by Josephine Clervaux
An overflowing capacity crowd came on Wednesday evening February 23rd to the Kenyon Institute in East Jerusalem, to listen to Prof. Menachem Klein speak about his book “Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron”.
Professor Klein started the book presentation by explaining that this is a project to reassemble the commonalities more than the divisions of the Palestinian and the Israeli people, the aim being to present a more optimistic view of the situation and help bring together the two cultures. The book contains portraits of Jerusalemites, and the lives of Jews and Arabs in two other major cities, Jaffa and Hebron, over a period of 150 years beginning with the days of the Ottoman Empire. There have always been Jewish and Arab encounters and interactions in these cities. Since the discussion was taking place in East Jerusalem, with a primarily Palestinian audience, the author decided to focus mainly on the story of lives in common in Jerusalem.
View of Jerusalem in the beginning of the XX century
A different scientific method to show another side of the events
Professor Klein has researched the relationship these two cultures already had at that time. Instead of looking at the institutions, he searched through archives for the personal life of the people, using these experiences as a basis for his study. This is what he calls bottom up analyses instead of most sociological research that uses the top down method. This allowed him to use the singularities of each situation to paint another, maybe more optimistic picture of these complex situations. Surpassing generalities by giving concrete examples undoubtedly permits a unique vision of the progression of this land’s society from the end of the 19th century to nowadays.
The beginning of the conflict
In order to start this enterprise, the researcher decided to identify the development of relations before the Jewish and Arabic nationalist movements. One of the conclusions of his research is the Palestinian’s strong attachment and identification to the land; this feeling of belonging was already present before the creation of the country’s borders. Both people shared the same attachment with the conviction to be part of a broader picture linked to this land. The dramatic change due to the emergence of the national movements inevitably divided the two cultures with both claiming exclusive rights to the Land. This generated a fundamental split which made the encounter more and more difficult for both parties.
Religious barriers not as high
In the late 19th century, there were clear signs of a cultural cohesion. First of all, the Old City was not divided into different Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian ethnic quarters. The different compounds were mixed. Jews rented rooms from the Muslims. The Muslim women respected the requests of the Jewish women.
During the first decade of the 19th century, an Arabic father complained when his children were exempted from classes on the Talmud. Another story relates the memoire written by an Arab Jew on his childhood, showing a child who wished to be part of the Nabi Mousa celebrations. Jews would often participate to the Arabic celebrations. These strong examples communicate the interest of the two ethnic groups one for the other.
Nabi Mousa celebration at Damascus Gate March 8th 1920
Examples of hope
1919 marked the start of riots in Jerusalem; Arabs led by nationalist leaders became violent against Jews in the Old City. After these events, a Jewish man declared in April that he hoped the Palestinians would come back, despite the fact that his own son was killed a little earlier in January’s uprisings.
In contexts like these, this type of heroic abnegation is not possible for human beings unless they are fully conscious of their role as part of a broader picture.
Another case shares the story of a Jewish father who refused to live in a deserted house of Palestinians residents after the 1948 war, even though his wife said it was a payback for the violence suffered by the Jews because of the Arabs “they would’ve done the same to us“. However he answered: “even our enemies are human beings“, justifying it by the following statement:
“Better to live in poverty than to live well on ruins of others“
There was a great focus in the discussion on what the writer pointed out as being a lack of Palestinian sources.
There are, unfortunately, not enough writings of Palestinians to have a full report of their side of the story. It is important to urge the Palestinians to write more about their experiences, their traditions and visions. This would allow having a more objective and a wider possibility of analyses of the events.
The general feeling of the audience was very positive towards the presentation many people were remembering similar stories told by their grandparents. Prof. Klein’s response was again to motivate these commentators to write about these experiences, because of the important historical impact they could have to understanding today’s world. Oral history should not just remain within the family. We cannot remember these stories if they are not written down and made accessible to the general public.
Many thanks to Dr. Mandy Turner, director of the Kenyon institute, for hosting this most interesting event.
Professor Klein teaches in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, and was a member of the Geneva Initiative Negotiations team in 2003. He advised the Israeli delegation for the peace talks with the PLO at Camp David 2000, and is the author of The Shift: Israel-Palestine from Border Struggle to Ethic Conflict, also published by Hurst.