by Naava Mashiah, guest contributor
A man holds a misbaha in the old city of Jerusalem. (photo: Flavio Grynszpan/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The growing rift between Israel and the Arab world makes it hard to imagine that Jews and Arabs once coexisted across the Middle East. At one point these identities could be found not only in the same neighborhood, but even in the same person.
Is it an oxymoron to be an Arab Jew? An Arab Jew refers either to a Jew living in the Arab world or one whose ancestors came from Arab countries. This term flourished once in the Middle East but is not widely known today. Not long ago there were Jews living in the cities of the Middle East who were integrated into their societies and held influential roles in their communities and economies.
My grandfather, Baba Yona Mashiah, was such a figure in Baghdad. He was, I would say, an Arab Jew. My childhood was sprinkled with stories of his grand personality, power and business acumen. He was a prominent land and real-estate developer and in the 1940s contributed to building “Baghdad el Jedidah,” a chic neighborhood in the Baghdad suburbs. His partners were mostly Muslim and some were prominent government officials.
Over the years I have accumulated stories about Baba Yona like pearls on a string and play with these beads, just as he played with the beads on his misbaha, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. My father recalled how he used to accompany my grandfather, who was also known by the Arabic name Abu Fuad, to meetings in cafés and the respect that people showed him.
Baba Yona was an integrated member of Baghdad society and its business world, yet he was a Jew.
In the 1950s the Jews of Baghdad experienced an exodus from Iraq. A reluctant exodus, I would claim, which was brought about by a combination of increasing Zionism, anti-Semitic propaganda, envy of the privileged life Jews had when Iraq was under British control and the creation of Israel. The displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies were the final blow.
Life had become unbearable for the Jews and even those who had wanted to stay were compelled to leave. Jews were assumed to be a fifth column and turned into scapegoats following the defeat of Arab armies by the Israeli Defense Forces. Baba Yona watched his empire crumble. His peer and neighbor, Mr. Addas, another influential Jew, was hung in the square. He himself was imprisoned for three months, accused of having Zionist connections.
At a certain point the Iraqi government offered a deal for Jews, inviting them to escape to Israel if they would renounce their citizenship and relinquish their property. Baba Yona was forced to leave Baghdad with over 100,000 other Jews to the one country that would accept them at the time — Israel. Ironically, the Zionists, whose movement played a part in alienating Muslims from their Jewish compatriots, were there to save them.
So as they were airlifted out of Baghdad, did my nine year-old father know where he was headed? Was it en route to Cyprus and during the eventual landing in Israel that he stopped being an Arab Jew?
In Israel, the younger generations became embarrassed by their Arabic-speaking parents. My father, Sabah, was given a Hebrew name, Shaul, but his brother who had arrived in his late teens, too late for a name change, is called Jamil until this very day.
In fact, my father’s Arab identity was totally effaced in Israel. It was a combination of external pressures and self denial. Thus he became successfully integrated into the dominant culture in Israel of that period.
My interest in my Arab roots began about ten years ago when I established my business, which focuses on economic cooperation between Israel and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Many Israelis asked me why I had chosen to do so. The notion that Israel should forge economic ties with other countries in the MENA region is not self-evident within Israeli society.
Their questions led me to excavate my own identity and connect with my grandfather’s world. I am discovering more and more young Jews like myself who have been able to distance themselves from their parents traumatic experiences and proudly reclaim their Arab roots.
I recall one day when I brought home old records of Abdul Wahab, a famous Egyptian singer, and put them on the phonograph. My father Shaul transformed back to Sabah and sang all the words. He did not understand how I could be interested in this music. My curiosity for the poetry and music is deep-rooted to an extent that baffles him.
Today when I ask my father if my grandfather was an Arab Jew and he proclaims, “No way, there is no such thing,” I beg to differ.
Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, focused on the transfer of technology from Israel to the MENA region, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and the editor of MEDABIZ.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on January 17, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.Comments
For more than a year the Shalits have lived in a tent near the prime minister’s office. When I walked nearby I would avoid the protest encampment, ashamed to be opposing the campaign. This past Israeli Independence Day, though, I saw a crowd gathered around the tent, and wandered over. “GILAD IS STILL ALIVE,” banners reminded: It’s not too late to save him. Inside the tent, Noam and Aviva were sitting with family and friends, singing the old Zionist songs. I wanted to shake Noam’s hand, tell him to be strong, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t deserve the privilege of comforting him.
I wanted to tell Noam what we shared. As it happens, my son served in the same tank unit as Gilad, two years after he was kidnapped. I wanted to tell Noam that that was the real reason I couldn’t bear thinking about his family. That in opposing the mass release of terrorists for Gilad, it was my son I was betraying.
by Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman, special contributor
More than 80 participants attended the second northern women’s security shura on Monday in Mazar-e Sharif at Camp Marmal in Balk province, Afghanistan to discuss women’s roles in governance transition. (photo: DEU Capt. Jennifer Ruge)
As an imam at a mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman, I have been following the dramatic developments across North Africa and the Middle East with a combination of high hopes and grave concern. The phenomenon of young people organizing peacefully to demand political reform, economic opportunity, and human rights is a source of pride for me; numerous worshippers in my mosque are among them. On the other hand, the mounting lethality of conflict between state and society in so many Arab countries is terrible to behold. So is the tragedy of burgeoning crime, economic struggles, and insecurity in countries such as Egypt that are undergoing dramatic transformations.
In these riveting times, the role of Islam is essential and Arab societies seem to know it. I can tell just from the growing number of worshippers in my mosque, which overflows every Friday during weekly prayers. Young people draw comfort and inspiration from Islam as they face an uncertain future.
At the same time, political analysts — both within Arab societies and in the world at large — are raising concerns about the role of so-called “Islamist” groups in the on-going political transitions. Members of my own congregation often ask me for counsel on this issue. In response, through sermons every Friday as well as more intimate conversations, I have been trying to articulate the distinctions that will be necessary to ensure that the tenets of Islam are properly applied — and that the language of Islam is not co-opted by opportunistic political movements.
In the present state of flux in North Africa and the Middle East, there is robust competition for political popularity in a new marketplace of ideas. When assessing any political figure or movement claiming to draw legitimacy from Islam, one should pose several questions and demand unambiguous answers.
The first question is: do you support equal political, social, and economic rights for all citizens of your country, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sect?
The answer should be yes. The Qur’an and prophetic traditions present a vision of social justice in all its forms — not only for men but also for women; not only for Arabs but also for other ethnic groups; and not only for Muslims but for all humankind. This is my conviction as a lifelong student of Islam. The texts that prove this are many, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an’s vision of equity and justice is addressed not to any subset of humankind but to all “Children of Adam” (7:26).
Over the centuries, interpretations of Qur’an and prophetic tradition have varied, and some of these interpretations have been incompatible with essential Qur’anic values. The most accurate interpretation would never differ with the principle of universal equity and justice — nor deny political or economic opportunity to anyone. Such an interpretation can and should be achieved by the principal of ijtihad, the practical application of the human mind to the world’s ever-changing circumstances.
The second question is: do you believe that Islam is compatible with a definition of the rule of law that transcends a particular religion’s jurisprudential precepts?
The answer should be yes. From a contemporary Islamic perspective, sharia is not a document that supplants the legal system of a given country. To the contrary, it is a set of principles that demand of believing Muslims that they respect the laws of the country in which they live, provided that the laws are compatible with the universal values of social equity and human rights. Moreover, in the event that a given law is inequitable or unjust, sharia demands that believing Muslims work within a legal and democratic framework to amend the law. Islam stresses the principle of shura, or consultation, as a means of reaching decisions that affect the body politic. Those “whose affairs are a matter of counsel” (42:38) are considered to be worthy of a divine reward.
Finally, the third question is: do you maintain that your political platform is a flawless rendering of the precepts of Islam?
The answer should be no. The Qur’an attests to the fact that humankind, granted worldly power, is prone to error and corruption: “[Humankind is liable to] break the covenant of God after ratifying it, and sever that which God ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the earth” (2:27). Islam, for its part, is innocent of the errors of those who presume to interpret or apply it. Because it is hubristic and suspect to suggest that someone is without flaw, it is equally hubristic and suspect to claim to speak in the name of Islam.
Moreover, to claim to speak in the name of Islam is to assert superiority over other political platforms — a position that leads to totalitarianism.
Islam, as I understand it, demands that humankind negotiate over difference and govern consensually. There are no modern-day prophets or rightly-guided caliphs. We must endeavour to collaborate in healing our region and the world as best we can.
Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman is the imam of the Ibn Sinan mosque in Amman, Jordan.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 20, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
PART THREE: OVERCOMING STEREOTYPES IN THE COLLEGE CLASSROOM
by Christin Davis, USC graduate journalism student
Manal Yazbak looks down when she remembers the treatment that some of her Jewish teachers meted out to Arab students.
“Some lecturers mistreated us once they knew we were Arabs,” she said of her experience at The Hebrew University, where she earned a doctorate in Education Management. “One proficiency teacher was very rude to us. And it didn’t matter how hard we tried, she gave us bad marks.”
In the Jewish state of Israel, Ms. Yazbak is a member of the minority. Arab citizens of Israel comprise just over 20 percent of the country’s total population. Ms. Yazbak felt the physical and ideological separation of Jews and Arabs in Nazareth while completing her teaching practicum at a Jewish elementary school.
“In their teaching, they ignored the existence of people living in Israel before the state was created,” she said. “They said the Arabs are ‘violent and try to kill us.’ It really bothered me because it was like brainwashing.”
Now as a professor at Sakhnin Teacher’s College in the Galilee — which includes mostly Muslim and Christian Arab students — Ms. Yazbak instructs a course on dealing with diversity for second-year students in the English department. The class is taught in partnership with the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem, and comprised primarily of Jewish students.
Wearing a sharp red pea coat, Ms. Yazbak, 40, pushed her shoulder-length russet hair behind her ear. In a chic eatery not far from the Well of Annunciation, where Christians believe Mary learned she would bear the son of God, Yazbak conveyed a devotion to teaching students how to deal with the “other” and promote a peaceful resolution to her nation’s conflict. With a self-control that is not riled by or indulged in extreme emotions, she said she believes this outcome is possible despite a number of her own failed friendships with Jews.
“The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is endless, but my hope is to raise awareness of human beings,” Ms. Yazbak said, “so that between ethnic groups and religions we can tolerate each other.”
Yazbak’s own experiences with the “other” rarely had happy endings. Growing up in Nazareth she and her siblings spent time with her father’s best friend, a Jewish man from Ra’anana. The two met while working together in a car factory. Having daughters about the same age, the two fathers and their families spent Saturdays together, often barbecuing and taking trips to the water. Ms. Yazbak attended an Arab junior high school that partnered with a Jewish school for activities. She said they even had sleepovers at each other’s homes. But neither experience bred lasting relationships.
"The truth is we didn’t make real friends,” Ms. Yazbak said, “but it was nice while it lasted.”
She later lived in Jerusalem for eight years while attending university and made friends with a few Jewish students. They studied together, but didn’t maintain contact following graduation. “There wasn’t email or mobile phones then, so we didn’t keep in touch,” she said.
According to Ms. Yazbak, hers is the only course in Israel that focuses on teaching diversity. She said some education is directed toward multiculturalism or social issues, but no other class instructs future teachers in how to reduce stereotypes and interact with people who are different than they are.
“We changed the name of the course a couple of times, but we chose Dealing with Diversity since it includes all the themes of conflict resolution and bias awareness,” Ms. Yazbak said. “The ‘other’ could be any other, not necessarily the Jewish other. The key is interaction.”
The one-year program — conducted in English to put both groups on equal footing — is aimed at developing student awareness of bias and stereotyping as well as teaching skills for conflict resolution. It incorporates activities, theoretical material and application, and is currently in its third year.
At the end of the first semester, students from both colleges meet together in Jerusalem. They discuss their own identity and the personal experiences that led to a desire to teach. Yazbak said by highlighting this similarity in career choice, students see commonality between themselves and their Arab or Jewish counterparts and start to reduce stereotypes.
They then divide into groups of four — two from each college — and decide on a topic for a collaborative project. During the second semester, groups prepare a presentation via online meetings. The projects require group research, discussion, negotiation, planning, and compromise, and then are presented in a final combined meeting at the end of the academic year in the Galilee. Previous projects presented strategies for classroom conflict resolution skills and using language to prevent conflict between pupils.
“My students haven’t met Jewish students before, and the opposite is true for the Jewish students,” Ms. Yazbak said. “The Jewish students are astonished when they see we’re not living in tents. Meeting together produces a change of attitudes — even the food and atmosphere helps gain better understanding of the other.”
After the final meeting in 2010, an Arab student thanked Ms. Yazbak for the opportunity to meet Jewish students with no enmity and said, “Together we learned about conflict resolution, an emergency need for the new generation.”
The course has had its challenges. In its first year, the initial meeting came just after the Gaza Operation; in the second year, it began the week following the Gaza flotilla incident. Both events, Yazbak said, made the Jewish students fearful of visiting the college in the Galilee.
“The Jewish students are easily affected by the political situation in the country, which means they want an excuse not to come to Arab cities,” Ms. Yazbak said. “They are always threatened. Those who did come learned that political disagreements did not rule out collaboration on a human level, nor did they overshadow other areas of commonality.” She said it’s important for these teachers in training to receive this kind of education so that when they one day lead a classroom of young people they can have a positive influence in eliminating stereotypes about Jewish and Arab people.
“The political situation in [Israel] discourages me sometimes, but I believe in peaceful resolution. It’s the only way since other alternatives exercise all sorts of violence,” Ms. Yazbak said. “Coexistence is a hard question, but [in this class] we want to understand each other.”
Photo (bottom): The Well of Annunciation in Galilee by Christin Davis.
This series is part of a collaboration between On Being and the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism in an attempt to add to the public’s understanding of the diversity of stories of daily life in Israel and the West Bank.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
PART TWO: CHIPPING AWAY AT STEREOTYPES THROUGH SHARED INTERESTS
by Christin Davis, USC graduate journalism student
“I was raised in a pluralistic house,” said Assaf Ron, a Jewish man from Haifa, Israel. “An Arab was not cursed, he was a person.”
In a country where separation — even physical walls — between Arabs and Jews is common, Mr. Ron’s perspective stands out. News headlines included the murder of a Jewish settler family in the West Bank as Ron, 51, sat in his Haifa office, flooded by a strong sea breeze. Mr. Ron discussed his work as the executive director of Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Center, a nonprofit cultural center in Haifa. Though he has no written job description, Mr. Ron said his overall role is to promote a need for mutual respect between people, specifically Jews and Arabs.
“My definition of coexistence is normalization, to respect the other’s narrative,” Mr. Ron said. “This is the biggest and hardest step on the way to coexistence.”
Beit Hagefen, according to Mr. Ron, is a “window to a multicultural community” where Jews and Arabs interact together. Despite living in the same city, he said, the two groups do not interact, so the center encourages and facilitates connections through activities in the local area.
The center has an art gallery, a library, and an Arab theater. It recently began a women’s walking club, a program bringing Arab and Jewish families together in each others’ homes, and a photography class that allows for young people to connect through their work. Founded in 1963, it is a non-profit organization supported by the Haifa municipality; the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport; and private donations.
“It is important to me to have people respect and accept the other, no matter his religion, nationality, or education,” Mr. Ron said. “There is only one way to live a good life on this globe — share resources and respect differences among people. I truly believe it is in my power to convince people of these ideas.”
Before coming to Beit Hagefen, Mr. Ron, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Haifa University, was the executive director of the department of education for the regional council in Gilboa, a rural area bordering the West Bank. Functioning much like a superintendent does in the United States, Mr. Ron oversaw seven Arab and six Jewish schools, often bringing together the teachers for collaboration. In his current position, Mr. Ron overseas the departments of Beit Hagefen, initiates new projects, raises funds, networks, and coaches the staff.
Mr. Ron works closely with Ulfat Haider, the program manager at Beit Hagefen and an Arab woman. Together, they promote “neighborliness.” According to Mr. Ron, this means, “We don’t have to agree about everything. If Palestinian is the way you define yourself, it doesn’t mean you want to do anything to me.”
He acknowledged the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian conflict but said that at Beit Hagefen “we reduce the level of fear and hatred and increase the understanding of the other’s narrative. We try to reduce stereotypes.”
It’s an ongoing effort, as Mr. Ron learned when his son came home, excited to have made a new friend. Mr. Ron asked his son if he wanted to invite the boy to their house. “’Are you crazy? He’s Arab,’ my son said,” Mr. Ron recalled. “Can you imagine? My house is one of coexistence, but he still gets this from the outside. Why couldn’t we invite him over?”
Mr. Ron does make clear that he supports a Jewish state, “but not a Jewish state that is against civil rights for all people,” he said. “Ask Arabs, they want to live here because it is a democracy — even if it is not completely equal now,” Mr. Ron said. “We are an ethnic democracy. Jews have some benefits above the rest. In the eyes of the world, this is racism…sorry. My answer might be different if there was democracy in the Middle East. But right now, with the hypocrisy of terrorism, I’m too frightened.”
Mr. Ron said he doesn’t consider himself that different from other Jews but has “more structured views and general tolerance.” His friends, however, question his work toward coexistence.
“People call me naïve,” he said. “I insist on being naïve… It’s just believing in people. I learned that if you respect people as human beings and hear their story, most will respect you as well.”
This report is part of a collaboration between On Being and the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism in an attempt to add to the public’s understanding of the diversity of stories of daily life in Israel and the West Bank.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
by Andrew Khouri, USC graduate journalism student
“The hookah breaks the ice,” said the man behind the bar.
A collection of old, silver-painted water pipes styled as light fixtures hang above his head, bathing in gold a crowd of men as they puff away on flavored tobacco below. The pulsating beat of Arabic music wafts onto the outdoor patio from inside the bar, where throngs of gay men dance together, and scantily clad male go-go dancers gyrate on stages.
A similar scene of rhythm, smoke, and liquor plays out nightly throughout Los Angeles, a city revered for its immigrant and gay cultures. But for party-goers at this weekly romp, the atmosphere was a new one. Most hailed from the Middle East, where homosexuality carries social and sometimes even legal punishment. In Saudi Arabia, homosexual sex carries a maximum penalty of death, and even in Lebanon, which has a burgeoning gay club scene, “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” is illegal.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Krista first heard terrorism expert Scott Atran on the BBC and knew she wanted to book him as a guest. He interviews jihadis to understand what makes them want to live or die for a cause. Through the lens of psychology and culture, he also does extensive field work in both the Arab and Israeli Middle East. In fact, minutes before his interview with Krista, he had an extensive phone conversation with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and shared his thoughts with us about uncertainty and hope surrounding the uprising in Egypt.
Scott Atran is presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, a visiting professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and research director in Anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. He has briefed Congress and national and homeland security staff at the White House on his research into terrorist groups. His latest book is called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Check out our Twitter stream next time at @BeingTweets.
About the image: Scott Atran stands in front of Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron (photo courtesy of Scott Atran).Comments
by Eboo Patel, special contributor
Here’s what struck me about this special panel on Middle East peace that Bill Clinton moderated: it actually focused on the peace, and not the process. The President joked that somebody else in his family was trying to figure out where on the land to draw the line, he wanted us to talk about what needed to happen with the people after that line was drawn.
There were a lot of pursed lips and furrowed brows when he said that. It made me realize just how much attention is paid to the details of the process, and how little we think about the actual peace. Which is to say, how people from different faiths, nationalities, and narratives are going to live together on a pretty small parcel of land.
"In Israel, 20 percent of our citizens are Arabs. And it’s not simple — for them for us, but for one place. There is no hospital in Israel where you don’t have Arab doctors and Arab patients. And, nobody knows — not of the patients and not of the doctors who is operating them — I mean, if a Druze would see an Arab with a knife coming close to him, he would be alarmed. But in the hospital, please. And I ask myself, ‘If we can live in peace in the hospitals, why can’t we live in peace out of the hospitals.’"
We hear frequently the stories of the suicide bombers and the settlers. We read about the squabbles of the diplomats. We get bogged down in the details and made cynical by the seemingly endless failures. But with a single example, Peres illuminated just how much Jews, Christians, and Muslims have in common, pointed out just how well Israelis and Palestinians already work together. It’s enough to keep me thinking past the process, and into the peace.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core. He’s the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and writes regularly for The Faith Divide blog on The Washington Post. He’s also served on President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.Comments