“Israel” “Arabs” “Jews” “Muslims”


Well, this is going to be a strange post, but I’ll go out a limb with it. Because with all the bloviating about “Islamo-fascism” and “Islamophobia,” what strikes me is the absolutely quick and completely incomplete learning-curve events since 9/11 and shifts in demographics have forced upon us benighted Americans. So I’m going to admit that like most Americans, and most American Jews, I had, growing up, practically no exposure to “Arabs” and “Muslims”. Zilch, “they” were an abstraction at most. Before 9/11, “they” hardly mattered in the culutre. Today they do very much and are incredibly visible. What’s not clear is the genesis of consciousness, how and under what conditions and pressures people who were not on one’s personal and cultural radar gradually come to appear, first as imaginal figures, and then as actual human persons.

Actually as an American Jew growing up in a Zionist home the story is more complicated, but not by much, because of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. I can’t really recall the first time I ever met an Arab or a Muslim person. But then again, growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s, my ties with  Christians were more fraught than one might think. These were ties characterized first by friendship, then enmity, followed by indifference and distance, followed by friendship later in life. This perhaps is the subject of another post. But I’m pretty confident that I never met “a Muslim” or “an Arab” growing up. This may have a lot to do with immigration history, and also with the fact that Arabs and Muslims are still a small minority population in the United States.

In high school in the late 1970s I recall these impressionistic fragments: the image of the Arab and Muslim in the Leon Uris movie Exodus, in Lawrence of Arabia. I also tried to read T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but found it very boring. The pictures of “the Arab” were venal and noble, heavily reified and culturally coded. But I remember watching reports of Sadat’s visit to the Knesset on television, the vaguely sensed face of the enemy and the forging of peace. I think it was in November and there were leaves outside in the front yard. And then this odd tidbit from the mid 1970s: my father sending my older brother, a teenager, one summer to work at a “bookstore” in Amsterdam. My father had business contacts with the proprietor, and it was run by a Palestinian reputed to be involved with the PLO, or so according to family lore.

In the 1970s and 1980s at Habonim Camp Moshava, part of a larger international Labor Zionist Youth Movement, most of us never would have met an Arab, a Palestinian, or a Palestinian Israeli. One summer, it must have been in the 1980s, an Israeli Palestinian politician came to talk with us about a single secular state. I remember sitting with him and some other friends outside at a picnic table. A polite conversation, it went nowhere. As for Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, as they were then called, I’m pretty sure I would have met no one during the time I spent on kibbutz in the southern Arava desert or in Jerusalem, or with family in Hadera. They were, of course, invisible, even more invisible in the 1980s than perhaps today; maybe it’s just as bad today as it was then. A lot of effort was spent learning the old and by now discarded Israeli narrative re: “the birth of the Palestinian refugee crisis.” The term “nakba” was unfamiliar then, not yet part of the larger discourse in the West. In our ideological universe, Palestinians and Arabs were the faceless enemy with whom we thought Israel should make peace, although upon what basis it was unclear. Our first thoughts, it turned out, were completely unrealistic. On a trip to Spain in 1985, on the way to Israel, I was blown away by the architecture and gardens of the Alhambra. And sometimes on the kibbutz, driving a tractor near the Jordanian border I would tune in to guys chanting Koranic verses on the radio.

At university, one year at Columbia, and then two years at UMass/Amherst in 1981-2 and then 1986-8, I recall only the barest recollections. I was shocked by the absoluteness of  Arab/Palestinian/Leftist anti-Zionism. As an entering undergraduate, I was naïve enough to think that the problem was the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, not the existence of Israel or the idea of “a Jewish state.” I joined the Progressive Zionist Caucus, but there was no interaction, not even unfriendly, with Arab or Palestinian students or faculty. I recall going to a couple of events. A PLO guy came to UMass, and I recall him flatly denying the existence of the “dhimmi” status of Jews (and Christians) in Muslim/Arab societies. There was a guy named Nabil who was on friendly but hostile terms with the Hillel director at UMass, an Israeli woman, who was quite friendly to us. There was something anguished about him. I’m thinking he was a refugee from Palestinian camp in Lebanon, which could have meant any number of things so close to the brutal Lebanon Civil War in the mid-1970s, and the first Israeli Lebanon War. There was almost zero interaction. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to have too much to do with us.

After two years of graduate school at Stanford, M. and I moved to San Francisco. We spent very friendly hours with Sam, Susan, and their kids at the corner convenience store at Valencia and 20th St, near where we lived in the Mission District. We talked a lot about everything, including politics and Israel, on long warm nights and cold ones also. Sam and Susan were Palestinian immigrants, I think from Jordan, originally from Ramallah, I think. Another guy, also Palestinian owned a coffee joint where I used to sit and read for hours, back in the age before Starbucks. He reminded me of my friend Z. There was an Egyptian guy named Ramsy (?) who used to come by Sam and Susan’s store. If I recall, almost all of the area corner convenience stores were run by Palestinians. Sam and Susan were Christians who hated Muslims, or that’s what they said. I think that’s why they left the Middle East for the United States. As for the Department of Religion, Islam was not taught at Stanford when I was in graduate school, prior to 9/11. Everyone was reading Said’s Orientalism, a book which, even then, I thought was overstated and overrated.

In New York, when M. and I were “squatting” at my recently deceased great aunt’s apartment in NY. My parents had bought the place for her and her sister in the 1980s. There was a doorman named T. from Bangladesh with whom we were very friendly. And I used to buy the Sunday New York Times from a guy from Pakistan. We were always very friendly with each other in the way that happens, especially in big cities, when random strangers happen to meet up with each other on the basis of regular, daily or weekly habit. When was it that I noticed that “Muslims are everywhere” in New York, a visible part of the city, and not just on television or Hollywood character villains. Just guys selling halal whom one comes to know a bit when you keep going back to the same stand because you like the schwarma; or students and professors, and kids with their parents and parents with their kids, and young women in hijab and niqab, which for the life of me I still don’t understand, but, who cares, because that lack of comprehension is really my problem, not theirs.

About Israel-Palestine, this was before we moved to New York, I remember first hearing about the by now fatally flawed Oslo Accords. I heard the news when I was visiting M. in Quito, Ecuador where she was doing field work for her dissertation. It was like the heavens opened up. Whatever it’s faults, Oslo was the first expression of a promise of mutual recognition that changed everything. Back then, only radical leftists used to talk about a Palestinian State. Most of us in Habonim were still talking about the fantasy of a Jordanian option. And now the idea of two state solution was part of mainstream Israeli, Zionist, Jewish discourse. Amazing was the idea that Israelis were going to recognize Palestinians and Palestinians were going to recognize Israelis as people. The Second Intifadah, 9/11, and the Iraq War were all disasters from which I suppose “we” are all still reeling, Jews, Muslims, Christians alike. I remember watching a young guy, Arab, maybe Palestinian on a subway, wearing a keffiyeh. It seemed to me he was coming from or going to a demonstration. He looked like he had been crying his eyes out.

Oslo changed everything for me, and probably not just me. So did the internet. I started in 1997 reading the Israeli press online. And then, after 9/11, I started reading, in English translation, not just the news from Israel, but Arab and Palestinian media, the Palestine Chronicle at first, and the talkbacks at the Guardian when they posted about Israel, Iraq, or the Middle East. It was a visceral discovery, like a self-awakening. As much as “the Arab” is “other” to “me,” it’s just as true that “I” am as much a “problem” to lots of people in the Arab and Muslim worlds. After a while the laceration and self-exposure to laceration gets boring. What I find more helpful are more liberal Arabic and Turkish online media, which I read now on a daily, automatic habitual basis. What interests me most are the articles and authors of opinion pieces write about the Arab world as if Israel didn’t exist, or as if the problem with Israel was the occupation of the West Bank, and not Jews controlling everything or the existence of Israel. Sometimes there is material about Israel, but more often about Iran, and now Egypt, and now Syria, at least these days at the sites that I read. At first there was a lot of cognitive dissonance, but now I find or have cultivated different kinds of affinities.

The most important change are friends who study Islam or Arab history, or Muslim colleagues here at SU and elsewhere, people I follow online, people who deserve and to whom I owe bonds of respect and affection. And perhaps even more important are the graduate students for whose intellectual welfare I am, in part, contractually, morally, and affectively responsible. These are not empty or formal obligations, no special form of “charity” or “tolerance.” This has everything to do with universal decency and the concord between persons who recognize each other as equal persons.

Where does this leave me? Obsessed by the Middle East and open to the changed and changing social conditions of my more immediate surroundings, I follow the news and listen to and learn from the people around me, and perceptions change, and maybe you realize that one should want to respond to people as human beings, and get to the point where “Jew,” “Arab,” and “Muslim” might come to mean something else than the “things” they signify now. Is it a “right” that one has to like and to dislike, to be liked and to be disliked without any of this having to do with “identity” per se? For young people, maybe all this will reflect for the new normal, which, for me, being not so young, is very different than anything I might have imagined in the 1970s and 1980s.

I think it’s the connection to Israel and to Zionism that has in such large part drawn my interest to the larger political worlds that I follow, to people from and to places in “the Levant” for whom and for which I wish well, not ill. I’m not so sure I would have cared as much, one way or the other without that connection. Most of all, I can’t stand the designation of the hard and fast distinction between “the friend” and “the enemy.” It’s a fascist designation, and it doesn’t do me or anyone else any good. This is not to say too much. Again, I understand that as much as “the Arab” or “the Muslim” is a “problem” to “me,” that “I” am just as much a “problem” to “them,” as “a Jew,” and “a Zionist,” whatever that still means. Forget the rightwing canard, “Islamic anti-Semitism.” The Judeophobia and conspiracy theories about Jews and Zionists and Israel in the Arab and Muslim worlds have caused enough damage on their own, and Islam has nothing to do with it in any simple way, not one way or the other. There’s plenty of enmity and enough points of fracture without the need for cheap caricatures and slogans. But even then, these lines of enmity are not as clearly drawn as they used to be. One thing the new sectarianism in the Middle East does is to make a place, a still uncomfortable place, for Jews and Israelis alongside Arabs, Palestinians, Sunni, Shiites, Alawites, Kurds, Turks, and Iranians.

This is the best I can do. If I have pigeonholed anyone, I apologize. All I can say is that I’m trying to give as honest an account of myself as I can, which means trying to put together scattered bits of memories, impressions, and also reifications. The point is to move past rigid designators towards more felicitous, less injurious [1] affects [2] perceptions, [3] patterns, and [4] structures based on different types of encounters between persons and peoples. I’m pretty sure that I am no more racist and ignorant than a lot of other people, maybe even a little less so, and clearly blinkered. At the end of the day, it should be possible to identify and to forge a more or less common interest based on new encounters, sympathies, habits, and structures. Not locked-down and paranoid, that’s how I want to be able to move about in the world.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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