Dani Ishai Behan
Dani Ishai Behan

Palestinians and Ashkenazi Jews: Co-Indigenous To The Same Land

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The resting place of Abraham in Hebron, the father of both Jews and Arabs. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Prefatory note: This column is a collaborative effort between myself and Palestinian activist Jason Christopher Damouni

There are few conflicts, if any, that draw greater attention from the global community than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Innumerable commentators on both sides of this feud are pessimistic and doubt that a solution will be forthcoming any time soon.

And yet there is a surprisingly simple, albeit often overlooked reason as to why things have gotten this bad.

Most international conflicts have so far been about parts of disputed territories.

However, this particular conflict isn’t only about disputed territory. It is about exclusive control over the entire territory.

These attitudes have resulted in a ‘zero sum’ mindset, where one team has to win completely and the other has to lose completely.

At the heart of it lies a fundamental belief that goes something like, ‘my people are the sole custodians of this land and your people are either imposters or foreigners, if not both’.

This sentiment can more or less be found among large sections of the public and the intelligentsia on both sides of this conflict.

Many on the pro-Israel side of the fence cite Joan Peters’ ‘From a Time Immemorial’ as evidence that Palestinians aren’t even a real people, that apparently they only came into the land in the 19th and 20th centuries from surrounding areas like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq due to Zionist migration from Europe creating new jobs and economic opportunities, therefore, they don’t really belong in Israel.

Similarly, many Palestinians cite Shlomo Sand’s ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ to argue that Ashkenazi Jews aren’t even real Jews, that apparently they’re Slavic or Turkic Europeans who converted to Judaism during the Middle Ages, therefore, they don’t really belong in Palestine.

Both these books have been debunked by credible scholars.

It has been comprehensively demonstrated that Palestinians are descendants of the ethnic Jews who converted to Christianity during the Byzantine era.

People often seem to forget the fact that when the Romans kicked out the Jews, they only kicked out the Jewish Jews who were participating in the independence struggles, such as the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

The Christian Jews who had become followers of Jesus Christ had taken on a much more pacifistic approach towards their Roman colonizers because Jesus taught everyone to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” as inscribed in Matthew 22:21.

Therefore, the Romans never actually kicked out every single ethnically Jewish person from the land.

These Christian Jews who got to remain on the land spoke Aramaic as a native tongue and continued to be ruled by the Romans who eventually embraced Christianity and became the Byzantine Christian empire.

This local ethnically Jewish Christianised population by the middle of the 3rd century began to split up between Aramaic speakers along the coast and Levantine Arabic speakers along the Jordan River and Greater Syria.

The Ghassanid Empire founded in 249 AD was Levantine Arabic by official language and Christian by religion that stretched across most of the Levant region.

This time-frame also produced a Roman Emperor called Philip the Arab who came from Syria. The Muslim Umayyad Empire conquered Jerusalem in 637 AD under the Caliph Omar Bin Khattab.

This resulted in a peace treaty with Sophronius the local Christian patriarch of Jerusalem who was already speaking Levantine Arabic before the introduction of Islam in the region.

One of the great myths is that the Arabic language and culture were only introduced into the land after Caliph Omar’s conquests.

But we can clearly see from the evidence of the Arab Christian Ghassanid Empire and Philip the Arab that the Arabic language and culture were around in the land and the broader Levant region 388 years before the conquest of Islam (Ghassanids est. 249 AD and Islamic conquest est. 637 AD).

The vast majority of the Palestinians trace their family histories back to these ethnic Jews who embraced Christianity and spoke both Aramaic and Arabic long before the arrival of Islam.

Many local Palestinians embraced Islam, some didn’t, and remained Christian.

Islam views Jews and Christians as Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book, referring to the Old Testament) which came from the same God, and therefore gives them a special protected status.

They were tolerated through the ages for the most part, and hence, there are, to date, large pockets of Arab Christian communities throughout the Arab world, such as the Coptics of Egypt, Maronites of Lebanon, Orthodox of Syria and the Eastern Catholics of Palestine. The Ashtiname of Muhammad is the document which outlines the privileges of Christians under Islamic Civilisation which was written by Ali and ratified by Muhammad.

As people in that region are tribal and very peculiar about who they marry, for centuries, the local Christian Palestinian population tended to form romantic bonds and married other Christians and thus it can be concluded, that Palestinian Christians have an unbroken connection to the land that dates back to the earliest communities of the followers of Jesus Christ.

They have surnames that are unique to the land, and not imported from the Arabian Peninsula as falsely assumed.

Examples of such surnames are: Hadid, Hourani, Damouni, Khoury, Bassam, Muhtaseb, Eliyas, Farah, Hanna, Shaheen, Nashashibi, Ashqar, Salameh, Abu Nassar, Bashar, Mu’allem, Tamimi, Shoufani, Zahran, Abu Khidreh, Mikhael, Rehal and Silbaq.

If an ill-informed Zinoist went up to these people trying to repeat the ‘Arabs belong in Arabia’ lines as they often do, they would get laughed at, and rightly so.

These surnames are unique to the Levant, not to Saudi Arabia.

Many Zionists get in the business of pointing out that ‘there was never any such thing as a Palestinian state’.

This may be superficially true, but we could literally say the same about the vast majority of modern countries including Israel itself.

It is true that twice in history there have been earlier archetypes of Jewish states like the Davidic Kingdom and the Hasmonean/Hashmonai Kingdom, but these weren’t nation-states in the modern sense.

They were just short-lived local kingdoms and if we went by that criteria to suggest that modern nationstates should be based on earlier kingdoms then we would literally need to re-invent the map of Europe and create more than 2,000 different states.

That’s not how statehood works.

There was never a country called Australia either. It was just a 19th century penal colony for British convicts until it decided to forge itself a new identity, a flag, an anthem, a parliament and became a country.

And, there is nothing wrong with that.

Those people who today identify as Palestinians are descendants of earlier ancestors that have inhabited that land since time immemorial.

The people of that land that are today called Palestinians, have been ruled by Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Fatimids, Seljuks, Ottomans, Brits and now – the State of Israel, the Hashemites, the PLO and Hamas – but they are still there, and they aren’t going anywhere.

In the mid-19th century, they had a nationalist awakening under Zahir al-Umar who rose up against the Ottoman Empire.

Towards the end of the 19th century when Ashkenazi Jews began returning from exile in Europe, the Palestinian population didn’t care so much at first, but over time as it became known to Palestinian intellectuals that the objective of the Zionist movement was to achieve a Jewish state which would end up requiring the demographic reversal of the existing population ratios of the land, where Palestinians made up 92% of the population, these Palestinian intellectuals naturally felt anxious about what would happen to their rights as minorities under such a political set up.

To resist this project, they set up several anti-Zionist newspapers for instance, the Al-Karmil newspaper founded in 1908 by Najib Nassar and the Falastin (Palestine) newspaper in 1911 founded by the Al-Issa family are early proofs of the existence of Palestinian national consciousness.

Palestine may be a made up label, based on the ancient Philistines mentioned in the Bible with whom they share little in common, but it is the one that has stuck.

Just as Americans have nothing to do with Italian cartographer Amerigo Vespucci after whom they are named, and Colombians have even less to do with explorer Christopher Columbus after whom they are named, so can the Palestinians, stick with the label they already have.

In order for this conflict to be resolved, Jewish people need to consider Palestinians as co-indigenous to the land, rather than believing Joan Peters and considering them some sort of imposters and foreigners.

There is a similar argument to be made about Shlomo Sand, Eran Elhaik, and others who have devoted themselves to writing Ashkenazi Jews out of their Levantine-Middle Eastern origins.

It is no less important for Palestinians to accept that Ashkenazi Jews aren’t white Europeans; they are a diaspora Levantine population, comparable in virtually all respects to Arab Americans like Helen Thomas, Ralph Nader, and Salma Hayek who are all of Levantine Arabic origin but dress and act very Western.

This is how Palestinians need to see Ashkenazi Jews – as Levantine-Middle Easterners who endured exile in the West for centuries.

Only then will we be able to move forwards.

To this end, it is important that we clear up some common misconceptions.

It is often assumed that, because Ashkenazi Jews most recently resided in Europe, that somehow their ancestral heritage and descent are European. This is not correct.

It is further assumed that because Ashkenazim spent the past 1000 years or more stranded in Europe, they have for all intents and purposes become a white-European population and, consequently, have very little meaningful connection (if any at all) to the Middle East.

This too is incorrect, and grossly misunderstands both the history of European colonialism and the nature of Jewish presence in Europe.

What the Ashkenazim are, is a Levantine Middle Eastern diaspora and community whose presence in Europe is a direct result of European colonialism and enslavement.

That last claim may be confusing to Americans who, for the most part, only know what they see on TV.

The fact is, if you put 100 Ashkenazi Jews and 100 Palestinians or Syrians or Lebanese in a room together, you won’t be able to tell them apart.

In fact, Ashkenazi Jews and non-Jewish Middle Easterners portray one another on the big and small screen all the time.
For example, Tony Shalhoub (an actor of Lebanese extraction) is perhaps best known for his role as Abe Weissman on Mrs. Maisel. Although accusations of whitewashing levied at that show can and would be 100% appropriate (as nearly all of the Jewish characters on Mrs. Maisel are portrayed by white actors), Tony Shalhoub’s casting is an example not only of casting done right, but also of the fact that Ashkenazim and non-Jewish Levantine peoples are closely related.

Conversely, actors like Oded Fehr (whose parents made aliyah to Israel from Germany) are cast almost exclusively in Arab roles. In fact, he was a popular choice for the role of Jafar in Disney’s recent live-action Aladdin remake.

There are countless more examples that could be submitted.

Ashkenazi Jews endured many centuries of racist persecution in Europe precisely because they are neither European or white, but Middle Eastern.

This includes the Holocaust, where six million Jews across Europe were identified – along with Romani (from the Punjab region of India) – as an unwanted Asiatic presence in Europe and systematically snuffed out in a span of 6 years. Antisemitic caricatures emphasizing the racial differences between Ashkenazi Jews and native Europeans bear this out.

Western and European antisemitism against Ashkenazi Jews is, in fact, a perennial example of what scholars now identify as Orientalism – a broadly European/Western perception of Asian peoples as exotic, backwards, primitive, and static.

Ashkenazi Jews (and ethnic Jews writ large) have been and continue to be vilified/mythologized by Westerners as a mysterious, clannish, conniving, malevolent, and seditious population with strange customs, unbridled cruelty, a depthless penchant for deceit and cunning, a complete lack of morals, and an unquenchable thirst for the blood of foreigners for use in their hideous demonic rites. This, of course, is Orientalism 101, as are the countless conspiracy theories that Jews (Ashkenazim in particular) have been charged with over the centuries, ranging from the Protocols of the Elders of Ziyon to present-day “Israel Lobby” theories.

This extends to North America as well. Although our experiences are often (erroneously) lumped in with “non-WASP” European-Americans, e.g. Irish and Italians, the truth is that our histories and realities could not be further apart. For instance, unlike European-Americans (non-WASP or otherwise), Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to the United States were targeted by American anti-Asian laws of the early 20th century, along with other Middle Eastern diasporas e.g. Syrians, Lebanese, Arabs, etc.

Furthermore, antisemitism still pervades American culture and institutions, whereas anti-Irish and anti-Italian sentiment have long since faded. The latter two groups have become fully accepted by white supremacy.

As regards culture, not only is our diasporic culture primarily Middle Eastern in origin, but we still have full custodianship over our root culture. Ergo, an Ashkenazi Jew who makes falafel or plays an oud or makes art with a more ‘Middle Eastern’ aesthetic isn’t appropriating anything. They are simply decolonizing, just as African-Americans who adopt West African names, foods, etc are decolonizing.

A large part of the issue is that both Israelis and Palestinians wear the same necklace around their necks depicting the entire territory from the river to the sea.

To one, the whole lot of it is Israel and to the other, it is Palestine.

Israelis don’t just wear a map of pre-1967 Israel excluding the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinians don’t just wear a map of the West Bank and Gaza excluding Israel.

The only way forward is to change this attitude and to achieve the desired spirit of co-existence, each side must recognise the other as co-indigenous.

As long as the topic of ‘indigeneity’ within the context of this conflict keeps getting discussed on mutually exclusive terms where ‘My tribe is more indigenous than your tribe’, this deadlock of mutual de-legitimisation will continue.

If peace is to be made, it’s not just one side that has to make all the compromises, but both sides.

Borders, territories, refugees, status of Jerusalem, the wall, the checkpoints, all of that can be discussed in due time.

But first and foremost, people have to be prepared to accept each other as co-indigenous and only then would we be prepared to share the land, rather than fight each other over it for maximum control where one has to win, and the other has to lose.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.