Recently, two very interesting and important articles were published on the question of Jewish identity. One, written by Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al-Quds University, is entitled Why Israel Can’t be a ‘Jewish state’; the other is by Prof. Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University, entitled We are a people: A response to Sari Nusseibeh.
I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is wrong when he declares that recognition of Israel as
a Jewish state should be a precondition for a resumption of negotiations. That condition was
not made for the peace treaty with Egypt, with Jordan, or for the signing of the Oslo Accords
with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians have already accepted UN General Assembly 181
(the Partition Plan) which ended the British mandate and recognized the right to establish “a
Jewish and an Arab state” in Palestine.
However, we do have a problem. Most Palestinians tend to view Jews as a religious group, not a people. Apparently, even Sari Nusseibeh. That’s partly because they see a parallel between Islam and Judaism.
Every Yom Kippur we have a gathering in Tel Aviv at the home of Dr. Simcha and Doreen
Bahiri. One of the regular crowd at those gatherings is Ali Azhari, a Palestinian Israeli
citizen who has had a very colorful life as an activist and actor (“I was in a film that was a
candidate for the Oscar!”, referring to “Beyond the Walls”), who earns his living as a teacher of
Arabic with Berlitz, Peace Now, Windows, and now the NYU overseas program in Israel. He
has a child together with Dr. Nirit Kadmon who teaches linguistics at Tel Aviv University. He’s
secular and I asked him (as I hear John Lennon singing “Imagine” on the radio — all of Succot being devoted to songs of love and peace from the late ’60’s early ’70s on 88 FM), “Do you
define yourself as a secular Moslem? Is that possible?”
He paused, and said, “I call myself a son of a Moslem family. Is it possible to be a secular, or an atheistic Jew?” Remember this is someone on the left. My response was that Tel Aviv is filled with secular Jews, who call themselves both atheists and Jews at the same time, including most of the people at the gathering — members of the Jewish people or nation.
I asked the same question of Walid Salem, a very prolific Palestinian intellectual at the Palestine-Israel Journal editorial board meeting on Thursday. I knew that he was Moslem and secular. He told me “I don’t call myself a Moslem, but rather an atheist.” However, he added, there are some Egyptian intellectuals who call themselves secular Moslems. “That’s impossible!” exclaimed my colleague, PIJ co-editor Ziad AbuZayyad, who in recent years has been praying five times a day, but never introduces Islamic religious terminology into his discourse, recognizes Israel and has been a supporter of a two-state solution since the early ’70s.
When we had a strategic Israeli-Palestinian discussion after the UN speeches, one
Palestinian professor criticized Mahmoud Abbas for not referring also to the Jewish tie to
Jerusalem, alongside the Moslem and Christian tie. Most of the Palestinians didn’t agree
with that criticism, pointing to the lack of empathy on Netanyahu’s part for the Palestinians in
his entire speech. I’m not at liberty to say who said what, because the discussion was held
according to the Chatham House Rule, which doesn’t allow direct questions without consent.
What we have today is a lot of posturing, on both sides. Both articles, by Sari Nusseibeh and by Shlomo Avineri, are important, yet I don’t agree with Avineri’s concluding remarks that “The abyss currently separating moderates in Israel from the most moderate of Palestinians is indeed very, very deep and the chances of reconciliation do not appear to be likely.”
It’s mainly a question of political will, on all sides. The gap can be transcended.
And almost every Israeli, Palestinian and member of the international community who is
seriously seeking a solution to the conflict realizes that as long as the conflict remains
national, it will be possible to find a formula to resolve it. However, if the conflict will be
transformed into a religious one, between Islam and Judaism, the chances for finding a
solution will evaporate.