Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blurring good guys and bad in Hebron

There is something disturbing about Hillel Cohen's new book (Hebrew) Tarpat - about the Hebron massacre in 1929, the decisive breaking point in relations between Jews and Arabs. Unlike his previous book, Army of Shadows, a fascinating account of 'Palestinian collaboration with Zionism' in the 1920s and 30s, Tarpat takes a massacre of Jews by Arabs and blurs the dividing line between murder and self-defence,  'good guys and bad guys'. Reminiscent of the fashionable revisionism that holds that the Farhud was notable for the numbers of Muslims who saved Jews, Tarpat seems to fit with the current post-modern orthodoxy in academic circles which holds that there is no historical truth, only 'narratives'.  The Sephardim here are viewed as 'another people entirely' by Ashkenazi Zionist 'colonialists'.   Unsurprising for Haaretz, Moshe Sakal files a rave review. 

Cohen, a lecturer on Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, cites S.Y. Agnon’s famous line regarding his own, changed attitude toward the Arabs in the wake of the 1929 riots: “Now my attitude is this. I do not hate them and I do not love them; I do not wish to see their faces. In my humble opinion, we shall now build a large ghetto of half a million Jews in Palestine, because if we do not, we will, heaven forbid, be lost.” Cohen notes that these are early signs of the separation mind-set, which became official Israeli policy at the beginning of the 21st century. Yet, it is doubtful whether, after those riots, it was still possible to realize that which Agnon aspired to.

“Tarpat” is a spectacular stew, with every ingredient tossed into the mix, for discussion. The triangle of Mizrahim-Ashkenazim-Arabs (Yosef Haim Brenner: “What good will the one language do? One language for whom? For me and Sephardim? And are we really one nation with them? Say what you will: In my opinion, that is another people entirely”); the subject of Zionism as colonialism; the direct connection between 1929 and 1948, the year of independence; Uri Zvi Greenberg, Jacob IsraĆ«l de Haan, Albert Einstein and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Gershom Scholem and Brit Shalom; desecration of mosques; Suha Arafat and Thelma Yellin; and the reality of Arabs prostrating themselves on the doorsteps of Jewish homes in order to preserve the lives of the residents within, and of Jews spiriting Arab families away and saving them from being lynched.

Cohen quotes the witty words of the British judges at the trials following the 1929 events, who try with all their might to understand who was responsible for the first kill (spoiler: all sides were). He writes about the age-old dispute over the Western Wall, about Chabad at the forefront of the fight against Zionism, about pro-Zionist Muslims in Hebron and about the Tomb of the Patriarchs there, about the issue of land purchases from the Arabs, about morality and moral superiority, about massacres of all kinds – and specifically about the horrifying massacre in Hebron – about truths and lies, about the press (“No understanding between you and us is possible unless the Balfour Declaration is nullified,” the newspaper Falastin wrote in September 1929. “There shall be no understanding before you realize that Falastin is not part of Wild Africa, and murdering people is not as easy as in Rhodesia and the rest of the countries settled by Negroes, who do not put up any resistance”), about the Koran and about victim-hood and hangings.

The book is organized according to the main sites where the uprising occurred: Jaffa and Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hebron, Motza and Safed. But its frame narrative is actually an unknown story: The murder of the Awan family in Jaffa by Simcha Hinkis, a “Jewish police constable,” as the case is described in the book “Biladuna Filastin” (“Our Land Palestine”), a geographical encyclopedia by Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh.

Cohen traced the life story of the man who murdered the Awan family, Hinkis (who was sentenced to death, but saw his sentence commuted). This incident brought to his mind several burning questions. Cohen realized that from a Palestinian perspective, the story of Tarpat is different from the one he knew. And this is what interested him: How did it happen that the Arabs perceived reality so differently from the Jews?

The book also makes gentle leaps forward – up to the victory of 1967 and sometimes nearly to our day – but always in an almost silent manner, as though it is too early and we cannot yet judge the present or even understand it. After the 1929 riots, Cohen describes Yaakov Pat, a senior member of the Haganah (Israel’s pre-state militia), who was traveling by train from Haifa to Egypt, when he encountered Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. “I went back and stood at the window and the smug ugly face of the mufti looked back at me. Here, come a step closer to me, and stick out your hand and act (for this time you have a weapon!),” he imagined to himself.

Pat debated whether to take hold of the weapon and take the mufti’s life, until suddenly his “thinking cleared. It was clear to me that I was not allowed to do the deed, not while I am on duty and fulfilling an assignment. To the contrary. It is clear to me it would be an act of treason.”

Haganah soldier Ephraim Tzur’s soul, too, yearned to murder the mufti, as Cohen relates. Tzur sent a letter to Rachel Yanait: “I wrote that I can and want to finish off the mufti.” But her response was firm: “For God’s sake, do not do that.” Even in insane times such as those could “targeted assassination” have been deemed a foolish, immoral action. Even treasonous.

There will be readers who will fidget uncomfortably in their chairs as they read about Jews who perpetrated reprisals against Arabs, and even lynched them, and about Arabs who saved Jews (and vice versa). Cohen’s story is not biased with regard to the truth of any particular side, maybe because there aren’t really two “sides.” No border can really pass between these two peoples, because the land is one, and the story – convoluted and complex as it may be – is shared by both.
Cohen’s readers have undoubtedly heard about the massacre of Hebron’s Jews in 1929. Whoever visits the museum in Hebron today, which is housed in Beit Hadassah, will be able to see photographs of dead and injured Jews, people without limbs, and even get a close look at the very axes that were used, according to the museum’s organizers, by the Arab assailants. On my visit to Hebron last month, I saw on one of the street signs that relate the city’s story to pedestrians a marker about 1929, headed “Destruction,” with the following text: “Arab rioters massacre Jews. The community is expelled and destroyed.”

“Tarpat” makes use of Israeli scholarly works, testimonies from the archives of the Haganah, minutes from Mandatory-era courts, clippings from the archives of such newspapers as Haaretz and Doar Hayom, medical files and more. Cohen juxtaposes the reports written by Jews against a host of Palestinian sources from the period and from our own time, and shows – time after time – just how often history, as the people involved tell it to themselves, is partial at best, and even misleading. By means of writing, we sometimes perform an action that is ostensibly the opposite of writing; if it seems at times that silence is concealment, then these books “are primarily engaged in concealing by means of writing.”

So, Hillel Cohen set out in search of answers and came up with a major question. And perhaps this is what distinguishes his book from many others written about the conflict over the years. He uses few maps and diagrams, offering little prescriptive advice. He also refrains from expressing remorse, lecturing or becoming mired in despair. Cohen does not forget that as an Israeli Jew, he cannot write from a “neutral” viewpoint or even – for the sake of the intellectual game – cross the lines. He doesn’t want to, either. But he understands something basic, which many people choose to ignore systematically: In order to plan your actions (as a person, as a people), you must understand the other side – its desires, its frustrations, its secret feelings and its anger. He understands that, more than it is important to understand what actually happened and who suffered the first fatality, one must understand how each side perceives the actions it performed and those performed by the other side.

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Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Many observers at the time, in 1929, blamed the British govt in the country for encouraging the Arab pogroms. In this the Mufti collaborated with the British for similar motives. He and his henchmen fabricated stories about Jews massacring Arabs on the Temple Mount. This story was brought to Hebron in the days when few had radios or telephones. It incited the local Arabs to do their massacre. So we can fairly say that the Arabs in Hebron had a motive, a justified motive in their view, for what they did. But what the review and, I presume, the book, fail to do is to point out how deliberate lies fabricated by the Husseini leadership of the Arabs in the country incited the Arabs, just as lies by Arafat and his gang in 1996 and 2000 incited Arab attacks on Jews in those years.

The British role was to encourage the Mufti Husseini, whom they had made not only mufti of Jerusalem but chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council, and thus dominant over the Arabs in the country. British police and soldiers in the country facilitated the pogroms in Hebron and elsewhere. Captain Cafferata in Hebron played a sinister role.
To get the flavor of the British role, see books by Pierre van Paassen and Albert Londres. Van Paassen wrote Forgotten Ally, etc., and Londres wrote Le Juif Errant est arrive, in that period. They were both eyewitnesses in the country to what happened and both blame the British. If this new book does not tell about the British role then it is a whitewash and a fraud.

suzy pirotte vidal said...

sorry, the British role should be a univ thesis in itself. Much as I am a lover of Britain, I have to open my eyes to what they did

Anonymous said...

It's sick that the British never apologized for their war crimes during the mandate period.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Anon & Suzy, France apologized officially for its Holocaust role under Vichy, through both Chirac and Hollande. But the UK never apologized for being a silent partner in the Holocaust. Recall that the UK refused to use military power to destroy the gas chambers and the RR tracks leading to the death camps. It also foreclosed Jews from finding a refuge, a home, in the internationally designated Jewish National Home --Israel-- when the Jews most needed a home.

SyrianJew said...

So, I think I understand the general premise of the book:

Arab massacres against Jews always have a justification, because Arabs do not commit massacres without a justifiable reason.

Jewish massacres against Arabs are solely rooted in inherent Jewish hostility towards Arabs.

Thanks, the leftists always clear things up for me.