THERE IS a very simple reason why Arabs and Jews have been unable to live in peace together for the past 100 years, and it is summed up in the phrase 'the Iron Wall'. The Iron Wall is the title of Professor Avi Shlaim's exhaustive and brilliant history of Zionism. Jabotinsky, a right wing Zionist leader and fan of the Italian fascist Mussolini, coined the phrase in the 1920s.
He argued that the European Jewish settlers in Palestine had to develop overwhelming military superiority to break the potential political resistance of the Palestinian Arab majority. This militaristic perspective he called the Iron Wall. Shlaim shows how nearly all of Israel's leaders signed up to the Iron Wall philosophy, not least those who called themselves 'socialist', like Israel's first prime minister, Ben Gurion, and the so called peacemaker Rabin.
The Iron Wall separates Arab from Jew because it institutionalises Jewish superiority backed by overwhelming military power. Jabotinsky also argued that the Jew was culturally superior to the Arab, because European culture was superior to Arab culture. Peace between the two peoples depends upon dismantling the Iron Wall. The truth of this argument is well illustrated by looking at the West Bank city of Hebron, one of the oldest Arab and Jewish settlements in Palestine.
The city is allegedly the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Abraham-from whom the city derives its name – and hence has huge symbolic significance for Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Today the city is a permanent military fortress, as thousands of Israeli troops guard a few hundred particularly extreme Jewish religious fanatics. Hebron's Palestinian citizens suffer a virtually permanent curfew. This is not a recent Israeli incursion. Hebron was exempted from Israeli withdrawal in the Oslo peace accords.
Hebron was always a flashpoint in Zionism's history, but it is important to understand the difference between the European settlers and the old town's original Jewish inhabitants. The accomplished Israeli journalist Tom Segev has recently described 800 years of good relations between Arabs and Jews in Hebron.
In the anti-Zionist riots in 1929 in Hebron, people in the Arab community rescued many of their Jewish neighbours from a pogrom. Segev wrote, 'Jewish history records few cases of a mass rescue of this dimension.' This brings us to the crucial fact that the virulence of European anti-Semitism, with its roots partly in the medieval Christian conception of the Jew, had no echo in the Arab world.
Of course it would be naive to pretend that Arab-Jewish relations were always perfect in the last 2,000 years. They were not. But there was simply not the history of systematic persecution that we find in Christian Europe, which provided the launchpad for Zionism at the end of the 19th century.
In her fascinating history of Jerusalem, Karen Armstrong has argued that Islam's almost unbroken 1,300 year rule of the city was characterised by its tolerance of both Judaism and Christianity: 'Jewish visitors from Europe were struck by the freedom enjoyed by the Jews of Palestine. In 1535 David dei Rossi, an Italian Jew, noted that Jews even held government positions, something that would be inconceivable in Europe.'
In the 12th century it had been the great Islamic leader Saladin who had invited the Jews back to Jerusalem, from which they had been almost entirely excluded by the Crusaders. He was hailed throughout the Jewish world as the new Cyrus (the Persian king of Old Testament fame who let the Jews back into the city to build the second temple).
Last month I was in Egypt, where I had the good fortune to spend a morning with the truly remarkable Youssef Darwish, a 91 year old Jewish Communist veteran of the post-war workers' struggles that formed the backcloth to Nasser's coup in 1952.
Youssef, all faculties intact and chomping away at cigars, waxed lyrical on many issues, not least the rich texture of Jewish life in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century. It's standard in these sort of discussions to debate the prominent role Jews played in the Communist movement throughout the Arab world. And of course we did.
But what struck me more was something else. It was the long historical Jewish attachment to and involvement in Egypt – one of its greatest medieval synagogues still stands-and the way this blossomed in the early 20th century, with now forgotten cultural expressions in painting, books and later film.
As Youssef says, the banner of independence was being raised, and the idea of achieving equality among the different social groups was vigorously pursued. Later Zionism sucked nearly all the Jews out of Egypt and told them they were coming 'home'.
It told the same nonsense to Jews from all over the Arab world, and helped them to forget their long history as it recruited them to build the Iron Wall against their new Palestinian Arab neighbours. Recovering that history someday soon will be an important part of showing just how Arabs and Jews can live together in peace.