Today’s publication of Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter (Princeton University Press) by Jonathan Marc Gribetz, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies and Judaic studies at Princeton, marks a minor miracle: it may well be the only book ever published with dust-jacket endorsements by both Ruth R. Wisse (a “brilliant study” and “an indispensable work”) and Rashid Khalidi (“prodigious research”). The publisher calls it a “landmark book,” one that “fundamentally recasts our understanding of the modern Jewish-Arab encounter.”
This post is not intended as a review, but rather a reflection on one of Professor Gribetz’s central insights. To call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a “dispute over real estate,” he writes, is like calling a fight over a family inheritance a “dispute over jewelry and china”: in both cases, the description misses the crux of the matter. In his book, Professor Gribetz demonstrates that, from the beginning, the Jewish-Arab conflict was a “struggle over history and identity”–played out over land, but involving fundamental issues that have always transcended the apparent subject of the dispute.
In the early years, there were frequent expressions of commonality between Jews and Arabs, epitomized by the 1919 agreement between Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organization, and Faisal Hussein, the leader of the Arabs. The agreement cited “the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people” and declared Arab support for the 1917 Balfour Declaration and Jewish support for an Arab state adjacent to Palestine. Faisal thereafter wrote to Felix Frankfurter (then also a Zionist leader) that “we Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement,” and “will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.” That obviously did not last long.
Professor Gribetz ends his book by noting that while relations between Jews and Arabs worsened after 1919, his study itself shows that perceptions between peoples are not immutable; so it “stands to reason that they can improve as well.” He does not address what might lead to such an improvement, but perhaps we can determine what will be necessary by viewing his central insight in light of the peace proposals in the decades following the period he covers.
The 1919 Weizmann-Faisal agreement was never implemented, but in 1921 Great Britain divided Palestine and gave half to Transjordan. In later years, there were numerous two-state solutions proposed for the remaining half of Palestine, all of which ended exactly as did the 1919 pact:
(1) In 1937, the Jews accepted the two-state solution proposed by the British Peel Commission; the Arabs rejected it;
(2) In 1947, the Jews accepted the UN’s two-state solution; the Arabs rejected it;
(3) In 1967, Israel wanted to trade land for recognition and peace; the Arabs issued their three adamant “no’s”;
(4) In 1978, Israel agreed to Palestinian autonomy as part of the peace agreement with Egypt; the Palestinians rejected it;
(5) In July 2000, at Camp David, Israel offered the Palestinians a state; they walked away;
(6) In December 2000, Israel formally accepted the Clinton Parameters for a two-state solution; in January 2001, the Palestinians rejected them;
(7) In 2005, Israel removed every soldier, settler, and settlement from Gaza and turned the entire territory over to the Palestinian Authority; so far there have been three rocket wars on Israel from the land Israel gave the Palestinians to build a state;
(8) In 2008, the Israeli prime minister begged the Palestinian president to accept a two-state solution in which the Palestinians would get land equal to 100 percent (after swaps) of the West Bank and Gaza; the Palestinians walked away again;
(9) In 2009, the new Israeli prime minister formally endorsed a Palestinian state, implemented an unprecedented settlement construction freeze, and met a stone wall.
Nearly 100 years after the first two-state solution was endorsed by the Zionists, the current Palestinian president repeatedly states he will “never” recognize a Jewish state; refuses to endorse “two states for two peoples” as the goal of the peace process; and will not give a Bir Zeit speech to match the Israeli prime minister’s 2009 Bar-Ilan address that endorsed a Palestinian state. He demands more of the remaining jewelry and china, while maintaining a “right to recover” the rest and repeatedly “reconciling” with those dedicated to killing the other side of the family.
The problem in that scenario is not the jewelry and china. Those who read Professor Gribetz’s book will likewise learn that the real estate was not the heart of the initial Jewish-Arab encounter. Middle East peace will not arrive simply by drawing a line on a map, because the crux of this dispute has never been the real estate.