The latest explosion of terrorism from Gaza, the reaction from Israel, the violence in and around Jerusalem and the international response to these events continues to reverberate. Things have calmed somewhat in Israel, although violence continues, but a second, related front continues to rage in the public dialogue.
Anti-Israel rallies worldwide have seen explicit antisemitic imagery and threats openly and prominently exhibited. Such expressions are now commonplace at protests, in online spaces and in public squares. Anyone who insists there is some sort of hermetically sealed wall between anti-Zionism and antisemitism needs to explain why bands of thugs in London drove through Jewish neighbourhoods screaming “F**k the Jews, rape their daughters.” Social media has logged millions of overtly Jew-hating statements and images, including thousands of instances of the phrase #Hitlerwasright.
These examples are obviously extreme. Far more common, even from ostensibly mainstream voices, including elected officials in Canada, the United States and Europe, is language employing the apartheid libel or that Israel is a “settler-colonial” regime.
The settler-colonial motif is particularly effective in the Americas because we, unlike Israel, are actual settler-colonial societies. The assertion that Jews are, basically, an invasive species in the Land of Israel meets fertile soil just as global attention again focuses on the situation of Palestinians.
While the antisemitic language and violence is deeply worrisome, it raises a secondary issue about the motivations of anti-Israel voices. Villainizing, isolating and denouncing Israel seems to fulfil some primal urge in a great number of people. What it does not do is hasten Palestinian self-determination.
Any resolution to the conflict and, therefore, Palestinian statelessness, will come from the rejection of this approach. Put plainly: one cannot be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel at the same time. If you seek the destruction of Israel, you reject compromise, coexistence and peace – the only things that will ever bring about an independent Palestine.
The binary that defines the Israeli-Palestinian situation is a false one. Being pro-Israel demands being pro-Palestinian – seeking a compromise in which both peoples live in peaceful coexistence. Being pro-Palestinian requires being pro-Israeli because only when the Palestinians, the region and the world accept Israel’s right to exist will we have a scenario where coexistence and a Palestinian state will emerge.
People overseas, many with no personal stakes in the conflict, prolong the problem. Among self-defined “pro-Palestinians” are many who seem content to fight for Palestine to the last Palestinian. Evidence of this macabre attitude can be seen every time overseas “allies” revel in the supposed moral victory of Palestinian victims exceeding Jewish victims when conflict erupts.
Similarly, too common among our own folks are rantings on social media along the lines that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” Call them what you will (decent people refer to others by the terms they prefer), there are people who call themselves Palestinians and semantic arguments will not change that. We win no awards or disagreements by proving that the people who call themselves Palestinian are something other than what they say – just as those who subscribe to the kooky Khazar conspiracy of Jewish origin to refute Jewish indigeneity to the Holy Land deflect from the issue at hand. In both cases, it does not negate the core issue: both peoples – and many more whose identity gets short shrift in the binary – exist and live there now. That will not change.
Israel is not going anywhere and Israelis are not going, as the late American political reporter Helen Thomas suggested, “back to Poland.” Neither are Palestinians. The first step – it seems ludicrous that it needs to be said – is acknowledging that both peoples (and others!) are there now and deserve to be.
There are countless complexities in the Israeli-Palestinian mess. But there is one certainty that is not the least bit complicated: Palestinian self-determination will come and Israel’s right to exist will be secured because of coexistence and compromise. Neither side’s extremists will ever win.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, above, and Noor A’wad of Roots Palestinian-Israeli Network were the featured speakers at Vancouver School of Theology’s Two Truths in One Heart; Two Peoples in One Land event May 27. (photo from friendsofroots.net)
Two Truths in One Heart; Two Peoples in One Land, a discussion on the Roots Palestinian-Israeli Network, with speakers Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Noor A’wad, took place on May 27 as part of the Religion and Thoughtful Activism conference organized by the Vancouver School of Theology (VST).
Formed in 2014 by peace activist Ali Abu Awwad and Schlesinger, Roots is a group based in the Gush Etzion settlements of the West Bank that believes the path towards peace between Palestinians and Israelis is through dialogue.
“In the West Bank, Jews and Arabs live completely separately with no connections at all,” said Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi, passionate Zionist settler and director of international relations for Roots. Everything, he explained – from legal systems to health systems, transportation to universities – is separate. The separation is so complete that Palestinians are forbidden from entering Israeli areas and vice versa.
“If I were to say that there is no common ground between Jews and Palestinians, I would not be exaggerating, and I would not be speaking metaphorically. There is literally no common ground as far as geography goes. If there had been a place for a crazy Israeli Jew and a Palestinian who wanted to meet for coffee, there would have been no place to do it,” he suggested.
At least, this was the case, he said, until seven years ago, when Roots was formed and when the Dignity Centre, a community centre where the two sides can meet with equality and mutual recognition, was created.
Schlesinger spoke of the great apprehension and trepidation each side has in coming together at such a place. Yet, often, at the end of an event at the centre, people come to Schlesinger, saying how wonderful the simple experience of conversing with a member of the other side is.
“People are amazed to discover that ‘the other’ is a lot like us. It’s hard to fathom after all the stereotypes and all we on both sides have been taught,” he said.
He likened the animosity each side has to a disease he called “the hubris of exclusivity,” which infects people with a “virus” that makes them believe that their people are the only legitimate people in the region.
Charting his own journey, Schlesinger recounted that, during his first encounters with Palestinians, he began learning that there were not one but two stories in the land where he lives. “For 33 years, I lived in my story and the Palestinians didn’t exist. They were part of the grey drab scenery that passes in the background of a movie but not part of the plot,” he recalled.
He spoke of his initial distrust of Palestinians and his profound reluctance to meet them – a distrust and reluctance shared by his Palestinian interlocutors during their first meetings. Implicit, too, in the unwillingness to meet was the fear that each side had of the other, Schlesinger said.
Noor A’wad, a licensed Palestinian tour guide based in Bethlehem, where he takes English speakers on geopolitical tours, spoke of his family’s long history in the land.
“I remember growing up during the Second Intifada – some of my family members were killed, others arrested – realizing that this is not a normal life and asking myself why am I living this abnormal life under occupation? The simple answer to the question is, because I am a Palestinian,” A’wad said.
He considered leaving the area, but that urge was outweighed by a sense of responsibility and a sense that there was no other option but to stay in order to best serve his people. Ultimately, he came to learn about nonviolent solutions to conflict.
A’wad described his change of heart upon getting involved with Roots: “When Rabbi Hanan spoke about his identity as a Jew and a settler, these are very loaded words and terminology that is connected to the conflict. For him, I was able to see how beautiful this terminology is because it is part of his identity.
For me, the same terminology is connected to the suffering my people have.”
For A’wad, as with Schlesinger, the acts of sitting and listening to the other were enormously challenging. Nonetheless, each persevered and, in the process, they discovered a partner in dialogue and perhaps the most effective way of understanding the humanity of the other – finding mutual empathy and thereby creating a means to achieve peace.
“What I discovered in Roots is the foundation for any peace process,” said A’wad.
The event was organized by Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan, VST’s director of inter-religious studies. “Our students – most but not all are Christian – are very interested in news about Israel and Palestine. They see Israel as their beloved Holy Land. So, we wanted to introduce them to one of the many NGOs there doing collaborative peace-building work,” she told the Independent.
“I’ve been a supporter of Roots for some years now. Rabbi Schlesinger is a colleague and friend from Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program. Still, this event would not have happened without the help of Quebec psychotherapist Colleen MacDougall, another Roots supporter,” she added.
Seu Jorge, left, and Noah Schnapp in a still from Abe. (image from Reel 2 Real)
The upcoming Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth is not just for youth, though younger viewers are its target audience. There are entertaining and engaging films for all ages among the 18 features and 45 shorts that will be available for streaming online April 14-23.
The focus of this year’s festival is “films that explore the impact of social media, racism and discrimination, with a focus on Germany.” While many of the offerings will interest Jewish community members, at least four cover topics of specific relevance.
The American feature Abe was part of the recent Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. It is carried by the impressive acting of Noah Schnapp as 12-year-old Abe and that of Seu Jorge as Chico, the Brazilian-American chef that Abe idolizes. The food, glorious food, is an added bonus.
While the writing of Abe’s family dynamics is clunky and without nuance – his father’s side is Muslim, his mother’s Jewish, and never the twain shall meet on religion or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – Abe himself is charming. He puts his heart into trying to bring everyone together, in part, by creating a fancy dinner that comprises several of his grandmothers’ traditional recipes. The grumpy but caring Chico helps, having reluctantly taken Abe in, first as a dishwasher then as one of his prep cooks.
Food doesn’t turn out to be the way to his family members’ hearts but the disastrous fusion meal, which ends in a big fight and Abe running away, does push his family to at least reconsider their priorities.
In another charming film, the young also show the adults the possible way to some form of peace. In the Israeli animated short Cinema Rex, the Jewish boy Mouize and the Arab girl Ranin become friends over popcorn and a shared love of cinema.
Set in Jerusalem in 1938, a new movie theatre opens, “In the heart of the city, on the seam line between the Jewish side and the Arab side, and adjacent to the British police.” It is “co-owned by partners from both sides of [the] divided city” and Mouize’s dad is the projectionist. When Mouize catches a glimpse of someone peeking into the projection room, he follows the trail of popcorn to Ranin, who shares it with him in exchange for a seat beside him in the best seats in the house. The two imagine themselves as the heroes in Robin Hood, as actors in a Laurel and Hardy film, dancers in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, and more.
Ranin’s mother is non-plused to find her daughter hanging out with Mouize, and Mouize’s dad tries to tell him, “Someday, you’ll understand why you and she can’t be friends.” But the kids have none of it.
Beautifully drawn and a story simply told – in Arabic, English and Hebrew with English subtitles – this short is highly recommended viewing.
A more serious and nerve-wracking short is the tension-filled American film Alina. For 25 minutes, breathing will be more difficult, as the fate of a three-month-old baby lies in the hands of Alina (played by Alia Shawkat). The non-Jewish woman is part of a group of women (and men, as her brother helps) who are smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.
Inspired by factual events, but fictional, the film opens as Nazi soldiers kick their way into a building and make their way up each floor, searching every room for children, with orders to seize them. Alina must escape from an upper-level apartment with the baby through the bathroom window, using a makeshift rope of tied sheets. She must then meet her brother, make it through a checkpoint and even face Nazi soldiers in her own home, as a Nazi captain accompanies her there from the checkpoint, so convinced is he that she is hiding something from him.
Alina is a multiple-award-winning film for many reasons. And it precedes the fascinating feature-length documentary The Lesson, which sees its Canadian première at Reel 2 Real.
Through the lens of German filmmaker Elena Horn, who herself grew up in Fröndenberg and went to Fröndenberg Comprehensive School, The Lesson is a personal look at how students in Germany are taught about the Holocaust. Over a five-year period, Horn followed a handful of students through their classes on the topic, their projects and field trips. She juxtaposes this perspective with archival footage from the 1930s, showing children doing paramilitary exercises, learning about what makes a good German and other propaganda. She also includes current-day nationalism and how some of the students deal with the differences between what they’re being taught in school about the Holocaust and what their families have told them about that period in time.
Horn frames the content in the context of overarching questions such as, could the Holocaust have been initiated by other countries just as easily as in Germany, or is there something inherent about Germany that allowed it to start there? She wonders if history is repeating itself, and she continues to struggle with the question, “What would I have done?” She highlights some of the efforts of those who refused to be bystanders to genocide, and she hopes to inspire some viewers to be courageous if, God forbid, they ever face such a choice.
For the full festival schedule and tickets, as well as information on Reel 2 Real’s several youth programs and workshops, visit r2rfestival.org.
The good diplomatic news keeps coming. Morocco and Israel have announced that they will begin normalizing bilateral relations. This comes on the heels of similar announcements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. There are rumours of more announcements to come.
More than 10% of Israel’s population has family roots in Morocco, adding to the emotional impact of the latest announcement.
In a year that has strained credulity in so many ways – few of them cheery – these diplomatic moves have been a bright spot. Even some longtime international observers and commentators are dumbfounded by the speed of the developments. For decades, the conventional wisdom of Middle East watchers has been that Arab recognition of and peace with Israel rests on a resolution of the Palestinian issue. Bypassing that step is a massive about-face for the countries that have made nice with Israel, and it is galling to the Palestinians and their representatives.
In most cases, the thaw in relations is a de jure recognition of de facto relations that have been in progress for years. Under-the-radar visits and economic ties have existed between Israel and some of these states long before they were officially acknowledged and celebrated. Bringing these relations out in the open was eased by a little self-interest, with a degree of cajoling and likely backroom dealing from the U.S. president and his administration.
The incentives for Arab and Muslim states to warm the cold shoulders they have given Israel include realities of geopolitics – countering the regional designs of Iran and Turkey – as well as the basket of inducements presented by the Americans. For example, the latest announcement – between Morocco and Israel – involves American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over disputed territories of Western Sahara and American promises of billions of dollars of investments in the Moroccan economy.
Similarly, the American-brokered relationship between Israel and Sudan hinged on Sudan’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism (contingent on Sudan’s provision of $335 million in compensation for victims of the Sudanese-related terrorist bombings against American interests and citizens).
The UAE and Bahrain agreements also had carrots attached. In exchange for their acquiescence, the UAE may obtain valuable American F-35 fighter jets.
All the states launching fresh relations with Israel open the opportunity for potentially lucrative deals with Israeli businesses and investors. In other words, the diplomatic thaw is not a consequence of a sudden awakening to the benign presence of what has been known by most of these states until recently as the “Zionist entity.” The trading of economic and military incentives – as well as the seemingly nonchalant abrogation of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara – suggest as much self-interest as affection for Israel.
The diplomatic isolation of Israel that began at the moment of its rebirth in 1948 was founded primarily on the rejection of the idea of Jewish self-determination – at least in the Jewish people’s ancient and modern homeland. The opposition to Israel’s existence was not premised on economic or diplomatic reasoning but, to a much greater extent, on anti-Jewish animus.
Israel’s isolation represented an abandonment of self-interest on the part of Arab and Muslim countries. Ghettoizing their own economies from the economic powerhouse of the region has been harmful to all people in the region. None have been harmed more than the Palestinians themselves, who have something to gain materially from good neighbourliness with Israel.
The series of announcements on diplomatic relations are not a result of any altruism. At least in part, they came about through old-fashioned horse-trading, including some morally questionable trade-offs, such as the forgiveness of terrorism and an internationally contentious occupation of a foreign territory, and weapons sales.
After 72 years of nearly universal rejection of Israel by its neighbours, a thaw motivated by self-interest is still a thaw. And it’s something about which to be cautiously optimistic. But it’s only a start, and there is much to be done to build the region into one that’s united in peace. It might be naive, but we still cling to the hope of Isaiah that all those weapons will eventually be exchanged for ploughshares and pruning hooks that, one day, the world over, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The separation wall, Bayt Mirsim. (photo by Kevin Keystone)
In this three-part series, the author recounts some of his experiences on Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, in the West Bank, which he visited in 2019. The articles have been adapted from a few of the letters he wrote home to family. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious. To read Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here.
Today was our last day on the trail. After many late nights of parlour games, beers and anticipation, we were tired. One of our fellow hikers, Felix, had to stop periodically: the soles of his shoes had worn through, he could feel the tiny stones biting underneath. Uncharacteristically, he was in pain, but he muscled through.
We descended into a valley, dotted with pale green brush, reminiscent of our first days on the trail. The valley opened into expansive views of olive groves, steppes cut into the hills, tidy rows of trees buttressed by stone walls. It could have been Tuscany but was the Middle East, with a warm breeze and soft, popcorn-shaped clouds overhead.
Admiring the scenery, I thought of what lay ahead. I would be spending tonight in Jerusalem. It was a place I hadn’t been since my Birthright trip eight years ago. My rabbi had once invited me on a congregational tour of Israel, in recognition of my service to the synagogue, but I turned it down. A friend rightly pointed out that, as an Arab Muslim, he couldn’t visit the Holy Land as readily as I could. In solidarity, he suggested I shouldn’t go. That seemed fair, so I didn’t. But here I was, so close to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall. How could I not go?
* * *
It was a hot day on my Birthright tour. We weaved our way through the Old City, through its various souks and alleyways, to arrive at a platform high above the Wailing Wall plaza. Our guides wanted us to see it there first for a clear, unobstructed view. It wasn’t busy, just another day in Jerusalem at the Wall and the holiest site in Judaism. The wide-open plaza was sleek and clean, the great stone wall standing pink and golden.
We descended towards it, and I could feel the heat. I was dehydrated and a bit dizzy. Our guides released us and we ambled forward, dazed, in the wall’s general direction. A man stopped me and asked if I wanted to put on a prayer shawl. I did. He asked me if I wanted to lay tefillin. I had never done it before. He helped me. “Repeat after me,” he said. “Baruch atah Adonai …” as he wrapped the leather band around my forearm.
Prepared, I approached, pulled in by the wall’s gravity. I slipped off my sandals to stand on the ground with my bare feet. I pressed my hand to the mottled stone and closed my eyes. “Baruch atah Adonai,” I began. Strangely, I felt both heavy and light, a yearning and also a surrender. I said the Avot v’Imahot, the prayer that recognizes our descent from Abraham and Sarah, tracing us back through the generations. I didn’t know, then, how important that moment and that prayer would be.
When I was finished, I slipped on my sandals and stepped away.
* * *
“This might be the most beautiful day on the trail,” said Jane, a soft-spoken homeopath, a Mancunian and longtime friend of fellow hikers Eve and Oliver. Her husband George was in business software. He regularly meditated.
She was right. I was worn out but had to agree. It was beautiful. Picturesque, even. Idyllic. We pulled over, as we had during our first week, to have coffee with olive harvesters and help them rake the trees. A young mother with her toddler, husband and parents: harvesting is so often a family affair. Hospitable as ever, much coffee and tea was poured and drank, olives collected, tobacco rolled, puffed and exchanged. We waved our goodbyes – shukran, aleykum salaam – and continued on.
A stretch of valley gave off onto a final stretch of orchards and, as I clambered over the low stones, I looked up and saw the separation wall. From a distance, the 25-foot concrete wall, scrawled with barbed wire, rose through the canopy of the trees. Hesitatingly, I walked towards it, tracing its contour in my mind. In some parts of the West Bank, the barrier is composed of giant slabs of concrete dotted with military towers; in others, it is coiling pyramids of barbed wire or electrified fence bordered by wide swaths of sand to detect trespassers. Here, it is rebar and cement, two-and-a-half storeys high, and cuts through olive groves and the hills around it. I pressed my hand to it; it was cold and abraiding. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for a future without it.
* * *
Compared to the West Bank, downtown Jerusalem feels like another planet. I spent that night in a small apartment hotel off Jaffa Street, a few blocks from the Old City. It was a one-bedroom suite with a fully equipped kitchen and three-piece bathroom. The water was hot, the shower had walls and a showerhead, and I could drink the water. It was unlike many nights on the Masar.
Jaffa Street reminded me of places like Vienna or Vancouver: the pavement was so clean you could eat off of it. The pedestrian walkways alongside were spacious and wide, paved with smooth and even slate-gray tiles. The streetcars were sleek and punctual. Art galleries and museums, ornamental lights and public transportation, urban and urbane. First world versus developing; moneyed versus struggling. The contrast was deeply uncomfortable.
My friend Marta and I wound our way through the narrow, dreamlike alleyways of Nakhalat Tziyon, the walls lined with thick slabs of golden Jerusalem stone. A playful breeze danced through the trees. We stopped for lunch at a picturesque café, complete with colourful outdoor seating and painfully handsome servers. The food was delicious and expensive; we ordered hummus that came with falafel and sweet lemonade.
“How is this real?” I asked her.
“I know,” she said. “It’s shocking.”
After lunch, I returned to the place I had been many years before. I followed the signs in the Old City, the pull magnetic, feeling a mix of dread and anticipation. I saw it first as before, from above, the top of the staircase leading down to the Kotel.
Few tourists were out today, just the heat and people praying. Orthodox tradition dictates separating the genders; indeed, on the women’s side, a fraction the size of the men’s, Torah scrolls are still officially prohibited. Today, the women’s side was packed, the men’s side dotted with the odd worshipper. At the tefillin tent, an old man shawled me in his tallit. A red-headed, black-hat wearing Charedi named Isaac helped me with the tefillin. He looked about my age, or a few years younger. In another life, I wondered, would I have been him?
“Did you do this yourself?” he asked, pointing to the forearm I had already bound.
“I did,” I said. For a month, in the intervening years, I had done it every morning. “I just can’t remember how to do the hand part.”
“I can help,” he said. Isaac said many things: about God, what God wanted, the prayers I could say at the Wall. “Sometimes, you might feel like the worst Jew ever,” he said. I didn’t. I never felt that way. I wasn’t a “good Jew” or a “bad Jew,” I was just Jewish.
“Say a prayer for all your loved ones, then say a prayer for yourself,” he said. “Then maybe you’ll say a prayer for me, too.”
Blocks of stone peppered with bits of paper: the wall hadn’t changed, but I had. I pressed my hand to it, feeling its soft, pockmarked face, and closed my eyes.
* * *
I’m home now, in Canada, and wonder about my travels. I came back “with eyes wide open,” as my rabbi had prayed: to the painful, joy-filled and resilient lives of the Palestinians I met. I think about the separation wall and the Kotel, how they’re connected and what it meant to pray at them, different but related prayers. If the Wailing Wall is part of us as Jews, then perhaps its future and our spiritual liberation is bound together with the separation wall. Perhaps the Kotel will never truly be honoured until we bring down the separation wall. As I contemplate the stories of our freedom from bondage, I’m reminded of the idea that our liberation, spiritual and otherwise, is bound up with the liberation of others.
Kevin Keystoneis a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. When not hiking long-distance trails, he can be found reading, spending time with friends and family, or with his beloved partner, Aaron. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat. For this series, he thanks the guides and staff of Siraj (the Masar Ibrahim Thru-Hike tour operator), the host families and locals he met along the way and his fellow hikers, as well as friend and editor Matt O’Grady.
Left to right: Bahrain Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, United States President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed sign the Abraham Accords on Sept. 15 at the White House in Washington, D.C. (photo by Avi Ohayon/IGPO via Ashernet)
The news on erev Rosh Hashanah that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed away at age 87 cast a pall over many celebrations. Some in our community shared a teaching that says that a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah is a tzaddik, a righteous person. As tributes poured in for the late jurist, it was clear that many viewed Ginsburg as a tzaddeket, irrespective of the timing of her passing. Grief over her death was joined by the inevitable political implications of a Supreme Court vacancy mere weeks before U.S. general elections.
While Ginsburg’s death, at an advanced age and after years battling successive experiences with cancer, may not have been a complete shock, it was, for many, a tragic conclusion to the Jewish year 5780. The pandemic will be the imprinted memory of this time, but a succession of other events – uncontained climate change-driven wildfires and other natural disasters, political unrest, racial violence and police brutality, plus a litany of other crises and inconveniences – will be included when the history of this year is written.
Bad times can also bring out the best in people, though, and there is an uplifting inventory of good deeds. Locally, the way the Jewish community has rallied around those in need of food, social services and support has been heartening. This local unity and kindness have been mirrored in communities worldwide.
Among the few brighter spots on the international scene has been an opening of relations between Israel and parts of the Arab world. Suddenly, or so it appeared to most casual observers, the United Arab Emirates announced it would initiate diplomatic relations with Israel. The Kingdom of Bahrain followed suit. Other countries are alleged to be considering similar paths. When the Arab League was called upon to condemn this historic shift in relations, the body opted against. With the exception of Palestinians, the commentary from most Arab countries has been positive.
This has perhaps less to do with any newfound admiration for Israel than it does self-interest in the form of economic potential in bilateral relations with the region’s economic superpower. Geopolitical self-interest is also a factor. Nothing makes friends like shared enemies and Iran, with its nuclear initiative and ambitions for regional hegemony, makes whatever complaints the Arab world had against Israel pale in comparison. To say nothing of what’s in it for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political ambitions or the electioneering of the U.S. president just prior to elections in that country.
Self-interest is most likely at play in another sudden development. If there wasn’t enough happening in the world, on Monday, B.C. Premier John Horgan called a snap election, a year ahead of schedule. The wisdom of holding an election during a state of emergency has been challenged by opposition leaders and others, but the governing party did significant polling on the subject and must have concluded that whatever reticence there may be on that front was canceled out by the New Democrats’ strong position in opinion polls. By the time voting ends, on Oct. 24, most British Columbians will hopefully be more focused on the issues than on the timing.
The timing, though, is another wrinkle. The law that set fixed election dates – and which Horgan, therefore, flouted by calling the vote early – also fixes the date for the third Saturday in October. While British Columbians vote in municipal elections on Saturdays, provincial (as well as federal) elections have always been on weekdays. Observant Jews will have to make accommodations and vote early. Autumn being what it is, it is theoretically possible to race to the polls after sundown and before the 8 p.m. cutoff. Less frantically, there are seven days of advance voting, an increase from six days in the 2017 election. All voters can request mail-in ballots – early reports from avid voters suggest the process is simple and takes only a couple of minutes. It is possible to pick up (call first!) and return your vote-by-mail package at an electoral district office. For people with disabilities, there is an opportunity for voting by phone.
The pandemic has created all range of challenges in our lives. Voting in the midst of it comes with its own difficulties, but, however one feels about the decision to call an early vote, the wheels are in motion. Turnout was up in 2017 to 61.2%, an improvement from the mid-50% turnout in the previous two elections. We face important decisions about the path to an economic recovery and the management of the ongoing pandemic. We must each of us make a plan to vote, and encourage friends and family to do the same. Find out more at elections.bc.ca.
Descending into Jericho through “the Grand Canyon of the Middle East.” (photo by Kevin Keystone)
In this three-part series, the author recounts some of his experiences on Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, in the West Bank, which he visited in 2019. The articles have been adapted from a few of the letters he wrote home to family. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious. To read Part 1, click here; for Part 3, click here.
Tuesday was, by far, the hardest day of the trail. We climbed and descended two mountains: 1,500 feet up, 1,400 feet down; 1,000 feet up, 1,200 feet down. It’s 10 feet to a storey, so divide by 10 and think of them as flights of stairs, except that they’re rocky paths strewn with slippery rubble and spiky brambles.
Shrubs aside, Monday and Tuesday were thorny for other reasons. Our guide, Ismail, seemed very friendly. Jolly, with a wide smile and open face, he spoke English well and with a quirky British accent. He was nearly 40, married, had one young child and another on the way. He’s been a hiker and guide for a long time: trained at university, he is an expert in local fauna, flora and history. When a member of our group fell and cut his arm, Ismail was right there with bandages and fracture assessments. There was no question: he was a professional.
Ismail, though, had a satirical sense of humour, which, given the political landscape, was risky. He explained the settlers’ justification for occupying land in the West Bank. “They say that God gave it to them,” he said. The relevant verse from the Torah bubbled up in my memory. “Go forth from the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation,” goes Genesis 17. I knew it because I had chanted it for my bar mitzvah.
“If God gave it to them, what did God give to us? Nothing?” Ismail said. He was smiling, but wasn’t joking. “If they get this, we’ll take Spain. We don’t need to do archeological digs – our mosques are still there to prove it.” I chuckled along with the group, appreciating the irony. But I stood back, polishing my sunglasses.
“They say they are special,” he continued, “that they are ‘the chosen ones,’ but what does that mean? That they are made of gold and jewels, while the rest of us are mud?”
“And I will take you to be my people,” God says to Abram, also Genesis 17. “And I will make my covenant with you and your descendants and through all the generations.” This idea of “chosenness” has been interpreted, reinterpreted and, at times, even rejected in our history: Reconstructionist Jews, for example, changed the relevant lines of the Aleinu prayer. Thinking of ourselves that way certainly hasn’t done us any favours. But, still, Ismail’s comments stung a little.
Writing this, I suppose his humour was a bit like my dad’s: irreverent and occasionally tasteless. I had never been offended by my dad’s jokes; his topics were largely inconsequential to me. Here, with so much at stake, it was hard to not feel Ismail’s satire more deeply. I wanted to tell him I was offended, but part of me resisted.
Sue, on the other hand, had no problem speaking up. That evening, we gathered around to discuss plans for the next day. “Tomorrow,” Ismail said, laying out a map, “will be the hardest day on the trail. There are three options: we can either hike the whole day; stop halfway and take a car; or stop near the end and take a car.” We all agreed we’d hike the whole day. Sue sat back against the bench.
“Are you OK?” he asked her. “You looked scared.”
“I’m not,” Sue replied. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” he insisted. Sue was in her 70s: it seemed like he was singling her out because she was older, and possibly because she was female. “I am sorry if I scared you.”
“I’ve walked a thousand miles before,” she cut in. “I’m not scared.”
Eve laughed and said to Ismail, “Sue’s fine. It’s the two of us,” referring to her husband Oliver, herself, and their combined lack of hiking experience, “that you should be worried about.”
After the route was settled, Sue pulled Ismail aside. She pointed out to him the ageism and sexism implied in his doubting of her abilities. She was brisk; he was deeply apologetic.
“It’s fine,” she said, when he didn’t stop apologizing. “You apologized. It’s over. Howard and I fight, we apologize, it’s done.” After another round of reassurances and with parting words to the group, Ismail left for the night. I congratulated Sue on standing up for herself.
“Well, I’m an old lady,” she laughed. “I don’t have an issue speaking my mind.”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “Howard said you don’t take shit from anybody.” She laughed again. “But, still,” I said, “good for you for saying something.”
“Thank you, Kevin,” she said, looking at me. Even with her fortitude, I wondered if it had cost her to say something. Maybe, in some ways, it always does. “I appreciate it,” she said.
* * *
The next day, I found myself quietly pleased at Ismail’s dressing down from Sue. Somehow it felt vindicating; even if I couldn’t find the words to speak my mind, at least someone else did.
“Before we start,” he said, “I need to show you something.”
He turned his smartphone to us and pressed play. The footage was of a road tunnel with an exit at the far end and a truck askew, blocking the way. There was shouting and then a hand flicking angrily towards a young man, yelling at him to walk. He did, with his back to the camera, one hand raised in surrender, the other halfway, awkwardly carrying a backpack. He couldn’t have been older than me. He kept walking, slowly, towards the truck and the tunnel exit. Just before he reached the truck, a shot fired. He cried out and sank to the ground.
Israeli Channel 13 News leaked the video – of an Israel Border Police officer shooting a Palestinian in the back with a rubber bullet, along with text messages sent by the shooter’s fellow officer, who had bragged about the shooting to his girlfriend. “I’m a pro, don’t you think?” he wrote.
This act of violence earned the shooter a removal from the police force. She was sent back to the Israeli army to finish her compulsory service. A year after the footage was discovered, the police internal investigations unit still hadn’t pressed charges. The apparent impunity is shocking. Compared to this, my grievances seemed trivial.
“Do you ever take Israelis on this hike,” someone asked Ismail.
“No, we don’t. We can’t, it’s too risky,” he said. “If something were to happen, if one of them gets hurt, we would all be in big trouble. Their government would say it is our fault, and we would have many, many problems.
“There are Jewish that come on the Masar,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he avoided looking at me. “We know; we don’t ask. But we will not take Israeli; we can’t.”
As the day wore on, I worked up my nerve to talk to him. I rehearsed my opener and hiked up beside him.
“So, what are your plans for after the hike,” I asked.
We didn’t talk about anything important, but it felt important to talk. I had time after the hike and didn’t have plans. I asked his advice on where I should go. I also asked him what I should say at the border if stopped.
“Just talk about the Abraham Path, how we’re all children of Abraham, peace, these kinds of things,” he said. “They like that.”
“Do you believe it?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. I tried to hide my disappointment. “You know,” he continued. “It isn’t the Jewish, it’s the Zionists. They are crazy, they think they are super-human. Every time the people are coming together, they want to separate, to make them apart. As long as this is the case,” he said, “I don’t think there will be peace.”
* * *
At lunch, I lay down to rest, settling in the shade of an olive tree. In the breeze, the leaves revealed twin shades of green, one on each side: rich, verdant forest green and pale, suede sage. There were no olives on this tree: likely, they had been recently picked. The absence they left made way for a cottony, afternoon light to filter through. As I nodded in and out of sleep, I caught glimpses of the sky. It was blue and clear.
Zionists come in many varieties, but I knew the ones Ismail was referring to. The imprecision of his language didn’t change the point. Yitzhak Rabin wasn’t assassinated by a Palestinian; he was assassinated by a Jew. A fanatical religious Zionist, a fervent supporter of the settlements and a deep-seated opponent of the peace process. Ismail didn’t have a problem with Jews, he had a problem with fanatics. That, I could get behind. I felt the same way.
Kevin Keystone is a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. When not hiking long-distance trails, he can be found reading, spending time with friends and family, or with his beloved partner, Aaron. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat.
Among Middle East observers, there has long been a view that the demand for a Palestinian “right of return” is a bargaining chip that would be negotiated away in a final status agreement, perhaps in exchange for a symbolic but small number of Palestinian refugees admitted to Israel and a substantial amount of money as compensation.
In a new book, two prominent Israeli progressives argue that this assumption is wrong, that the right of return is an unwavering demand from the Palestinian side and, as a result, represents a poison pill that guarantees no resolution to the conflict or to Palestinian statelessness.
“The Palestinian conception of themselves as ‘refugees from Palestine,’ and their demand to exercise a so-called right of return, reflect the Palestinians’ most profound beliefs about their relationship with the land and their willingness or lack thereof to share any part of it with Jews,” write Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf in the book The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace (All Points Books, 2020).
Wilf, a former Labour member of the Knesset, and Schwartz, an academic and journalist for Ha’aretz, have undeniable left-wing credentials. But, while the Israeli left has long been associated with the idea of compromise and idealism, the authors contend that there is little room for any sort of resolution as long as Palestinians cling to the idea that five million or more of them have the right to citizenship in Israel. Part of the failure of successive peace plans, they write, stems from the inability of negotiators to recognize the Palestinians’ tenacity in holding fast on this core issue – and argue that Israelis need to recognize that truth.
“[D]ecades of shuttling, strong-arming the sides, and endless hours of negotiations came to naught because none of the diplomats or negotiators truly understood and dealt with the root causes of the conflict, choosing instead to turn away and focus on that which appeared easier,” they write.
The status of Palestinian refugees is unique in the world. They have their own international agency devoted to the issue: UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, while all other refugees fall under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In this sole instance, the definition of “refugee” has been amended to become an inheritable status, meaning that the several hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs dislocated by wars in 1948-1949 and 1967 have ballooned to more than five million – even though many or most of the original refugees have died and the vast majority of those seeking “return” have in fact never lived or set foot in the state they claim for their own.
While exponentially more people were made refugees in the same era – in Europe, in the Indian subcontinent and at least 800,000 Jews forced from Arab- and Muslim-majority lands across the Middle East and North Africa – Schwartz and Wilf argue that Palestinians view themselves as having experienced a unique injustice.
They quote Aref al-Aref, a Palestinian writer who was mayor of East Jerusalem under Jordanian rule in the 1950s: “We have been afflicted by a catastrophe, we the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular, during this period of time in a way in which we have not been subjected to catastrophe in centuries and in other periods of time.…” Another Palestinian scholar, in 1950, wrote: “It is the most terrible disaster befalling the Arabs and the Muslims in modern history.… It is a deep-rooted disaster, far-reaching and full of dangers. It is an evil growing by the day and by the hour.” Another writer compared it with the Muslims losing Spain in the Middle Ages.
This almost apocalyptic language precludes compromise on what Palestinians have been promised through the generations by their leaders, according to the book. And, while plenty of voices, including academics, activists and politicians, have argued that the right of return would not be such a terrible thing for Israel’s well-being, the authors provide plenty of evidence that the proposed migration of millions of Palestinian Arabs into Israel is perhaps less about justice for refugees than it is about doing to the country through demographics what the Arab world has been unable to do militarily.
“It is well known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the homeland and not as its slaves. With greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the state of Israel,” said a senior Egyptian politician in 1949, at the beginning of the refugees’ long history.
As an article in a Lebanese newspaper put it, the Palestinians’ return would “create a large Arab majority that would serve as the most effective means of reviving the Arab character to Palestine while forming a powerful fifth column for the day of revenge and reckoning.” Arab League Secretary-General Azzam Pasha viewed the refugees’ return as making it possible for “an irregular army that would be in a position to cause a great deal of inconvenience to the Jews by acts of sabotage.”
To ensure that the plan was not foiled, no matter how long it took to reach fruition, a now-seven-decade-old scheme was hatched to prevent Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere from putting down roots, argue the authors.
“The rehabilitation of the refugees in Arab countries would have meant the end of the war, but that was not what the Arabs wanted,” they write. While the Palestinians were made pawns of the Arab League’s campaign of “denormalization” against Israel, the book portrays most refugees as at least semi-willing players. Attempts to find resolutions to their statelessness have been met with outrage. When Canada’s foreign minister suggested some Palestinian refugees might find a permanent home in Canada, he was burned in effigy in Nablus.
UNRWA, which was presumably begun with the best of intentions, has been consumed by politics and corruption and usurped into what the authors contend is effectively a globally funded branch of the Palestinian liberation movement. Agency-funded textbooks used in Palestinian schools have been shown for decades to inculcate Jew-hatred, venerate terrorists and incite violence. Nevertheless, Palestinians receive through UNRWA among the most per capita humanitarian aid in the world and live a life of which most refugees – and the poor in most Arab countries – can only dream.
From the start, UNRWA’s first annual report, in 1951, noted that many or most refugees were enjoying a better way of life than they had before 1948, receiving universal free education and quality healthcare. The UNRWA schools, now with more than three generations of alumni, have created a uniquely well-educated population of refugees, but, along with reading, writing and arithmetic, the curriculum has created “an embittered, angry and frustrated generation, raised on myths about ethnic cleansing by the Jews, the perfidy of Arab leaders, a sense of victimhood and a refusal to take responsibility for the results of the Palestinians actions in the years and months before Israel’s birth and thereafter,” Wilf and Schwartz write.
The book does not paint an optimistic picture. Western diplomats, peacemakers and politicians refuse to recognize the Palestinian demand of return seriously and continue to believe it can be negotiated away.
“If return were truly just a bargaining chip,” write the authors, “it could have and would have been bargained long ago for a Palestinian state. Rather, it is a Palestinian state that is repeatedly bargained away in order to keep fighting for return.”
There are plenty of issues to discuss – if there were negotiations occurring – but, they argue, the entire Palestinian case rests on the thing Israel must reject.
“The one article that Israel could absolutely not agree to, as it entailed its very suicide, was the one without which the conflict would never end,” write Schwartz and Wilf.
Sunrise at the Dead Sea. (photo from Kevin Keystone)
In this three-part series, the author recounts some of his experiences on Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, which he visited in 2019. The articles have been adapted from a few of the letters he wrote home to family. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious. To read Part 2, click here; for Part 3, click here.
I’m writing this from a rooftop deck in the small community of Arraba, about 15 kilometres from the West Bank’s northern border. We walked two days to get here along the Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, a 330-kilometre trail from Rummanah in the north to Bayt Mirsim in the south. We’re here as part of a guided tour with the Siraj Centre; for 15 years, Siraj has organized walking, cycling and hiking experiences in Palestine.
Tonight, all eight of us will be staying at this villa. It’s unusual for a host to have so much room, but the Hassan family specially renovated their home to accommodate large groups. Noor, her husband and their five children have been hosting hikers on the Masar for five years. Throughout the hike, we’ll stay in homes like this, as well as hotels, guesthouses, Bedouin tents, and even a night in a cave.
Dusk has arrived; the evening view is clear and beautiful. The sun has set over the peaks and valleys of the West Bank, the lights of Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements shimmer around us. Beyond the hill ahead of me, backlit with shades of peach, rose and grey, lies Israel, Netanya and the Mediterranean Sea. A half-moon rises above.
The villages and settlements may seem quiet and peaceable, but are walled off from one another with concrete and hostility. The sea beyond means, for some, Europe, North Africa and its opportunities; for others, impassable waters. What is this place? How did we get here?
* * *
Five of us will walk all 25 days from Rummana to Bayt Mirsim: Felix and Thomas, Quebecois hiking companions in their 40s and 50s; Oliver and Eve, two 50-something activists from the United Kingdom; and myself, a 30-something freelance writer from Toronto. The remaining three will walk one to two weeks: John, a real-estate project manager who hiked Everest for his 60th birthday; and Sue and Howard, a retired teacher-principal duo from California. Neil, a young British doctoral student, hopped off yesterday and will be back for short stints in the coming weeks. Ines, an older Swede, walked with us for just the day.
After the hike, I plan to visit a friend in Beirut. In light of the protests against the government, I shared my reservations with Ines, who lived in Lebanon for two decades. “I lived in Beirut through the civil war,” she said, smiling. “You’ll be fine.”
If not all of us are quite so hardcore, we’re all mostly hikers. Sue and Howard walked 1,000 miles on the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s well-traveled Catholic pilgrimage-turned-hiking trail. I walked the Camino, but at half their age and half as far. Felix and Thomas are also Camino veterans: we all seem to have an affinity for long-distance trails in places of importance and meaning.
We are and aren’t here for the hiking. We’ve come to see Palestine for ourselves and hear directly from Palestinians. For my part, it felt like something of a responsibility. Like many Diaspora Jews, I have supported the state of Israel, either directly or indirectly, and benefited from it. I went on Birthright, the two-week, all-expenses-paid tour designed to build affinity and political support between young Jews and the state. I’m familiar with that side of the story – but after 50 years of occupation and a seemingly never-ending conflict, something didn’t quite fit for me.
Before I left for the Masar, I asked my rabbi for a blessing. In synagogue, she prayed that I would come here “with eyes wide open” and return home “with eyes opened wide.” It’s a prayer I share.
On the Camino, in Spain, locals are largely inured to tourists; here, on the Masar, tourists are rarer. Every local we pass waves hello, is happy and surprised to see us, stops us and wants to give us coffee. Yesterday, we were stopped often by olive-pickers – it’s the season for it. Enthusiastically, they beckoned us over to the stone borders of their groves, where we sat and shared thimbles of coffee spiked with cardamom. As we walked through towns and villages, small children yelled, “Hello! Hello!” and waved to us, their parents replying to our greetings of salaam aleykum (peace be upon you) with wa’ aleykum salaam (and peace upon you) and ahlan wa sahlan, you are welcome here. In these moments, of which there are many, I’m buoyed by unimpeachable hospitality.
This is, however, different from the Camino in other ways. I walked 40 days on the Camino and rarely thought about politics; here, every day is political. I never felt awkward about being Jewish on the Camino – except once, when I asked a local barkeep at a tavern called La Judería if there were any Jews left in the town. He laughed and said: “Not since the Inquisition.” Here, my being Jewish is something I keep to myself, to avoid assumptions about my politics. It’s different when you carry so little on your back and so much in your head. The walking is both easy and hard: mercifully, I have no blisters, but I’m still uncomfortable.
In the evening, after a home-cooked meal, we sipped sweet sage tea in the Hassans’ living room and listened to their story. Noor sat beside her husband Yusef, who spoke to us in Arabic while their son, Rayan, a young man with kind eyes and short hair, translated. If memory serves, Rayan was studying in the United States, which explained his excellent English.
Two years ago, Rayan’s brother, Nader, attended a rally at his university in support of Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike. Five weeks before we arrived, Israeli soldiers entered the home where we were now staying, at 2 a.m., and arrested him. Nader was taken to prison without charge, where he’ll likely remain without trial for up to seven months. At the end of his time, he could be released; or, he could be detained again for another seven months, without explanation. According to his family, this cycle can repeat indefinitely. The practice is both common and permitted under Israeli military law, which is still in effect in the West Bank, 53 years after the Six Day War.
Noor was quiet, eyes downcast, hands folded in her lap. This was a mother who had lost her son, taken in the middle of the night, who wasn’t sure if or when she would see him again. As I understood from them, adults over 18 are restricted from visiting prisoners: they plan to send their teenage son, Malik, to visit Nader and bring offerings of the family’s love and hope.
In the short time we’ve been here, we’ve learned of the various ways in which Israel makes life nearly impossible for Palestinians: checkpoints; control over water, electricity, building and agricultural permits; the separation wall; demolition of homes and olive groves; restricted movement internally and internationally; arrest and imprisonment without trial; and, of course, the endless encroachment of settlements, which have been deemed illegal under international law by the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice.
History, of course, is relevant to the present and, here, one can feel the weight of it, but it’s difficult to find a version that isn’t heavy with narrative. A briefing yesterday began with, “When Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967….” That’s true, but Israel occupied the territories as an outcome of the Six Day War, which raises questions of how it started and who provoked it. (The answer, as with most things Israel and Palestine, is hotly debated and too extensive to rehash here.) Yesterday, we didn’t talk about the Six Day War, nor the nuances of what came before it. The conflict doesn’t justify the occupation, but to leave out relevant context, to drop the “why” behind the “what,” I’m not sure that’s helpful, either.
On Birthright, we visited an Israeli military base. One of our trip’s soldiers was a pilot in the air force; in the common room, rows of flat, black, airplane-shaped medallions were pinned to a wall. Someone asked what they were. “Those are enemy aircraft,” the pilot said. “Each one marks a plane we shot down.”
The group erupted in applause. I froze, horrified. It reminded me of the story we tell at Passover, when the Heavenly Hosts rejoiced at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. “My creatures are perishing,” God silenced them. “And you sing praises?”
* * *
It’s dark now. Stars are appearing in the night sky. Crickets chirp and trucks rumble low in the distance, no doubt carrying goods along labyrinthine backstreets to avoid Israeli-controlled roads, or the possibility of a checkpoint rejection or closure. So much time and life wasted. Tomorrow, we walk. It’s day two, I’m not sure where this road will lead. But all I can do is keep walking.
Kevin Keystoneis a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. When not hiking long-distance trails, he can be found reading, spending time with friends and family, or with his beloved partner, Aaron. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat.
Hosannas of historical significance followed the announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have normalized relations with each other. The truth is, we don’t really know what this means for the long-term. History is best judged in hindsight.
In some ways, the mutual recognition is not a massive surprise. Israel has long had semi-secret good relations with some of the Gulf states. But, in the name of solidarity with Palestinians, the Arab states kept official relations off the table. It is a sign now that fear of Iran, rather than solidarity with Palestinians, is increasingly the priority guiding diplomatic decision-making in the region.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made it sound like the accord is the greatest thing to hit the Middle East since hummus. Calling it a “geopolitical earthquake,” Friedman suggested this was the third most important event for the region after President Anwar Sadat visiting Jerusalem and Yasser Arafat shaking Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn. But Friedman’s choice of those two examples may exactly undermine his case that this is quite so tectonic.
Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, history in the Middle East does not have a consistently forward-moving trajectory. Relations between Israel and its neighbours have often been one step forward and two steps back. The anti-Zionist culture that permeates much of the Middle East and North Africa is not necessarily something that can be overcome simply by a recognition by top government officials on either side. Egypt’s peacemaking with Israel in the late 1970s can be seen as the most direct cause of the assassination of Sadat in 1981. When some extremists saw Jordan’s King Abdullah I as too soft on the Zionists, he was assassinated at the entrance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by a Palestinian, in 1951. Extremism is not limited to the Arab side – Rabin was killed 25 years ago by an Israeli extremist opposed to concessions with the Palestinians.
Extremism could derail this progress, as well. Some voices in the Arab world are already warning of dire consequences for Arab figures working with Israelis. Even if, as we desperately hope, there is not retaliatory violence, and even if rumours that other Arab countries are ready to follow the UAE’s lead are true, it may be premature to see this one step as a guarantee of rainbows and doves.
When Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords and adopted a position of mutual recognition, it was perceived to be a future-changing moment. It certainly appeared that way at the time. However, relations with Egypt – then the unchallenged political, military and cultural superpower of the Arab world and the birthplace of pan-Arabism – never became chummy. What Israel has received in practical terms in the subsequent 40-plus years is mostly a cold peace. Similarly, after Israel’s parallel agreement with Jordan. There are mutual benefits and a state of comparatively benign adjacency but these relationships are hardly the stuff of great friendship.
Still, the Gulf states are different. They have not been involved in any conflagration with Israel. Their emergence as high-tech and financial powers in recent decades puts them on footing with Israel among the Middle East’s forward-looking economies.
Meanwhile, as part of the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called off his annexation plan in part of the West Bank, though it was hard to see a way forward for the ill-advised initiative. It’s possible that Netanyahu’s annexation scheme was like U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mexican border wall – red meat to their respective far-right constituents but a promise that was never going to be kept. It may not have been a jagged pill for Israelis to swallow.
And, speaking of Trump, as he often does, the U.S. president is crowing that he (via his advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner) is responsible for this great unfolding. It seems undeniable that the U.S. administration played a role. Just 70-some-odd days out from one of the most important elections of our lifetimes, the agreement seems timed to bolster the image of the president as a statesman and appeal to Jewish and evangelical voters. However, the relationships between these actors are not entirely transparent and there are likely many moving pieces – and many lucrative business deals – to which we are not privy. Much of the excited coverage of the agreement fails to recognize the larger geopolitics in the region and how this agreement may best serve those currently in power.
Palestinian leaders are outraged by a deal that reduces their leverage in the region, and Israel and its supporters should be wary of unilateralism if there is any hope of keeping a two-state solution alive. That said, whatever the future holds for Israel’s relationships with the UAE and other Arab states, this is a time for cautious hope. While the Palestinian leadership and some of their ostensible allies, like Turkey and Hezbollah, are upset by the accord, it’s possible that they are among those who should be most enthusiastic.
Denormalization, the once-nearly-unanimous assertion by Arab states that Israel shouldn’t exist – and, in their official diplomatic worldview, doesn’t exist – was intended to harm Israel. But Israel’s economy continues humming along, even as the pandemic makes the outlook more uncertain. The biggest losers of denormalization have been neighbouring Arab people and states – most especially the Palestinian people – who are effectively quarantined from the economic engine of the region. The Israeli-UAE agreement could be a good thing for all people in the area, whether they recognize it right now or not. However, we shouldn’t let our excitement for a détente get in the way of other critical interests: a two-state solution and electing governments in the United States and Israel that are oriented to coexistence and fair play.