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When It All Jumped Off

Ten minutes into Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains, the Palestinian city of Nazareth officially surrenders to Israeli military forces on 16 July 1948. In the town hall, the Israeli commander reads out the bill of surrender to the gathered Arab-Palestinian notables. It’s in Hebrew and they don’t understand a word. The commander tells the mayor to sign the document, and then to join his soldiers for a ‘historic photo’. A military cameraman points his camera at the soldiers. But when the black and white photo appears on screen it isn’t the soldiers we see: it’s the puzzled group of Arab-Palestinian figures at the other end of the room, ordinary people, onlookers. They, and others like them, are central figures in the work of Hillel Cohen. Neither the conventional ‘winners’ nor the stereotypical ‘losers’, they play a part in the grand political story which, though crucial, is often overlooked.

Cohen was born in 1961 into a National Religious family; his father was of Jewish-Afghan origin, his mother of Jewish-Polish descent. As a teenager he lived in a settlement in the West Bank. He left school at 16 and began to explore the neighboring Palestinian villages. He made friends, learned Arabic, and by being there found out about the lives of Palestinians under the occupation. He worked as a floorer before beginning his academic career. He reads the Bible but no longer considers himself "religious." He goes "more often to Hebron than to Tel Aviv and more often to Bethlehem than to Heifa." He believes in a one state solution (at least in the long term) and supports Israeli human rights organizations such as Anarchists Against the Wall and Hamoked, which works with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories whose rights have been violated by Israeli policies. He writes in Hebrew — unusually for an academic, he doesn't have an international audience primarily in mind. In half a dozen scholarly books covering the history of Palestine and Israel from 1929-1967 and beyond, he has consistently written about ordinary people, something no other Israeli historian has managed to do.

Cohen identifies 1929 as the year that gave birth "to the Zionist military ethos." The Arab-Israeli conflict probably doesn't have any "year zero" — its roots go back at least as far as the 19th century — but 1929 should certainly be seen as a landmark. Between August 23 and 29 that year, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed. Hundreds more were injured. The worst violence was in the old city of Jerusalem and near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Cohen shows how the violence was connected to the threat — real or imagined — of a change in the status of a religious site that served as a symbol of political hegemony. In the 1920s, the Western Wall in Jerusalem was a Jewish prayer site in an Arab area where "Jews were allowed to pray … on the condition that they not disturb the residents of the neighborhood and on the understanding that they not claim title to the site."

On August 15, 1929, following months of tension, Jewish demonstrators marched to the wall, raised the Zionist flag, singing the Zionist anthem and claimed ownership of the site. The effect on relations between Jews and Arabs was dramatic. There was an Arab counterdemonstration the next day, which within a week had escalated into full-blown anti-Jewish riots. (More recent violence in Jerusalem has also been a consequence of Israeli attempts to change the status of the Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. The Second Intifada was sparked in 2000 by Ariel Sharon's decision to visit the site to prove Israeli sovereignty; and the latest cycle of violence in Jerusalem follows 15 meetings at which the Interior Committee of the Knesset discussed changing the site's status to allow Jews to pray there.)

Drawing on a wide range of sources in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Cohen argues that neither side includes in the history it tells itself the massacres and murders committed by its own members. He juxtaposes Hebrew and Arabic accounts of particular incidents — for example, the murder of the Palestinian "Awn family in Abu Kabir village by a Jewish policeman named Simha Hinkis — and shows how Jews and Arabs described them at the time, and how they have been remembered, and forgotten, since. In Biladuna Filastin ("Our Homeland Palestine") Mustafa Dabbagh describes the murders of the "Awn family and the way Hinkis mutilated their bodies: Jewish newspapers didn't report the crime at all, and when they covered the trial referred to the murder as the "Hinkis incident."

The division between the two communities — Jewish Zionists on one side and Arab Palestinians on the other — "grew ever more salient," Cohen argues, "as national identity grew stronger." At the beginning of the 20th century many of the Jews in Palestine, not to mention the wider Middle East, had no Zionist national aspirations. The riots of 1929 change that. "No other factor was more influential in bringing the established Jewish communities in Palestine and the new Zionist community together under a single political roof."

— Yonatan Mendel, reviewing “1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” by Hillel Cohen, translation by Haim Watzman. Brandeis, 312 pp, November 2015. (London Review of Books.)


  1. Rick Weddle October 27, 2016

    re: a bouquet of jumping off points…
    This recounting helps my understanding of present unpleasantnesses in the Holy Lands. There was earlier occurrence of jumpings off in which T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) took part as a partisan organizer and fighter (what we’d likely dub a ‘foreign terrorist’) with Arab tribes against the Turks and The Other Bad Guys in ww1. Their triumphs with his help, in spite of their being deliberately denied mountain guns and other essential weapons by the Brits, is the stuff of legend. His version of those times, ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom,’ ends with his hope that the tribes he’d cynically used to help the Crown, would be able and equipped to defend themselves AGAINST that Crown [and against other imperial scavengers circling the petro reserves of the deserts there].
    Who’s now making a war-criminal mess of the very Holy Land? It’s not Palestinians. Who’s bombing the living crap out of the very Cradle of Civilization…AGAIN?! Not those wild-eyed local rag-heads over there…It’s us self-described Civilized, Freedom-loving, Christian-talking, Darth Vader-acting Yankees, that’s who…going backwards in the War on Terror business with all four feet, fast, cash registers roaring away…

    • Pat Kittle September 6, 2018

      Yeah, blame the Christians for doing the Jews’ dirty work.

  2. LouisBedrock October 31, 2016

    “Ten minutes into Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains, the Palestinian city of Nazareth officially surrenders to Israeli military forces on 16 July 1948. In the town hall, the Israeli commander reads out the bill of surrender to the gathered Arab-Palestinian notables. It’s in Hebrew and they don’t understand a word.”

    Sounds like El Requierimento:

    The “Laws of Burgos” are the first legal code regarding Spanish actions in the Americas. They direct Spaniards to read aloud a religious justification and demand for obedience—El Requierimento—supposedly to give Native peoples a chance to submit before being attacked or enslaved. But for Native peoples who do not speak Spanish, “the requirement” to obey is baffling. The Spanish continue to enslave them and seize their lands and resources.

    • LouisBedrock November 1, 2016

      1. m. Acción y efecto de requerir.
      2. m. Der. Acto judicial por el que se intima que se haga o se deje de ejecutar algo.
      3. m. Der. Aviso, manifestación o pregunta que se hace, generalmente bajo fe notarial, a alguien exigiendo o interesando de él que exprese y declare su actitud o su respuesta.

      Real Academia Española

      Thank you, Señora de Castro.
      You are correct.

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