Given the disturbing events that have recently brought Israel and the Palestinian Territories to international headlines once more, it is perhaps hard to believe that — at least at street level — many Jewish-Arab relations in the region were once different.
Whenever I share my findings from Israeli archives and memoires on the many harmonious and intertwined lives of Jews and Arabs from the late nineteenth century to the eve of 1948 war with Palestinian colleagues, the reaction is invariably one of surprise. ‘I heard similar stories from my grandmother,’ remarked one, ‘I always thought they were no more than the fantasies of an old woman.’
Before the gradual onset of segregation and separation brought about by the national conflict, before 1948 instigated unequal power relations and increasing violence, there was a hidden world of Jewish-Arab interactions — often intense and meaningful — as set out in dozens of memoirs, diaries, biographies and testimonies.
Writing in the 1970s Ya'akov Yehoshua, the father of the famous Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, described how, throughout his childhood in the Old City of Jerusalem in the early twentieth century, "the residential courtyards of the Jews and Muslims were common. We were like one family.” “When other children in the neighborhood hurt us, our Muslim friends who lived in our courtyard came to defend us" wrote Aryeh Sasson, a Jew living in the area’s Muslim quarter at a similar time.
In the late nineteenth century the Jewish banker Haim Aharon Valero leased land near a Muslim school in Jerusalem and donated the revenue he made to the school. Tziona Rabau, a Jewish child in Jaffa at the start of the twentieth century, recalled a tale of similar generosity: “My father did not number among the city’s well-off” she recounted. She was surprised one day to see movers bringing a piano into their home. “It turned out that Mr Houri, the rich Arab who imported lumber with [my father], had ordered himself a piano from Germany. Father was at the port when it arrived on a ship that brought lumber for him and the other merchants. Mr Houri noticed the look of longing that Father cast on the piano and understood what he felt, and with the generosity characteristic of a man of the East he suggested that Father take it, and pay for it in appropriate instalments.”
Of course, there were times of tension and killings prior to the 1948 war too, but the conflict did not belong to everyday life. Even during the war the hope of restoring common life prevailed. When, in 1948, the fighting compelled many Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Talbiyyeh neighbourhood to leave their homes and Jews filled the properties left vacant by their departure, Reuven Mass, the Jewish head of the neighbourhood, carefully recorded every such incident. Mass presented each new Jewish occupant with a "housing receipt certificate", upon which he recorded precise details relating to the property. He ensured that the new residents looked after the furniture left behind by the Palestinians and kept watch over the closed rooms in which their belongings were collected. The certificate also obligated the new residents to vacate the property within one month if the legal owners so demanded. It should also be added that at this time Reuven Mass was a bereaved father: his son had been killed by Arabs three months earlier.
There is no way to roll back history and escape present horrors. However, a different future can be constructed based on past experience. If Israel was to accept the Arab League peace initiative that has been on offer since 2002, Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia argued in an interview with Reuters:
"one can imagine the integration of Israel into the Arab geographical entity. One can imagine not just economic, political and diplomatic relations between Arabs and Israelis but also issues of education, scientific research, combatting mutual threats to the inhabitants of this vast geographic area."
Al-Faisal does not suggest dissolving Israel as a homeland for Jews but rather a way that Israel could be accepted as an integral and legitimate member of the neighbourhood.Past Jewish-Arabic coexistence in Palestine teaches us that life in common prevails where “The Other” has a human face. In the past Jews and Arabs not only shared the same space or cohabited; The Other was seen as an equal human being, native, with close patterns of life. This perspective is missing today not only in the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the burden of which is borne by innocent civilians. It was also missing in the minds and hearts of those responsible for the murders of yeshiva students Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel, and the revenge killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem. With respect to the matter discussed here — the harmonious and often meaningful Jewish-Arab relations of the past — the case of the latter is particularly poignant: the men who have admitted to the 16-year-old’s murder are oriental-orthodox Jews; men whose predecessors' lives would very likely have been intertwined with those of their Arab neighbours in Iraq and North Africa.
Despite events of late the road is still open to base the future on this past experience. Conflict did not always rule people's minds and hearts and it did not shape Jewish–Arab relations from the start.
Menachem Klein's latest book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron is to be published in August 2014, Hurst.