Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A BDS of History in Israel

The longer I stay here, the more I realize how much the Lebanese and Israelis share in common; geographically, culturally, politically, and ethno-religiously. Israel and Lebanon also share much in that those in their societies who are advocating for complex, expansive, spacious identities—recognizing the “otherness” of “the Other”—appear to be on the losing side of history.

In the early 1940s, speaking of the “Lebanese paradox” which, in its cultural and linguistic diversity represented a microcosm of the modern Middle East, Lebanese thinker Michel Chiha wrote that:
Conquerors and their conquests have all come, gone, and faded away; yet the Lebanese have remained. Lebanon [and by association the entire Levantine coastline] is the meeting-place into which peoples flock and assimilate regardless of their origins. It is the crossroads where varied civilizations drop in on one another, and where bevies of beliefs, languages and cultural rituals salute each other in solemn veneration. We are above all a Mediterranean nation, but a nation, like the Mediterranean itself, discerning and sensitive to the stirring music of universal poetry.
This is the essence of the Israel that I have come to know these past few years; a state of the Jewish people to be sure, but a diverse human and cultural space composed of Jews, Arabs, Christians, and others; a mix unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East; a space with topologies, climate-systems, histories, languages, and geographies favorable to diverse cultural and human compositions, synthesizing centuries of intellectual, linguistic, and ethno-national intercourse and traffic.

Alas, this diverse, pluralist—and yes, democratic—Israel is losing ground to a rigid, reductive, exclusivist Arabist interpretation of history. The model here is one not unlike that of the “association of minorities” that was pre-1975 Lebanon. What’s more, the scenario that has led to the dismantlement of the Lebanese “federation of ethnicities” might very well be lurking in Israel’s future. It is a discourse that—to use the language of Syrian thinker Adonis—is constructed upon a negationist ethos; an instinct that rejects the non-Arab “other” and refuses to “reflect on the other” in language, history, temperament, and social habits.

Here is how Israel is validating the Arabist interpretation of history—and I’m not dramatizing here; this is serious stuff!

The municipality of Rahat, a Bedouin township in the Negev, boasts a rich public library featuring thousands of Arabic-language volumes treating topics ranging from linguistics, to Koranic studies, Arabic literature, history, sociology, and culinary arts. So far so good, yes? No! Strolling down the “Arab History” aisles, I picked up Muhammad Muhammad Hassan Sharraab’s “Dictionary of the Counties of Palestine ” (Second Edition, Amman, Jordan: Al-Ahliyya Publications, 2000.) Flipping through the pages, I come to Chapter Three (p. 31), titled “The Ancient Inhabitants of Palestine.” The title itself was tantalizing—given that in my neck of the woods “Ancient” ordinarily referred to a pre-AD70 Era, when “Palestine” had not yet come into being—let alone had the term “Palestine” been invented. But the anachronistic terminology was fascinating enough, so I read through the chapter, and I provide a translation of its most notable passages below:
The Canaanite Arabs were history’s first people to have inhabited Palestine. This is attested to by a prominent historian [no name or reference are provided, of course] who said that ‘the opinions of the gifted jurists from among the luminaries of practice and knowledge are unanimous in that the Arabic-speaking peasants of Palestine are the descendants of the Pagan tribes inhabiting that land prior to the Israelite conquest.’ Their feet are deeply rooted in the soil of Palestine, since the remotest history. Indeed, since the very dawn of time peoples of the Semitic Race have inhabited Southern Syria—that is, Palestine—following a series of migrations issuing out of the Arabian Peninsula and beginning around the year 3500BC. Based on this, we can confirm that the Arabs had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years.
Now, aside from the fact that the so-called “[Semitic] migrations issuing out of the Arabian Peninsula […ca.] 3500BC” are corroborated by no known archaeological or historical record—they are in fact based on the more recent 7th century Muslim conquests of the Levant, retrojected into an unknown past—the text exudes ideological puffery (in the garb of a serious etymological dictionary.) For one, the Semites are not a race, and the term “Semitic” refers not to peoplehood, but to a group of languages (including Arabic and Hebrew) that are as “related” to and as “distinct” from one another as French is “related” to and “distinct” from English and Rumanian. Secondly, despite the modern Arab nationalist cant, not all of the tribes emerging out of the Arabian Peninsula were necessarily Arabs. Furthermore, Arabs and Canaanites are two distinct peoples, making use of “related” but “mutually incomprehensible” languages—that is to say distinctly Arabic and Canaanite languages—that no serious “gifted luminary” can subsume into a single label. And finally, it is surprising that “the Arabs had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years,” and yet left us no written or archaeological record of their presence. Indeed, the peoples of the Levant—“Palestine” included—had been “literate” since at least the 13th century BC; the Hebrew Bible tells us so; so do Ugaritic literature and Phoenician records. Yet the Arabs who “had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years” seem to have bucked the Canaanite and Hebrew Alphabets despite Sharrab’s claim that “the Canaanites were a Semitic race of Arabs.”

I’m not going to bore you with the rest of the translation. For those interested, I've included an image of the Arabic text below, and I’ll post the rest of the translation once I'm back in Boston and have more reliable internet. For now, it’s interesting to note that this narrative is reminiscent of the great Edmond Rabbath—one of the chief intellectuals of Arab nationalism—who, with much swagger and gravitas (ahem, and with a straight face) advanced the claim that “Canaanite and Hebrew were dialects of Arabic,” and by inference, that both “Canaanites and Hebrews were lapsed Arabs that should be brought back to the fold.” Very Aflaqesque, no? But more importantly, this is the history that the "racist intolerant apartheid Jewish state" is allowing in the Bedouin School System. A BDS from within.

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