Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is a big believer in outreach to Israeli civil society. Disheartened by years of failed talks with its elected leaders, the 81-year-old president regularly hosts Israeli university students, left-leaning political activists, and journalists for intimate meetings followed by question-and-answer sessions at his compound. His specially appointed Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society has even launched a Facebook page in Hebrew; its colorful banner reading “Peace be upon you from Palestine.”
But somehow, this group of visitors was different.
On March 28, a busload of Israelis slowly rolled into Ramallah as evening fell. The passengers—mostly seniors—jovially filmed the new high-rises and the Palestinian police escort on their cellphones and camcorders, exchanging nervous jokes in Arabic and Hebrew. They were almost all natives of Arab lands, from Morocco to Iraq. A mega conference about the menace of BDS was taking place at their pickup spot in Jerusalem, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just ordered his defense minister to stop returning bodies of Palestinian stabbers to their families. But the bus could have been on its way to a wedding.
At the back of the bus, Shahar Orgad, a lawyer from Rishon LeZion who helps North African Israelis obtain Spanish and Portuguese citizenships as descendants of those countries, said he was hesitant about coming.
“I belong to the right side of the political map,” he admitted. “Some people call Abu Mazen [Abbas] a mass-murderer, but as [Moshe Dayan] said, ‘Only an ass doesn’t change its mind.’ I wanted to see the other side.”
The visit was facilitated by the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry, an umbrella of 23 organizations, with the help of former Arab Member of Knesset Taleb el-Sana. World Federation chairman Sam Ben Shitrit made clear that the group’s mission was far from just ceremonial, but practical: to convince Abbas to meet Netanyahu and relaunch peace talks. The two leaders have scarcely exchanged words since 2010.
“I wouldn’t have organized this meeting without the consent of Prime Minister [Netanyahu], so I approached him and he said ‘go ahead, give it a try,’” said Ben Shitrit, a Talmud teacher who immigrated to Israel from Marrakesh in 1963. “I’ve made it clear to Abu Mazen and his aides: We are neither right nor left. We are center. Moroccan Jews are well-known for being a model of Jewish-Arab coexistence.”
Abbas clearly gave the group preferential treatment. From on the stage overlooking a delegation of PLO officials in the front row, he patiently listened to long-winded speeches by representatives of Israeli community leaders: The Iraqi, the Egyptian, the Yemenite. He then posed for personal photos with each of the 70 visitors before the backdrop of a mural of the Temple Mount. The crowd was ecstatic as the bus left the compound for a specially cooked kosher dinner at a nearby restaurant, courtesy of the president. Hours later, following two rounds of Palestinian gift-giving, one more round of impassioned speeches, and a communal prayer of Ma’ariv before the baffled eyes of waiters and plain-clothes Palestinian security personnel, the group headed back to Jerusalem.
In his speech, Abbas stressed three times that he had no intention of favoring one segment of Israeli society over another but nevertheless felt a special affinity to the visiting group for reasons of language, culture, and a common history.
“I listen to Israeli musicians every day,” Abbas confided, citing his fondness for the classical Arab singer and Damascus-native Moshe Eliyahu. Reiterating his demand for a halt in settlement construction and making no concrete promise to meet with the Israeli premier, Abbas acknowledged that Netanyahu was indeed Israel’s sole legitimate representative. “I want to make peace with him,” he said.
The issue of Sephardi Israelis has long preoccupied Abbas, who considers himself a scholar of Zionist history and an expert on contemporary Israeli society. In his 1977 book The Beginning and End of Zionism, Abbas highlights the antipathy between Ashkenazi Jews—the drivers of the Zionist movement—and the Sepharadim or Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews, who were coaxed into joining it following the creation of Israel.
“The greatest fear of the westerners is of the increase in numbers of the easterners, turning Israel into a Middle Eastern country where the goals of Zionism are abrogated,” he writes. “This fear sometimes reaches the level of a crazy obsession, as some of them ask themselves: ‘Will we all become black within 50 years?’”
As an essentially European colonialist project, Abbas argues, Zionism did not appeal to Sephardi Jews, who were well-integrated into the Arab societies in which they lived. But then Israel was created, and the Arab regimes made the fatal mistake of expunging the Jews from their midst through discriminatory laws and the withdrawal of their citizenship.
“Some previous Arab leaders made a huge mistake—when faced with Zionist activity—and oppressed the Jews of their countries. Another big mistake is that some don’t distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. We must erase the offenses directed at Jews by the enemies of Zionism. We must turn the relationship of enmity which they imposed into friendly relations … reconstructing the pristine character of Arab association with the Jews, who lived among us for hundreds of years with no sense of discrimination or oppression.”
If things were so good for the Jews under Arab rule, why did they leave en masse? Here Abbas begins to squirm. Zionism was indeed a huge success, he admits, but not a decisive one. In Yemen, Jews preferred to convert to Islam rather than migrate to Israel. In Algeria, Jews favored France over Israel. But it was eventually the maliciousness of Arab regimes like the Iraqi one—that “sent the Jews to the Zionist butcher against their will, under duress”—which allowed Zionism to win over the Sephardim.
“There was nothing natural or logical about their mass migration from Iraq,” Abbas writes on page 50 of his book. “It is untrue that they left because they were Zionists or because they viewed Israel as the embodiment of their aspirations.”
Since Israelis know they do not belong here, they will eventually be defeated on the battlefield and leave the country of their own volition, argues Abbas in his 1981 book Taking Advantage of Victory. The book was penned during the buildup to the First Lebanon War, and in it the PLO leader made a case for targeted mortar strikes on Jewish communities in the Galilee.
“Let us not forget the high morale enjoyed by the Arab, which draws him toward the motherland, the land of his forefathers. Meanwhile, the Israeli is continuously drawn abroad, since he feels disconnected from any homeland, country, or territory. All the legends and fairytales circulated by the Zionist propaganda machine and used to brainwash him can never convince him to stay and defend a land he knows in his heart of hearts belongs to others.”
If the Palestinian leader still believes in the transience of Jewish existence in Israel, he hasn’t spoken about it in years, nor did he share these sentiments with his Sephardi guests in Ramallah.
As the shortcomings of the Oslo Peace process—crafted almost exclusively by middle-aged Ashkenazi intellectuals—become more evident, many in Israel now argue that Mizrahi Jews could have done a better job at peacemaking, and maybe still can.
Shimon Shetreet, a law professor at Hebrew University who served in various ministerial positions under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, was wary of drawing unequivocal societal conclusions on the matter. “Knowledge of language and culture certainly lay the basis for dialogue and communication,” said the native of Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara Desert, moments before congratulating Abbas in fluent literary Arabic for his conciliatory stance. “I think that Moroccan Jews, and Jews from other [Arab] countries, have good emotional tools to develop dialogue.”
But for Emile Sharvit of Herzliyah, deep cultural sensitivity isn’t just a bonus when dealing with Arabs, it’s an essential prerequisite for any prospect of normalization. “What is Israel doing wrong? Everything!” said the 75-year-old Cairo native who was banished from Cairo in 1956 by the Nasser regime following the Sinai Campaign.
A retired colonel, in 1974 Sharvit was appointed as military governor of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, a position in which he served until 1979. He says that under his watch, Israeli settlers, Egyptian Bedouins, and Palestinians living in the largest refugee camp coexisted in complete harmony. “For six years I walked around Rafah without carrying a gun. I entered the refugee camp as though it was my home.”
“The key is seeing them as equal human beings,” insists Sharvit, who reminisces about his use of humorous Egyptian Arabic in his interactions with the local population. “But we [the Israelis] are condescending and arrogant. That completely breaks them, and is the main cause of hate. Sure, you can talk about the occupation, the settlements, the gaps; but the basis is human relations between one another.”
Seated next to Sharvit on the bus back to Jerusalem was Levana Zamir, chairwoman of the Union of Egyptian Jews in Israel. Hours after her impassioned appeal to Abbas to be as bold as President Sadat and address Israelis directly at the Knesset, she admitted she was terrified of coming.
“I was scared for my safety,” she said. “But eventually was convinced by my board members to come. I’m not fearful by nature.”
Banished from Egypt in 1949 with her family to an immigrant camp in Tiberias, Zamir said Abbas’ positive attitude helped alleviate the ill-feelings she still harbors toward Arabs. “It’s easy to say these things to us; I wish he speaks this way to his people,” she said. “If he keeps this up for two years, there will be peace.”
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Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.