Prime minister David Ben-Gurion had a dim view of the Middle East and its people. Of Yemenite Jewry he wrote to IDF chief of staff Yigael Yadin in 1950, “It is two thousand years away from us, if not more. It is lacking in the most basic and rudimentary conceptions of civilization. Its attitude to children and women is most primitive.” His view of the Arab and Muslim world was that it was primitive and savage and that Jews in Israel would be molded into a modern Eastern European-style state.
Seventy years later Israel has drifted from the fantasies of Ben-Gurion to become more a part of the Middle East. However, despite its attempts to integrate into the region, some of which have been successful, in some ways its leadership is the least integrated of any Israeli generation. After all, Ben-Gurion and others studied at Istanbul University, while Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon grew up alongside Arabs in the pre-state period. So why, after so many decades, does Israel have this janus face?
Part of the reason for Israel’s internal contradiction of being a Middle Eastern country populated by Middle Eastern people which is uncomfortable in the Middle East has to do with its cultural elites and historiography. For some, Ben-Gurion’s views have not changed much with time. Zvi Zameret in his Melting Pot in Israel parroted uncritically Ben-Gurion’s view that Yemenites could be “helped to bridge a gap of thousands of years.” He writes, “despite the different between them [Yemenites] and veteran Israelis, what was important was that the Yemenites should absorb general knowledge, and so on as well as what they could be taught about agricultural labor.”
The view of Yemenites as foreign and Ben-Gurion as a “veteran Israeli” is a bit ironic, considering Ben-Gurion was born in Plonsk in the Polish part of the Russian empire in 1886 and came to Ottoman Palestine in 1906. There had been Yemenite Jews in the Land of Israel, working in agriculture even, long before he came. But the real story of the disdainful view of Middle Eastern peoples as being “a thousand years” behind European Jewish immigrants is due to the fact that the leadership of Israel in its early years was dominated by Labor Zionists born in Europe who were often imbued with a European supremacist ideology.
Their views were not so different than the views of British colonial officers in the Raj or whites in the US. For them it was a fact that Western civilization was not simply more advanced and superior, but civilizations of the Middle East were stereotyped as almost inhuman and animalistic. Arye Gelblum wrote in Haaretz in 1949 of Jews from Muslim countries: “Here we have an extremely primitive people. The level of their education borders upon total ignorance and even more serious is their total inability to comprehend anything spiritual.” They “lack roots in Judaism” and have “primitive and wild instincts.”
Gelblum was from Poland, born in 1912 and had come to British Mandate Palestine in 1925. Looking back at the disdain he and others had for people from the Middle East, one wonders why he came to Palestine? He could have stayed at home in “civilized” Poland. The caricatures many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe had for Jews from the Middle East was similar to the caricature that Jews from Western Europe had for “ostjuden” or Jews from the east.
Their sense of superiority was manufactured from their own sense of inferiority in Europe. In Palestine they needed to set themselves apart, and even though their own education was relatively sparse compared to that of people in Berlin, New York or London, in Mandate Palestine they could pose as “civilized.”
Bifurcating themselves from Middle Eastern Jews and the Middle East at large became a task of second aliya Zionists who began arriving after 1904. The concept of “Hebrew Labor,” which entailed Jews hiring other Jews to work the land, was one of the missions of the 1904 generation’s Labor Zionism. They wanted to separate the new Jewish community from the old, from the Jews of the Middle East and from the Arabs, to create a separate revolutionary society.
This had the effect of creating a kind of cordon sanitaire between their society, preserving its east European elements, and the Middle East. It was unfortunate because the older Jewish communities were much more integrated. The old Sephardic families in Jerusalem, Jaffa and elsewhere such as Amzalak, Valero, Abulafia and many others were part of the Ottoman Empire and spoke its languages. However, to their credit some of the second aliya Zionists did attend Istanbul University.
The next generation of Israeli leaders, such as Mordechai Maklef, Yigal Allon, Yigal Yadin, Moshe Dayan and later Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak were born in the Middle East and some of them grew up at a time when British Mandate Palestine was far more Arab than it became after 1948. If one looks at the fighters who coalesced around Sharon’s Unit 101 in the 1950s almost all the men were born in British Mandate Palestine. Except for Danny Matt, who was born in Germany, the others such as Meir Har-Zion, Assaf Simhoni, Aharon Davidi and Raful Eitan were mostly born between 1920 and 1940. Their formative years were ones where Jews were a minority and the landscape was Arabic. They were Middle Eastern. Not the “primitives” that Ben-Gurion was so concerned about, but rather part of their environment.
It’s no surprise that although some Arabic leaders may have loathed Dayan or Sharon, they tended to understand them quite well, and both Dayan and Sharon seemed to feel as at home in a Beduin tent or looking at the region through the eyes of the Kingdom of Jordan, as they felt in Tel Aviv. For better or worse, they had more in common with Hafez Assad or Gamal Abdel Nasser than they did with Jewish peddlers and pianists in Poland. These early Israeli soldiers and leaders also spoke Arabic. Some spoke Ottoman Turkish.
Now, fast forward to 2017 and look at the leadership of Israel’s political parties. After Turkey condemned Israel’s actions in Jerusalem recently, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon reminded the Turks that “the days of the Ottoman Empire have passed.” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid went further, suggesting Israel support Kurds and recognize the Armenian genocide. But Israeli comments about Kurds often betray ignorance on the topic, confusing Kurdish politics in Iraq with Kurds in Turkey. This is because even though all of Israeli leaders today grew up in Israel, they didn’t really grow up in the Middle East. Few of them have any knowledge of languages in the region, and most of them seem to generally feel uncomfortable around Arabs or other groups in the region. It’s a deep cultural disconnect.
Commentators in Israel may talk about what Israel should or should not do about Jordan, but none of them seem like they’d like to go sit down with the king or anyone in the kingdom, the way former Israeli leaders did in secret decades ago. Israel’s leaders show a lack of interest in how the Middle East functions and in its varying cultures. This spans the Left and the Right. The Left tends to speak in terms of divorcing Palestinians in order to “save” Israel’s Jewish character as a nation-state. The Right tends to simply ignore the existence of Palestinians. But both disregard the need to feel comfortable with or even interested in the “other.” Former Labor leader Isaac Herzog claimed “the rampant construction in all the settlements all the time will lead to replacing the Jewish majority state with an Arab majority state.”
The discussion in Israel, from the Right to the Left, is primarily an internal one. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel has shared interests in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Egypt, it isn’t because he enjoys meeting with leaders from there, it’s simply a statement of fact. One gets the feeling that previous generations of Israelis, with the exception of the cultural Eurocentric elites, felt more a part of the Middle East, more comfortable in it. That is ironic, since Israel was more isolated in the 1950s, surrounded by real Arab armies. Today Israel has peace with two Arab countries, and relationships with others, yet it is less integrated in the region in some ways.
Israel was always going to be a janus-faced country because of its nature. Founded primarily by Eastern European Jewish nationalists, it was a gathering place for Jews from the Middle East and has the food, music and culture of the region ingrained in it. Many of its cultural elites still see the region as “primitive” and their cultural leanings are toward Europe. It’s no surprise some of them and their children emigrate to places like Berlin.
In the 1960s many Arab nationalists believed Israel was a colonial implant in the Middle East and would go the way of Algeria. They didn’t understand that it was not colonial in foundation, but seeking to reconnect an indigenous people with their land. The problem the indigenous people have had is that some of them do not feel comfortable in the land.
Ben-Gurion thought the problem was an education system in need of modernizing “primitives.” He was wrong. The problem was creating an education system that roots people in the Middle East and makes them feel a part of it and teaches them to respect and be interested in it. After all, Israelis are all supposed to learn Arabic in school, but few of them actually end up understanding it.
That in itself is a symbol of how it is more integrated, but also less integrated.Follow the author @Sfrantzman.