Tuesday, April 9, 2013

East is East and West is West in the history of Israel

Israeli roads generally run the length of the country, which is a neat North to South (or vice versa) or cross it West to East (or the reverse), which tends to be a lot more narrow. When you drive on the West-East roads signs appear telling you the direction you are driving in. At the top they say מזרח (East) in Hebrew, in the middle is a squiggle in Arabic (saying the same thing) and at the bottom it says in English "East".
If you're bilingual like me then the sign appears to say "East is East", rather like Kipling's Ballad of East and West:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, 
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; 

Few countries epitomize Kiplings poem as wonderfully as Israel. It seems as though the Westernized Jews will never be able to attain peace with the Arabs and the Palestinians.
Kiplings adds that
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, 
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.
The problem with that though is that equality is only attained in conflict.

The East and West division is strong in both Western and Arab culture. Islam and Christianity have a bitter mutual history of conlifct: especially in Iberia where the Moslems were evicted, in the Balkans where Greece and Turkey exchanged populations and in the "Holy Land" where a bitter conflict was fought in the Middle Ages. European and Arab History are told differently, that is Christendom and the Islamic "world" each have a distinct narrative. According to Karl Marx they also had different modes of production: Feudalism vs. Despotism.  
Modern nation states tell their histories using a territorial based methodology in which one takes say, the French State and its people, defines them as the French "nation" and shows its development over time. This approach makes sense for countries like England and France which have had a long existence 

The territorial approach is problematic in countries which are the creations of European imperialism, although as time goes on - say over the next few centuries - this may become more relevant. There are a variety of ethnicities in Africa which are spread across several states and it might make more sense to trace the history of an ethnic group like the Tuaregs or the Akans then to write the history of Burkina Faso. The Middle-East is not as bad as Africa but also problematic. Iraq is essentially an amalgamation of three Ottoman provinces created by the British and it is questionable whether there should be a history of Iraq or of the Kurds or whether you should combine the two.

When you write a History of Israel, the Jews have both a territorial history and a supra-territorial history as a persecuted people.  Even the Palestinians have crucial events in Lebanon and Jordan, like Karameh, Black September or Sabra and Shaltila, however Palestinian history is generally very recent while Jewish history goes back a long way and is very varied. Even if you just throw in the Pogroms and the Holocaust you are referring to the whole of Europe and the Russian Empire and require extensive background.

I am currently reading Benny Morris's History of the Zionist-Arab conflict. It is probably the best history of the conlict in existence but tends towards classic territorial-based history and that bothers me because it doesn't sufficently describe European Jewish persecution or the Jewish presence in the Arab world.  I think a true History of Israel needs to combine the territorial approach with a "people" based approach and look at how the people formed, where their language originates, their beliefs and economy as well as the territorial formation. In the case of Israel, possibly more than any other country, that means devoting a lot of space to things that happened outside the state's territory and to merging Ashkenazi and Sephardi history.  So in a true History of Israel, East and West must merge and intertwine.










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