Commentary Magazine


My Enemy, My Self, by Yoram Binur; Children of Bethany, by Said K. Aburish; Palestine and Israel, by David McDowall

For a while this past winter it must have seemed that all over the world, liberation, self-determination, and reconciliation were the order of the day, and that only in China and Israel were the old men continuing to hang on, fearfully and violently resisting the wave of the future. To be sure, Israel, unlike China, has the democratic and parliamentary machinery to change course without bloody upheaval, and the country has been undergoing one of its periodic political shuffles. But whatever the outcome of that exercise, an impatient world is liable to discover that not too much has changed.

To understand in advance why not, it is useful to look at these three books on the Arab-Israeli dispute, not the first and certainly not the last on the subject.

My Enemy, My Self by Yoram Binur is unusual, maybe unique. There have been, during the long history of the fight between Arabs and Jews over the sliver of real estate between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, many accounts by Jewish romantics and spies of how they manged to enter enemy territory and pass themselves off as Arabs. The romantics were poets and anthropologists, and more than once they ended by doing some spy work, too. They were the Zionist equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia or Kit Carson.

What Binur did was different. He is a radical left-winger, and wishing, like other leftist Israeli writers such as David Grossman and Uri Avnery, to humanize the Palestinians in the eyes of his fellow Israelis so that they would reconsider their objections to parleying with the PLO, he disguised himself as a Palestinian laborer and spent time in both Tel Aviv and the refugee camps of Gaza. The result is an Israeli version of John Howard Griffin’s famous Black Like Me.

Not surprisingly, Binur found that his countrymen exploit, humiliate, and continually harass and intimidate the human beings who clean up after them, and that these helots reciprocate by committing little acts of sabotage, sleeping with Jewish women and dreaming of a day when accounts can really be settled. Of the dozens of Israelis who appear in this quite readable book, only a handful are not portrayed as swine. The stupidity and brutality of the majority are attributed, however, not to anything inherent in Jews or Zionism, but to the effects of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The solution is to hand these areas over to the PLO.

Generally Binur comes across as a realist, not a sentimentalist or ideologue. Most of his story is told with that air of rough straightforwardness which persists as one of the most familiar and least endearing of Israeli virtues. But as to the effect he hopes to have, he is either confused or disingenuous.

At one point, he explains that he undertook his project to inform ignorant Israelis of the mundane, human, shocking facts, so that when the time comes, his countrymen can decide knowledgeably on the fate of the occupation. Elsewhere, however, he writes: “I have heard Palestinians say more than once, ‘Israelis don’t have any idea what’s going on here. If they did, things would look different’—a naïve sentiment, in my humble opinion.” Indeed, although Binur enjoyed some celebrity when his adventure was publicized, his book did not shock or turn around Israeli opinion. Most people, to the author’s disappointment, were only interested in how he had managed to pass as an Arab.

Their reaction is understandable, since Israelis know more about the Palestinians, and about themselves, than Binur gives them credit for. It is not necessary to impersonate a Palestinian dishwasher in Tel Aviv to figure out that his Jewish boss may be taking advantage of him, and that this, among many other things, enrages the Arab, who in practice hasn’t got much legal recourse. But most Israelis know that there is more to the occupation than that, and much more to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

For example, most Palestinians do not cross into Israel proper to work, and not all who do go are unprotected—many get union wages and have had fairly decent relations with their bosses, even during the intifada. More important, even if the occupation were merely corrupting and enraging, the guilt and shame which Binur and writers like him mean to arouse by holding a mirror up to it would be suppressed by most of his countrymen, and rightly so, the fundamental issue being not one of human rights but of geopolitics.

The closest Binur comes to dealing with this issue is in his report of an exchange he had in his Palestinian persona with a typically “rude and tactless” Israeli:

And where exactly [inquired the Israeli] do you want to establish this state of yours?

In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A lot of us believe that one day we’ll be able to establish one secular democratic state that will include all of what you call Israel and we call Palestine. . . .

And after you get your state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, you’ll try to take over all of Israel. That’s what you really want, isn’t it?

I don’t deny that there are many who would like to have it that way, to return to their homes in Haifa and Jaffa, for instance. I’d also like it. But for most of us it’s already clear that this isn’t possible.

His fellow Israeli, Binur says, “listened with great interest,” but was not convinced. “The Palestinian state could turn out to be a disaster for us and then we’ll have to go to war again.” These worried objections Binur dismisses as “a string of clichés.”

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Children of Bethany is another book in which Palestinians are presented together with their names and their feelings, and this time by a real Palestinian (now making his home in New York). Said Aburish at least has the sense not to make light of Israeli fears. Indeed, while emotionally sympathetic to the PLO, he introduces not one Jew into his narrative and never gets into geopolitics at all.

Bethany is a village near Jerusalem. Aburish’s book is a history of the place since 1917 as embodied in the lore and careers of his family, locally the leading one. This book is truthful enough not to cast Zionism as the snake in the Palestinian garden. “The Bethany of 1917,” Aburish writes, “was . . . a cluster of hovels.” If within a generation things in many respects were much better, this was thanks to that same British presence whose mandate was to turn Palestine into the Jewish national home.

Zionism, in other words, has been not only a curse but also a blessing of sorts for the people it intruded on. This is a secret which few Palestinians will confess to, and it can only be inferred from Aburish’s chronicle. What is plain from his book is that the complex impact of Zionism on Palestinians was felt long before the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and that one result of it is the class of Palestinian entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and revolutionaries, men and women dispersed all over the world, who have nothing in common with Binur’s sweaty laborers except a proudly aggrieved sense of their national identity.

An advertising man and an American citizen who is proud to have his daughter chosen assistant to the curator of art at the White House, Aburish is simultaneously “acculturated” in exile and distressed by his people’s suffering. He may be more than a little guilty to be living in the U.S. instead of sharing the rigors of Israeli occupation. For the future, at any rate, he offers no plans, only the hope that it will not be “as bleak as the past.”

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Our third book, Palestine and Israel: The Uprising and Beyond, is set in more of a geopolitical context. It recognizes that the history of the struggle over Israel/Palestine did not start yesterday, but all the way back in the 1880′s. David McDowall also offers a solution, after having retold that long history as he sees it, and after having stated his bias: “My own position is more sympathetic to the Palestinian view than to the Zionist one.”

An Irishman, McDowall seems to have learned understatement at Oxford—actually, he pretty clearly believes that Zionism is a repellent, racist ideology which must breed deplorable, self-destructive practices. Israel, the geopolitical expression of this ideology, is a state with which no peaceful coexistence is possible. The boundaries of the Jewish state are not important for McDowall. Wherever they may be, Zionism for him is neither redeemable nor viable. Nor is the Palestinian problem (which Zionism created) soluble without Israel’s dissolution. This is due to impersonal, objective circumstances and forces.

The demographic trend, McDowall reports, is running against the Jews, not only in the occupied territories but in Israel proper. Furthermore, the Palestinian refugees scattered in Lebanon, Syria, etc. could not be accommodated in the tiny West Bank and Gaza. Many would have to be returned to their former homes in Israel, and there “empowered” as citizens. In short, in order to solve its problems and those of the Palestinians, Israel would have to de-Zionize, give up its Jewish character, commit suicide.

Now, McDowall’s analysis and its implications may sound outmoded, especially following Yasir Arafat’s speeches in Stockholm and Geneva in December 1988. But they are fully in keeping with the PLO’s Covenant and the UN’s “Zionismis-Racism” resolution of 1975, neither of which has been amended. In fact, McDowall seems to be on the same wavelength as Arafat’s deputy, Abu Iyad, who reassures Arab audiences that after the occupation ends, the liberation of the rest of Palestine will be next on the agenda. This is the scenario of “stages” which Israeli hawks warn about and which some Israeli doves do not dismiss out of hand.

As for the demographic projections McDowall relies on, they did look discouraging for the Jews when he did his research a couple of years ago. But prophecy is an art, not a science, and he has fallen victim to his bias, not to say his wishful thinking: “There is unlikely to be any significantly increased Jewish immigration in the future, certainly not on a scale to affect the demographic balance in the Jewish favor.” But a great movement of Soviet Jews to Israel has since begun, alarming Arafat and—who knows?—maybe concentrating his mind.

The arrival of these reinforcements has been a boost to Israeli morale. Yet numbers aside, the suspicion lingers that the PLO says one thing and plans something else—something like what McDowall and Abu Iyad have in mind. Reasonable or paranoid, this widespread suspicion is a fact of life. Unless it can be allayed, the struggle and the suffering will continue.

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