Archive for March, 2013

Israel’s ethnic and religious patchwork

// March 12th, 2013 // No Comments » // Israel Blog

The Lower Galilee is an ethnic and religious patchwork of groups living mostly at a prudent social and geographical distance from one another. Arab and Druze ‘villages’, though still known as such, have long since become towns; post-Independence and especially post-1973 Jewish communities are dotted around on hilltops in dormitory enclaves. Here and there a small dome denotes a tomb ripe for adoption by one or another of the religions in contention. (Talking of domes: the research centre for Israel’s own ‘Iron Dome’ is also located here.)

 

The history of 18th and 19th century Palestine is captured by the story of  ‘Al-Jazzar the butcher’, ‘a former Bosnian slave named Ahmad Pasha, who had become an officer in the Ottoman army’, and became Sultan after seizing control of the port and citadel of Acre at the gateway to the Galilee (Andrea Semplici and Mario Boccia: ‘Akko, a city with a dual spirit’ – an erudite guide sold at the ticket office for the Akko citadel).  The crumbling Ottoman order opened the way for Jewish settlers and their backers looking to buy up land. Recent research by Ben Bassat reported in Haaretz, on the response of farmers to Jewish land purchases in the late 19th century casts a rare light on the ensuing culture clash: maybe the owners were willing sellers, but they were often absentees, living off a dependent but obedient peasantry.  And for their part the tenants who had been working the land for generations considered this their way of life. They did not foresee that a change of owner meant a change in that way of life, and that the immigrants were settlers who had bought the land to till it themselves and to do so in a modern way. By burying age-old bonds of deference and obligation the settlers were signalling the destruction of a social order.

http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/new-documents-reveal-early-palestinian-attitudes-toward-zionist-settlements.premium-1.475085.

 

Despite the destruction of the institutions and economy of the old order, cultural habits survive and are even reborn. Nimrod, my geographer-historian friend, explains to us the political importance of tombs and shrines. We visit one next to the Arab village of Kuakab. A few years ago when the Communists (led at the national level by Jews) were still the party of choice for Israeli Arabs, the Mayor restored this tomb as a piece of their heritage. It is set in a small park which began to be used by people for assignations and leisure activity – a space of the kind which is in short supply in overcrowded Arab towns bereft of open or green spaces.  Later the Communists were supplanted by the Islamic movement and the new Mayor, troubled by unsupervised dating and related infringements, installed a gate onto the main road – though cars still arrive from a back road. The tomb itself encases the body of a military chieftain who was granted rights to the local taxes by an Ottoman Sultan and may even never have come here. When we enter through a very low door – low to make sure we bow down – we see the small domed sanctuary has been painted, decorated and carpeted and many scarves are draped over the tomb. People come here in the hope of a cure, especially for troubles in their legs, and leave their scarves as a token, like a votive offering.  That is the way with shrines: they can be political markers, ethnic markers, or just places to help the sick.

Not far away in the Golan we saw another manifestation of the politics of shrines:  a mosque destroyed in the 1973 war of which little remains but the minaret: Bratslav hippies/activists/Chassidim have painted their motto on it in the expectation of establishing a presence, perhaps by claiming it is built on the tomb of a long-forgotten Jewish sage. If this does not work here there are many other similar places – and the Ministry of Religious Affairs will provide funding to restore them and make them into a religious site. At Kibbutz Degania (next door to the Jordan River baptism site mentioned in a previous blog) I was told that if a kibbutz wants to build a synagogue the Ministry can provide funds.  Maybe the Ministry is on a mission to rectify the historic secularism of the kibbutz movement. These modern Jews have enthusiastically resuscitated the custom of marking out territory with religious structures.

 

These observations, plus what we absorb randomly from the headlines about Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, may lead us to think that, if we view the fractures and schisms of Israel in a broader historical and regional perspective, both internally and externally, it is a small variant in a very long history of ethnic and religious enclaves, fiefdoms, satrapies, cantons, refuges, fastnesses, autarkies, protectorates, colonies. One important feature of this sysem was the shifting boundary between arbitrary rule and the impartial rule of law, between bureaucracy and personal power.

In all this story we see failed or struggling attempts to create a modernizing state ruling over the fractured mosaics and usually failing in the attempt, or succeeding only partially (read Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and maybe Jordan too): Israel, as a tiny demographic and territorial enclave wrapped around its various enemies in a tangle of unstable arrangements, also exhibits numerous quasi-legal internal artifices and fictions governing issues such as land, marriage and military service. Of course the Israeli state has a stronger modernizing impulse, and even started out on a social democratic path, and it is not ruled by an oligarchy, a clique or a mafia, but it is sobering to list the ways in which the Israeli state has inherited features of the ancestral political cultures of the region: looking to the past, Israel exhibits differential citizenship rights and obligations, enclave-based social relations, separate schools for separate groups, religion-based legal arrangements, and now,  like its neighbours, its modernization has led to a highly concentrated economy, and a somewhat incestuous relationship between big business and politics.

 

It would be absurd of course to say that Israel is therefore ‘the same’  as its neighbours, but it is worth reflecting that there are many features of Israeli society which can be thought of in terms of continuity with the Ottoman past. The famous ‘status quo’ agreement which underpins the educational arrangements and military exemptions of the haredim is so called because it was agreed that the status quo prevailing during the Mandate would be left in place in the new state – but that arrangement itself was a continuation of what prevailed under the Ottoman empire, with its sprinkling of self-governing and collectively taxed minority communities.  The peculiar quasi-state – the Yishuv – which enabled the Jewish settlers to run their own administration during the Mandate was a version of Ottoman decentralization, and it allowed political leaderships to flourish with their own arrangements for immigration, education and economic organization (kibbutz, moshav, Mapam, Mapai etc.). A sort of quasi-self-government.

The period between 1948 and 1977 (election of Begin) can then be seen as something of an anomaly, in which a secular elite held the ring and built modern legal and administrative institutions. But with the conquest of the West Bank and the settler movement, the growth and diversification of the religious and messianic variants of nationalism, plus the changing demographic balance between ultra-Orthodox and secular, that secular elite has had to become another sect and no longer is in a position to hold the ring.

So centrifugal forces appear for the moment to be in the ascendant, and one can hear cataclysmic voices predicting the disintegration of Israeli society, while messianic voices propound what might be thought of as its corollary, namely the recomposition of an ethnically and ideologically homogeneous society. But just as the neighbouring countries, which seemed destined never to change, erupted in the last two years, so Israel may well, eventually, enter its own phase of high – or even higher – drama.