It is I, your brother Mohamed…

Soldier and palestinian pic What if the whole Israeli – Palestinian conflict was all just the result of a big misunderstanding?

Isn’t that the ever present liberal hope?  There really is no evil, there’s just misunderstanding?  If you really knew me, you couldn’t possibly hate me, and we’d all get along?

I have written before (parshat Ki Tisa 5767) about the different narratives that the Israelis and the Palestinians have.  The Jews have their whole story about the “land without a people for a people without a land” – the tale of how Israel was a desolate place until the Zionist pioneers showed up and drained the swamps, created some infrastructure, and all of a sudden a bunch of Arab carpetbaggers came streaming in from Cairo, Damascus, and Amman to get jobs created by the Jews who were building the land.

And the Palestinians have their story about how they were sitting in Israel minding their own business, tending to their olive trees, when all of a sudden these Eastern European colonialists parachuted in and confiscated their land.  Just because the Jews had problems with Czar and Hitler, why should the Palestinians be the ones who suffer?

But what if the truth were very different?  Would it matter?

I’ve seen two things in the last week or so that agitate for a very different story, a very different reality.

A little over a week ago, I was at a retreat in the West Bank, a gathering of peace and cooperation oriented Jews, Christians, and Muslims, residents of Israel and the West Bank.  I had a long conversation with one of the Palestinian Muslim participants, and was surprised by two things: 1) he had no idea really who Herod was, despite the fact that Herod built so many of the important archeological sites in Israel/Palestine; and 2) he told me he had a family history that he was descended from Bar Kochba.  In case your Jewish history is a little rusty, Bar Kochba was the leader of great Jewish uprising against Rome in the early 2nd century.  Some of our greatest rabbis, like Rabbi Akiva, thought that Bar Kochba was the Messiah, come to free us from the yoke of Roman servitude.  As my friend was telling me this – in a hotel in Beit Jallah – we were about two or three miles, as the crow flies, from the town of Beitar, where the Bar Kochba revolt was finally crushed by the Romans, with the death of thousands of Jews.  The Talmud says the streets of Beitar ran with blood.

I have to admit, at the time I don’t think I really knew what to do with that information, so I said “cool,” mentally shrugged my shoulders, and filed the tidbit of information away.  I had no idea what to do with it. 

I didn’t have to keep the information filed on the back burner for long: a few days ago there was a fascinating article in the Jerusalem Post which maintains that as many as 90% of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are descended from the Jews who lived in Israel 2,000 years.  Click here to read the article.  The article, by David Shamah, was based on the book Brother Shall Not Lift Sword Against Brother by Tsvi Misinai.   The Jerusalem Post author – the J Post known as the more right leaning of the two daily English newspapers in Israel – seems like he’s trying hard not to accept what Misinai says, but has a hard time refuting it.

Misinai bases his claim on several things:

·         There are hundreds of villages in the West Bank for which the Palestinians have been Arabicized versions of the old Hebrew place names.  He maintains that if the Palestinians had come from outside, they would not have used the old Hebrew place names.

·         Many Palestinians continue to follow some Jewish customs, just like the Conversos of Spain – two examples cited include lighting a hanukkiah in December, and putting on tefillin.  The tefillin, however, are used as a headache remedy, not as part of the accoutrements for prayer, but still…where would they have got that from ?

·         Many Palestinians have a family tradition that they are descended from Jews, as my friend from the interfaith gathering who can claim a much more special “yichus,” ancestry, than I can

·         Logic: We know there this was not really a “land without a people,” there were a lot of people living here when the Jews started mass immigration in the late 19th century, and it makes perfect sens
e that they would be the descendants of the Jews who stayed behind – and converted to Islam because of the huge social pressures.  Which, of course, is not unlike the very high assimilation rates in late 18th century Berlin, when Jews in Germany were finally allowed to become Christian if they wanted to.

But if it’s true – what do we do with it?

My wife, partner, and sometime editor maintains that it’s a game changer.  That if it’s true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are REALLY brothers – not just vaguely “children of Abraham,” them through Ishmael, us through Isaac, but really brothers – both descendants of the Jews who lived here 2,000 years ago – we should see everything in a different light.

If true – and I believe it is true – it makes our current crisis all the more tragic.  How different things could have been if 100 years ago, instead of the Palestinians viewing the Jews as colonialists and the Jews totally ignoring the presence of the Palestinians, we could have treated the situation as family reunion.  If the locals could have said “welcome home my brother,” the newcomers could have said “thank you brother for taking care of the land during our exile” – we might have been able to avoid thousands of lives lost and 80 years of serious fighting (I date the “serious” fighting to 1929).

Is it too late to turn the clock back?  Is it too late to push the reset button on the relationship?  Is it too late to try and see each other as brother, not as enemy?

The wife thinks if we reach out to the Palestinians and acknowledge – well, not just acknowledge, but encourage their Jewish roots – we have a much better chance of making peace.  Why should we treat them like crap if they are us ?  Why should they kill us, if we are them?  Religiously, both Judaism and Islam allow special treatment for your "brother," more than for others.

It’s a fascinating question.  I’m not sure how I feel about it.  I invite you to join in a dialog by leaving your comments with your thoughts.  Does it change anything if we and the Palestinians both acknowledge the Palestinians as being descendants of the Jews who stayed ?

Reb Barry

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

6 thoughts on “It is I, your brother Mohamed…

  • August 29, 2009 at 7:18 pm
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    judging from the rash of suicide bombs in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, they dont seem to have a problem killing their own. so i dont see how aknowledging this new “brotherhood” will be any less violent if their agenda is not met on their terms. and we don’t exactly have a history of peaceful brotherhood co-existence, from isaac and yishmael, jacob and eisav, and joseph vs the rest of the brothers. in that light, can we really expect even a flicker of hope? i think not.

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  • August 30, 2009 at 9:46 am
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    David, I don’t know if I would draw on that example. The Sunni — Shiite thing can involve charges of heresy, which can be worse than being a Jew. Proven common roots would clearly not be a panacea, but maybe it would help open the door for discussion.

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  • August 30, 2009 at 11:44 am
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    even if we accept that 90% of palestinians have jewish roots, the question really is, so what? somewhere along the way they converted to islam and are no longer jews. one might wonder how many of the 90% really WANT to be recognized as jews. one could argue that 100% of christians have jewish roots, and again, so what? they are no longer jews. muslims and christians do share a common thread in that the former believe that non-muslims are heretics and infidels, and the latter pray for the jews so that they too will see the light. we could have an instant and permanent peace if only the jews jumped on the mohammed bandwaggon (or would that be chariot?) and proclaimed their allegiance to islam – inspite of their jewish roots, CHAS V’SHALOM!

    In order to entertain the thought that recognition of palestinian jewish roots could help pave the way to peace, one would have to accept the premise that muslims in gaza are being mistreated, and that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

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  • August 30, 2009 at 8:20 pm
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    Actually, as strange as it may sound, for many years Christians forgot– or one might say even actively suppressed– their Jewish roots. They viewed Jews as wholly “other.” In my interfaith work I have found that as Christians have gotten more interested in their Jewish roots it helps the dialog immensely. When they view us as their roots, not as “other” dialog is very different. It’s not about the facts changing — it’s about perception of those facts. Similarly, I think if Jews and Muslims can VIEW each other as brother — instead of viewing each other rivals or enemies — it enhances the possibilities for dialog. The Muslim who proudly told me he is a descendant of Bar Kochba is very interested in dialog and connecting with Jews, to learn more about our common ancestors.

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  • August 30, 2009 at 8:20 pm
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    It would be fantastic if your suggestion could be viewed by people on both sides as a game changer, but I’m not at all optimistic. Just look at “recent” examples like our bloody war Civil War, where literally brothers from the same house went to war against each other. Certainly the South fighting the North were the same people that just 80 years earlier had fought together as brothers against the English for a single union. Brothers going back 2000 years are much farther apart than were those that fought each other in the Civil War, and this is but one example. Look at the fighting and hate between Sunni and Shiite, both brothers going back to Mohammad. No I am not optimistic that there will be a peaceful resolution in our lifetime.

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  • October 6, 2009 at 9:31 pm
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    Belatedly joining the conversation.. 🙂

    Ah, I wish.
    I find it very credible that many – or most – Palestinians may be descendants of Jews. But suggesting that this may change anything is based on the assumption that the conflict is actually a religious one.

    I believe it isn’t. It’s a conflict about land, water, and property rights. Houses, wells, and groves.
    Religion only provides a pretty canvas to set the entire thing upon.

    Now whether that makes it simpler, or more complicated, I am not sure. But whether Israelis and Palestinians are cousins or brothers is of little importance at the point we’re at.

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