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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Book review: Good Arabs

Good Arabs is Hillel Cohen's followup to his earlier book, Army of Shadows (review here.) Army of Shadows detailed the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Palestine before the 1948 war mostly from the viewpoint of early Zionist intelligence agencies. Good Arabs continues on this theme, looking at how the Israeli military and police establishments interacted with Israeli Arabs from 1948 to 1967.

As with the earlier book, Good Arabs is filled with variants of the pejorative term "collaborate." It seems probable that Cohen, who wrote the word in Hebrew, agreed with this translation of the Hebrew word "פעולה". However that Hebrew term has two translations: "collaborate" and "cooperate." When reading the book and mentally replacing the former with the latter, an entirely different impression is given.

To be sure, the Arabs living in Israel during those nineteen years did not have it easy. Most of them were under military rule and many of them saw their lands expropriated from them. Cohen looks at the phenomenon of Arabs who cooperated with the Israeli authorities and finds many reasons for their actions.

Some were opportunists; trying to ingratiate themselves with the strong horse. Some were realists, who felt that Israel wasn't going anywhere and the best strategy was to give the Jewish leaders what they wanted. Some wanted the perks that the Israelis would give to those who helped them - often guns and jobs. Some were, in fact, ideologically inclined to support Israel. Others played both sides of the fence, or, as in one case Cohen brings, played Israel, Egypt and Jordan against each other.

Based on voluminous declassified Israeli police material, much of which quoted the testimony of collaborators against Arabs who were deemed a threat to the state, Cohen attempts to reconstruct the psyche of the minority citizens of Israel during that time, concentrated mostly in the 1950s. Israeli authorities, often heavy-handedly, attempted to stop any "nationalist" discourse and replace the Palestinian Arab narrative with the Zionist narrative in Arab schools. Many Arabs resisted these attempts, others went along with it.

To his credit, Cohen does not try to generalize. He seems wedded to the Palestinian Arab narrative (it is jarring to see him use the word "Nakba" as if the term existed in the 1950s) but he willingly brings anecdotes about the Arabs who genuinely wanted to work with the Jews.

He goes into details about the Communists, who attracted many Arabs in the Triangle and northern regions and who were nominally supportive of Israel's existence but very much against the idea of a Jewish state. The Israeli authorities were keenly interested in Communist sympathizers among the Arabs and used their carrot-and-stick approach to minimize their influence.

As in the last book, Cohen uses the word "nationalists" a bit too freely; most of his examples do not seem to support the type of Palestinian Arab nationalism that we have become familiar with since 1967, but rather pan-Arabism.

Most Palestinian Arabs, especially before the rise of the PLO, cared far less about nationalism than they did about taking care of their families in honor. This simple fact is supported by Cohen's anecdotes, but he doesn't quite seem to grasp it himself. For example, he looks at the difficulty that Israel had to instill a strong Zionist ethos into their thinking as a failure, when in fact it is just the other side of the same coin of the apathy of Arabs towards their own nationalists. After all, the older generation of the 1950s Arabs had already lived under Ottoman, British and Israeli rule; to them their families were a far more permanent part of their lives than their rulers. This is why they worked hard to re-unite their families who were separated by the war. Sometimes this was done by smuggling them in and breaking the law; sometimes by being exceptionally cooperative with the Israelis who let a not-insignificant number return, and sometimes it was a combination of the two - bringing them in illegally and then appealing to past cooperation with Israelis, especially in 1948, to allow their relatives to stay.

The rise of Nasser and the seeming strength of the United Arab Republic union of Egypt and Syria convinced many Israeli Arabs that Israel would soon be destroyed; these Arabs tended to think in terms of how they could optimize their situations given that scenario playing out. Others analyzed the same facts and concluded that Israel was the power they needed to cooperate more with. These pragmatic issues usually trumped the ideological, and it does not appear likely that anyone thought that an Arab Palestine that would result from the Arabs sweeping the Jews into the sea would be any more independent than the West Bank Jordanians were. (One interesting footnote mentions that the Arabs of the Triangle were very happy when they ended up in the Jewish state after 1948, because the Iraqi fighters who had occupied their towns had a nasty habit of rape.)

Cohen also goes into detail into the different attitudes of the Druze, the Ciracassians and the Bedouin to the state, especially in terms of becoming members of the IDF. He notes that Israeli policy was to divide these groups and treat them separately from the mostly Muslim Arabs, which could be a method to help minimize the amount of danger that a united minority group could bring. However, he mentions that Israelis themselves justified this policy by accurately noting that the only reason there was any unity among those groups to begin with was because of the British policy of playing the Jews against the other minorities.

One shortcoming of the book is that after many specific examples of cooperation/collaboration throughout the 1950s by Arabs under Israeli military rule, Cohen dismisses the 1960s with a single paragraph mentioning that Israel's military government power waned, Israel's Arab citizens won more freedoms and then the military government apparatus dismantled in late 1966. There are no details, no examples, no discussion of how this affected the cooperators and the Israelis, especially on the eve of the Six Day War. He mentions that a significant number of Israeli Arabs were actively offering to help Israel on the eve of the war, even after the military government was gone and they were much closer to being equal citizens of the state. The entire seven years should have gotten more detailed attention.

Good Arabs sheds much light on 1950s Israeli Arabs and it demolishes some myths. As with Cohen's previous book, it is an important addition to understanding recent history and it gives us some lessons for today.