Good Arabs, Bad Arabs

It’s such a pain when reality proves to be too complex to fit our favorite theories. A new book, Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 (University of California Press 2008), shows how varied the Palestinian Arab response to Zionism was, by investigating those Arabs who chose to collaborate with the Jews. As he demonstrates, the negative connotations we attach to the label “collaborator” can be misleading.

(I translated this book into English. I have not discussed these issues with Cohen and the view I offer here is mine alone.)

With the establishment of the British Mandate, founded on a commitment to the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, the country’s Arabs faced a dilemma. They could oppose the Zionist project absolutely, by seeking to block Jewish immigration and prevent Zionist organizations from acquiring land and other assets, or they could accept the Jewish immigrants and their political goals as a fact and seek to reach some sort of modus vivendi with them.

It’s not particularly surprising that, at a time when Arabs around the Middle East were developing their own national consciousness, many Palestinian Arab leaders, led by Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, chose the rejectionist response. Since these leaders, eventually won the power battles, they generally feature in both Arab and Israeli histories of the period as the major and often sole representatives of the Palestinian Arab community.

But, as Cohen notes, “This is a prejudiced view. It ignores the fact that cooperation and collaboration were prevalent . . . among all classes and sectors. Collaboration was not only common but a central feature of Palestinian society and politics. The actions of many so-called collaborators were not inconsistent with Arab nationalism, yet collaboration was regarded by the mainstream as treason.”

In other words, Cohen accepts neither the Arab nationalist line that all Arabs who worked with the Zionists betrayed their people, nor the old Zionist canard that most Arabs were just fine with Zionism but were incited by a self-interested and fanatical leadership.

Instead, Cohen chronicles the individual cases of collaborators with a large variety of motives. Some indeed sought only money, power, and revenge against rivals in their own communities. But many others faced difficult dilemmas. For example, a small farmer with more fields than he could cultivate might reasonably sell off some land, especially when times were hard. A Bedouin tribal leader might understand that his people could not live as semi-nomads for much longer and that they might be better off with less land and more money to invest in education and infrastructure.

On top of this, the Husseini clan’s bloody repression of all its political opponents gave many Arab patriots little choice but to cooperate with the only other force in Palestine that could provide them with support and protection.

Of course, such cooperation inevitably led collaborators to serve the Zionist interest, an interest that was ultimately opposed to the national aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs. The Zionists, after all, were explicit about their goals. They wanted to establish a Jewish majority in Palestine and create a state in which the local Arabs would be a minority.

This in and of itself was not a nefarious or unjust goal. One can’t blame the Zionists for looking after their own people first, and for taking advantage of Arab disunion and infighting to achieve their goals. The Zionist leadership saw themselves, after all, as the representatives and vanguard of a nation threatened with extinction—even before the rise of the Nazis. They believed, not at all unreasonably, that the only way to save their own people was the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Not everyone gets it. One who doesn’t is Neve Gordon, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University. In his review of Army of Shadows in this week’s The Nation, Gordon does exactly what his friend (Cohen mentions him warmly in his acknowledgements) scrupulously avoids—he blames Palestinian collaboration on the Jews. Like many on the Israeli far left, Gordon can only see Palestinians as victims and Zionists as oppressors. Ironically, in doing so he derogates the Palestinians, implying that they were little more than dupes of the Zionist power game. Cohen’s book has plenty in it that Zionists need not be proud of, but certainly its bottom line is this: many Palestinians branded as collaborators were making their best efforts to do the right thing in a complex situation in which all available choices were problematic. Just as many decent-minded Palestinians and Israelis are doing today.

Cohen published a sequel to Army of Shadows in Hebrew in 2006. Good Arabs, which I’m currently translating into English, is a much more troubling book. It addresses Palestinian collaboration with Israel after the foundation of the Israeli state.

One of Zionism’s historical problems is that many of its advocates never realized the difference between a national movement and a state. Once the state was established, its Arab inhabitants became the citizens of a country that sought to be a Western democracy. As such, they were entitled to the full protection of the state’s institutions, and to equality before the law.

Yes, they were a population that had just recently been fighting a deadly war with the Jews, and no, it was not unreasonable for Israel’s leaders to worry about sedition. But the Arabs and their representatives were not made partners in the democratic process. Instead, the Arab population was placed under military rule and severely restricted in its movement and economic opportunities. Much of its land was expropriated.

With Jewish immigrants pouring into the country, land redistribution was unavoidable. But the new regime could have sought consensus and displayed a willingness to listen to Arab concerns and to reach compromises. Instead, it for the most part continued to act like a national liberation organization, using money, spies, and its newfound administrative powers to create an atmosphere of fear and distrust within the Arab community. This policy brought some short-term benefits. But today we suffer its long-term effects.

Hillel Cohen is a talented and thoughtful historian, and Army of Shadows is a challenging—and therefore important—for both Palestinian and Jewish nationalists to consider.

2 thoughts on “Good Arabs, Bad Arabs”

  1. Please update the hyperlinks to Neve Gordon:

    and his review of the book in March 6 issue of The Nation:

    in the relevant paragraph quoted below:

    […] Not everyone gets it. One who doesn’t is Neve Gordon, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University. In his review of Army of Shadows in this week’s The Nation, Gordon does exactly what his friend (Cohen mentions him warmly in his acknowledgements) scrupulously avoids—he blames Palestinian collaboration on the Jews. […]

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