Aqraba is an Arab village on the west bank of the Jordan River. These stony hills, beautiful in a rugged, sun-blanched way, formed the heartland of the Jewish tribes in biblical times. Here they picked their olives, just as the Palestinians would do today, if they could. But the Palestinians in Aqraba cannot, because modern Jews, settled in the hills around them, won’t let them. These Jews, from the US, Russia, or Israel, won’t let them because they claim the Old Testament as their deed of ownership to the land. They are followers of the fanatical rabbi from Brooklyn Meir Kahane, the one who advocated the expulsion (“transfer”) of Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank.
The Kahanite settlers are the gunslingers of the Wild East. Fifteen-year-old thugs from Brooklyn or Odessa or Jerusalem, armed with guns, run riot in these parts, and the Israeli army is either unable or unwilling to do anything about it. The Kahanites are so wild that even the other settlers regard them with disgust. When a Jewish academic came to Aqraba not long ago to offer help to the Arabs, he was shot.
I was there last week with a group of Israelis who wished to express their solidarity with the Arabs by helping them to pick olives. It was a gesture, a photo opportunity, if you like, aimed at the evening news, to show that some Israelis still cared. The event had been financed by a businessman and organized by Peace Now. Many of the participants were regulars on such occasions. Among them were the writers Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua.
But there were others, too, who were less expected, such as Shlomo Gazit, the former head of army intelligence. And there was Rabbi Foreman, himself a settler, who read passages from the Talmud to demonstrate that stealing from the goyim was not permissible. Rabbi Foreman, with his shabby dark suit and long white hair, looked vaguely biblical, and at the same time strangely out of place: more at home perhaps in a yeshiva in Cracow a hundred years ago.
But then, in a way, all of us, except the Arabs, looked dislocated; a group of European academics, businessmen, writers, and journalists, in chinos and sneakers, trespassing on tribal lands. We were welcomed with plates of Arab sweets, and the village children holding up placards demanding the removal of the settlers managed a few smiles. The gulf separating the Palestinians and their Israeli visitors looked huge. Apart from formal greetings, hardly a word passed between them. The Kahanist gunslingers kept out of sight of the TV cameras, but the gulf between us and them would have been just as great.
The way the Palestinians are treated is of course indefensible, but there was something sad, even tragic about their well-meaning sympathizers, too. For they are the remnants of the old liberal-left elite, the Labor-voting Ashkenazi intellectuals who had hoped to build a decent, tolerant, democratic, secular society in the Middle East. Some…
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Copyright © 2002 by Ian Buruma