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Israel and the Middle East

A Sephardi Zionist in Wonderland:
Jews and Arabs at the Dialogue in Toledo, Spain

Daniel J. Elazar

On July 3-4, 1989, I attended a conference on "Jews of the Orient and Palestinians: A Dialogue for Arab-Israeli Peace" sponsored by the Foundation for Peace Studies and International Relations (FEPRI), a Spanish academic institute, and held in Toledo, a famed seat of that special Jewish-Muslim-Christian synthesis which characterized the Golden Age of Spain. (The organizers and most of the participants were under the misapprehension that the Jews' golden age in Toledo occurred under Muslim rule. In fact, it came after the Christian reconquest of the city when Jews fled to Toledo to escape the persecutions of the Muslim fundamentalists who had seized power in Andalusia).

In organizing the conference, FEPRI was assisted by two French Sephardic groups. One, Perspectives Judeo-Arabes, is a left-wing group whose prominent personality is Simone Bitton, an Israeli of Moroccan background who left Israel twelve years ago to live in Paris. The other, Identite et Dialog, is a more moderate group that seeks dialogue with the Palestinians without in any respect denying the authenticity of Jewish peoplehood, Zionism, and the Jewish claim to Israel. Its president is Andre Azoulay, originally from Morocco. They were assisted in mobilizing an Israeli delegation by Shlomo Elbaz of HaMizrach el HaShalom (East for Peace), a moderate Sephardi peace organization in Israel. On the Arab side, the PLO provided a delegation.

The conference ostensibly was organized to foster an intellectual and cultural dialogue between Jewish and Arab, principally Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and academics. It was explicitly presented as not being for political discussions. I doubt if any of us who chose to attend had any illusions that matters would not quickly slide into political discussions despite the declared intentions. There never was any doubt that the Palestinians would reflect the views of the PLO, since their delegation consisted principally of politicians and functionaries. The Israeli delegation, consisting principally of activists, intellectuals, academics, and rabbis, contained a range of viewpoints but leaned toward the pro-Palestinian side of the political spectrum. Virtually all were Sephardim, of Indian, Iraqi and Yemenite background as well as North African, Balkan and Eretz Israeli. A majority actually were descended from the Spanish exiles of 1492.

I chose to attend because I had a commitment from the organizers that the delegation would be as balanced as possible and I felt that it was necessary to assure that there would be some participants who would speak out in the name of the Israeli mainstream. As one who has pursued peace in our region since 1967 and believes that a political solution is necessary, I was also curious to see how these dialogues, of which this was one of several, were unfolding. Finally, as a Sephardi, I liked the idea that for a change we would be the spokesmen for the Israeli side rather than the usual spokesmen in such matters, who have always been overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. Indeed, the Israeli delegation that went was probably the broadest and best balanced of any of the meetings to date. Even though it, too, was tilted to the left, in the Sephardic way it sought to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

The Jews from outside Israel who attended were almost all from the left, while the non-Palestinian Arabs were mostly writers and intellectuals from Syria, Egypt, and North Africa living in France. (It seems that it is safer to be an Arab writer in Paris than back home.) While I cannot say that I was surprised by the results, it is fair to say that I was at least somewhat disappointed, but I did learn something as well. First of all, the conference was a powerful demonstration of how all Jews -- Sephardim and Ashkenazim -- are really alike. Today, a generation after the great migration to Israel, Sephardim also have their own self-hating leftists and "bleeding-hearts" just like the Ashkenazim.

I am handicapped and have some problem walking distances or climbing steps. For many years I have discovered that this handicap is a good litmus test of what people really are like. Almost without exception those people who are so wrapped up in saving the world do not have any time to help individual human beings, while those who have more modest expectations of what they or others can do to transform the human condition usually find the time to be considerate of one of its members. This definitely turned out to be the case in this gathering. The world-savers paid no attention to my problems, even in moments of obvious need. Only those who had more moderate expectations and were not so busy jockeying for position to deliver their message found the time and had the inclination to be attentive to a fellow human being.

My very modest problems were nothing compared to those of Israel among so many members of this group. The most vocal Jewish representatives seemed to be competing with each other fawning over the PLO delegation and beating their breasts with regard to Israel's past and present. These included people capable of getting up and denying the realities of Jewish history, denouncing Zionism and apologizing profusely to the Palestinians for mistreating them from the beginning of the Zionist enterprise to the present, just as we have come to expect from the Ashkenazi-dominated left.

Dr. Ella Shohat, an Israeli now teaching cinematography at New York University who nevertheless came as part of the Israeli delegation, made it clear that to her the Palestinians and Sephardim were in the same boat when it came to Ashkenazi persecution, that the Sephardim were forced by the Zionists from the Arab countries where they lived without any problems, to Israel no less than the Palestinians were forced by the Zionists from their homes. The Palestinians, of course, had suffered more. Nissim Kalderon, another Israeli lecturer in cinematography from Tel Aviv University (is cinematography the new home of the self-hating Jewish left?) spent his time attacking the Zionist enterprise from day one. They were only exceeded in their vehemence by Simone Bitton, (also in film) who called the Israeli government "fascist" in her opening remarks, and Elie Beida, a Syrian/Lebanese Jew now also living in France who blamed all the woes of the world, especially his own, on the evils of Zionism. These were the extremists.

Most of the Jews who spoke at the meeting were simply what Americans call "bleeding-hearts" so uncomfortable over the present situation of the Palestinians that they must attribute all fault to the "mean old Israeli government" and its supporters. They did not reject Zionism or Israel's right to exist but spent their time criticizing Israeli government policy.

The Palestinians, by contrast were disciplined and unbending. The same message came forth from their group, sometimes harshly, sometimes forcefully without being harsh, and sometimes in a more conciliatory tone, -- that the Palestinian and Jewish experiences have been symmetrical and now is the time for a compromise around a two-state solution and then there will be peace. As one accustomed to Jewish gatherings where every opinion is expressed whether it is appropriate for the time and the place or not, their discipline was overwhelming. Not only did the discipline stand in stark contrast to the Israeli delegation but the Palestinians never admitted to doing anything wrong or reflected on whether they might have done or be doing something differently. They never took any responsibility for what had happened to them. In one absurd case, one Palestinian writer stated that the only reason that no Palestinian state had come into existence in 1947 was because the Stern gang of present Israeli Prime Minister Shamir (as he described LEHI) assassinated Count Bernadotte. He seemed to have no notion that the Palestinians had rejected partition and resisted the establishment of a separate Palestinian state and in this were joined by the rest of the Arab world. The discussions of why the Jews in the Arab lands left were similarly self-serving and unbending.

The writers and intellectuals among the Arabs were the worst. Whereas the politicians and functionaries at least pursued a relatively moderate tone, the writers and intellectuals attacked Israel and Zionism as if they were the devil personified. Thus, ironically, the conference was less polarized because the Palestinians did not live up to advance billing in the composition of their delegation.

Despite the impression given by certain of the Israeli and other Jewish speakers, with one or two exceptions, most of the Israeli delegation behaved responsibly. Shlomo Elbaz gave a beautifully balanced opening presentation directed toward the stated goal of the conference and Dr. Maurice Roumani of Ben-Gurion University talked of the relationship of the Jews from the Arab lands with Israel and with Arabic culture with honesty, sensitivity and balance. Israeli writer Sammy Mikhael was furious with the self-hating Jewish leftists. Many were appalled by the rigidity of the Palestinians and the unseemly statements of their Jewish colleagues.

Much of this came out only after I made my statement in which, while calling for peace, I pointed out Israel need not apologize for being a state, that the experience of Jewish history, including the experience of the Jews of Spain and Toledo, had demonstrated to us that no matter how harmonious relations between peoples were from time to time, in the end, as a small minority, the Jews had always suffered from being unable to control our own destiny, that the dynamic Jewish culture of the twentieth century owed its character to the impact of Zionism, even when people were unaware of that fact, and that any Israeli-Palestinian dialogue would have to be based upon the Palestinians' recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, not only the right of Israel to exist as a state. This last point is particularly important since the Palestinian peace offensive has tried to avoid any such acknowledgement, continuing in the belief, as stated by one or two of the more extreme Palestinian representatives at the conference, that Judaism is merely a religion and has no national character.

My statement was received about as I expected it would be. Any number of Israelis and some of the other Jews there as well came over to me to thank me, indicating that they were with me. In that respect, what we might call ordinary Sephardic militants in Israel are also Jews like all other Jews and were appalled by what some of their colleagues were doing. The Jewish extremists ceased talking with me.

The worst offenders in all of this were the diaspora leftists, particularly those who had once lived in Israel. You could palpably feel their perceived personal histories being reinterpreted in grand historical terms. With no anchor in Israel, they needed to show no responsibility toward their people, much less the state. They, along with the Arab intellectuals, consistently falsified history, not necessarily cynically, but with the passion of true believers for whom only their theories of Palestinian nationhood mattered.

In falsifying history, the two Spanish professors who spoke were the worst, more pro-PLO than the PLO representatives themselves. One not only denied the legitimacy of any Jewish claim to the land, (although he recognized that Israel was now a reality) but lauded the rediscovery of Palestinian nationhood. For him the Palestinians had been a nation from time immemorial, but had lost their national consciousness until recently.

In most cases Palestinian nationalism was treated as a relatively new phenomenon, even when an effort was made to treat the name Palestine as the original name of the land. (For example, because my family has long lived in Jerusalem I was listed as being from a Palestinian background and all those born in Eretz Israel before 1948 were listed as having been born in Palestine or "Mandatory Palestine.") A reading of the transcript of the Palestinians' historical analysis and that of their friends would lead to a whole new mythic history. Two people even presented it as such, arguing that the Palestinians needed that myth.

Given the picture of this encounter which, from the reports I have received was not really different from any of the other so-called dialogues that Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians have engaged in over the past months, even years, what are the prospect for peace? I am still hopeful that prospects exist. The Palestinians were careful not to reject the Shamir plan as a step toward that goal, (though of course they did not endorse it). I did come away with the feeling that the PLO has moved in the direction of peace -- for its own purposes, of course, but for the first time it might be possible to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians.

All the fawning and breast-beating of certain members of the Israeli left does not do us any service in the cause of peace. But the Palestinians themselves understand that these are not the people who will make peace. They exploit them as part of their peace offensive. Indeed this whole meeting and the way it was structured had much of this exploitation about it. These Jews are used as "shills" to attract media attention to the presentation of the latest PLO peace initiative.

The problem is that the PLO is becoming more demanding as our leftists become more accommodating, often giving them more than they have dared to ask for. We all know that foreign relations in democracy is difficult because negotiations have to be public and the divisions within the democratic negotiating party are visible to the party on the other side. If the latter is able to maintain a united front by less than democratic means, this gives them an advantage.

Things are even more difficult when Jews are involved since we have yet to learn the minimum of self-restraint and self-discipline that goes with statesmanship. After seeing Toledo I have even less wonder at the fact that Prime Minister Shamir often takes such a hardline position when it is his task to counteract the false impressions given by a tiny but very vocal minority with regard to Israel's intentions. In essence he has to remind the world and the Palestinians over and over again that whatever intellectuals of the peripheral left may say at these kinds of international gatherings, the government sits in Jerusalem and that is where the real center of power is and will remain and it is the government with whom peace must be made.

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