Sunday, September 25, 2022


By Daled Amos


There are not that many arguments out there against the Abraham Accords.

After all, how do you argue against peace between Jews and Arabs?
How can you find fault in a coalition that opposes the leading state sponsor of terrorism?
What is wrong with the prosperity created by trade between the countries involved?

Now a different kind of argument is being made: the Abraham Accords are based on a myth.

Writing in Haaretz, Seraj Assi explains Why Jews and Arabs Are Not Long Lost Cousins

While Arab and Israeli leaders are celebrating the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords with language and iconography leaning heavily on a return to ancient and ancestral kinship, history itself begs to differ.

The Abraham Accords, which turn two years old this month, are founded on a historical myth long cherished by Middle East peacemakers: that Arabs and Jews are descendants of one great forefather, Abraham, and hence are both symbolic and ethnic cousins, the Arabs being descendants of his son Ishmael.

Assi goes into a detailed overview of the development of the idea that Arabs are Ishmaelites, descendants of Ishmael, and therefore brothers with the common father, Abraham.

And what is his point?

For many disenchanted Arabs and Palestinians, however, the Abraham Accords are illusory, a branding exercise milking a historical myth, just like the political fable that peace can be achieved by a stroke of pen or a romanticized leap of historical imagination. But there is more to peace than mythmaking. Perhaps Arabs and Jews can find a better way to coexist in real life and legitimate each other than depending on the delusions of historical fiction.

According to Assi, if the familial ties between Jews and Arabs are an illusory myth, then the Abraham Accords themselves are illusory as well, based on nothing more than "a stroke of the pen."

Assi's point about Ishmael is not new.

Almost 70 years ago, the ethnographer, historian and Arabist S. D. Goitein wrote about this in his 1955 book Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages:

To be sure there is no record in the Bible showing that Ishmael was the forefather of the "Arabs." [p. 21]

But Goitein continues that by the same token,

While the pseudo-scientific myth of the Semitic race has no basis in reality, there is much more to the popular belief that Jews and Arabs are close relatives, "cousins," because they were descended from the brothers Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham. 

He writes that the Ishmaelites were an ancient tribe that vanished from history, which the Bible then used as a common noun to denote desert people who were camel-breeders and engaged in either raids or transport. During the Second Temple, when Jews had many dealings with Arab tribes, they were described as Ishmaelites. In addition, the Arabs were also referred to as dodanim, cousins, of Israel. Dodanim was a pun on the name of the Arab tribe Dedanim mentioned in Isaiah 21:13. 

But according to Goitein this connection between Jews and Arabs was more than a literary invention. He writes that ancient Israel and the original pre-Islamic Arabs

show very distinctive affinities which make them akin to each other and different from the great civilizations which surrounded and influenced them. There were very definite common traits in the social traditions and the moral attitudes of the two peoples. These common traits can best be described as those of a primitive democracy. [p. 27; emphasis in the original]

He contrasts Jews and Arabs with the kingdoms of the ancient Orient,  such as Mesopotamia, Egypt and Asia Minor and the later civilizations of Byzantium and Persia (3rd-7th century). In ancient Israel and among the Arabs, society consisted of rich and poor, fortunate and miserable, just like everywhere else. But unlike other kingdoms and civilizations, there were no privileged classes or castes established by law. 

In his book, The Seed of Abraham: Jews and Arabs in Contact and Conflict, (p. 7) Raphael Patai writes about "pre-Islamic values and characters traits which to this day are basic ingredients of the Arab personality" described by pre-Islamic poets:

hospitality
o  bravery
o  generosity
o  manliness
o  honor (vis-a-vis shame) 

The Jewish trait of hachnasas orchim, as personified by Abraham, clearly parallels the hospitality listed above. Gemilus Chasadim (sometimes translated as "giving lovingkindness") may also parallel the generosity listed above. They reflect a tight-knit dependence common to both Jews and Arabs.

Goitein sees the source for the similarities between Jews and Arabs described in the Bible. After all, Abraham did have other children besides Isaac and Ishmael:

It would seem that the answer to this question is to be sought in the aboriginal affinity alluded to in the Bible.

According to Genesis (21:20-21, 4:1-6, 12-18), Abraham, the ancestor of Israel, was not only the father of Ishmael, but also of Midian and many other tribes living in North Arabia, and even of Sheba, a tribe most probably connected with the old country of Sheba in Southern Arabia. Genesis reports that Abraham sent these sons into the countries of the East, after giving them presents, thus leaving Isaac the sole heir of the Land of Canaan. (p. 31)

And this would signify that

The people of Israel felt themselves closely akin to those tribes of Northern Arabia or even of Southern Arabia. [p. 32]

Regardless of Assi's hangup about "Ishamael", the fact of symbiosis between Jews and pre-Islamic Arabs set the stage for the continuing relationship -- admittedly not always friendly -- between Jews and Arabs in the centuries following the advent of Islam.

Even then, the relationship is different between Jews and Muslims from the relationship of Jews within modern Western civilization

like the ancient civilization of the Greeks, [which] is essentially at variance with the religious culture of the Jewish people...Judaism inside Islam was an autonomous culture sure of itself despite, and possibly because of, its intimate connection with its environment. Never has Judaism encountered such a close and fructuous symbiosis as that with the medieval civilization of Arab Islam. [p. 130]

Where else but among Arabs and Jews today do we find religion, land, language, law and culture so closely bound together?

A review of Goitein's book in a 1956 issue of Commentary Magazine notes:

It is obvious that, backed by oil revenues and 20th-century technology, a new association of the two peoples and the devotion of their talents and resources to pacific purposes could bring both to a new level of prosperity and even spiritual satisfaction.

Unfortunately, a simple Arab-Jewish rapprochement is no longer sufficient. Near Eastern history is made, in 1956, not in Jerusalem and Cairo but in Washington and Moscow, and by harassed officials with little or no intimate knowledge of or concern for Arabs and Jews.

The first paragraph is prescient.
The second one reflects the problem of the old thinking and attitude prior to the "inexperienced" Jared Kushner.

Instead of getting tied down by Assi's semantics, there is potential for further success and even broader peace. 

And as we have seen over the past 2 years -- that is no myth.





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