There exists another Palestinian-Jewish narrative that needs to be revived and shared. Palestinians still remember living peacefully among their Jewish relatives, friends, and neighbors, but that shared history is buried and forgotten by Israelis and Jews. It is time to claim the Palestinian-Jewish historical connection to bring forth a new narrative that can mend hearts and bridge differences.
mai abdul rahman July 2017
Understanding the cost of decades long wars and occupation while recognizing the historical connection that existed among the Palestinians and Jews before the birth of the Zionist scheme could lead to the peaceful destiny desired by Israelis and Palestinians. While many will challenge the merit or prospect of such a proposition, it will create the space for collective healing.
Several genetic studies substantiate the existence of what was once strong Palestinian-Jewish familial bonds. In 2000, “a study of high-resolution haplotypes [DNA sequences] demonstrates that a substantial portion of ‘Y chromosomes’ of Israeli Jews (70%) and of Palestinian Muslim Arabs (82%) belong to the same chromosome pool.” In other words, Palestinians are more connected to the first Jews than Israeli Jews. This study and others before it, assert that the Palestinians whom Israel is hard pressed to subjugate and displace are the Jewish families thousands of years back who at one time or another chose a separate faith.
But first what were the reasons that buried the historical kinship that existed between Palestinians and Jews? And was the Palestinian-Jewish connection relevant to Jews before 1948?
Soon after the birth of the Israeli State, its leaders carefully cultivated a web of fictional assertions and myths that helped rationalize Israel’s colonial territorial expansion, displacement, and expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians. These myths helped Israel establish a distinct Israeli identity defined by military conquest and fear, and made it possible for Israel’s political leaders to draw a definitive line between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
To secure uninterrupted Jewish support within Israel and beyond, Israel utilized manic panic and mistrust of all things Palestinian. This ensured Israel’s political agenda and territorial objectives are supported by Israelis domestically and Jews internationally. The employment of these tactics helped Israel further its occupation of the entire Palestinian territories, the Jewish funding to expand its illegal settlement enterprise in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and uncontested support for its Gaza siege.
The deliberate omission of the largest chunk of the Palestinian-Jewish narrative has profoundly affected Jews within and outside Israel as well as the entire Palestinian people-whether they may be Palestinian Israelis, displaced Palestinians living in refugee camps, or evicted by its illegal settlers, Palestinians living under its military occupation, or enduring its Gaza siege.
In contrast, before the establishment of the Israeli State, collections of Zionists were well aware that the Palestinians are the original decedents of the ancient Hebrews. Prior to 1948, Ahad Ha’am, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion Israel’s first prime minister among others claimed and coupled the Palestinian cultural heritage and history to the Jewish narrative. In their view, Palestinians’ daily life, character, and practice demonstrated the uninterrupted living Jewish history.
In 1918, Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion acknowledged that the Palestinians were the Jews who remained in Palestine and later converted to Christianity. Before them, Jewish nationalist and essayist Ahad Ha’am argued for the humane treatment of Palestinians “Moslems are the ancient residents of the land…who became Christians on the rise of Christianity and became Moslem’s on the arrival of Islam.”
Logically, the geographical location of Palestine exposed its people to each of the three Abrahamic faiths, where in sequence some chose to adopt the new faith. You need not be a biblical scholar, researcher, or historian to stumble on these facts. A simple Wikipedia search of “Palestinian people” you will find that “Palestinians are the modern descendants of those who have lived in Palestine over the centuries … Genetic analysis suggests that a majority of the Muslims of Palestine, inclusive of the Arab citizens of Israel are descendants of Christians, Jews, and other inhabitants of the southern Levant whose core reaches back to prehistoric times.”
In the past, religious conversions were common among Palestinians, but after the turn of the century that trend was arrested. In 2016 alone, the applications of 400 Palestinians to join the Jewish faith were rejected.
Regardless, the early Zionists whose intent was to colonize Palestine recognized the Palestinians as descendents of the early Jews who never left. They believed Palestinians whether Christian or Muslim are of Jewish origin, and even briefly entertained naming their new state Palestine. But after 1948, the ideological implications of this shared historical connection became problematic. For example, Ben-Gurion whose research established the historical connection and amicable relationships between Palestinians and Jews chose to forge a distinct Israeli identity and experience that separates Jews from the native Palestinians.
Nothing more illustrates the fate of that shared narrative than the case of the Palestinian lepers. At the time, the entire leper population (Jews and non-Jews) was under the care of Tawfiq Canaan, a Jerusalem doctor, ethnographer of Palestinian peasants, head of the Palestine Medical Association, and noted authority on leprosy. Canaan had examined the cyclical genealogy of the disease in its cultural context, and is credited for the eradication of leprosy in Palestine. During the early days of the 1948 war, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim lepers were forcefully separated. Canaan’s Jewish patients remained in the Talbieh Leprosarium in West Jerusalem, and his Palestinian patients (Christian and Muslim) were forcefully expelled to East Jerusalem. The physical separation of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim lepers in the Talbieh Leprosarium was a tangible example of the end of the shared Palestinian-Jewish narrative.
This was again demonstrated in 1967. In 1940, Ben–Zvi’s research concluded that two thirds of Nablus and its surrounding Palestinian villages are of Jewish origin. According to Ben-Zvi, the Samaritans of Nablus kept a written record of the Palestinian families whom they identified as decedents of prophet Joseph and his two sons- Ephraim and Manasseh (adopted sons of Jacob). His research documented the shared familial bonds across the spectrum of the three faith communities living in Nablus. Ben-Zvi concluded that the familial connections between the inhabitants of Nablus were the impetus for the Palestinians to protect their Jewish relatives from persecution. After the 1967 war, that kinship and legacy ended.
The Israeli soldiers who physically occupied every street and corner across Nablus created a physical and emotional barrier between Palestinians and Jews. The Palestinians of Nablus who two decades ago were recognized by Israel’s second president Ben-Zvi as the decedents of the earliest Jews became the faceless enemies of the Israeli soldiers. Meanwhile, Palestinians’ daily struggle to protect their homes and properties from Israel’s illegal settlers created a toxic Palestinian-Jewish experience.
Why does it matter that Palestinians are the blood relatives of Jews? Recognizing the centuries long shared history will create the resilience and compassion between both peoples to re-construct their relations outside the box of enemy and rival. Furthermore, for the Palestinians, Israel is but a small paragraph in a thousand-chapter book of their history that extends beyond the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Jesus, and the disciples.
How do you rebuild a shattered communal narrative? Palestinians and Israelis have to learn to accept their shared history prior to 1948- before the establishment of the Zionist scheme. Instead of focusing on the history that divides them, they need to embrace the history that unites them. Recognizing their historical connection as blood relatives can create the space for compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.
Accepting their shared experience that extends several millennia will enable Palestinians and Jews to re-frame their relationship based on the long history that connects them; rather than the recent history that defines their association as occupier, occupied, illegal settler, displaced, homeless, and besieged. Acknowledging the historical bonds between Palestinians and Jews would help them realize the peace they desire. While this is a tall task, and more than many will challenge it- it is possible.