Friday, July 29, 2011

Lessons from ‘The Haj’

Joseph Puder

In his 1984 bestseller, “The Haj” (Doubleday, NY), Leon Uris​ captured the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict through his two protagonists: Haj Ibrahim, muktar of the village of Tabah in the Ayalon Valley of Mandatory Palestine, and Gideon Asch, a pre-Israel Palestinian Jew, whose familiarity with Arab life, language and culture made him an honorary Bedouin.

Uris’ dialogue astutely reveals the vast differences between the Arab and Jewish mindsets – deeply rooted in their cultural differences. Uris focuses on the Jewish liberal, cosmopolitan culture of openness, practicality, compromise, and humanism in contrast to the unforgiving desert culture of the Arabs, where betrayal, distrust, hate and vengeance are commonplace.As the story unfolds, we discover that the Jews of a kibbutz (called “Shemesh”), who bought land from an absentee Arab-Muslim landowner, had also bought the water rights, and that water had previously served the neighboring Arab village of Tabah.

An angry Arab villager from Tabah enters the Kibbutz Shemesh with the intention of stealing something and killing someone if possible. Caught stealing by a young girl from the kibbutz, he tries to rape her and beat her, but her screams cause him to flee.

The story takes place against the background of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. These murderous riots, incited by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini (Hitler’s ally), rocked all of Mandatory Palestine.

Asch, secretary general of the kibbutz, and Haj Ibrahim meet alone and a dialogue ensues. Asch says, “We should be proud. The valley stayed peaceful during the riots.” Ibrahim replies, “Who had a choice, your hand controls the valve on our water.”

Asch asks, “Suppose we did not have the water arrangement. Would you have encouraged your people to riot?” Ibrahim answers, “During the summer heat my people become frazzled. They worry about the autumn harvest. They are drained. They are pent up. They must explode. Nothing directs their frustration like Islam. Hatred is holy in this part of the world. It is also eternal. If they become inflamed, I am but a muktar. I cannot stand against the tide.”

Ibrahim continues, “You see Gideon that is why you are fooling yourselves. You don’t know how to deal with us. For years, decades, we may seem to be at peace with you, but always in the back of our minds we keep up the hope of vengeance. No dispute is ever really settled in our world. The Jews give us special reason to continue warring.”

Gideon: “Do we deal with the Arabs by thinking like Arabs ourselves?”

Ibrahim: “You cannot think like an Arab. You personally, maybe, but not your people, I’ll give an example. There is a clause in our water agreement we did not ask for. It says the agreement can be terminated only if it were proved that someone from Tabah committed a crime against you.”

What Ibrahim is saying here is that, were the situation reversed, the Arabs would shut off the water to the kibbutz, and let the Jews die of thirst.
Gideon: “We don’t believe in punishing an entire village for something you did not do.” Ibrahim replies, “That proves you are weak and that will be your downfall. You are crazy to extend us a mercy that you will never receive in return.”

The dialogue presented by Uris is more than relevant in our own day. Israel provides food and electricity to Gaza, while Hamas-led Gaza uses the land vacated by Israel in 2005 to fire rockets at Israel’s civilian population in southern Israel. Additionally, Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and has, for the past five years, held him and denied the Red Cross from visiting him. If the situation was reversed, the Arabs of Gaza would murder outright any and all the Jews they would have encountered. Furthermore, they would not have provided food convoys or electricity to be supplied to the Jews.

The Jews of Israel, especially the left-leaning among them, have not yet learned that they are not living in Europe but in a semi-arid desert region called the Middle East. Moreover, they forget that the Arabs always dream of vengeance and will seize the opportunity whenever it arises. Uris, speaking through Ibrahim, is correct in observing that “[n]o dispute is ever really settled in our world. The Jews give us special reason to continue warring. “

The teachings of Islam and the interpretations of the Koran ensure that there can never be a real peace of equals between Arabs and Jews. There will be, perhaps, long ceasefires or quiet on the borders and in the streets, and terrorism may even subside, but Uris’ Ibrahim reminds the reader, “Always in the back of our minds we keep up the hope of vengeance.”

The Prophet Muhammad exhorted his followers, when they were in a less than superior position to their enemy, to make only a temporary “peace” and bide time until strength is gathered. The Treaty of Hudabiyya, made between Muhammad Muslims and the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, illustrates this axiom: Muhammad, with only 1500 men at his disposal, was clearly the weaker party. Two years later, after raiding the Jewish tribes and looting their wealth, killing the menfolk and enslaving their women and children, his army grew to 10,000. He then “found” an excuse to break the treaty and attack the Quraysh.

The lesson is in remembering Muhammad’s actions of yesteryear and understanding that it is learned and emulated by Muslims today. Peace treaties are not viewed in the Muslim culture in the same way that non-Muslims see them – as binding agreements. Rather, a treaty is considered a “time-out” and an opportunity to grow stronger or buy time. Peace with the infidel is, above all, never seen as permanent. Moreover, establishing the supremacy of Islam overrides such considerations as honor (Western), ethics, or treaty obligations. Muslims today clearly understand the word “Hudabiyya” to be a code-word, which in brief means: “Kiss the hand of your enemy until you have the opportunity to cut it off.”

It may very well be that Ibrahim, Leon Uris​’ character in “The Haj,” had the wisdom to teach Western minds, as ours, the immortal reality of the Arab way of life.

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