Divide and divide and divide and rule

Yonatan Mendel

  • 1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Hillel Cohen, translation by Haim Watzman
    Brandeis, 312 pp, £20.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 61168 811 5

Ten minutes into Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains, the Palestinian city of Nazareth officially surrenders to Israeli military forces on 16 July 1948. In the town hall, the Israeli commander reads out the bill of surrender to the gathered Arab-Palestinian notables. It’s in Hebrew and they don’t understand a word. The commander tells the mayor to sign the document, and then to join his soldiers for a ‘historic photo’. A military cameraman points his camera at the soldiers. But when the black and white photo appears on screen it isn’t the soldiers we see: it’s the puzzled group of Arab-Palestinian figures at the other end of the room, ordinary people, onlookers. They, and others like them, are central figures in the work of Hillel Cohen. Neither the conventional ‘winners’ nor the stereotypical ‘losers’, they play a part in the grand political story which, though crucial, is often overlooked.

Cohen was born in 1961 into a National Religious family; his father was of Jewish Afghan origin, his mother of Jewish Polish descent. As a teenager he lived in a settlement in the West Bank. He left school at 16 and began to explore the neighbouring Palestinian villages. He made friends, learned Arabic, and by being there found out about the lives of Palestinians under the occupation. He worked as a floorer before beginning his academic career. He reads the Bible but no longer considers himself ‘religious’. He goes ‘more often to Hebron than to Tel Aviv and more often to Bethlehem than to Haifa’. He believes in a one-state solution (at least in the long term) and supports Israeli human rights organisations such as Anarchists against the Wall and Hamoked, which works with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories whose rights have been violated by Israeli policies. He writes in Hebrew – unusually for an academic, he doesn’t have an international audience primarily in mind. In half a dozen scholarly books covering the history of Palestine and Israel from 1929 to 1967 and beyond, he has consistently written about ordinary people, something no other Israeli historian has managed to do.

Cohen identifies 1929 as the year that gave birth ‘to the Zionist military ethos’. The Arab-Israeli conflict probably doesn’t have a ‘year zero’ – its roots go back at least as far as the 19th century – but 1929 should certainly be seen as a landmark. Between 23 and 29 August that year, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed. Hundreds more were injured. The worst violence was in the Old City of Jerusalem and near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Cohen shows how the violence was connected to the threat – real or imagined – of a change in the status of a religious site that served as a symbol of political hegemony. In the 1920s, the Western Wall in Jerusalem was a Jewish prayer site in an Arab area where ‘Jews were allowed to pray … on the condition that they not disturb the residents of the neighbourhood, and on the understanding that they not claim title to the site.’

On 15 August 1929, following months of tension, Jewish demonstrators marched to the Wall, raised the Zionist flag, sang the Zionist anthem and claimed ownership of the site. The effect on relations between Jews and Arabs was dramatic. There was an Arab counter-demonstration the next day, which within a week had escalated into full-blown anti-Jewish riots. (More recent violence in Jerusalem has also been a consequence of Israeli attempts to change the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. The Second Intifada was sparked in 2000 by Ariel Sharon’s decision to visit the site to prove Israeli sovereignty; and the latest cycle of violence in Jerusalem follows 15 meetings at which the Interior Committee of the Knesset discussed changing the site’s status to allow Jews to pray there.)

Drawing on a wide range of sources, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Cohen argues that neither side includes in the history it tells itself the massacres and murders committed by its own members. He juxtaposes Hebrew and Arabic accounts of particular incidents – for example, the murder of the Palestinian ‘Awn family in Abu Kabir village by a Jewish policeman named Simha Hinkis – and shows how Jews and Arabs described them at the time, and how they have been remembered, and forgotten, since. In Biladuna Filastin (‘Our Homeland Palestine’) Mustafa Dabbagh describes the murders of the ‘Awn family and the way Hinkis mutilated their bodies: Jewish newspapers didn’t report the crime at all, and when they covered the trial referred to the murder as the ‘Hinkis incident’.

The division between the two communities – Jewish Zionists on one side and Arab Palestinians on the other – ‘grew ever more salient’, Cohen argues, ‘as national identity grew stronger’. At the beginning of the 20th century, many of the Jews in Palestine, not to mention the wider Middle East, had no Zionist national aspirations. The riots of 1929 changed that. ‘No other factor was more influential in bringing the established Jewish communities in Palestine and the new Zionist community together under a single political roof.’

After 1929 tension was no longer between the indigenous population (Arab Palestinians, including Jews) and European Zionist immigrants, but between Arabs and Jews. In Israel today, descendants of Mizrahi Jews (or Arab Jews) tend to have more anti-Arab views than the rest of the Jewish population. This has a lot to do with the narrow range of identities ‘allowed’ by Zionist European ideologies, according to which an Arab cannot be a Jew and a Jew cannot be an Arab. The 1929 attacks on Mizrahi Jews, who spoke Arabic and dressed in Arab clothes, marked a moment of dramatic change.

Mazal Cohen was a Jewish woman murdered in Safed on 29 August 1929. Her brother spoke at her funeral:

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