Yossi Alpher leaps into the debate conducted over the last several weeks in The Forward (here, here and here) over the expression ‘Arab Jews’. But Alpher almost excuses Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia’s controversial remark – that Arabs will start thinking of Israelis as Arab Jews when peace comes. He said it, says Alpher, for the benefit of his Arab audience to ‘sweeten the bitter pill’ of Israeli coexistence with Arab countries. Alpher’s apologia makes him complicit in the very myths and delusions which have kept misunderstanding and conflict going. To prepare his audience for true normalisation, Turki should have told them a few home truths: Jews are not just a religious group, they are not a European implant, and and have as much right to a sovereign state in the Middle East as the Arabs do.
“The debate among Forward readers about Turki’s “Arab Jews” remark has, quite understandably, focused largely on Diaspora Jewish perceptions of Judaism and Arab culture. But it is important to remember that Turki’s statement for publication was made very much in a Middle Eastern context.
“The former longtime ambassador is a sophisticated and intelligent man. I believe he knows perfectly well that almost no Jewish Israelis identify as Arab Jews.
“But in describing his vision of normalization for publication, which invariably means translation into Arabic for the Arab media, Turki threw in the “Arab Jews” reference for the benefit of his Arab audience. He threw it in to soften the bitter pill of coexistence with Israel for Arabs, many of whom, Turki told Reuters, “historically saw the Israeli state as a European entity imposed on Arab land after World War II.”
“This, then, is the regional-historic context of “Arab Jew.” Most Arabs, and not a few Westerners and others, insist on seeing Jews as members of a religion and not of a people. For this they have both Islamic religious backing and the legacy of their pre-Zionist history, when they forced Jews into dhimmi, or second-class citizenship status, and, rightly or wrongly, considered the Arab-Jewish relationship to be tranquil.
“Hence most Arabs view Israel as the artificial creation of Western Jews who had no business founding a state, and certainly not one on what Arabs believe was Arab, and even Islamic, land. Turki was selling normalization with Israel to his constituents by way of soft-pedaling the Israeli nationalist face.
“While we Israelis may not like to be portrayed as Arab Jews, Turki nevertheless deserves a lot of credit for pointing the way for Arabs to live at peace with Israel.
“There is also a specifically Israeli context to the Arab Jew debate. A very small minority of post-Zionist Jews in Israel does indeed envisage Israel so closely integrating into the region that we become Arab Jews. They can even draw encouragement from the naive remarks of a few peace-minded politicians like Shimon Peres — back during the euphoric Oslo days, not during his current presidency — to the effect that comprehensive peace could mean Israel joining the Arab League.
“Then there are some Israeli Jews of eastern origin who harbor strong resentment of Ashkenazic dominance of Israeli life — which is hardly an item any more in view of the degree of integration in Israeli institutions like the military and the Knesset — or simply long for the language and culture of their or their grandparents’ land of birth, and call themselves Arab Jews. No one gets very excited over this; you almost certainly will not encounter them on a flight to Cairo or at the bridge crossing into Jordan.
“Finally, and perhaps of greatest importance, there is a very immediate peace process-related context to the Arab Jew issue. When Turki talks about Arabs welcoming Israelis back into the fold as Arab Jews, when Arab citizens of Israel increasingly demand that Israel cease to be a Jewish state, when Palestinians and other Arab neighbors warn us that if the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail they will have to reconsider the entire two-state concept, when even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares that the collapse of his current negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will mean that “Israel as a Jewish state is finished” — they are in effect stating that the only alternative to a two-state solution is a single, bi-national state solution in which, eventually, an Arab majority determines that we are all Arabs, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian.
“Yet nothing could be farther from the minds of 95% of Israeli Jews, who insist on continuing to live in a Jewish state. Most want it to be Jewish and democratic and therefore have supported withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. Even those settlers who have no problem subjugating Palestinians in order to hold onto the territories insist that the latter remain second-class citizens and that Israel remain Jewish, not Arab.”