Holy Land Mosaic. Stories of Cooperation and Coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yakov Rabkin
Spring 2009

Israel, which used to prohibit all contacts with the PLO and continues to isolate Published in Outlook (Vancouver)

Daniel Gavron. Holy Land Mosaic. Stories of Cooperation and Coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Toronto: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, XIX+197 pp., list and bibliography.

Unlike many books about Israel/Palestine relations, this one conveys some optimism. The author, the British-born journalist who settled in Israel several decades ago, sets out to show that cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians has been viable and productive. He begins by quoting Dwight Eisenhower: “… people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace that our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” The book shows that the government that has to get “out of the way” is the government of Israelis from Palestinians by intricate regulations and, of course, by the Separation Barrier, also known as the Apartheid Wall. The reader will see how detrimental the dominant attitudes of the Israeli elites have been for both Israelis and Palestinians. Presenting facts of Israeli aggression against Palestinians the author abstains from condemning it, which helps him avoid sounding polemical. (see, e.g., his account of a house demolition on p. 26)

While he brilliantly outlines the political history of Israel, Gavron focuses mostly on the individual rather than on the political and social system that developed in Israel. This is admirable in its own way even if it reminds the reader of those who tried to help South African Blacks without questioning the regime of Apartheid. Moreover, the desire to engage Palestinians in cooperation tends to obscure the asymmetry of power and wealth that characterizes this relationship. Invited to debate with Israelis, one Palestinian produced a telling image. An Israeli and a Palestinian sit each on his chair in front of each other. The Israeli is disappointed that the Palestinian does not appreciate the opportunity to talk. But the Palestinian points out that the Israeli’s chair sits on his foot: “First get off my foot and then we shall talk”. Occupation and economic disparity make dialogue difficult and suspect of trying to perpetuate the domination through making it more palatable. The author quotes Razi Suleiman, a Haifa University psychologist, who observes: “it is always Arab participants who bring up topics such as discrimination, inequality of opportunity, and confiscation of Arab land.” (p. 68) It also appears that genuine dialogue leads necessarily to a one-state solution (p. 69, and option that Gavron has advocated for years.

The book covers several areas of cooperation such as study, work, human rights and media. It is well written and conveys a sincere desire for mutual understanding. Gavron relates the story of a Druze who objects to the use of the Israeli term du-kiyum for coexistence because it means coexistence between two entities. He argues for a more inclusive term that would mean equality and coexistence among all the different groups who inhabit the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Stories of a school that teaches in Arabic and Hebrew make one share the author’s optimism. The students come out fluently bilingual and apparently devoid of stereotypes that plague Israeli society. At the same time, one cannot help wondering if the graduates of such a school will have a tangible impact in real life. Many German Jews brought with them admirable ideas of interethnic equality and common decency in the 1930s but their impact on Israel’s political and social reality has been negligible. Nowadays, it is the hospital – where all by definition are sick – that remains perhaps the only island of sanity in an otherwise segregated society. (p. 73)

Gavron remains positive as he shows many people of good will among Jews and Arabs. Moreover, he brings back memories of harmonious relations that had existed prior to the Zionist settlement in Palestine, and particularly before the unilateral declaration of independence. (p. 90) Gavron, just like Zeev Sternhell, Ruth Gavison and a few other Israeli intellectuals, aims at rehabilitating Zionism that, one may recall, brought him to Israel in the first place. His is the humanistic variety of Zionism that has all but disappeared from the scene: Jabotinsky and his disciples have clearly won out in both politics and public discourse. Gavron has defended the concept of a common state for Israelis and Palestinians and, in this sense, finds himself in the venerable company of Jehuda Magnes and Martin Buber. Gavron affirms he is a Zionist and aims at “the integration of the Zionist enterprise into the Middle East” (p. 196) He also quotes one of the activists of cooperation for whom “the task of Zionism today is learning to live with our Palestinian citizens and our Palestinian and Jordanian neighbours” (p. 196). On the other hand, Gavron seems to give up on Israel’s public opinion and expects that only international action can bring the occupation and the segregation to an end.

Occasionally imprecisions spoil the otherwise excellent narrative: for example, the author confuses Zionists and Jews (the settlers are called “Jewish” rather than “Zionist” on p. 37 and 152) and places Göttingen in Sweden (p. 5). The author also often refers to “Jews, Christians and Muslims” as if the problem were of religious rather than ethnic or racial nature. (e.g., p. 71) Better editing could also help (e.g., the use of “all volunteers” twice in the same sentence, p. 109). In spite of these minor imperfections, it is an eminently readable and honest book that leaves a bittersweet taste, which is what the author must feel after many years in the country of his choice.

Yakov M Rabkin

Department of History

University of Montreal

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Holy Land Mosaic. Stories of Cooperation and Coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.