For Millenia in Palestine, Arabs and Jews Lived Mostly in Peace
When my El Al Airlines flight touched down at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on my first adventure to the Middle East in 1978, I did not drop to my knees and kiss the ground when I landed.
I knew about this custom and intense emotional response by many Jews upon arriving to “The Promised Land”. I imagine the view from the cockpit on the Israel national carrier El Al from the west over the Mediterranean is breathtaking on a clear day. It would not surprise me if there are moist eyes as the coastline and the land stretches out ahead and below, although the crew may fly this route many times. Nor do I imagine a shortage of tears in the main cabin as Hatikva (“Hope”, the Israeli national anthem) plays over the cabin speaker as was normal on El Al flights in those days.
In late September 1947, an old freighter ship, the Exodus 1947 (named after the title of the second chapter in the Old Testament) packed with 600 Jewish refugees from post-World War II Europe, many survivors of the Holocaust, arrived at Haifa’s harbor on the north coast of Palestine. The British military took the human cargo into custody and shipped them back to France. France refused to force the refugees to leave the ship, and so they ended up at a refugee camp in Frankfurt, Germany. The dramatic scene at Haifa is depicted in the 1960 film Exodus based on the book by Leon Uris. The story of Exodus 1947 is also told in the book, Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched A Nation.
In the days and months on my first adventure there, my passion for The Land, ignited by new-found roots, flowed easy. At 28, on the threshold of life, I immersed myself in The Land, its people, and its ancient and sacred landmarks. I even explored the idea of claiming the birthright the Israeli Government extends to all Jews. As an American Jew, I hold a precious privilege — the right to dual citizenship.
Just one month after Exodus 1947, British colonial control over Palestine ended with the adoption of United Nations Resolution 181 and a Partition Plan giving Zionists a path to claim a modern Jewish state. By that time, Jews in Palestine had organized themselves into fierce paramilitary groups for decades. One of the groups called itself The Haganah (The Defense), but is better described as an insurgency militia. These and Arab groups were highly active, despite British military efforts to arrest and punish them.
Zionist leaders declared their new state on May 14, 1948. By morning the region was inflamed in a terrible violent struggle, an all-out nine-month-long war, including dozens of massacres of unarmed civilians and prisoners on both sides. About 4,000 Arab and Jews fighters died, and an estimated 15,000 civilians. Accurate casualty figures, including non-fatal injuries on the Arab side were impossible to determine. Israel emerged in strong control of the original land given to them by the U.N. Partition Plan, plus 60 percent of the Arab land.
“Zionists” are Jews with aspirations for a separate Jewish state in Palestine. The term was introduced by Theodor Herzl, a German Jew and Paris-based journalist who founded a movement in the 1890s to establish a Jewish homeland. He was motivated after reporting on the politically-charged trial and racially motivated conviction of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus for treason. Herzl’s Zionist Movement gained attention and traction when Palestine and Jerusalem became its focus. Jerusalem is also called Zion in Hebrew scripture, literally “The hill in Jerusalem upon which the City of (King) David was built”.
Between 1904 and 1914, a significant wave of Jews from Europe (about 30,000) settled in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Another significant aliya from Europe (literally, “going up to Jerusalem”) took place from 1929 to 1939 made up of as many as 300,000 Jews that included those fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe and post-war refugees.
The vast number of Jews among these streams of new immigrants during the first half of the 20th Century were young, in their late teens and early 20s. They participated in the critical settlement and in-building of what would become the modern Jewish State. Many new groups settled in the countryside where they established collective agricultural settlements. First, they had to drain the swamps and prepare the land before the soil could be cultivated to grow crops. Most of these new immigrants had grown up in mercantile towns and cities in Eastern Europe who found themselves on empty land. They toiled to build living structures and outbuildings for animals and equipment.
Later waves of immigrants settled in towns and cities where many worked establishing an infrastructure to support a growing population — roads, bridges, sewer lines and waste-water facilities, powerlines, etc. Wherever they ended up in Palestine, they were very aware of being part of something much bigger than themselves, relying on each other in creating something new.
Population data between 1900 and 1950 tell us more about the dramatic change in Palestine between 1900 and 1950. In 1900, only 24,000 Jews out of a population of 600,000 lived in Palestine. Of those, 94 percent were Arab. By 1947, before the withdrawal of the British, the Jewish population had grown to 630,000. The Arab population was 1,324,000. Only two year later, the change in population becomes most dramatic — 1.2 million Jews; only 160,000 Arabs. Can this be? What happened?
Taking a closer look, we see that before and during the hostilities in 1948, approximately 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes by Israelis. Most did not return. But many, perhaps half, fled to the areas outside the original U.N. Partition marking Israel’s borders, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Counting these areas, the Palestinian population today has grown to approximately 6 million. compared to 6.5 million Israeli Jews.
What happened to the other half of the Palestinian population who fled in the “Arab Exodus” and didn’t end up in the West Bank or Gaza Strip? Many left for neighboring Arab countries. Others scattered around the world, as many as half of them, still stateless.
History never starts at one point. Beginning somewhere always leaves out something else. After so many years struggling to find my own identity in the conflict, growing up, as a Jew, conditioned to believe only one side of the story, I have learned a hard lesson: No one, no side, no people, no tribe, has a legitimate stake in the truth. But there is at least one truth that may gives us instruction on how one side can communicate with the other and find the courage to take the road to peace: The story of the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East are two long, passionate opposing narratives.
In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt initiated direct negotiations with the Israelis in the hopes of finding a path to a resolution of the conflict between the two neighbors. It was a brave and courageous move with great opposition on both sides. President Sadat was taking a huge gamble. He was not joined by any other Arab nation, although President Hussein of Jordan supported his effort. Sadat, who led the Egyptian military attack on Israel in 1973 called the Yom Kippur War, even traveled to Israel in late 1977 to speak before the Israeli Parliament about the peace process. The powerful Moslem Brotherhood organization in Egypt believed their leader had trashed their dream of a separate Palestinian State.
In September 1978, after a long and difficult 13 months of negotiations shepherded by U.S. President Jimmie Carter’s team at the State Department, the Camp David Peace Accord was signed. President Sadat and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a conservative politician and a leader of the right-wing underground movement before the 1948 War, clasped hands in genuine delight. Although the terms of the agreement were strictly between Egypt and Israel, the warming relations between sworn enemies proved what could be done. Commercial and tourist travel between the two countries, frozen since the 1948 War, were reopened. Most important, Egypt agreed to the Jewish State’s right to exist and flourish in peace. For its part, Israel agreed to return the entire Sinai Peninsula and withdraw its occupation of the West Bank, both of which it seized during the 1967 Six Day War.
The talks leading up to the agreement and its signing was huge news in Israel. But Israelis were cautiously optimistic, I remember. Even at that time in Israel’s young history, Jews and Arabs had been through four wars, loss and disappointment.
On October 6, 1981, President Sadat was assassinated at a military parade in Cairo by a group of Egyptian Army officers unwilling to accept his peace overture and the Egyptian Government’s recognition of Israel.
In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and former commander-in-chief of Zahav, the Israeli Armed Forces, and Yaser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, two arch enemies, shook hands on the lawn of the White House after formally agreeing to principles and a timetable for the peace process hashed out by the Norwegians.
Sadly, this was the last momentum for peace initiated. In 1995, Rabin was assasinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist. The next year, Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong leader of the right-wing Likud Party, began a long period of holding onto power, serving a total of five terms as prime minister. Netanyahu’s policy of approving Israeli settlements in the West Bank only fueled resentments and further polarization between Arabs and Israelis. Finally, losing popularity in Israel, Netanyahu was forced to concede to a coalition between political parties, and in 2021, relinquished power to Naftali Bennett, a less polarizing, but yet another right wing nationalist.
Two deeply emotional narratives, Israeli and Arab, reflect two opposing views. But might we find common ground by listening compassionately to the other side’s story? Certainly sanity should prevail? Perhaps, slowly, slowly, one bridge at a time, progress can be made. We have seen many small-scale success stories involving Jewish and Arab groups, including school children learning together, others working together on community projects. Out of these small-scale efforts, divisions are crossed and fears dispelled. Healing threads weave a fabric. It takes deep and strong faith. Sane humans deeply committed to peace, must step forward.
The land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here, their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. But it is also true this land is deeply sacred to Arabs whose identity are also inextricably tied spiritually and historically to the land. Also a fact: control over the land changed hands countless times over the 2,000 years since the time of Jesus, and several millennia before that, way back to the time of Abraham. Over the many centuries, Ancient Egypt, Assyria, Philistine, Persia, Greece, Rome, Constantinople, the British Empire, and other powers imposed control, often brutal, over Palestine. Two brief Jewish monarchies enjoyed brief control for at least 100 years each, the first in ancient times and the second ending a few decades before the birth of Jesus.
We know that throughout human time, Moslems, Christians and Jews have lived in the Middle East, handing down and spreading their powerful religious teachings. Their customs, traditions and ways of life interweave and continue to create a rich and colorful tapestry throughout the region, and the world, including here in the United States. This legacy is the true and long-lasting narrative that is all but ignored in the attention of the conflict.
Another truth to ponder and, perhaps, guide us for more communication: Both Jews and Arabs come from one founding father, Abraham.
In this two-part lesson and discussion of Palestine, a Jewish American (myself) and Raghda (a moslem Egyptian), will share our expanding viewpoints of this land we call Palestine and Israel, pointing you to powerful and inspiring stories of the long periods over history when Arabs and Jews lived peacefully. It was not perfect, but it worked. The current period of violent conflict is just a short blink of time over the centuries when two peoples holding important religious teachings for the world, shared the land together with others in a working harmony.