At the National Theatre in London, Our Class is telling the story of the 1941 massacre of the Jews of the Polish village Jedwabne — all the more painful for being true. What makes the play so hard to watch is that the murderers and victims knew each other. Catholics and Jews sat in class together, flirted, shared dreams and aspirations. Eventually, though, deep-seated antisemitism and prejudice caused one half of the class to turn on the other.
The idea that familiarity leads to mutual respect underpins the work of some 30 Arab-Jewish coexistence projects in Israel alone. If Jews and Arabs talk to each other, live together, play music together — so the thinking goes — there could be peace.
Coexistence is not new to the Middle East. Jews and Muslims lived cheek-by-jowl for 14 centuries. Arab mythology holds that the Golden Age in Muslim Spain was a model for peaceful coexistence. But the relationship was not equal. Jews were subjugated, self-abasing dhimmis, exploited for their talents. They had to buy their physical security from the ruler of the day. Maimonides fled from fanatical Muslims, not Christians.
In modern times, Jewish-Arab coexistence broke down completely. Roughly half the Jewish population came to Israel not as refugees from the Holocaust, but fleeing Arab and Muslim antisemitism. A million Jews once lived in Arab lands. Today, their communities, predating Islam by 1,000 years, are almost extinct.
The periodic violence that has erupted in the Middle East has tested interpersonal relations to the hilt. Just as Righteous Gentiles saved Jews from the Nazis, some Arabs saved Jews: 300 Jews sheltered in 28 Arab homes during the Hebron massacre of 1929. Honourable Muslims rescued Jews from rioting mobs in Arab countries. While the authorities failed to intervene to protect Jews — or even incited the rioting — the friendly neighbour stood as the last line of defence.
But familiarity also breeds contempt, resentment and greed. Among stories of neighbourly betrayal in Hebron was the Jewish doctor murdered by his own patients. The Makleff family near Jerusalem was slaughtered by the Arabs they worked with. Jews terrorised by the 1941 Farhoud in Iraq (179 Jews dead) and the Libyan pogrom in 1945 (130 Jews dead ) recognised, among their assailants, the local policeman, butcher and milkman.
Yet there must be a place for coexistence initiatives. Projects such as Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra play a role in humanising Arabs to Israelis, and Israelis to Arabs — whose countries habitually demonise them. The cooperative village of Neve Shalom introduces Arabs and Jews to each other’s cultures.
Unless the dialogue is balanced, however, coexistence can become an exercise in Jewish self-abasement. It can lead to Jews suppressing their rights, identity and suffering while empowering Arab grievances. Jews may feel the pain of a Palestinian refugee and even “understand” terrorism, while there is no corresponding shift on the Arab side — because Jewish rights, suffering and the pain of expulsion of Jews by Arabs, may be ignored.
The prejudice at the root of rejectionism and terrorism can turn a neighbour into a monster. Only if we confront this unpalatable truth can people live as equals in true peace and mutual respect.