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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk
Walid Mula, Recipient of the 1991 Middle East "Education for Peace Prize"
or Why I'll Never Win That Award

by Judith Beck
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"You American Jews are so nice, so hospitable," Walid Mula said guilelessly. "So different from the Israeli Jews."
     Hot damn! I thought. My whole life I've wanted to be a good Jew! But it was too much work: all those dishes, no bacon. Here's somebody offering an easy way out!
     After all, I'm already nice. And hospitable. Those are good traits.

     I'd come to the lecture by Mr. Mula, an Israeli Arab activist who specializes in "educating for co-existence between Arabs and Jews," because I wanted to be a good Jew. I wanted to understand the terrible events in Israel. At the JCC I could do that without leaving San Francisco or hearing the annoying gutteral tones of Hebrew.
     Besides, a local TV station had been airing a program on the Intifada. It featured a black American woman who wants to pile effigies of the Palestinian dead in front of every American synagogue to "show them what they have become." Guess she felt that, no matter how intellectually lazy and disinterested, Jews don't have the same rights as the average American to safely ignore the outside world. Though I haven't been in a synagogue in years, I felt threatened.
     So his comment made my blood pressure rise. Yeah, it's fashionable in some Jewish circles to come down hard on the Israelis, but we are, after all, a clannish, stiff-necked people. The Israelis are family. Annoying, strident, loud. Just like Aunt Saidie and Uncle Irvy-doll.
     In his sharp, well-tailored suit our boyish speaker could have been a cousin just a few years past reading his haftorah. Understandable-Jews and Israeli Arabs are genetically the same. But there was something un-Jewish about him. At least un-Ashkenazic, "Levantine," though I can never remember exactly where the Levant is. His large head was handsome, his arms and legs disproportionately short in a way that didn't make me think dwarf but almost "cuddly like a teddy-bear." More than almost, if the front-row gaggle of elderly Socialistoid matrons, all wearing subtly expensive hand-woven wraps and peasant jewelry to show their sympathy with the downtrodden, were any indication.
     Were someone picking a poster child to represent the Arab cause during this difficult period of Intifada and right-swinging elections in Israel, they could not go wrong with Walid. Certainly no one picked him for his speaking ability. His voice, diffident and soft, his posture, slouching, and his points, as he pled for equality for Arabs in Israel, wandering.
     But you don't mess with my mishpocha. Fortunately I've been in a New Agey California group working on anger control. I stayed in my seat.
     Though liberal Jews support the bizarre Jewish trait of doing right by the enemy (like those ACLU lawyers representing white supremacists), being a good Jew doesn't mean letting the tribe be divided. Of course we're different from the Israelis, I thought truculently. We're not surrounded by 180 million hostile Arabs. We don't worry about being blown up every time we go to market. Then, lulled by his demeanor, I thought what can Israel be worried about, if they're like him?
     Then, too, Israeli-Arabs do have some kosher, or, in politically correct terms, "halal", beefs. Infrastructure development and maintenance in non-Jewish areas have been woefully neglected and discrimination in education and employment exists. Arab travelers within, as well as into and out of, Israel, must carry identity papers and pass through checkpoints to be frisked for weapons. Unfairū
     I was drifting downstream! I caught myself up short. No co-opting me. I'm a Jewish-American woman like the front-row fan club. But I've still got all my marbles. I didn't think Mr. Mula should strive to be a good Jew-since he said he is an Arab, he's either Christian or, more likely by the numbers, Moslem. (Though Jews have lived in the area since antiquity, genetically identical to the rest of the population, the Arabs never call them "Arabs." Just "Jews.") I was just hoping he'd want to be a good Israeli. But he kept referring to himself and his people as "Palestinians," not Israeli Arabs. That worried me.
     To Jews everywhere, the continued existence of Israel is important in a yearning, almost culturally unconscious way. So it's tempting to give in to a lulling voice claiming peace is only a few concessions away. That's what got Ehud Barak elected in the first place.
     Unfortunately, it isn't true.
     The Middle East is an incredibly violent place: 1,000,000 Moslems killed each other in the Iran-Iraq war and King Hussein, ruling over the portion of Palestine given to the Arabs, killed 20,000 PLO members when they rioted and tried to overthrow his government in 1970. The present troubles, with under 400 dead, is chump change by comparison. As Thomas Friedman says, the Middle East is a tough neighborhood. Concessions are viewed as weaknesses, enhancing the chance of getting killed. The Palestinians started this intifada under Barak and claimed it would make no difference whether a hawk or dove won Israel's recent elections, setting up a hopeless situation. They shouldn't be too surprised that Sharon's the new prime minister.
     But it's easy for a liberal Jew, trained to root for the underdog, to feel sorry for the Arabs. Especially when the television airs comparison pictures of Israeli Jews-well-dressed men and women mingling freely, walking on modern, clean, attractive streets-to the nearly unisex male Arab crowds. Even if the Israeli Arabs have it better than most Jordanians, or Egyptians, and certainly better than the refugees in the camps on the West Bank, relative economic success makes good left-wing Americans guilty, so we find it contemptible in others.
     But we have to remember this inequity is another historical chicken-and-egg conundrum: Does the present Palestinian unrest in Israel stem from injustices on the part of the Israeli government or do the discriminatory actions of the Israeli government stem from fear of having a fifth column? Especially one with an astronomical birthrate, one that still wants to "push the Jews into the sea?"
     Wait! Have I been saying "Palestinian"? Silly me. I'm making the same error Walid did repeatedly while stirring sympathy for his people. That mistake kept confusing me, since I thought his talk was about equal rights in his native land of Israel.
     "Palestinian" isn't a race, religion or ethnicity, but a loose collection of immigrants from many nations who moved in during the early twentieth century. Ironically, this migration was partly due to improved economic opportunities and bettered living conditions mostly created by Zionists draining swamps and bringing in business.
     Of course, people can call themselves whatever they choose-even if only to gain world sympathy. But previously, the Palestinians never yearned to be a nation. In 1936 Jerusalem community leader Abdul-Hadi indignantly informed the Peel Commission, "There is no such country! Palestine is a term the Zionists invented!" Ahmed Shuqiri, the first chairman of the PLO, told the UN Security Council after World War II, "It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but southern Syria." Between 1948 and the 1967 war, the Palestinians who had been put in camps on the West Bank by their brothers in Jordan, the British-designated Palestinian state, never called for statehood. Had Israel evaporated mysteriously at that time, would they have happily been Syrians or Jordanians?
     The point is, as a group, the Arabs in Israel never really gave Israel a chance. These people, who suffered under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire and the Syrians, who never had an independent country, have that country now: Israel. But from the start they were uneasy being loyal. Why? Because it's run by Jews.
     Like every Jew I recognize the longing for a home of one's own, since Jews have lost their homes over and over again. I started out believing the local Arabs had gotten, well, screwed out of their birthright, and done a good bit of research to document this. What I found altered my perceptions.
     Good Jews are the "People of the Book." In that way I'm not really a good Jew; I'm only a "Person of the Internet." In preparation of the promised discussions, I'd come armed with downloaded facts-historical references showing many of the Palestinians, like many of the Jews, were newcomers to the area in 1948 and documentation that local Arabs left in 1948 as an act of war, encouraged by the surrounding governments, who promised a bloodbath when the British skedaddled. Infidel Jews defeated by the armies of Islam, with some Christians nervously assisting.
     Besides, I had Turkish and British censuses showing the largest segment of Jerusalem's population in the 1800's (and presumably before) was Jewish-until they were evicted from the Old City in 1948 for the first time since the Romans in 70 C.E.-and a brief history of the expulsions and bloody attacks on traditional Jewish communities by the local Arabs. The Jews in the Middle East, like the Jews in pre-modern Europe, were always marginal, second-class citizens.
     That made me wonder how many abandoned Arab properties taken over by the Jews in 1948 had been forcibly taken from Jewish families within the previous hundred years. Scarcely a scenario to convince the local Jews, or the Holocaust-survivor newcomers, that the Arabs were to be trusted.
     So, when Mula cried that only a few thousand might receive the right of return to these disputed homes, when he described his people as Palestinians, when he slipped up, lulled into believing we were totally different Jews from the Israelis, describing Israel as an occupied land, when he then again bemoaned his lack of equal citizenship, I raised my hand.
     I wanted to ask a host of questions about legal action and non-violent protest, since we had heard little about those. All I got out was one question: "You say you want to be a loyal, equal citizen in a pluralist Israel. If that is true, would you go to the West Bank and declare yourself to be an Israeli, not a Palestinian? Just like any Jewish Israeli would?"
     He looked shocked for a brief moment, then went to the next waving hand.
     So ended my cathartic "Day of Rage." I was totally ready to go back to being just another average, insular American, with one small difference. Since some twenty people from the audience had come up to congratulate me after the lecture, I went home thinking I was, indeed, a good Jew.


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