One day in 1913, a group of Arabs stole some grapes from the vineyards of Jewish pioneers in Rehovot. An altercation followed, leaving one Arab camel driver and one Jewish guard dead. The incident marked an irrevocable break between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, and planted the seeds of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Far-fetched as it may sound, this is the theory advanced by a one-hour PBS documentary, ‘Seeds of Conflict,’ shown in the US on 30 June. Grievances between different communities, once happy to mingle in coffee houses, were allowed to fester, the programme argues, and the conflict soon took on the proportions we know today.
Those most to blame for ruining the hitherto idyllic relationship between Jews, Muslim and Christians, it claims, are the young Ashkenazi Jews of the Second Aliyah, who came to the land of Israel fleeing Czarist pogroms.
Seeds of Conflict, which the film-makers say was made in consultation with a number of experts, insists that, according to the Arabic press and complaints of the time, these Jews showed ‘no understanding of the ways of the Arab inhabitants’ — unlike the earlier Jewish inhabitants in Palestine, who were Sephardi and spoke Arabic.
The so-called Old Yishuv was indeed composed of Arabic-speaking Jews who had settled in Tiberias, Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed, boosted by 15th century refugees from the Spanish Inquisition.
But life for these Jews was neither secure nor prosperous, and they subsisted on charitable handouts from abroad. Crucially, they had to ‘know their place’ under Muslim rule. From time to time, the Arab inhabitants made the Jews ‘understand their ways’ — which could consist of bloody pogroms. For instance, in 1834, the Palestinian Arabs of eastern Galilee took advantage of a regional war between Egypt and Turkey to attack their Jewish neighbours in Safed and strip them of everything they had — clothes, property, homes. Jews were beaten to death, sometimes by their own neighbours, synagogues destroyed and holy books desecrated.
The 1929 Hebron massacre targeted mainly members of the Old Yishuv, not the new Zionists from Russia.
The small Sephardi community of Palestine was so abased under Muslim rule that a contingent of Ashkenazi followers of the ‘false Messiah’ Shabbetai Zvi, seeking refuge in Jerusalem in 1700, refused to put up with the humiliations suffered by the Sephardim. “The Arabs behave as proper thugs towards the Jews…” one wrote. Jews could be slapped by passing Muslims, have stones thrown at them by small children, be banned from riding a horse — a noble animal — and suffer all manner of degradation as second-class ‘dhimmis’.
Jews were not allowed to worship freely at their holy places. The Mamluks forbade them from treading beyond the seventh step on the staircase to the burial place of the Patriarchs in Hebron. “Nothing equals the misery and suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem”, wrote Karl Marx. “Turks, Arabs and Moors are the masters in every respect.” To be a dhimmi was to be continually reminded of Islam’s supremacy over Judaism and Christianity.
In truth, it could be argued that the breakdown of the traditional dhimmi relationship was one of the root causes of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Perhaps the decisive incident took place, not in 1913, but in 1908, when the Hashomer Hatza’ir pioneers of Sejera dismissed their Circassian guards — who protected their settlement against Bedouin raids — and replaced them with Jewish guards. For the Jews, this was an ideological statement of self-sufficiency. But for the neighbouring Arab fellaheen, they had crossed a red line. They had reneged on their part of the bargain: the dhimmi, who was not allowed to bear arms, should always look to the Muslim for protection.
The arrival of the young Zionist pioneers, with their socialist vision of a brave new world, threatened to overturn the existing pecking order. Yet many Arabs benefited from the influx of European Jews. As the Jews toiled to drain the swamps and make the desert bloom, waves of Arab immigrants flooded in from neighbouring countries, eager to take advantage of the jobs and prosperity created.
The program’s creators say that 1913: Seeds of Conflict dispels a number of myths and is ‘an admittedly arbitrary glimpse that captures the Palestine of a hundred years ago’. But to substitute a tale of ‘European colonialists’ invading Palestine in order to trouble a multiculturalism of mythical equality would be to indulge in dangerous revisionism.