A Tale of Two Jerusalem Days

Jerusalem DayA couple of years ago I found myself changing my flight to Jerusalem to include a side-trip to Jordan, so that I could meet a friend-of-a-cousin-of-a-friend who had offered to help me with my research. It was difficult to find anything about the man I was to meet, but among the precious snippets I could glean was that he had founded an organization called the Jerusalem Day Society headquartered in Amman. And there was a review in Publishers Weekly indicating he was was a fabulist and an anti-Semite.  Who to trust?

Jerusalem Day, in Amman?

I had asked my friend in Jerusalem, a respected director of a Palestinian cultural institute, for names of people who could speak from their own experiences about the changes in the city in the dramatic days just after the Israelis takeover following the 1967 Six Day War. My friend’s cousin was the son of Jerusalem’s last Palestinian mayor, whom the Israelis had summarily dismissed after their victory. His friend in Amman,whom he obviously respected a great deal, was an older man, a former physician in Arab East Jerusalem named Subhi S. Ghosheh.

All I knew of Jerusalem Jerusalem Day, the fiftieth anniversary of which is next Tuesday), was that it was an Israeli holiday celebrating takeover of the city in the 1967 Six Day War, the very event that caused the “cousin’s” father to lose his job. Jerusalem Day has now been designated a minor Jewish holiday and its right-wing nationalist fans celebrate it each year with some disturbing abandon. It made no sense that a purportedly anti-Semitic Palestinian exile would head up a Jerusalem Day society in Amman.

Subhi S. Ghosheh - Jerusalem Day Society Amman
Dr. Subhi S. Ghosheh

The Publishers Weekly accusation came in an anonymous review of Dr. Ghosheh’s book, Jerusalem: Arab Social Life, Traditions, and Everyday Pleasures in the 20th Century (Olive Branch Press 2009). A book review in Publishers Weekly is akin to word listing in a paperback dictionary. Most reviews are only a paragraph or two long, and they are not where one would expect to find controversial judgments or critical nuance. The review of Ghosheh’s book allowed that it was a mildly entertaining memoir of the physician’s time in Mandate-era Jerusalem that was perhaps worth reading if, the reviewer warned, the reader was willing to overlook that the book’s sense of history was “dubious” and its “anti-Semitic sentiments troubling.”

This was to backhanded compliments what Serena Williams is to backhands. If there were any truth to it, it was also entirely out of character with my own friend or with anyone I thought he would connect me with.

I had to suspect the PW reviewer was attempting to unfairly taint readers’ perceptions of the book, but that seemed very uncharacteristic of Publishers Weekly. So for an anxious few days before the trip, before I could get my hands on the book itself, I found myself in a mildly comical Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum: there was a man in Amman I would soon meet who was either an Anti-Semitic liar or else a respected community leader, and there was no way for me to know until his book arrived in the mail.

Subhi S. Ghosheh
Dr. Ghosheh and a map of the Old City of Jerusalem, in the offices of the Jerusalem Day Society in Amman.

The book, when it arrived, firmly resolved the mystery, and my impression was only reconfirmed during the day I spent with Dr. Ghosheh and the leadership of his society. The book is not at all anti-Semitic, nor, did it seem to me exaggerated in any obvious way. But it is, plainly and at times angrily, anti-Zionist. Paraphrasing Dr. Ghosheh’s point of view as concretely as I can: before the Six Day War, Dr. Ghosheh was a well-to-do physician in a tony Arab suburb of Jerusalem; after the war his home was appropriated by the state of Israel and he was exiled to Amman, an arid backwater bulging with displaced Palestinians, and he is still royally pissed about it.

In neither his book or in my extensive interview with him did he betray any malice to Judaism as a religion or culture, or to any Jewish individuals he knew well from his old neighborhood, and in fact he spoke quite eloquently and humanely about the Jewish people. But fifty years later, he is still angry at the Israelis and what they have done to him and his fellow Arabs, and he is outraged that others are not outraged.

(Oh, and the Jerusalem Day Society in Amman celebrates Jerusalem Day on October 2, which was the date in 1187 that Saladin took Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Get it?)

My conundrum was resolved. I had to conclude that the Publishers Weekly reviewer was being intellectually dishonest when he or she libeled Dr. Ghosheh’s book as anti-Semitic.

The Wages of Intellectual Dishonesty

I thought of all this when I read about two remarkable statements that later came from leaders of the UK’s Labour Party. An old Facebook post by one Labour MP, Naz Shah, was discovered in which she recommended Israel should be “relocated” from its current position to the middle of the United States, which she suggested would solve a raft of problems for Americans, Jews and Palestinians.

In a weird attempt to blunt the outcry over Shah’s resurrected comments, an aging party icon, Ken Livingstone, offered what he seemed to think was the intriguing hypothesis that Adolf Hitler was a Zionist. Both Shah’s and Livingstone’s comments were delivered with a demagogue’s sense of what might tickle certain realms of the public’s indignation, and what the left-leaning politicians were tickling was quite reasonably assessed to be anti-Semitism.

Shah was forced to resign her parliament post and Livingstone was suspended from the party, so the players were replaced. But everyone knows the play remains in the playbook.

Ken Livingstone suspended - Evening Standard Banner headline
image courtesy Annie Mole

Livingstone’s pitching Hitler-was-a-Zionist stuck out to me because I first heard that one from a right-wing Jewish settler as he squired me around the Israeli settlements popping up all over the more desirable locations in the West Bank. If Livingstone could be said to have had a point, it would have been that since Hitler was a Zionist, Zionism itself must be monstrous. But the settler’s point was quite the opposite and even darker: he made the case to me that Hitler was a Zionist who was more than willing to export all the European Jews to Palestine, but the Arabs of Palestine wouldn’t allow him, therefore—I am actually cringing as I type this—the Palestinian Arabs were responsible for the Holocaust.

West Bank - Tekoa settlement
West Bank Settlement of Tekoa in Gush Etzion under construction in 2015. The hill in the distance is the ruins of Herod the Great’s summer palace

I’ll ask the reader to spare me the task of cataloguing additional examples of poison like this and recall his or her own examples of hate speech. And to reflect on what all hate speech seems to have in common and what is unique in individual examples. As the dual-use Hitler-was-a-Zionist proposition illustrates, muck like this can be anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be racist or sexist, but again it doesn’t have to be. And critics of Zionism may be engaging in hate speech, but then again they may not be. But if it is hate speech, one thing is certain: it is always, without exception, intellectually dishonest.

When placed against the horror and pain of the Holocaust or any number of atrocities or abuse, highlighting the fact that intellectual dishonesty lies underneath them all seems criminally prim, like scolding a kidnapper for bad grammar in his ransom notes. But kidnapping doesn’t depend on bad grammar, and hate speech and the injustices it leads to does definitely rely on intellectual dishonesty. And invariably in the post-mortems that follow after a hate crime occurs and the intellectual felonies behind it are laid bare, the unanswerable question follows: did they really believe that nonsense because they thought it was true, or because it was useful?

 

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