Bestselling Israeli historian Shlomo Sand on identity politics, political despair, why Lieberman is right… and drowning sorrows with Mahmoud Darwish.
Monday 12 March 2012
Entering Shlomo Sand’s office at Tel Aviv university, the first thing that catches the eye are the numerous language versions of his controversial book,The Invention of the Jewish People, which has been a bestseller both in Israel and internationally. As an Egyptian with a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had read his book with great interest – and now I was meeting the man behind this intellectual earthquake.
Despite the title of his book, Sand, with his neatly cropped beard and air of the anti-establishment academic, is not polemical, neither in his writing or in person. Rather, he projects the image of what academia should be ultimately about, intellectual scepticism and deep questioning. However, his willingness to stand up and challenge sacred cows have left their mark, and he comes across as a deeply pessimistic person, although he is highly approachable and possesses an irrepressible passion for debate and conversation.
The polemical reactions to his iconoclasm overlook numerous important points, including the fact that, although he does not believe that a “Jewish people” exists per se, he holds firm to the notion that the existence of an Israeli people is a concrete reality, but that these Israelis are both Jewish and Arab, and that Israel should not identify itself as the homeland of the Jewish people, but should, instead, define itself as the state of the Israeli people. Also, for Arabs and opponents of Israel, it is also crucial to point out that the “Jewish people” were not the only people who were “invented”. Sand stresses that similar cases can also be made for other peoples, including Arabs and Palestinians, and that inventing mytho-histories is a central component of modern nation-building, especially the 19th-century model in eastern and central Europe.
Although I don’t agree with everything he asserts, his vision of two independent Israeli and Palestinian republics of all their citizens, with a minority Jewish and Arab population of equals in each, is a refreshing option to consider, as is the urgent need not only to reinvent the Israeli people but also the Palestinian people.
Without further ado, I’ll let Sand speak for himself.
Shlomo Sand: It’s very difficult for me because I have started to lose hope. If we jump to the end, if you want, I don’t believe peace will be reached.
Khaled Diab: You mean, in the short term, in the long term?
In the long term, I don’t know, I’m not a prophet. In the short term, I mean. This is the subject of my latest book. I’ve finished it pessimistically. Even the Oslo agreement was a bluff.
Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the doctor, was the leader of the Palestinians in Gaza. He was in the delegation of 1989 to Madrid. I met him 23 years ago. He died a long time ago. I remember, I went with a few academics to Gaza – he invited us. He was a secularist from a kind of Marxist background, not a communist. I remember he said that he was against the Oslo agreement. I asked him if it was because he didn’t want to recognise the Israeli state.
He started laughing. He said, “I have recognised the Israeli state since 1948.” By the way, he had a Jewish lover… woman?…
Yes. He said, I recognised it before Arafat. “No, it’s not because of this that I am against it,” he said. “I think that the Israelis are going to manipulate us again.”
“We promised to try to stop the violence. Israelis did not promise to stop the colonisation,” he said. Arafat wanted to go back to Palestine so much that he signed it, and he lost.
When you say that it’s a bluff, how much of it do you think was an intentional bluff and how much of it do you think was down to the fact that the extremists within Israeli society were more organised and…
You have to know that this is the subject of my book, and it’s not about the extremists, it’s about the centre of power, especially the Labour party. I read, during my research, Rabin’s last speech in the Knesset. When he proposed the peace, he insisted that Jerusalem would be united with Ma’ale Adumim under Israeli sovereignty. There would not be any discussion about this point. And also the Jordan Valley would belong to Israel. That was the last speech of Rabin before he was assassinated.
They accept a kind of Bantustan – all of them, all of them. This doesn’t mean that Rabin could not have progressed after this if he wasn’t assassinated. But Rabin, at that point, proposed more or less what Bibi Netanyahu is now doing.
But isn’t he going even further than that?
Yes, he is going a little bit further than Rabin in ’94.
The concept of the Land of Israel, and also the power, the emitted power, cannot bring a coalition with the goodwill to deliver the rights of the Palestinians. This is because the “Land of Israel” (“Eretz Yisrael”) is seen as the land that belongs to Israel, do you understand? I didn’t use to understand this. I thought that pragmatism would prove stronger. No, no, it’s very deep. It’s not only deep among extremists. There is not a single political party that can make peace on the Israeli side.
Beyond political parties, do you think the people themselves, the Israeli people, have a desire to…
They have a desire to live in peace. At the time when the terror was very, very strong, a lot of people became very tired of the occupied territories. Now the impression of the average Israeli is that they can continue to live like this for another hundred years.
So they think the conflict is manageable?
Yes, the average. But more and more people not on the left feel that there is no solution. They feel that it is going to end, in some way or another, badly. There is, if you want, 20% of the population, I think, which is not proposing a solution but don’t believe in any solution. They are very pessimistic.
Now the majority. It’s one of the paradoxes, and I don’t like paradoxes, that Israeli society cannot sacrifice… has stopped wanting to and being capable of sacrificing soldiers, on the one side. On the other side, they don’t fight for peace.
You have to know, all of us studied the Bible for something like 12 years at school. The curriculum is based on a historical narrative that the land belongs to Jews. Basically, an average Jewish citizen of Israel cannot understand why we have to divide the land.
By necessity, if there was pressure from abroad, if the Americans really wanted to push Israel, I think there could be some compromise.
So you think no compromise is possible from inside, it has to be forced from the outside? So, do you think, for example, that the Jewish and Arab communities in America could help in pushing Israel in the right direction?
No… Young people in universities, professors like me are very critical of Israeli policy. But organised Judaism is very, very pro-Zionist. This development began in ’67. And they are on the right wing of the Israeli political system.
There is a movement now, J Street and the likes, but it is not serious and they are contradictory.
Don’t you think it could get stronger, something like J Street? And these young people, as they get older and take on positions of influence…
No, no, because there is also something very strange about this. Somebody who wants to take part in Jewish politics in the United States, and not mainstream American politics, you have to understand. Why is Woody Allen not active in Jewish politics, for example? Because he’s very American. Most professors I know who are critical of Israel do not organise themselves to fight against Israel.
So you mean that American Jews are either organised and pro-Israel, or are apathetic and critical of Israel?
Exactly. Apathetic or critical but not organised… There is J Street which is kind of leftist Zionism or liberal Zionism, in someway, but I don’t think that it will become a very strong movement. Because if they understand what’s happening in Israel, in some ways, they become less interested in Israel.
Is this because it conflicts with their principles?
Yeah. The only way this will change, because I know the history of Judaism in the United States before 1967 when it wasn’t so pro-Israeli. If there were to be a massacre in the Galilee and an American Jew would go out of his garage and the neighbours would look at him with a bad eye, something might change.
So you mean things have to get a lot worse to mobilise…
When they begin to feel that the image of a Jew cannot go with the aggressive politics of Israel, if it really becomes a contradiction, may be organised Judaism will start to change its politics.
Or if there is a net contradiction between the politics of Israel and American politics. For the moment, this is not really the case. Like it did in 1956 during the Sinai war. The Jewish community in the 1950s did not fight for Israel at all. It’s very important to understand this.
This is the only, only hope that I can see. Inside Israel, not. I think that Lieberman is right. He understands very well that the real danger for Israel is the Palestinian-Israelis.
Is that why he proposed those land swaps?
Yeah. He knows, and he’s right, that the real danger will be the Palestinian-Israelis and not the Palestinians.
Because they have a power centre within Israeli society and they’re frustrated?
Yes, and they are a better-educated and they have higher political awareness.
They understand Israeli society?
Much more. Relatively, they are less oppressed but mentally they are much more oppressed, because they have problems with their identity. They speak Hebrew. The young students, who are the most extreme, with every step, are becoming culturally more Israeli and they are becoming more active Israelis politically.
The problem is not only the occupied territories. Now, I don’t believe the leftists who are talking of a binational state. It’s a joke. I’m not against it. But to propose to Israelis to become, from one day to the next, a minority in their own state is a joke, do you understand.
But do you think they will become a minority?
It’s 5.9 million Israeli-Jews versus 5.6 million Palestinians. So, they are more or less equal in number. So, you can’t propose to Israelis to live in a state where they will become a minority, especially when the leftists are proposing the right of return. It’s a joke.
Do you mean it would never be accepted?
They would blow up the Middle East before, and they have the capacity.
You know, rationally, I’m for a two-state solution. But not a Jewish and an Arab state. An Israeli and a Palestinian republic.
And each one would have Arab and Jewish minorities?
Yeah. I say an Israeli state, and not a Muslim state or an Arab state, but a Palestinian state with Israelis living there. And, here, Palestinians living here as full citizens. Israel has to belong to its citizens and not the Jews of the world.
Isn’t that what the bi-national state is about?
No, the bi-national state, as I told you, is a very bad programme. The Arabs will become a majority, not as part of a gradual process.
Just at once…
Just at once. And I don’t think that this racist society, the Israeli Jewish society is a very racist society. You cannot propose this. First of all, if you are speaking about a bi-national state, okay, I’m not against it, but on one condition, throw out the Israeli army before. If not, it’s a kind of legitimisation of the occupation.
Well, how about, if you’re going to make it a state for all its citizens, that all the state institutions become open to all the citizens, like the army becomes a joint Israeli-Palestinian army.
No, I’m speaking about two states, two republics that are confederated. You cannot… We cannot live here without Arabs. If somebody doesn’t want to live with Arabs, I tell my students, he has to go to Paris and not live in the Middle East.
Well, even in Paris, you’ve got plenty of Arabs.
It’s a joke. Well, anyway, I say that living in the Middle East is living with Arabs.
So, what’s your vision? That we would have the two-state solution with the 1967 borders but the Jews who live in the West Bank can continue to live in the West Bank but under Palestinian rule, as Palestinian citizens.
Yes, with the same and equal rights, not with 16 times more water than the Palestinians, like they have today.
So, the settlements would become joint Arab-Jewish neighbourhoods, for example, under full Palestinian control, something like that?
They would have an option to go back to their homeland, Israel.
And those who want to stay can stay as Palestinian citizens?
With equal rights.
Not as Israeli citizens living in Palestine?
They can have dual nationality, citizenship. You know, I also have French citizenship.
So the same can also apply to Palestinian-Israelis?
Yes, they can have double nationality, and they can move if they want to, but they don’t want to.
But then there are a lot of barriers even to that idea. For example, I’ve met the settlers in Hebron and they refuse the idea of living under Palestinian rule.
They would have a choice. They could go back to the homeland. You know, in 1962, millions of Europeans had to leave Algeria, half a million Israelis can leave the occupied territories. Now, you say a lot of them will not. Okay, they can accept to live in a Palestinian state.
Do you think that the Palestinian state will accept them? That’s another question, because they fear they will be discriminated against or become second-class citizens.
They have to behave nicely so as not to become second-class citizens, and they have to submit themselves to Palestinian authority, to live without problems. Most of them will leave.
I don’t believe any of this will happen but it is the only rational proposition. The future is a state that belongs to all its citizens, like France, like Britain, like the United States.
Speaking of Britain, one idea I’ve had is that, one huge barrier to coexistence is identity, so I thought the way to make a two-people federation work would be to come up with an additional national layer. So you would have an Israeli identity, a Palestinian identity, with the two of them joined together in a supra-identity, if you like, which we could call something like Canaan, or New Canaan.
We can start with the form of Europe. Europe today is a confederation. It will finish up like Switzerland. But it is a process.
But how about using Britain as a model? Britain is a good example. The way four different nations exist together under an umbrella identity called “British”.
First of all, I want to create a real umbrella within Israel itself, the principle being that the state is an Israeli state and not a Jewish state. This is the first step to existing in the Middle East. The second step, as you say, is a process that my children and grandchildren have to build in the future. We have to live in the Middle East with Arabs.
As a historian, I can say that if Israel is not to disappear, it has to become something completely different in the future, a part of the Middle East, a part of the goodness of the Middle East, not of the badness. For the moment, the democratisation in the Middle East is developing according to Islamic beliefs, but it is a democratisation.
In my concept, there is a difference between democratisation and liberalisation. The process we are seeing is democratisation and, unfortunately, not enough liberalisation. I am for a liberal democracy, a social, liberal democracy.
I am also for democratisation. Every time in history that somebody tried to stop democratisation, it created perversion, like in Germany in the 19th century, like in Algeria in the early 1990s. Now, in Egypt, I am for democratisation. I am against the army. The United States is doing everything possible to keep the military in power, and Israel supports it.
When I speak about our world in the Middle East, Egypt can become like Brazil, with Saudi money, oil. Egypt with Saudi could become the Brazil of the Middle East, like Nasser dreamed. But Nasser was afraid of the masses.
Nasser was willing to make peace with Israel, but he was afraid of the reaction on the street.
He was always afraid of the reaction on the street.
That’s why he marched blindly into the 1967 war. He could’ve avoided war…
Exactly. I am very angry at him. Do you know Eric Rouleau? Eric Rouleau was one of the greatest journalists of the Middle East. He wrote for Le Monde. He was a personal friend of Nasser’s, as well as of Mitterand. He became France’s ambassador to Tunisia. He invited me to spend three days at his house. He is writing his memoirs. He read my book and he was fascinated by it. By the way, he’s originally Egyptian, a Jewish-Egyptian. He was very young when he left. He was a communist, like a few others.
He ran away and then became a very important journalist. He told me about the first time he met Nasser. The only thing that made me angry at Eric Rouleau, who is really a great journalist, is that he admired Nasser. I don’t admire him, at all. I think Nasser is one of those responsible for what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians today.
Now, during our discussions, he tried to defend Nasser. We know today that Nasser didn’t want war in 1967. But I judge him as a leader and not by his intentions.
This is what he told me: the first time he met Nasser, Nasser invited him to his house. He knew that Eric Rouleau was Egyptian, and Eric Rouleau asked him, why are you not freeing all the political prisoners. Nasser looked at him and said, at the end of this month, they will all be free. Second question: why don’t you liberate Egypt’s political life, why don’t you allow political parties? Nasser said to him that he would not stay in power for one month if he did that. They continued to be friends till the end.
Eric Rouleau said to me that Nasser was a real head of state. So, I asked him, how about Arafat? He said, no. Arafat is the chief of a tribe, he said. But I don’t agree with this admiration of Nasser.
You see, the 1967 war shows that he was not a real leader… The bankruptcy of Arab nationalism – Ba’athism and Nasserism – is tragic. You see, it’s tragic for the Middle East. That cannot change. I wanted the Middle East to be like South America today.
Speaking of Arab nationalism, you talk about the invention of the Jewish people, but when I was reading your book, I was struck that you could equally write a book called The invention of the Arab people.
Well, there is a book in French called The invention of the Palestinian people.
But I’m talking about the Arab, not the Palestinian people.
I’ll give you an example. They think they are shocking the world by saying this. Yes, I think that the Palestinians were not a real people a hundred years ago. If they had been a real people, then the Zionist colonisation could not have succeeded.
In some ways, the idea of an Arab people is a myth. There is Arab culture, or cultures in plural. There is Arab civilisation. But people started to develop themselves… See, when I say that the Jewish people don’t exist, and I don’t believe that the Jewish people exist, nevertheless, I think that the Israeli-Jewish people exist. They created their own culture, cinema, a language.
The Arab world is in a very tragic situation. On the one hand, there is no one Arab people with the solidarity which you can find among the peoples of Europe. Unfortunately, you don’t have one Arab people, but you also don’t have a real Syrian people, a real Egyptian people. It’s a process. You know, when I look at the demonstrations last year in Tahrir, I saw a lot of Egyptian flags. I saw that, with all the Islamic discourse, they kept the flag, the Egyptian flag. In all the interviews, on the street, there was always a lot of Egyptian national feeling. I am not a specialist, but I felt that it was a kind of national revolution – something that crystallised around the idea of Egypt, this mass movement.
I don’t believe in the concept of the pan-nationalism of my ex-friend Azmi Bishara. It’s a bluff. They have played with it for too long without any power, any power to resist foreign imperialism. Arab nationalism as a force didn’t succeed. It failed. A lot of people now think that the Islamic, the New Muslims will create a kind of anti-imperialism. I don’t believe it will.
Yes, it’s already failed. Some people haven’t noticed yet but it failed a long time ago.
Then, we have to start again from the beginning, on the basis of the Egyptian people.
I’m not a professional historian, but I’m struck by how once fluid ideas of identity have become so rigid and fossilised. For example, it was completely normal, even up to 60 or 70 years ago, for someone to describe themselves as both an Arab and a Jew. Today, you know, that’s complete heresy to say something like that.
One moment, it’s very important what you said because I’m dealing with it now, in my new book. I’m writing about how I stopped being a Jew. The term “Arab Jews”… By the way, I’ve met people that define themselves in this way, a long time ago. Abraham Sarfati, he was an Arab Jew, in some way, a Moroccan Arab Jew. I think that the immigrants who came here were Arab Jews because their language was Arabic.
It’s very interesting, and I’m trying to work on it. You take an immigrant who came from Egypt or came from Morocco or from Iraq to here. His secular, daily culture was Arab. His religious culture was Jewish. It wasn’t like in Eastern Europe where Jews had a daily secular life which was different from their neighbours.
Now, this immigration, this poor immigration which came here, to the Zionist enterprise, they quickly learnt that the very lowest level in society was the Palestinian Arab. So, they tried to separate themselves. In the ‘50s and in the ‘60s, these immigrants, these Jewish Arab immigrants, or Arab Jewish immigrants, tried to hide their Arab daily culture and put forward their Jewish religious culture. Then, Zionism, which is a secular nationalist movement, stopped the secularisation of these immigrants.
The process of secularisation stopped because they wanted to be Jews, and every sign of Jewishness was religious. They didn’t have a Jewish secular culture. An Arab Jewish secular culture did not exist. You know, in Iraq it was different, the intellectuals from the Maghreb went to France and to Canada, only the poor arrived here. They were crushed by the Ashkenazi culture. In Eastern Europe, they had a strong, Yiddish secular culture. Sometimes I use the word Yiddish people, and not Jewish people, because they had a language, a daily culture, they were different to their neighbours, they had theatre, they had literature.
But didn’t the Sephardim have Ladino?
You see, the Ladino phenomenon could have become like Yiddish but it was too sparse. There was no concentration like there was in Eastern Europe. It didn’t become like Yiddish for two reasons. First of all, the Jews in North Africa, who came from Spain, and in Turkey, in the Ottoman Empire, they were very integrated into the local cultures, not like in Eastern Europe. Under Islam, they lived completely differently than in Christendom. This is the reason, for example, that I try to fight against the concept of Judeo-Christianity.
In my first book, there is a sentence which asks why my aunt, when they took her to Auschwitz, didn’t know that she lived in a Judeo-Christian civilisation? Now a lot of French intellectuals of Jewish origin don’t stop talking about Judeo-Christianity. In my new book, I try to explain that the difference between Judaism and Christianity is much greater than the difference between Judaism and Islam. First of all, there is no Son of God, and the problem with the Son of God. And also, if I look at the history of the Jews under Islam, it wasn’t at all a paradise, but you cannot compare it at all to the experience of Jews in the Christian world.
But Jewish life in Christendom also had its high points, like German Judaism prior to Nazism, American Judaism today.
You are making a mistake.
Is this a mistake?
Yeah, because it wasn’t Judaism. What do you mean by Judaism?
Well, I mean Jews…
They were so integrated that most of them did not consider themselves to be Jews. You know what is the most tragic thing that I read? It was about a comedian and an agent who were arrested in 1936 and sent to the concentration camps. He went to the concentration camp and said I met communists, socialists – the most tragic were the Jews because they did not know why they were in the concentration camp.
Because they believed that they were fully German?
They were. This is your mistake. They were. Who is more German Heinrich Heine or Hitler’s father?
I don’t know Hitler’s father but Heinrich Heine was a great German poet.
Well, you know, Hitler’s father was a petty clerk that spoke the local dialect of his region of Austria. He didn’t know High German, you know Hochdeutsche.
Well, some say that the Jews were really the most German of people because they were raised…
They built the German culture. They were much more in the city… They were not peasants. The concept of the nation, of the German nation, with the language started from… I’m becoming more and more convinced that the Nazi reaction, the antisemitic, Nazi reaction was not against the marginalised, it was the revolt of the marginalised against the centre. Jews were at the centre in terms of their way of life, they were citizens. They were Germans. They spoke German better than Hitler. By the way, they called themselves Israelites, not Jews. They didn’t like the term Jews. Even the religious said they were Israelites, the people of Moses’ religion. They didn’t describe themselves as Jews. Now you want to make them Jews again? After Hitler decided they were Jews?
Most of them, and I’m not speaking about Jews from Eastern Europe, I’m talking about German, French. They didn’t understand what antisemitism was doing with them. Now I respect everyone. If someone says that he is a Jew, I don’t care. Secular Jew, okay. But they don’t give me the right to define myself as a non-Jew.
You mean that people should have the freedom to define themselves the way they wish?
Yes. In reality, I don’t think that I am Jew because I am a non-believer. You know, I am of Jewish origin. This can be important sometimes. The fact that I am writing this book, it means that it was important for me. But, no, my horizon is humanity and my daily life is that of an Israeli – shitty Israeli culture, okay. But it is not Jewish. My grandfather, if he were before me now, he would start to laugh if I said that I was a Jew.
How can someone become a secular Jew? You can become a religious Jew. You can become a Muslim. You can become a member of the Labour party. You can become British. You can become Israeli. How can you become a secular Jew? And then I realised that it was a closed club.
In this age, at the beginning of the 21st century, I decided that I don’t want to belong to a closed club, if I have the choice.
So I can’t become a secular Jew, you mean?
But I could become a religious Jew by converting.
But you can’t become a secular Jew. And I don’t want to belong to a closed club. We suffered – I mean my parents and my grandparents – suffered too much from closed clubs. The Arian club was closed to them. German nationalism was closed. In our past, we suffered too much from closed clubs.
All my life I said that I would continue to be a Jew until the last antisemite was removed from this Earth. Now, I’ve stopped with this. I don’t want to be a Jew.
But others will continue to define you as a Jew.
Well, Hitler defined me as a Jew. That doesn’t mean that he was right. Yes, others will continue. They don’t let me. I cannot change my identity card. They won’t let me change my ID. I want to write Israeli as my nationality. But I have Jewish nationality. This is a good reason not to define myself as a Jew. I see that I am Israeli, a shitty Israeli citizen, a shitty Israeli writer and a shitty Israeli historian.
Speaking of defining a religion as a nationality, there is also a strong parallel between Jewish nationalism and Muslim nationalism in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan is very similar to Israel.
The nation of Pakistan is built on the principle of religion. Also, in Sri Lanka in some way. Ireland is also somewhat similar. But Ireland had to change its laws to join the EU. Israel cannot join the EU with its laws.
So, the original idea, the old idea of a “Jewish nation”, if I’ve understood it correctly, of “umma”, is similar to the idea of the “Islamic umma”, the idea that all Muslims have a spiritual link to each other.
So, in a way, Israel is like the idea of an Islamic caliphate.
[Laughs] Yeah, yes, in some way. Yes, because the word “umma” means the Islamic “umma”. They took this word to replace the word “nation”.
You talk about reinventing identities. Well, there was a time when Palestinian equally meant a Jew. Now it’s exclusive only to Christians and Muslims.
By the way, Golda Meir, at the beginning of the ‘70s when the word “Palestinian people” started to be popular, she was astonished. She said, “I’m a Palestinian.” She had a Palestinian passport issued by the British mandate authorities.
And you also said in your book, if I recall correctly, that the Zionist movement managed to create this creative, convincing identity in order to build a nation, so why not reinvent it. But can that equally be said for the Arab side, for the Palestinians, that the way to move forward is to try to creatively reinvent identities to make them more inclusive of each other?
You see, I hope, you know, the past 40 or 50 years, the idea of the Palestinian people was crystallised. I don’t believe that the Palestinian people existed 100 years ago. For example, the culture and identity of the Arabs of the Galilee was much nearer to the Lebanese.
Now, to create nations, you have to be an engineer in some way. All nations are a creation. My formula is, to create a nation, you need to invent people into the past. In order to create a future nation, you invent a story, you know, a mythological history. The Palestinians needed one too. You know a lot of Palestinians believe that they are the descendants of the Canaanites.
Some of them might be.
In my book, I say that most of them were Canaanites who became Jews and the later they became Muslims. This applies to part of them, some of them, because this is a part of the world where everybody moves. But to create nations, to crystallise a nation, you need myths. The idea that a people existed for 2,000 years is a myth.
I had a discussion with a Palestinian painter at the Bozar who tried to convince me that they are the real Canaanites. No, this is a myth. The concept of people is modern. You can imagine that a thousand years ago an agrarian society with a very low level of communication, without newspapers, without books, without schools, without TV, without the internet. You can imagine a village of your great, great, great, great grandparents, they knew that they belonged to the village.
A thousand years ago, every valley, every mountain had a different dialect. To speak about peoples in the modern sense of the word is unbelievable. When they speak about the Jewish people 2,000 years ago, you see they didn’t have a single language. In the capital of the kingdom, they spoke differently than in the villages. The vocabulary of a peasant was so poor – he didn’t need a broad vocabulary. Can you imagine speaking about a people without schools?
In your book and at the beginning of our conversation, you talked about, before we started recording, you talked about Mahmoud Darwish. You’ve met him a number of times and you were friends, right?
We were very young. He wrote a poem about me.
Yes, about an Israeli soldier who felt remorse.
I have here Majda al-Rumi singing this song about the soldier in front of Mubarak and all your generals. She sings it without mentioning it’s about an Israeli soldier.
Well, that brings me to an interesting point. You describe, after the war of ’67, the drunken night you had with him.
You remember that I mention he drank alcohol. You know that the Arabic translator, he took out the alcohol. But I said, sorry. He said, but it’s not important, we don’t need to mention the alcohol.
It’s absolutely important, I think. It shows that culture…
Yes, I insisted that they publish the story of the alcohol.
Well, in the Arab world, for decades, you’ve had the idea of a cultural boycott of Israel. Now they’re taking that even further by trying to get the West on board. But then you have someone like Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of the Palestinian people, had contacts with Israelis, with Israeli Jews, and had friends who were Israeli Jews. And yet many activists today think that’s a big no-no, a taboo.
Elias Khoury was attacked because he wrote nice things about me. Then, he wrote again, saying you attacked because I am a friend of Shlomo Sand, but he’s a friend of Mahmoud Darwish. He used this against his critics. “I am a friend of a friend of Mahmoud Darwish and you are against it?” he asked.
I don’t want to comment because I don’t want to insult Palestinians, but you know, the victims are not always clever.
So, you think that the cultural boycott is not productive?
So, you think it should be targeted and not a blanket one?
They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv university.
Even though you wrote a book that was translated in Ramallah and is popular among Arab readers.
Now, any pressure that is not terror is welcome. But be careful. You have started to boycott the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture. It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic. Do you agree?
Well, I’m in your office, after all. The way I see it is that there can be no just resolution to the Palestinian cause without a strong Israeli involvement.
Khaled Diab is a freelance journalist and writer who is currently based in Jerusalem, after a decade working in the Belgian and EU capital Brussels . He writes a regular column for The Guardian and also freelances with other leading publications in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium for a decade. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.