There has been a delicious debate in the Israeli press of late. As an Arab, I found myself, yet again, unwittingly drawn into the never-ending political hocus-pocus on transferring Arab citizens to Palestinian territories. The Liberman Plan genie was out of the bottle again.
Billing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as both inevitable and inherent, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman grumbles that it makes no sense to create a Palestinian state devoid of Jews at the time when Israel has turned into a dual-population state with over 20% Arabs. Hence the “Populated- Area Exchange Plan,” which proposes an exchange of populated territories between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
I confess, there is a certain political charm in Liberman’s argument. For when you see a passionate Zionist like Liberman take such great pains to explain to everyone, including his Arab opponents, that his plan is not a population transfer but a mere territorial swap, you need to have a thick skin to strike back.
Unwilling to embark on yet another wasted journey, I soon realized that perhaps the best way to refute a Zionist formula was to counter it with another Zionist formula. In other words, while Liberman’s political rationale appeals to many Zionists today, it is not what his Zionist pioneers necessarily thought, at least not from what I have found throughout my academic inquiry into Zionist political history.
I am currently writing my PhD dissertation in the field of Israel/ Palestine history at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Initially, my research was meant to be a comparative study on the politics of nativism in Mandatory Palestine. However, eventually I realized I was actually writing a story with the least expected of heroes: David Ben-Gurion.
It began as a mistake. While searching a vast body of primary sources from that period, I came upon an old, dusty collection of Hebrew texts dating back to the summer of 1917, which, to put it in pompous academic terms, was way beyond the scope of my study. That is when I discovered what I came to call the Younger David Ben-Gurion, a Ben-Gurion that only a few of us know or want to know, and who not only presented me with a dying breed of Zionists, but with the death of my original research plans.
Writing during his three-year stay in the United States (New York), this Ben-Gurion was more interested in ethnography and genealogy than politics per se, or perhaps saw the former as an introduction to the latter. Then, and to my astonishment, I discovered that according to this Ben-Gurion, I was actually a Jew.
At another time, I would probably have laughed such a statement out of court. But read within the context of fast-growing Libermania, this little discovery had an air of gravitas to me, meshed with a strange sense of salvation.
“The fellaheen [of Palestine] are none but those ancient Jews who were forced to convert to the religion of Arab Beduin [or the “pure Arabs” as he prefers to call them], who had conquered the land in the seventh century,” writes Ben-Gurion in his intriguing essay on The Origins of the Fellaheen.
Interestingly enough, and to defend his not-so-eccentric theory, the same Ben-Gurion would go on defending Islam on strictly theological terms. For it is thanks to the relative tolerance of Islam, affirms Ben-Gurion, that those Hebrew fellaheen were eventually tempted into conversion.
After countering previous claims that the fellaheen were the descendants of the ancient Canaanites (or the Romans, or the Greeks), Ben-Gurion comes to the following conclusion: The fellaheen, being the descendants of the ancient Hebrew people, were the true natives of the land, and thus represented an ideal nativist model for Jewish newcomers in Palestine. In other words, the younger Ben-Gurion was interested in a form of reverse assimilation: to become a true Jew is to become a true Palestinian.
While the product of historical imagination, Ben-Gurion’s theory still has a shred of political allure, even, and especially, for today’s politics. For perhaps Palestinians and Jews were not fated to represent two separate entities that existed from time immemorial, and are not necessarily doomed to be forever locked into two distinct historical trajectories.
Perhaps tolerance is a magic formula after all, not only for historical reconstruction, but also for historical reconciliation.
The author is an Arab citizen of Israel; he is currently a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.