Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
Shail Mayaram is Senior Fellow with the Centre for Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. In the course of her stay in Israel as a visiting professor, Shail Mayaram wrote a series of letters to her friends and family that have found home in Israel as a Gift of the Arabs.
Like most people from the Indian sub-continent, Shail does not carry the baggage of anti-semitism; it was not something we grew up with, and most of us became aware of anti-semitism only when we studied about Hitler, the World Wars, and the pogroms against the Jews in history lessons. Much has been written on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this book is refreshing because it is not a European or American narrative. While Shail was in Israel, there was a call for an international boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Her Israeli colleagues were of the opinion that it is an easier boycott to call for – Europeans cannot boycott commercial transactions with Israel because the latter controls much of their software production. The hypocrisy at many levels is what the book captures very well. It also reflects the bewilderment that most Indians and others in the sub-continent feel on this conflict – that the Europeans shunted out the Jews to the Middle east because, despite their guilt over the Holocaust, they would not let a Jewish state exist in Christian dominated Europe. (Likewise for Islam in the Bosnia conflict). Indians love Israel for a number of reasons – their ability to take quick, hard decisions, and the way they handle their security and surveillance; it is of no small consequence that India is the largest market for Israeli arms and weapons, and Israel is the second largest defense supplier to India (after Russia).
When Shail accepted the Visiting Chair, she viewed it as a opportunity to open up a discussion with Jewish and Palestinian students on ways in which conflicting communities have lived together in urban contexts with mutual peace. The author used the narratives of the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India to make this intervention.Through her interactions with her Israeli and Palestinian hosts and friends, Shail tries to find answers to these questions –
1. What has gone wrong with this society?
2. Why is there so much ambivalence with regard to nationalism?
Shail witnesses Arab weddings, the harvest festival of Shavout and many other rituals typical to the region; in the conflict zones, she also met with people on both sides who want an end to the fight and a resolution that will enable their children to grow up in a peaceful environment. She found fear and fatigue on both sides.
The book is beautiful at many levels. Shail marvels at the landscape of Israel and its geographical beauty and is delighted at being near the sea at all times, and of traversing the whole country in less than three hours. Among all the delicious foods she eats, she loves the various Hummus that her friends make her try! She discovers how the Israeli diet that was initially dominated by potatoes, schnitzels and meats now has many food cultures. I shared her awe at seeing the venerable Jerusalem (where each door has a history), Ramallah, the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem and Tabgha’s Benedictine monastery and church where Jesus broke the 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish to serve the multitude. The book has lovely photographs that capture Israel in all its beauty!
When new nations are formed, there is such a note of optimism in them -that was true of both Pakistan and Israel,formed at the same time, thanks to British imperialism. The author notes how things have changed – the platonic vision of shared community of property and children that gave rise to Kibbutz has changed, as has the secular leadership that is giving way to religious nationalism. She notes the changes in the Bedouin tribes, and the subtle hierarchy based on the ethnicity of the Jews who came to Israel. It is interesting how nationalism provides an ‘official’ version of accounts everywhere. In India the official line was that the Kashmiri Pandits left Kashmir on their own accord, and the Israeli version states that rich Arabs left Jerusalem on their own volition. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Anti-Semitism is often invoked to justify Israeli impunity,but Arabs and Turks have not been participants in this history of racial hatred till modern times, and have, instead, demonstrated substantial hospitality to the Jews.
“Mythically Jews believe that this is the Promised Land, the Holy Land promised to them by God. It would not, however, have been possible to fulfil God’s promise had it not been for a series of contingencies, the most prominent being Arab land sales to Jews or the fact that Arabs fled their homes in 1948. So Israel is a gift of theArabs, however reluctant, unwilling, resistant and violent were theresponses it evoked from the Palestinian inhabitants of this land.Israel is a gift also because the western nations, despite their
great guilt for the Holocaust, would never have granted a Jewish state within their sovereign territories.”
The book does not prescribe any solutions, except to suggest shared common history of the Jews and Arabs will result in reciprocity of the gift of land that will bring peace to the beleaguered region.
A definite read….