collective tribal culture of the past.

Rabin preferred Israeliness, that is modernity, over incurable and insular Judaism. And thus, in the eyes of the tribal fanatics, he crossed the red lines of tribal morality. In other words, instead of being “one of us” he began to keep company with “them”. Instead of protecting mother and Sarah and Rachel and Rachab, he let Arafat feel them up and touch the “narrow waist” of mother homeland. To all this can be added the cult of the patriarch, or more precisely the cult of the tombs of the patriarchs and the matriarch that are so common in this country among broad strata of the Jewish tribe. Thus Rabin crossed the red lines of Jewish tribal morality. And in a political act for which he took the responsibility, backed by the Israeli majority in the Knesset, there was a sort of separation of religion and state. To the fanatics this act looked like the red cape dangled before the fierce bull of a Jewish state. It was not by chance that the tribal elders gathered and resurrected from the pages of ancient Jewish law concepts that sanction vengeance against “pursuers” or individuals who hand a fellow Jew over to hostile authorities and so on. And when things reached this point, only a minor question remained: Who would carry out the judgment of the tribal elders?

Therefore, it was not the lone individual who was the assassin, but rather the entire conceptual world behind the murder. As long as such concepts are not rooted out and as long as religion is not separated from the state, there will be murders in this context. And there will be great tension between the Jewish tribe and the Arab tribe.

The prime minister of Israel was murdered on the tense border between the Jewish and the Israeli. He was murdered by the emissaries of the Jewish tribe because he had the courage to try to expand the grazing lands of the Israeli tribe, which may include the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, at the expense of the pure Jewish tribe. Thus the Golem took revenge on its creator. It is also important to note that it is not by chance that in the national anthem there is no hint of “Israeli-ness.” On the contrary, the emphasis in “Hatikva”, the Israeli anthem, is on the deepest religious connection to time (history) and place (the Land of Zion): “The Jewish soul yearning ... the eye gazing towards Zion ... the Land of Zion, Jerusalem." The combination of the two, the soul and the place, cannot but be mytho-religious. The Israeli national anthem is a Jewish religious prayer and not a statement about being Israeli. Therefore Israel is a religious Jewish legal entity and not a secular state. And when the leaders of the state were not wise enough, or were unable to, or perhaps did not want to break this link between religion and state, they sinned the primal sin of Zionism.

Two decades later came the June, 1967 war and brought the Jewish tribe into physical contact with the places that are so laden with mythological times and values. The noose grew tighter. To the primal sin was added another sin. In every nuance, Israel has never succeeded in adopting a value discourse that has self-confidence in facing the religious discourse. On the contrary, Israeli secularism has been taken over by feelings of inferiority facing fundamentalist religious discourse. For this reason Israeli secularism has not attributed importance to written words and to words spoken in the public arena. The right, of all hues, religious and non-religious, has known how to exploit to the fullest the words that are laden with sanctity. And this is the great breaking-point.

Thus, again and again mythological figures have cropped up from the past -- Amalek, Pharoah, Haman and even figures from the recent past like Hitler. The right, which is nurtured on religious texts and claims family and tribal values, has eyes in the back of its head like someone in the clutches of constant paranoia. It also sees the future with magic spectacles that are always showing it pictures from the monstrous past. The right wing tries to infect everyone with this paranoia. Such a view does not grow up in a vacuum. Its source is in part in the fact that deep down the right is aware that it has done a terrible injustice to the other, and the other in this case is the Palestinian.

The Israeli right, in its very essence, is imprisoned in this trap. Part of the left, not all of it, is trying to get out of it with as few casualties as possible. Yitzhak Rabin, although it was a bit later, did understand the grave danger that lies in this trap. He was aware that he as Chief of General Staff had got Israel into it. When he saw how things were, he had the courage to begin to seek ways to get out. But, being a general, he wanted the retreat to take place with the minimum of casualties. This is also the reason for his hesitancy and suspicion.

To get out of the trap Rabin was prepared to take great steps forward. He was prepared to tip the balance in favor of Israeli tribalism rather than Jewish tribalism. The right’s reaction was to come to him with the racist demand for “a Jewish majority.” This demand even managed to seep into his own party, the Labor Party. In a desperate attempt he tried to unravel the tangle and began to talk in different language. Terms like racism and apartheid, of which he accused the right, came out of his mouth in despairing tones, and this is how they were described by the government broadcasting channel just a few days before the assassination.

This poison potion of tribalism and religion is the place where the ideology grows that sprouts not weeds but base murderers, even if the victim is a Jewish prime minister. The shock and astonishment expressed by many people at the fact that “a Jew had done this” is indicative of hypocrisy and stupidity. This is the battle between human law and the law of the tribe and God, who knows only vengeance. This is also, in part, the reason for the rejoicing that was heard among small parts of the Jewish public in Israel and elsewhere.

On November 4, 1953, five years after the establishment of the State of Israel in collaboration with the super-powers and the United Nations, I was born in al-Maghar, a village that lies west of the Sea of Galilee. As a little boy in the 1950s I was not aware of what had happened in the region only few years earlier, in 1948. As a little boy in the 1950s I was not aware of what had happened in the land of Galilee. As a little boy, I was not supposed to know or understand wars and struggles between nations and super-powers. I grew up and gradually began to hear stories. I heard for example that I could have been born as a refugee, as during the war of 1948 my family fled out of fear to a nearby village in which with other families stayed for several days. But the closeness to the land and to the olive trees quickly brought them back on foot to al-Maghar. They had in mind one thing only: Either we live in our homeland or if we are fated to die, let us die in our homeland in the Galilee. At that time they did not think of Palestine as a national entity with historical borders. Homeland in their view at that time, and in my opinion, now, is still like that, a narrow idea. Homeland in an Arab peasant culture is the few square kilometers of the village where you were born. Moving a few kilometers to another village, which rarely occurs, sounds to them like immigrating to a new country.

Many times, when going to visit al-Maghar, I have faced the question: When are you coming back? When I ask what is wrong with living in Jerusalem, their answer would be sentimental and could be summed up in one word: Homeland. For them that means a few square kilometers in the area of al-Maghar. Is their answer a part of the conflict in the Middle East? My reply is categorically, YES. This answer is connected to the main problem that lies behind the conflict in the Middle East, and I mean the refugee problem. Some may think in political terms in dealing with the conflict, and tend to think that it can be solved within the frame of establishing a Palestinian state. In fact, those who think so ignore the basic essence of the Palestinian social structure.

In order to make this point clearer, I may refer to a new survey that was conducted by Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) among 1948 and 1967 refugees. The survey shows that the vast majority the refugees, 99.8 percent of the overall refugee population, believes that return must be to their original villages and towns within the borders of Israel. The survey shows that only 1.5 percent of the refugees believe that the PLO has the right to waive the right of return in their name.

Now, the time is August 2001 and both of us, the same Jewish boy from Pest and myself, stay in Jerusalem, the city that at the moment occupies the news headlines in almost all the international media. The Jewish boy rests on a small hill named after him, Mount Herzl. I, myself, don’t have the courage to think even of having a street named after me in my homeland in the state that was born before me and is said to be the Jewish State. The term, from its very beginning, brought tension to the country. The evacuation, by force or under the circumstances of war which may be characterized now in terms of ethnic cleansing, of nearly 70 percent of the Arab population, “non-Jews” as they are characterized in Zionist terminology, who lived in their land, has not brought about a solution to the “Jewish question”, as the early founders of Zionism thought initially.

I would like to end with a new quotation from a column written by an Israeli poet, Chava Pinchas-Cohen, that was published in the Hebrew daily newspaper Ma’ariv, on August 27, 2001: “We came back home and found that there were new tenants”. This image reveals the deep roots of the unfinished conflict. The ideology that lies behind the use of the phrase “coming home” means: It’s our home and we came back to settle in it. The others, as they appear the second part of the quotation are “new tenants”. This means that the people to which I belong is nothing but a new tenant, that is to say not the owner of the house. This is exactly the ideology that has not changed for almost a century. And this is the ideology that will keep on bringing disasters to this troubled place, that has not gone beyond religious and tribal morals.

Jerusalem, August 2001

Firstly published in German (2001)


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Arab spring (16) Arabs in Israel (46) Art (1) Education (9) Elections (24) environment (1) Essays (10) Islam (4) Israel-Palestine (49) Jerusalem (8) Mid-East (79) Poetry (36) Prose (5) Racism (58) Songs (3) Women (5)


Selected Topics

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    Because I was not a Socialist.

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  • Salman Masalha

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    His soul behind a door
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Arab spring (16) Arabs in Israel (46) Art (1) Education (9) Elections (24) environment (1) Essays (10) Islam (4) Israel-Palestine (49) Jerusalem (8) Mid-East (79) Poetry (36) Prose (5) Racism (58) Songs (3) Women (5)