Book Review of Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron by Menachem Klein
I have a Jewish Israeli friend who lives in Jerusalem. His name is Avner. He lives in and for Jerusalem, totally immersed in both sides of the city, trying his best to bridge the unbridgeable gap between Palestinians and Israelis without a peace deal. Avner and I have a lot in common, we both want the best for our people, and we both have long come to terms that the other side is not disappearing. Before Israel prohibited me from having free access to Jerusalem, Avner and I would meet up for lunch at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, owned by our mutual friend. We would catch up on life, which usually took three minutes, then spend the next hour debating history, politics and the future. Our political arguments always ended on the same note. I would claim that Israel has, and always had, a master plan and acts with full intention. Avner would counter that claim saying I’m giving the Israeli side too much credit and that much of what we are facing are a hodgepodge of haphazard missteps that have created an unfortunate reality on the ground.
Enter Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron by Menachem Klein, another Jewish Israeli friend of mine. Lives in Common offers Avner and me, even if unintentionally, an answer to our ongoing debate. It turns out we are both correct. How so? Read on.
In two parts titled, Connected to Place and Connected by Force, Prof. Klein intertwines in six chapters three geographic locations (Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Hebron) and three historical periods (before the formation of the State of Israel, from its forming to the occupation of the rest of Palestinian territories and from the occupation to current). Throughout he interweaves detailed and well-documented discourses that pivot between the personal (including his own experience) and the official.
Prof. Menachem Klein’s book could have been more accurately titled, Lives and Deaths in Common. In making a compelling case for commonality at the community level between persons living in these three cities, particularly before the establishment of Israel, he does not shy away from showing the death and destruction that chipped away at these connections, reaching to today where one has a hard time finding the commonalities that surely must exist.
Prof. Menachem Klein is a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He was an adviser for Jerusalem Affairs and Israel-PLO Final Status Talks to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. S. Ben-Ami, and a member of the advisory team operating in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He is a board member of the Palestine–Israel Journal and previously was a board member of B’Tselem — The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
Prof. Klein goes to great lengths to depict the local “Jewish-Arab identity” that existed before 1948, which is before the establishment of the state of Israel. He correctly writes that this identity “no longer exists in its original form” and “anyone who advocates such an identity today needs to grant it new meaning.” He gives the reason in the preface: “The Zionist-Palestinian conflict of 1948 finally defeated the local identity that had previously flourished, in different ways, in Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Hebron.” The operative word here, for me, being “finally.”
In the epilogue, Prof. Klein notes that he is “opposed to the tendency of historians to seek out a zero point, a historic event prior to 1948 that tore Jews and Arabs asunder.” He sees “the rift as one that developed gradually and became complete only at the time of the 1948 war.” I would take issue with his avoidance of seeking a “zero point,” given his own words. In the terms: Arab, Jew, Palestinian, Zionism, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Hebron, one sticks out as clearly foreign to the local identity of these three cities and beyond, Zionism.
The book makes amazing use of Israel’s National Archives, official records, especially minutes of meetings, and letters exchanged by citizens and various entities. The insights gained by reading the rationale of many of the official decisions and community responses to what was happening around them — a total deformation of their reality — shed light on what I would claim to Avner is a clear, planned and purposeful strategy to “erase” Palestinians’ history as well as their presence from Palestine. This erasure policy co-existed with actions at the operational level, by those tasked with carrying out Palestine’s dispossession. Along with a plan of action, haphazardness at the implementation level was equally prevalent which makes sense since regardless of side, people come in all shapes and mindsets. Racists, as well as freedom fighters, do not exist in a cookie-cutter fashion.
One of the most painful chapters to read was the one titled, Like Owners. Here, Prof. Klein takes the reader through account after account of Palestinians returning following the war in 1967 to their homes that were taken from them by the new state of Israel and given to Jewish immigrants. This was heartbreaking not only because of the heavy moral weight of dispossession and injustice but also because I have visited many of the places mentioned and personally knew several persons named in the accounts. Palestinian legends like internationalist thinkers and academics Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod from Jaffa and Dr. Gabi Baramki from Jerusalem along with businessman and politician Abdel Mohsin al-Qattan from Jaffa. Three dear friends, three refugees, three inspirations who remained engaged until their last breaths and who will keep future generations carrying their torch for restorative justice lit.
Prof. Klein also chronicles the accounts of several Jewish persons who attempted to return to the homes that they or their families fled from in 1948 and were prohibited under Jordanian rule from returning to until after the physical border disappeared in June 1967. I did not feel this was an attempt of portraying a symmetry, because no such symmetry exists. Prof. Klein is keen to note that these persons, “unlike Israeli settlers,” presented themselves as “visitors” and not as “owners” demanding that the residing Palestinians “leave forthwith.”
Those who need to know
Over the years, I’ve repeated like a broken record that the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence could be convincingly told by way of Jewish and Israeli writers so those who need to understand can have an opportunity to do so within their self-perceived comfort zone. Lives in Common is more proof that this is the case.
Another Jewish friend of mine in New York, who proudly proclaims being an “ardent Zionist,” will have a hard time, as will the larger Jewish-American community, to read this book. They surely had a hard time reading the last one I reviewed as well, What is Modern Israel? by Yakov M. Rabkin. Maybe even Jewish-American Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is too hard to digest as well now that the author, along with his Jewish Israeli-American wife Ayelet Waldman, co-edited a landmark collection on the conflict titled, Kingdom of Olives and Ash.
The greater Jewish diaspora has bought the Israeli state mythology (a.k.a. Hasbara) hook, line, and sinker. Far too many sadly prefer to turn a blind eye to history and reality as they write their checks of support to many of the same outfits that are responsible for bringing affairs to the low point they have reached today. Could it be that this is because what is being done by Israel is being done in their names and they are unable to bring themselves to face the fact that their deafening silence is tantamount to being an active accomplice to ongoing war crimes?
The importance of such books to a Jewish audience noted, I would still strongly recommend this book to Palestinian audiences, especially younger generations who are walled into their cities and even more so diaspora Palestinians, since it seems Palestinian or Jewish, the less cross-border interaction experienced and the further away from ground zero you reside, the more the conflict seems black and white, the Other being the demon of all things gone wrong. Each side has made its fair share of mistakes and we must know and read about these, even while noting that the political movement of Zionism dominated an overarching and violent trajectory since its founding in 1897.
Prof. Klein states it best: “As human life always is, it was not a consistent ideal but rather had many contradictions and rough edges.” Cultural, economic, social and language commonalities aside, one takeaway from this book for newcomers to the topic, is that there is a right and wrong. There is an overarching reason why this conflict, as a conflict and not merely as a collection of actions of operatives acting on either side, came into existence and although it is not black and white as so many — Palestinians and Israelis — would like to proclaim, there is a truth that can’t be swept under the rug of humanity.
As the stories of Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Hebron reflect, life is a moving target and facts on the ground sometimes really do destroy life as we know it. Be it the COVID-19 pandemic, the creation of Zionism, Great Britain’s historic blunder, violence and dispossession in all its forms, or 52 years of Israel’s boot of military occupation pressing on the necks of five million Palestinians, time, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, is neutral. But what we do in the time that we have is the only way that “the arc of the moral universe” will keep “bend[ing] toward justice.”