Seeing the 'other' clearly

Cohen offers equal and honest treatment of explosive issues in his book.

good arab book 88 298 (photo credit: )
good arab book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Good Arabs Hillel Cohen Ivrit - Hebrew Publishing House 307 pages; NIS 84 The impressive achievement of this timely book is its equal and honest treatment of the explosive issues involved in spite of an often agonizing conflict of interests - and its articulation of the author's findings with empathy, boldness and fairness. No contrived concessions are offered - neither to the State of Israel with all its powerful control and leverage, nor to the tempting penchant of liberal commentators to side with "the underdog," namely the Arab minority. Cohen manifests moral sensitivity, political judgment and an awareness of the security dilemma on every page of this study. Not unexpectedly, we discover two narratives, deeply in conflict but with buds of reconciliation and accommodation sprouting in the first decade of Israel's existence. Let's first note some basic data: At the end of the War of Independence, about 700,000 Palestinian refugees found themselves encamped in the West Bank (controlled by Jordan), in the Gaza Strip (ruled by Egypt), in Lebanon and Syria. The Arab population of Israel at that point totaled 160,000 - approximately 15 percent of the population. That ratio, incidentally, still prevails, though the figures have hugely multiplied. The Arab inhabitants of the country considered themselves part of the Arab world that fiercely hated the establishment of Israel; some were directly involved in the fighting aimed at its destruction. The fundamental dilemma they faced was one of identity. Would they wish to be linked to the hostile and vindictive Palestinian struggle for independence outside the boundaries of Israel, or would they consider themselves part of the emerging new Israeli entity? The book analyzes how two dominant trends developed within the Israeli Arab community: the nationalist movement spearheaded by the communists (and including Arabs and Jews), and those who were prepared to work with the Israeli authorities for a variety of motives. In the first years of Israel's independence the Arabs were battered and confused. In December 1947, the Palestinian leadership rejected a UN resolution calling for the establishment of Jewish and Arab states (Jerusalem to be under international regime). A year later, Arabs living in Israel became its citizens, while the Arab armies that fought against the nascent state were negotiating and signing armistice agreements with it. Despite a natural anguish and defiance, and notwithstanding their understandable desire to live under Arab rule, many of the Arabs in Israel started to realize that having defeated the Arabs on the battlefield, it was unlikely that the Jews would accept the boundaries recommended in the partition plan. They witnessed the swift moves by Israel to place Jewish settlers in areas that had been assigned by the UN to the Arab state but were lost in the course of the fighting. They had slowly come to recognize that the balance of power between Israel and its Arab neighbors was in Israel's favor. The military government imposed on them intensified their sense of weakness, and contributed to the rise of some realism. Some on their own initiative approached the military government, the police and the security apparatus, offering their services. They found themselves working side by side with collaborators who had cooperated for years with functionaries of the Jewish Agency and the security service. Collaborators are usually perceived as people helping the authorities while seemingly acting against their own people. Among the "collaborators" were those who tried to hurt their own people as little as possible. Many maneuvered between the need to satisfy the Israeli authorities and the need to maintain their standing in the Arab community; they believed they were rendering useful service to both sides. Did they have an alternative? When Israel was seen as gaining strength, its Arabs were more disposed to work with its authorities, but when Israel appeared frightened, the readiness to cooperate waned. A similar effect was noted with the standing of the "collaborators" in Arab society. When their image was good, the disposition to cooperate with the authorities increased. But when old "collaborators" were abandoned, the number of potential recruits went down. The role of the communists in this period was rather intriguing. The support of the Soviet Union for the UN partition plan forced the Arab communists to accept the Jews' right to establish their own state and oppose the Arab invasion. That policy enhanced Soviet prestige in the eyes of Israeli Jews. But toward the end of 1948, the Israeli Communist Party emerged as a leader of the resistance to the military government and in the fight against land expropriations. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion identified the communist danger, and instructed the military government to block the party's efforts to win over the Arab community. Party meetings were banned and demonstrations were prohibited. Encouraging anti-communist elements, such as the Christian clergy and the Druse, was part of the strategy - and it worked. A coalition of several forces was activated without their having to endorse the Zionist narrative. The traditional frictions within the Arab community were exploited to assure the security and stability of Israel. Vital interests were at stake, so a victory of the communist/Arab nationalist bloc had to be prevented. Giving the Druse minority preferential treatment was one of the measures taken. The Druse were not pushing to be enlisted in the army, but were later encouraged to do so. Ultimately, the emergence of Druse units in the IDF was considered not only a contribution to the army but a legitimization of the involvement of the non-Jews in Israel in its existential struggle. Introducing a wedge into the nationalist Arab movement was thus considered a necessary and justified move.