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Israel and the Middle East

History, Myth and Reality in the Israeli
Jewish-Palestinian Arab Dialogue

Daniel J. Elazar

(The author made this statement at a 1989 conference in Toledo, Spain, which brought together Sephardic Jews from Israel and the diaspora and Palestinian and other Arabs.)

All of us here share a dream of peace, a peace in which Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs will live side-by-side, shaping their own destinies. But any such peace must be based on truth. I have the difficult task of trying to speak the truth as I see it and as I believe it is understood by the vast majority of Israelis.

We are gathered here in Toledo because of its significance in the history of Arab-Jewish or, more accurately, Christian-Muslim- Jewish relations. Toledo reminds us of the Golden Age in Spain when the three communities lived side-by-side and together constituted a major center of world culture. According to my count, whether our immediate roots are in Eretz Israel, the Balkans or North Africa, most of the Jews here are Sephardim in the original sense, that is to say, descendants of Jews who lived in Spain and were expelled nearly 500 years ago.

Several us have explicit family connections to Toledo. In my case, one branch of my family was of prominence in the Toledo of which we speak. As you tour the city you may see two buildings built by my forefather, Shmuel Halevi Abulafia -- the El Transito Synagogue and his home. According to family tradition, the Halevi family, among their other activities, engaged in the practice of medicine and as such were given the Arabic name "Abulafia," which, as you know, means "father of health." Shmuel Halevi Abulafia actually served as finance minister to the King of Castille in Toledo. Hence, Toledo has a special place in my heart.

But here we must face the truth squarely. This conference seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that this flowering took place in the days when Toledo was part of Al Andaluz, under Muslim rule. In fact Toledo became a center of culture and a haven for Jews under Christian rule after it was reconquered in 1085. Jews fled to Toledo to escape Muslim persecution following the takeover of the government of Muslim Spain by Muslim fundamentalists who instituted the persecution of non-Muslims (and, for that matter, of non-fundamentalist Muslims, some of whom fled to Toledo as well). Christians who had welcomed the Jews expelled them. At that time, one branch of the Abulafia family is reputed to have gone from Toledo to Jerusalem, one of the seven families to have settled in Eretz Israel at the time of the expulsion and remained to this day.

We Jews have learned from this and similar historic experiences that we need our own homeland where we are in control of our own destiny, where we can cooperate with other peoples without being subject to their rule and their whims, where we are not a minority and from which we cannot be expelled. We remember the Golden Age of Toledo and Spain with great fondness, but we do not want to return to that condition under any circumstances.

Even when Christians or Castillians, Muslims or Arabs, and Jews lived here, each community had its own autonomy under the overall rule of the king. Toledo actually had three municipal governments side-by-side -- Christian, Muslim and Jewish. It was understood by all that the Jewish people remained a nation, even in exile. No one thought to deny that reality, even as we remained a world civilization, no matter how small our numbers.

Any dialogue between us must begin with the recognition of Jewish nationhood and civilization. It is not sufficient to recognize the existence of Israel as a state. The Palestinian and other Arabs must explicitly acknowledge the existence of the Jewish people and our right to self-determination, even as they ask us to acknowledge their existence and right to self-determination. We have heard some at this conference repeat the old notion, which seems to continue to exist among the Arabs, that the Jews are only a religion and not a people; hence they are not entitled to self-determination -- indeed that most of us here are "Arab Jews." This simply will not do.

What of the Palestinian Arabs? Over a decade ago a colleague of mine, a professor at the University of Kashmir in India, himself a Muslim who had spent many years teaching in Egypt, in the course of a conversation about ethnicity in the world, made the profound comment that the Arabs have to be understood as a federal nation. What he meant was that Arabs have a common sense of Arab nationhood, yet also a more particularistic sense of Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Moroccan, etc. peoplehood. In the past two decades, the Palestinians have also claimed peoplehood within that special Arab context.

In fact, for the Arabs themselves it is not clear where nationhood lies, though the trend in the twentieth century has been to give greater emphasis to the particularistic, albeit without abandoning the general. The Palestinians are among the last to assert their particularistic peoplehood. Under such conditions, when the Arab nation and its peoples are still struggling for self-definition, it is not surprising that it has taken other peoples, including the Jewish people, a longer time to recognize that a separate Palestinian identity exists. Perhaps we have to be helped to learn and understand the Arab and Palestinian Arab reality. That will necessarily take time.

When Toledo flourished, Europe was Christendom, a largely Christian continent in which Christians saw themselves as united under a single church (even though that was not exactly accurate even then). Christendom no longer exists, but now, increasingly, Europe does and will even more so after 1992. That is another reality which all of us must confront, which will have its impact on both Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

This brings us back to the Jews' role as a bridge between the Christian and Muslim worlds, between Europe, Asia and Africa and now the new worlds as well. In the past we played that role in a painful way since we lacked statehood. From now on, we will play that role as a people with both a state and a diaspora. We will not do so monolithically since by our very character, Jews express various viewpoints. But we will do so as Jews secure in our statehood and peoplehood. The Palestinians, too, can be a bridge to achieve peace between Jews and Arabs.

That modern and contemporary Jewish civilization is very dynamic is known to all, proving once again how the Jewish people is a world civilization. It is important to understand that the the very dynamics of the Jewish civilization of our times in all its parts is rooted in Zionism. This is true from the ultra-Orthodox camp to that of the extreme political left. Whether they know it or not, whether they recognize it or not, all Jews have been transformed by Zionism and our civilization entirely informed by the Zionist revolution. Anyone who wishes to understand us must understand that today there can be no longer be a separation between Jewishness and Zionism in that sense. The Zionist revolution has had too much of an impact on us all.

Because our civilization is so dynamic, the Jewish people and particularly the State of Israel often seem to be very powerful. In fact, we remain a small people, and our power is inevitably limited by that fact. I would suggest that we are more vocal than powerful. Hence, we cannot be expected to take risks that larger peoples with greater power may be able to take. Even though we enjoy a stronger position politically and militarily than we have in millennia, in our heart of hearts we know that our power is slender because we are small and vulnerable, and we react cautiously to possible diminutions of that power, requiring clear, unambiguous and convincing reassurance that we are not taking dangerous risks.

All the foregoing suggests that with regard to Jews and Arabs, Israel and the Palestinians, things have changed. We all must recognize the changes and learn how to respond to them. We are not here to apologize for having returned to our land and reestablished an independent Jewish commonwealth within it. Nor are we prepared to accept that the situation of the Israelis and the Palestinians is symmetrical. We are not here to measure the extent of suffering, nor are we here to equate two millennia of exile with that of a generation.

I say to you, my Arab friends, do not be fooled by the voice of the Jewish left or the new revisionist history that is appearing. As a historian, I have always distrusted revisionist history, since it soon turns out that most of it is written either for ideological purposes or to advance the personal interests of the revisionist historians. Talking only to such Jews who come to such dialogues can be misleading. We, in turn, must admire the discipline and solidarity of the Palestinians during the first year and a half of the intifada and in these dialogues, in contrast to the various voices with which Jews speak.

Let me suggest to you that the Shamir plan is a major step for Israel. Prime Minister Shamir speaks for the Israeli people no less than the PLO has been able to establish itself as speaking for the Palestinians. I know there are many aspects of the plan that are objectionable to the Palestinians, but it offers a way to begin, to move from dialogue to negotiation. Both Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, today speak of living together. That is a great step forward and that is what must be fostered, patiently, step-by-step.

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