Friday, March 28, 2008

Where the moderates are

Army of Shadows
By Hillel Cohen
Translated by Haim Watzman
University of California Press
344 pages; NIS 159/$29.95

This is a book I purchased because I was tempted by its cover photograph of a Jew visiting an Arab village in 1940, even as I was repelled by the word "collaboration" in its subtitle.

The Jew - the jacket description calls him a "settler" - wearing a Western suit, is sitting slightly higher than the Arab, who is traditionally dressed and wearing a keffiyeh. The Arab has his hand on the visitor's knee. He looks warily at the camera as his guest, whom we see in profile, speaks.

In Army of Shadows - Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948, Hillel Cohen of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem tells the absorbing story of the Palestinian Arabs who sought accommodation with the Zionist movement. This book answers the question: Where are the Palestinian moderates?

For more than 90 years, Arab radicals have been at war not only with with Zionism, but simultaneously with any Arab voice - Christian, Muslim, Druse or Beduin - advocating moderation and coexistence with the Zionist enterprise. So, where are the moderates?

They are dead - hacked up with axes, riddled with bullets, slaughtered with knives and exploded by bombs. That's where the Arab moderates are. This book chronicles their story from the start of the British Mandate until the War of Independence.

I GET the impression that Hillel Cohen is sympathetic to the Palestinians' plight - he knows Arabic, has many Arab friends and a long-standing interest in the Arabs of Israel and the Arab "peace camp." Here he tells a poignant tale that is seldom presented in Palestinian history about the many, many, let's call them "moderate" Arabs who recognized that going to war with the Zionist enterprise would end in catastrophe for the Arab side - in a nakba. These Arabs were labeled "traitors" and "collaborators."

Cohen says that "as an Israeli Jew, I have no standing to determine who is a traitor to the Palestinian cause." Well, as an Israeli Jew and a Zionist reading this book, I think the evidence is overwhelming: Arab fanatics are the real traitors to the Palestinian cause; it is they who prevented the creation of a Palestinian state in 1948, and it is they who have been doing everything inhumanly possible to foil the creation of a Palestinian state ever since.

As Cohen tells it, there were two factions in Palestinian Arab society: the fanatics led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem; and the moderates, who included such notable families as the Nashashibis. The latter "believed that the Zionists could not be defeated and that the common good of Palestinian Arabs demanded coexistence with Jews."

The Zionists, yes, collaborated with the moderate Arabs in land purchases, business, trade, intelligence and sometimes also militarily. Cohen's research shows that the Jewish Agency and Hagana paid Arab informants, funded pro-Zionist Arab newspapers (though often insufficiently and erratically) and made an effort (often far too little) to support Arabs who were friends of the Jews. The Zionists correctly intuited that the Arabs of Palestine did not mostly define themselves as "Palestinians," but self-identified by their clan, locale - urban or rural - and as part of the greater Arab or Muslim collective.

The "collaborators," says Cohen, had various motives: sometimes personal gain, but just as often communal interest. Often they merely wanted to do the ethical or humane thing.
Yet the mufti insisted that Palestinian Arabs define their cause in religio-nationalist terms - insisting that only his brand of Palestinian identity was legitimate and that a moderate nationalism which acquiesced in any semblance of Jewish rights to the Land of Israel was treason.

THE REJECTIONISTS spearheaded a continuum of murderous riots, beginning in the 1920s. Even as they were killing Jews, they were also intimidating any Arab tainted by a Jewish link. Fanatics even opposed connecting Arab villages to the Zionists' electrical grid. They opposed establishing self-governing institutions for the Arabs of Palestine and participation in municipal elections. They advocated a boycott of Jewish products and vehemently opposed Jews and Arabs working for or with each other.

Then, as now, the hard-liners controlled the mosques, which they used to incite against the Jews and against Arabs who did business with Jews. Initially, their fatwas merely warned of beatings for disobedience. With time, they would command the murder of moderates. (Christian Arab clerics issued their own anti-Jewish rulings in their elusive quest to win acceptance as loyal Palestinians.)

Cohen reports that "in autumn 1929, for the first time, a Palestinian public figure was murdered for collaborating with the Zionists - Sheikh Musa Hadeib from the village of Duwaimah, head of the farmers' party of Mt. Hebron."

The incitement in the mosques and pro-mufti newspapers intensified and begot a brutality which became part of the fabric of Palestinian society. In 1928, Izz a-Din al-Kassam (among others) organized jihadist cells which attacked Jews, the British and Arab "collaborators."
"Any person who dares negotiate with [Chaim] Weizmann will meet a bitter end," the extremists warned.

In the period covered by the book, hundreds of Palestinian moderates - maybe 1,000 - were murdered. Countless others got the message: Moderation is treason punishable by death.
There was no appeasing the rejectionists. Not even the draconian White Paper, issued just four months before Hitler's invasion of Poland - a British policy turnabout which dealt a near-fatal blow to the Zionist enterprise - went far enough for the fanatics. No step save the complete eradication of the Zionist enterprise would be tolerated.

Yet here is the voice of one moderate speaking to the extremists, as unearthed by Cohen's research: "I am not a traitor... I am not a Zionist... Our national demands are equivalent, but our means differ. Your method will lead you to destruction and to expulsion. A man has a right to criticize, and criticism should not be obstructed... I cannot recognize Haj Amin al-Husseini as the leader of Palestine because his direction has brought no benefit to the country.

Those were the sentiments of Muhammad Tawil from Acre. His words went unheeded by the Palestinian Arabs, and he was ultimately abandoned to his own devices by an ungrateful Jewish Agency leadership.

IN TELLING the story of the "collaborators," Cohen also sheds light on the development of Palestinian nationalism, aspects of the Arab refugee problem, and also why so many Palestinian Arabs simply refused to join the radicals in fighting the Jews during the War of Independence.

Cohen demonstrates how, at some level, the Zionist enterprise and Arabs in Palestine were indeed engaged in a zero-sum competition. Without land there could be no Jewish state, and you don't have to be a bleeding-heart leftist to realize that much injustice was done to the poor Arab fellahin. Yes, in many instances there was dispossession - even if, in a technical sense, it was done legally.

And yet, had the Arab moderates triumphed, all-out catastrophe could have been avoided. A modus vivendi could have been found. Mandatory Palestine - which, after all, was supposed to stretch from the Mediterranean to what is today the Iraqi border - could have accommodated both peoples. The Jews had no alternatives but to resurrect their ancient homeland - and the Zionists recognized this long before 1933, when Hitler came to power, or 1942, when the Nazis were implementing their industrial-scale genocide.

Army of Shadows is an important academic work that is accessible to general readers. It painfully exposes how today's violent, dysfunctional, pathological polity that is "Palestine" came to be.

It is a story of a misbegotten revolution that consumed its own.
FROM A Q&A WITH THE AUTHOR

The cover photo of your book is intriguing. What's the story of that picture?
I found the photo at Israel's national photo collection, and it caught my eye immediately, mainly because it represents the meeting of two nationalisms and actually two cultures.
What we see is a group of Jews from Zichron Ya'acov visiting a neighboring village. Its name was not mentioned in the photo description, but it was probably Subbarin (demolished in 1948).
We see the physical nearness, together with the cultural gap. For me the scene represents the attempts Zionist settlers made to communicate with the local Arabs, and the apparent difficulties of such meetings.
And since I wrote the book before I found the photo, it tells me how little we can really know about such a meeting, since this kind of encounter was sometimes based on a genuine wish to create good relations, sometimes aimed at exploiting the Arabs, and so on. In other words, the photo illustrates the complexity of the Zionists' attitude toward the Palestinian Arabs, and vice versa.

You identify yourself as an Israeli and as a Jew. Given that this book is about Palestinian Arabs and Zionists, what - if anything - should we read into your decision not to self-identify also as a Zionist?
Don't read anything into it. Sometimes I identify myself as a Zionist, sometimes not.

Do you agree that had the "collaborators" gained the upper hand in the development of Palestinian nationalism, the past 60 years could have been very different?
Yes, this is part of what I suggest, but of course only as a possibility, not as a firm conclusion. It is very difficult to know what the Zionist response would have been had Arab moderation triumphed. Remember that in 1948, Arab rejectionism served to the advantage of the Zionist movement and was, in some cases, encouraged by it.

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