Friends, Neighbors, Foes: A cultural history of Jewish- Arab relations in Palestine / Israel, 19th-21st cent.

Tuesday 4th May 2021 – 18:00-19:30 (Jerusalem time) – 17:00-18:30 (Paris time) – Via zoom and also at the offices of the CRFJ – 3 Shimshon St., Jerusalem (Baka) – The roundtable will be conducted in English


For a long period, the dominant approach to the history of Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine/Israel was characterized by three main features. First, a “dual society” perspective, which assumed that Jewish and Arab societies were separate, self-contained and mutually hostile entities whose main mode of interaction was often-violent conflict. This outlook therefore placed primary focus on the Zionist and Palestinian national movements. Second, both societies were studied “from above”, through the examination of their political leaders, diplomats and military men, and emphasis on their confrontations. Historians who adopted this view assumed that each society was monolithic, and that the boundaries between the two were clear-cut. Finally, the 1948 War was marked as a momentous event that dictated the research agenda of the period beginning in the late nineteenth century, with the first wave of Zionist immigration from Eastern Europe. Like the French Revolution in the history of eighteenth-century France, or the Holocaust in the history of German-Jewish relations, the 1948 War became an inevitable telos that cast a long shadow over the preceding period, painting it in a single color. To a lesser extent, the wars that followed – those of 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and the two Intifadas – also became important anchorages between which the history of Jewish-Arab relations sailed in a straight line. 

Over the past twenty years, however, another perspective has slowly emerged, which examines Jewish and Arab societies as entities with porous, constantly shifting boundaries that have not only fought but also cooperated with one another. This “relational” view has placed emphasis not on vertical division and national identity but rather on horizontal interaction and local patriotism. It has adopted the assumption that each society was heterogeneous, and at times deeply divided along class, religious and ethnic lines – a dynamic that enabled cross-national connections and alliances, notably around issues of gender, class and language. Proponents of this perspective prefer to study these societies “from below”, dedicating special attention to common people – peasants, artisans, industrial workers, shopkeepers – and to the domains of everyday life, leisure, and popular culture. This shift also demands a new kind of historical sources, which extend beyond the official documents deposited in state and military archives and include diverse, less familiar sources such as ethnographic records, various ego documents, and visual images. Lastly, the teleological view of history has been replaced with an approach that explores roads not taken and alternative – failed or successful – experiences, without scrutinizing them through the lens of hindsight. This approach does not regard wars as inevitable outcomes, and looks at historical processes through the eyes of their participants, working to understand their points of view as historical agents.

The present file aims to contribute to this new, “relational” approach while focusing on the cultural relations between the two societies. It covers the period between the late nineteenth century and early twenty first century, but does not presume to be exhaustive. The articles it includes concern varied domains – leisure, literature, music, theatre, philanthropy – but all focus on the interaction between Jews and Arabs and their attempts to make sense of themselves and their cultural counterparts during this period of rapid change. While taking into consideration that cultural relations are imbued with power relations, these articles demonstrate that Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine/Israel were not solely characterized by mutual hostility and recurrent conflict, but also by cooperation and efforts to lead a shared life. Although such attempts were often unsuccessful, a “history of possibilities” tends to show that the impasse of one generation could become a source of inspiration for future generations.

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