Monday, 30 April 2012

Wrestling with Middle-Eastern History

As a historian by training - specifically art history - I should read more history than I do. One of the many 'shoulds' that have the potential to plague me if I let myself start paying too much attention to them... One of the books I bought recently is Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. The Israeli-Arab Tragedy by Shlomo Ben-Ami. Ben-Ami is a historian, was educated at Tel Aviv University and Oxford, was professor of modern history at Tel Aviv University, after which he was appointed Israel's ambassador to Spain in 1987. He became involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process in 1991, entered politics in 1996 and was part of the Camp David summit as part of Ehud Barak's government, and is now vice president of the Toledo Peace Centre in Spain.

In the book's prelude, Ben-Ami writes:
Though written by a historian who is aware and respectful of the requirements of the discipline, it [the book] should not be read as exhaustive or academic research or as a meticulous narrative history, for it is neither. Rather, it is a general interpretative overview where my understanding of, and my insights about, the story of the pendulous move of Jews and Arabs between war and peace are intertwined in the very broad lines of the unfolding story.
I am not very far into the body of the book yet, as my reading time has again been limited by my need to get through a stack of work, and this is not the pick up and put down reading that is possible with children's literature. Ben-Ami starts with the clash of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism between 1936-1939, with references to the beginning of modern aliyot by European Jews, inspired by Theodor Herzl's Zionist movement, created in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair in France. In the first chapter, he focuses on the varying political ideologies within the Zionist movement and the persistence of Jewish settlers in bringing to life a dream of a homeland in the face of legal restrictions under the British mandate, and growing conflict with the local Arab population. He looks also at the challenges facing the Arabs; their lack of cohesive leadership, varying ideas of identity and, ultimately - at that time - a lack of 'nationhood' that characterised the local Arab communities in the early days of the Zionist settlement. He cites 'tribal and local loyalties more than a defined national identity' as being typical at the time, and that the people themselves largely regarded themselves as being part of Southern Syria and as part of the 'Arab nation', rather than as 'Palestinians'.

So far, Ben-Ami appears to be striving to look objectively at the events of history. That the early settlers bought land from the original Arab owners, who were all too willing to exchange what they saw as unproductive territory for cash. He speaks also of the factions within the Arab communities at the time, and conflicting instructions given by the heads of different groups, resulting in the sale of land in some areas, and holding on to it in others, but ultimately, continuing chaos.

It is thought provoking and useful to have a source of information that is, based on what I've read so far, an open attempt to lay out the events as they happened that looks at both sides. Discussions about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle polarise people, but it can be very difficult to wade through the media coverage and gain a sense of what really goes on - on both sides. There are extremists on both sides, there are decisions being made by both sides that are costing lives, and there is - to point out the obvious - no simple solution.

Watch this space. As I work through the book, I will write more of what Ben-Ami says, and how it looks to me with my own experience of Israel, and as a Jew working for a Christian organisation where I quite often face strong anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian sentiments. I want to see a peaceful solution, I don't know many people who don't want that. What it will take to achieve is more than I can even hazard a guess at. Laying down the weapons - on both sides - would be a huge start. At the same time, that requires trust on both sides that is short supply, for which there are also good reasons...

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