Author discusses religion and race in Arab-Israeli conflict


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Photo by Tianfang Yu |

Jonathon Gribetz, a professor at Princeton University, describes his new book, “Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter” yesterday at the Douglass Campus Center.


On the last Saturday of October 1909, two members of Palestine’s intellectual elite, Eliezer Perelman Ben-Yehuda and Ruhi Al-Khalidi, met for an interview in Jerusalem, Jonathon Gribetz said.

Gribetz, an assistant professor of near Eastern studies and Judaic studies at Princeton University, said Ben-Yehuda immigrated to Palestine from Russian Lithuania. Al-Khalidi was born in Jerusalem, but spent much of his time outside of Palestine. 

“They had much in common aside from a shared city,” Gribetz said. 

Gribetz, a graduate of Harvard, Oxford and Columbia who has taught at both the University of Toronto and Rutgers, researched Israeli and Palestinian libraries and archives, personal letters and newspapers in an attempt to discern how Jews and Arabs considered one another in the late Ottoman period, the earliest years of the two groups’ encounter.

He discussed the importance of understanding religion and race in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict yesterday in the Douglass Student Center.  The Ruth and Alvin Rockoff Annual Program, as part of the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, sponsored the lecture. 

In his book, “Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter,”Gribetz argues that to solve the current conflict, peacemakers must recognize its depth and multifaceted complexity.

Yael Zerubavel, director of the Bildner Center, said Gribetz’s book offers groundbreaking insight on the way Jews and Arabs interacted with one another in the Ottoman Empire. 

Zerubavel also marveled at how many endorsements Gribetz has received on the book from both Jews and Arabs looking to bridge the gap between the two communities.

“[The fact that] it was embraced by so many different people is probably a token of how balanced of a book it is,” said Zerubavel, a professor in the Department of Jewish Studies and History.  

After nearly 100 years of violence, conflict and mutual hatred between Jews and Arabs, divisive discourse has dominated much of both sides’ views of the other, Gribetz said. 

Extremists often say things like, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian” or “Zionism is racism,” Gribetz said.

“I asked, was this always so?” Gribetz said. 

The short answer is no, Gribetz said. Latter-day descendents have evolved over decades of political violence. Gribetz sought to find out how Arabs and Jews viewed each other prior to the beginning of today’s conflict. 

Exploring Jewish and Arab texts, Gribetz found the intellectuals who were viewing and interpreting one another’s actions did so using two central categories: religion and race. 

“They viewed their neighbors as members of a particular religion or scientifically or genealogically, rigidly-defined race,” said Gribetz.

Although the Arab-Israeli conflict has prior been defined as a nationalist feud, Gribetz’s findings suggest that language and the concept of nationality were yet to be dominant.

Gribetz proposes that to understand the conflict in Palestine as it was before 1948 in today’s context, it would be mistaken to simply look at it as a dispute over real estate. 

This is how even important scholars have described it, he said. 

“The conflict has not merely been a dispute over land, but over history and identity of people who regard themselves as acutely connected to each other.” Gribetz said. 

In early Israeli and Palestinian archives, the different groups understood each other not as complete strangers but as people with commonalities as salient as their differences, encountering deeply familiar, if at times distorted or mythologized others.

Gribetz studied an unpublished manuscript by Ruhi al-Khalidi called “Zionism, or the Zionist Question,” which he said was mostly about Judaism and assessments of the Hebrew bible and an acceptance of Jews’ historic link to the holy land. 

To an Arab in 20th-century Palestine, this kind of text was seen as a threat, he said. 

Another piece, Shimon Moyal's "at-Talmud," was meant to show Arabic readers that Judaism was not a foreign, shadowy or unethical religion but rather a familiar one. 

What is amazing about this writing, he said, is that it is rare to find a work of apologetics that simultaneously addresses two religious communities. 

“Seeing how people relate to one another allows us to try and understand what has happened since the beginning,” Gribetz said.


Carley Ens

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