Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (with Hillel Cohen)
Feb 12 2024
How far back should you go to understand the current moment in the relationship between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors and the attack of October 7? Some would say 2005, or 1967, or maybe 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. But for historian and author Hillel Cohen of Hebrew University, year zero was 1929. Listen as he explains to EconTalk's Russ Roberts the significance of that year for the current moment, and the challenge of being an open-minded historian when tribal issues loom large.
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Podcast Episode Highlights
Intro. [Recording date: January 22, 2024.]
Russ Roberts: Today is January 22nd, 2024, and my guest is historian and author Hillel Cohen of Hebrew University. He's the author of many books. In 2015, he published Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929, which is our topic for today. Hillel, welcome to EconTalk.
Hillel Cohen: Thank you very much for having me.
Russ Roberts: I want to let listeners know that there may be parts of this conversation that are not appropriate for children, so you may want to listen first.
Russ Roberts: This is a remarkable book, partly because it illuminates a year of the conflict that indeed can be described as Year Zero, but it's equally remarkable for the perspective that Hillel brings to the year and his deep commitment as an historian to understand how each side of the conflict experiences its own narrative in the moment, and the challenge that provides to the historian.
In addition, it's a remarkable and very painful book because the events of 1929 are not so different from the events of October 7th and its aftermath: the seemingly senseless murder and rape of defenseless civilians and the attempts by each side to justify or explain what happened. And, in the course of doing that, it can be quite disturbing because whatever your perspective on this conflict is, Hillel's book forces you to be aware of the other side, and that can be very uncomfortable.
And, to add one more element of pain, some of the deaths of 1929--just as they were on October 7th--for the murder of people working toward coexistence and mutual respect, people who had helped the other, it's very heartbreaking.
So, let's go back to 1929, and of course you call it Year Zero. But you start before 1929 because you have to. Nothing happens in a vacuum. But, many of our listeners know nothing about the so-called Hebron Massacre--in Hebrew Hebran is the town Hebron in English--so-called Hebron Massacre, other massacres that took place. And, as you chronicle in your book, Hillel, the deaths of Arabs at the hands of Jews which are not as well known to those who promote the Jewish narrative.
So, let's begin, though, with the Jewish narrative of what happened in 1929, and then we'll try to look at it from the Arab perspective. So, what is the standard--not the best you can do at the standard--what is the standard summary of what happened in 1929 that Jews tell one another?
Hillel Cohen: I would say that the Israeli, or Zionist, or Jewish narrative of 1929 is based on the very fundamentals of Zionist narrative in general. And, the Zionist narrative in general is that we Jews came to Palestine as Zionists--meaning mainly, but also before the British conquest of Palestine in 1917--in order, first of all to establish a national home for the Jew. But, the idea was to live in peace with the Arab. I mean, the self-image of Zionism was of a peaceful movement, which has a full right to settle in Palestine and with the very best intentions to live with the Arab communities of the country.
So, 12 years after the Balfour Declaration, we are in the year 1929. The numbers of Jews in Palestine are increasing during this period, and Jews established kibbutzim [plural of kibbutz--Econlib Ed.] and moshavim and expanded their entrenchment in the country.
The Arabs didn't like it. And in 1929--it was not for the first time because there were anti-Zionist riots in 1920 and 1921 in Jerusalem and in Jaffa and in other places, but mainly in a small scale--but, in 1929, the attacks on Jewish communities were in much larger scale.
So, it started in Jerusalem, and it started in Jerusalem because of Jerusalem is a holy city, and Jerusalem is a place of al-Aqsa Mosque or al-Haram Sharif or the Temple Mount. And, there was a rumor, and it was not only a rumor--I have to think how exactly to define it, but it started as a rumor--that the Jews want to blow up the mosques on Temple Mount in order to build the third Jewish temple.
Now, what the Jews actually did was very far from this. What they did was to pray in the Western Wall, but to establish a kind of fence between men and women in the Western Wall.
Now, the Jews--the Western Wall is known almost to everyone as holy place and a place of prayer for Jews for centuries, but actually it is also a holy place for the Muslims. It's called in Arabic al-Buraq, meaning the place in which the prophet Muhammad put, or parked, his holy horse when he ascended to heaven. So, this is also holy to the Muslims. And, in addition to that, it is a waqf land. Waqf land, meaning a holy Muslim place. But, for centuries, the Muslims allowed the Jews to pray in this place. The condition was that the Jews keep the status quo: They changed nothing. So, they would have prayed standing. There were no chairs, there were no tables, and there was no fence between men and women. They prayed together. So--
Russ Roberts: Just to clarify: if you've ever been to the Western Wall--or in Hebrew the Kotel--in Jerusalem today, it's a huge plaza. But until 1967, it was a very narrow alley abutting Arab homes. And it is--the Western Wall, the Kotel in Hebrew, is the supporting wall of the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is an enormous plaza where the Temple of Solomon was built, the Second Temple was built, and where, after Islam was established, two very important mosques were built on these spots--the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
And, I did not know until I read this book that even this area of the Western Wall, which again is a supporting wall of the plaza called the Temple Mount in Hebrew, in Jewish tradition, that that is also sacred to the Muslims. So, in Islam and in Judaism, these are very sacred and holy places; and there are of course many restrictions about who is allowed to be there and under what conditions, both within the religion and those who are not in the religion, as in many situations like this. There's a lot of rules.
So, carry on. So, keep going.
Hillel Cohen: So, actually in September 28, this was a Yom Kippur in which the fence was put by the Jews. And immediately after it was put by the Jews, a British officer came and take it out.
And from this date, the tension between Jews and Arabs, or Muslims and Jews around the Temple Mount, and then in Jerusalem, and then in the whole country increased and increased.
Then in August 29, at the beginning of August, there were some clashes between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem in small scale on football play in one place and near the Temple Mount or the Western Wall in another point of conflict. Until the day of the 23rd of August, in which thousands of Muslims who went out of the prayer of Jumu'ah--of the Friday prayer--in al-Aqsa Mosque. They went out from the mosque towards the Jaffa Gate and Damascus Gate, the two main gates of the old city of Jerusalem, towards the Jewish neighborhoods, which were close to this gate, and started to attack Jews in their way.
So, this is at the beginning; and we are now telling the Zionist narrative: 'It was out of nowhere. They tried to attack us because they imagine that we are trying to blow up the mosque. We don't have such intentions whatsoever.' There were some clashes in some neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
And then, the day after, on Saturday, the small Jewish community of Hebron was attacked by mob Palestinians. Muslims from Hebron and from surrounding villages attacked the Jews of Hebron in their homes. And the Jews of Hebron, most of them were very veteran in the country, some of them since the expulsion from Spain. Some arrived in Hebron only in the late 19th century. But, it was community that had relatively good relations with the local Arabs, to the degree that the local Jewish community refused to receive members of the Haganah--of the Jewish Defense Forces who wanted to come to Hebron to protect them. They told them, 'No, there is no need. We are in good relation with the Arabs. So if you come with weapons, it would deteriorate the situation.'
So, of course, they didn't come. And, the Jews were attacked by knives, by [?lums?], mainly by 'white weapons' [non-explosive, non-noisy weapons such as knives--Econlib Ed.].
And, 66 Jews were killed in Hebron in their homes by their neighbors--actually most of them by their neighbors. Or actually in the same day, Jews were attacked also in Motza. A week after in [inaudible 00:11:49]. Attacks in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem continued. Some moshavim and kibbutzim also were attacked, but they were armed. So, there were much less casualties there.
And, at the end, there were 133 Jews who were killed in this wave of violence.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, the saying is: History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
The attacks of October 7th from Hamas coming out of Gaza were called the al-Aqsa Flood. And it was a reference to the claim that Jews wanted to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque--today. So, this is a very old story.
The next twist of the story is the Palestinian perspective. And, you've read many of the available, if not all, the contemporaneous accounts from Arab sources of the time and after. And you've spoken to Palestinians today.
And of course, what is human, and difficult, is that there's a very different perspective than the one you just told.
For most Israelis and most Jews that I know, the story you just told is the standard story: the Jews were--yes, there was a serious question of whether it was right or wrong to try to populate the land of Palestine and create a Jewish state, but nothing could possibly excuse or explain, even, these events of these deaths.
And, of course, many, many other people were injured and we're not a 100% sure, but there's some evidence of rape. We don't know how much, you point out. The victors often underestimate the amount of sexual violence, and the victims often overestimate it, or make it more lurid.
But, the bottom line is: That's a horrible story. And you, in your course of your research and trying to understand the Palestinian narrative today--how Palestinians today look back on what people at the time experienced almost a hundred years ago--you discovered an event and you speak about it--there's a wonderful video of a lecture you gave, we'll put a link up to it--about how challenging it was for you to realize that there had been some Jewish atrocities, as well, at that time.
So, talk about the 'Awn family and Simha Hinkis [Simcha Hinkas, alternate spelling--Econlib Ed.] and what happened there, as best you can. It is complicated. There are many details. It's hard to understand exactly what happened, but we have a pretty good idea of the generality.
Hillel Cohen: Well, maybe I'll say a few words about how I started to write the book and what made me write it in the way I wrote. So, I'm a historian and I work in archives. And, one day I was in the library, actually, in the library of the Hebrew University, and there is a famous book of a Palestinian writer; his name is Mustafa al-Dabbagh. Very interesting writer, and he wrote a kind of geographical lexicon of Palestine. And, I read about Jaffa. And, when I read about Jaffa, he wrote, according to years, a chronology of Jaffa. And, when he wrote about the year 1929, he wrote: In the year in 1929, the Jews attacked the Arabs of Jaffa. And, one Jew who was also policemen in the British police entered the house of Muslims in Jaffa and he killed five people--two women, two kids and old person.
And, this is the year 1929.
Now, for me that 1929 is the year of the Massacre of Hebron.
I read this description and I said--I cannot say in a podcast how I say it--but I said: What is it? Is it a kind of oriental imagination? How come I wrote my Ph.D. about Mandatory Palestine, about Palestinian collaborating with Zionism during the Mandate. So, I knew more or less the history of Mandate period.' And I said, 'So, in 1929 Jews attacked Arabs in Jaffa? This is a story of 1929?'
And I said, 'Okay.' I just photocopied the two pages of this description. I put it in the drawer--I mean, it was 20 years ago--and I continued my work.
Five, six years later, I was working in the Haganah Archive, which is part of the Israeli army archive, and I found a document from 1913. In this document, an officer in the Haganah described how he bribed a British judge--or actually the Attorney General--in order to change the way he would talk in the court about a case of murder of an Arab family by a Jewish policeman. I said, '[?gling, gling?], I mean, this might be the same story.'
Okay. So, now I have a kind of Jewish source for the same story. And, I had the name of the accused; and I started to look for details of the story. And, I found, yes, this is true. There was a person in the Haganah who did exactly that. Of course, the details are not the same. He killed only four people. The baby was three years old and not 1-year-old. These small details which were not accurate, because I reached also the files of the court when I continued; but okay. Now, I said, 'This is very surprising story.'
And, when I said to myself, this is very surprising story, immediately I asked myself, 'Surprising to whom?' I mean it was surprising for me, but I'm sure that for Palestinians, this was not surprising because they know that the Jews all the time kill innocent Arabs. Because they know what happened in Deir Yassin and they know what happened Kfar Qasim, and they know what happens in Gaza, and they know.
So, this was a moment in which I understood that what is surprising for me is not surprising for other people. And, what is surprising for them is not--and vice versa.
So, I said, 'Okay, we have here totally two different stories,' And, this is what I want to tell. I want to tell how come that we have events that everybody knows what happened, but what they know is totally different.
But, now I have another problem. The other problem is: First of all, I realized that when I read Arab source, I don't believe, and when I read it in the same material in a Jewish source, I do believe. So, I have to think why. There are good reasons, because when someone tells about atrocities committed to him, it might be less reliable than when it tells about--okay, this is one reason, but it's not the only reason. The main reason I think, is that we tend to believe what we want to believe. This is who we are, and this is also who I am.
But, I thought whether to take on myself the mission of trying to tell the story from both sides in the way that both sides would tell them. Of course, it might be better that to do it with a Palestinian colleague or whatever. This didn't work. So, I did it myself and tried to be as honest as possible.
And for me, it was also an opportunity to tell the Zionist story, the Jewish story of 1929 to Arab audience. Because this book, I wrote it in Hebrew and I wrote it in Hebrew to Israeli audience, to Hebrew readers; but it was translated both to English and to Arabic. And, I think this is the first book in Arabic in which the details of what happened in Hebron in 1929 are written. And, what happened in Tsfat [Safed--Econlib Ed.] in 1929 are detailed. It never appeared in any book, even of the great Palestinian scholars that I admire, they would write: 'In 1929 there were clashes between Jews and Arabs. In 1929 there were riots against Jews.' But nobody would detail the cruel events in the way that we, let's say, in the Israeli narrative would.
Russ Roberts: What kind of reception did it get in the Arabic world?
Hillel Cohen: First of all, the fact that an important publisher was ready to publish it. And, there was event in Ramallah about the book, which I was not invited because of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions]--which is fine, I mean.
Russ Roberts: Because of the--why were you not invited?
Hillel Cohen: Because of the BDS. Because of the boycott on Israeli scholars.
Russ Roberts: The BDS stands for Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions? And, therefore the event you were not allowed to attend?
Hillel Cohen: Not 'not allowed.' Not invited. I don't know if it's the same or not.
Russ Roberts: Go ahead. But, did you hear something about it? Did you get some reports?
Hillel Cohen: Yeah, I heard, not fully. And, there were some people wrote reviews--there were some people wrote reviews, some Palestinians wrote reviews, but this is Israeli-Palestinians, not Ramallah. So, Israeli-Palestinians wrote reviews. I think [?incomprehensible, 22:11: Iman Hodem?] was one of them, which was very--I mean, he liked it very much because he also believes in: Yeah, we should know, we should study the history and know the truth, and so on and so forth.
And, also, I have to add to this--I mean, also to the main story--that hundreds of Jews of Hebron were saved by Arabs in Hebron during the riots.
So, when you are trying to tell the whole story, you can also the narrative of the people who were saved and the people who saved. And then, you have a different narrative than this of the good guys and the bad guys; and, we are the good and the Arabs are bad.
But, I bring two stories, and in each story I bring also the savers and the killers. So--and we have your multi-dimensional narrative of the events in general.
Russ Roberts: I can't help but quote Richard Feynman--and I think I'm going to get it close to a 100% accurate: "The first principle is you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."
And, it's a beautiful part of your book on the lecture that I mentioned where you confront the fact that, certainly we like to think that an historian would of course be open to all the facts. But historians often are--we say in English--grinding an axe. They are telling a narrative, and they cherry pick. They leave out the things that ruin the story and they exaggerate, or are not careful, or don't examine as closely the things that enhance the story or make it more dramatic.
And so, I salute your honesty. At least as far as I understand it. I'm not an historian. It's hard for me to know whether you've done what you've tried to do well, but it strikes me that you've done a remarkable job. So--
Hillel Cohen: If I can add to that, I mean part of my, I would call it even methodology, when I found the documents and the memories about the event. First of all, for me, every document who makes me uneasy, I know that I have to use it. I mean, this is a methodology. So, this is important--Number One--because especially if I want to tell one-sided narrative, it's different. So, just ignore it. But, if you want to tell the whole stories, so this is exactly why the story about the murder in Jaffa was for me, I mean, mind-blowing. I mean, I know, this is what I need: I need to understand.
And then, I need to understand, and this is very easy, why the Palestinians prefer to tell this story and not the story of Hebron. Okay, this is very clear why. But, these are the methods.
And, the other one is about my own emotions. And, this helped me very much to understand the story in general, because when I read about--I'm a Jew, [?], cannot be but a Jew, right? And, when I read about an incident where Jews were killed, it really hurts me and I feel deep sorrow. And, when I read about incidents in which Palestinians were killed, I feel different. I mean, I feel some sorrow and I might feel some anger, but it's really different. I must admit. And I mean--my mother came to Jerusalem in 1929--I mean, I'm part of the story. I'm part of the story.
But, when I follow my emotions in this way, it helps me as historian to understand how narratives are built. Because--this was my conclusion--that narratives are not built from up down. It's not that the Ministry of Education tells us how to think about 1929. Not at all. It is our friends. It's ourselves, it's our kids, it's our parents--when we see them cry about one thing and they don't cry about other. So, this become part of our emotional me--right?--self. And when they don't cry, they say, 'Hmmm, this is [?], or they're happy.
So, we build our narratives according to where our emotions are and not according to what a minister of whatever tells us. And, I learned it from my own emotions. What I told you, this is part of my methodology.
Russ Roberts: So, in economics, we would call this an emergent phenomenon. It's bottom-up rather than top-down. It's not any one person deciding what the narrative is. It gets told and retold the same way that a language develops. Some things get used, some things get dropped: it's alive. And after a while it hardens around a certain story.
I just want to echo what you said. Some of my listeners and some of my readers, for the things I've written about this moment in 2024, complain that I'm too even-handed. I should be--what am I giving ammunition to the other side for? I should just tell the good parts. I'm a Jew, I'm a Zionist. I live here. I moved here; I became a citizen; and I'm very proud of that. I have no embarrassment about it. And I understand the urge to only listen to the things that make you feel good and ignore the things that make you feel bad.
But, I can't help it. As sort of my ethos of this program and who I am, I think it's important to understand the complexity. In many ways, the motto of this show is, 'It's complicated.'
It doesn't mean that it can't have a moral position. At the end of this, I want to talk about the challenges that this richer picture poses for one's own views and confidence in what we do. But, the point is, is that, certainly as an historian, I think, and as a thinking human being, you should be aware of the complexity of the world.
The only thing I want to add to your discovery of this murder that took place in Jaffa: it became part of the Palestinian narrative. It's well-known among Palestinians, and most Jews know nothing about it.
Now we can debate--and we might--about whether the murder of five people by a crazy policeman enraged by what he saw earlier that day, the morality of that: How can that be equated with--and so on--the murder of 166 people, the terrorizing of thousands? Those are serious deep, deep questions. But, I think it's important to know the facts.
And, the facts that I would add, that you just pointed out that also run all through your book, is that not everybody joined in. Some people didn't join in. Some people did more than not join in: they protected the other side. They protected the other side at the risk of their own life. It's hard to do, it's rare. In that way, in some sense, it's the exception that proves the rule. But that also cannot be ignored.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk--let's talk about the moral high ground. When I talk about listeners, or friends even, who are upset that I present, say, a more complex picture, one of the things that's uncomfortable about that, and one of the reasons that we ignore the stories that make our side look bad, is we want to hold the moral high ground. We want to feel that our side is doing the right thing. Why is that so important to us? Why is it not enough to say: 'Well, I don't care whether it was right or wrong. We had the power--,' whichever side it was, 'We did some things. End of story.' Why is it so important to us to feel virtuous, especially about things that the other side calls evil? Not just, like, 'Well, it wasn't so great.' Evil. We want to often say to ourselves: 'Those things were not just not evil, they were moral.'
Hillel Cohen: Yeah, this is a very good question for now in 2024, as you mentioned beforehand. I mean, Israeli soldiers in Gaza, they are sure that they do the most moral thing in the world. And, by the way, I don't know how many thousands Palestinian kids were killed. And, the same is true for Hamas. They are sure that they do the right thing. It's not that they say, 'Okay, maybe right, maybe no': 'This is the time to do it and we should do it. Killing Jewish civilians now is right, and it's moral.'
And, I think this is a very basic human need--I mean, to feel moral. Because humans are not--they're also about power, and they use power. But, you always will say, you have to be crazy in order to feel that only power talks. You don't want to be like that. You say, 'Okay, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, yeah, he only power,' Or North Korea. But, most nations and groups and people, they would say, 'No, we are moral.' People want to feel moral because this is to be human.
Russ Roberts:> So, when I look at the--let's go back to 1929. It's a little more comfortable than 2024 right now. But, we'll come back to 2024. But, when I look at 1929 and I look at these two narratives, the thousands who terrorized Jews in Jerusalem, in Hebron, in Tsfat [Safed], in Motza--and then, okay, you're trying to be even-handed, Hillel. It's very impressive. So, you found a policeman who killed five people in Jaffa, in Yaffo--Jaffa in English. Or: Yes, they were worried that the Jews might destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque and therefore they got enraged. Do I want to keep score? One of the horrible things--I'm going to come back to 2024--one of the horrible things for me is this claim: 'I think the war in Gaza that Israel is waging is the right thing to do.' It doesn't mean everything that Israel does there is moral. But, here's what I find strange.
What I find strange is that people say, 'Well, only 1200 people died in Israel on October 7th and 250 or so people were kidnapped and dozens of women were raped, but 25,000 Gazans have been killed,' As if it's just a scorecard.
So, I think one of the complexities of either 1929 or 2023 of October is this idea that--you don't want to keep score. And certainly our moral anger, or better yet, our outrage is not about numbers. It's a visceral emotional response. So, I want you to respond to that thing about the numbers, but then I want you to answer the question: If I can always see the other side, doesn't that justify their actions? Don't you, as an historian, because you can tell me a story that they were afraid we were going to destroy al-Aqsa Mosque, and there was this policeman in Jaffa that killed five people who were defenseless. Then is anything goes? Is it all equal? Can you make a moral judgment at all?
Hillel Cohen: It is very good question, but everybody does moral judgment and everybody judges according to what he was thinking before. So, the question is, why our moral judgment is better than the Palestinian moral judgment? So, even the moral judgment is not of even-handed judge. It is our--so, of course we believe in our moral judgment.
So, you had a couple of questions. So, first of all, why to write it? And, the reason to write it is, I think that if each side continues to believe in his own narrative without knowing the other narrative and his own moral judgment, believing that this is the own possible moral judgment, we'll continue to fight forever. I mean, this is what happened to me. When I understand that the other narrative--it's not about support, it's about being, being strong enough, being valuable, being important. For them, I have to take it into consideration.
In my case, it became part of my own narrative. I mean, yeah, this is part of my narrative, the Palestinian narrative now. And, it has nothing to do with justifications. Like you, you do not justify Israeli soldiers who would shoot by intention a Palestinian kid. But, you accept the general movement of the Israeli army. Okay.
So, we can start to challenge our own narrative, to see the other narrative, to understand the world better. And, as I said, for me, it has much more meaning when the Palestinians do the same.
And, this is why I told you, too: it was important for me that it would be translated into Arabic. Of course, it cannot be one-sided. I mean, both sides have to understand many things about the other side that today they do not understand.
Now, I go back to the very general idea of both narratives. For the Islamist narrative, as I said, I mean, Jews came here to live in peace, and we were attacked by the Arabs. What is a Palestinian Arab narrative? The Arab narrative is that Zionist came here in order to make our land, our country into a Jewish country. And, all what we do is self-defense.
So, we have our two nations that believe that everything that they do is self-defense. When we bomb Gaza it's self-defense; and when they attack [inaudible 00:37:45] it's self-defense. Okay, so everybody has moral justification for what they do.
And so, now what? So, I was also attacked, as you were attacked. I mean, 'No, you give them ammunition.' 'No, how can you be even-handed, you are a Jew? How come that you care about the Arab the same way you care about Jews?' Actually, I'm not sure I care the same way, as I told before. But, even if I care only about my kids and about my family and about my tribe, I think that the best way to protect them is to widen our understanding of the reality and act within the wider understanding, and not to see only ourselves and our just case and ignore others. Because ignoring others brings October 7th.
Russ Roberts: So, I think one of the frustrations for Jews around the world--certainly here in Israel, Israelis--is a feeling that the--while we are often at least aware there's another narrative, we may not agree with it a 100%. There's a separate problem--which of course your book highlights--which is that the facts in each narrative are often different because of our natural confirmation bias. But, there was, before October 7th, and there has been for the last 30 or so years here, a very, very strong movement on the left of the Israeli political spectrum supporting Arab/Palestinian rights, supporting a Palestinian state, decrying and criticizing--strong, forceful responses--to Palestinian terrorism. And, we don't feel that coming from the other side.
And, you know, when I deal with that in my own thoughts, personally, I like to believe--and it may not be true--that there are people who can empathize with the Israeli narrative, but they can't speak up because they live in a world, tragically, where there isn't freedom of speech.
In Israel, we have freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. There are massive, massive, protests happening in Israel against the current government--for all kinds of reasons. Not just one. They get--more than one reason that people turn, come to the streets and criticize the government.
But in the Gaza, if you do that, they kill you.
So, I'd like to think that there is the potential for the kind of sharing we're talking about. We interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi on the program. I interviewed Yossi Klein Halevi on the program, and his book very much put the two different narratives at the center. His book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, didn't get that big a reception in the West Bank and in Gaza. But, again, I like to think maybe that's because they live in something close to a police state.
But, I think that's frustrating for those of us who are trying to be more open-minded. Do you feel that way?
Hillel Cohen: No, I feel totally different. I don't think that Palestinians do not empathize with Zionists or with the Zionist project because they're living in a police state. Maybe because they live under occupation. Maybe. In the sense that if you take--I mean, the best example, of course, is the Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, you can see two schools now, right? You can see more than two schools. But you can see Hamas on the one hand, and you can see Mansour Abbas on the other hand. So, how comfortable--
Russ Roberts: Mansour Abbas being the head of the Palestinian Authority.
Hillel Cohen: No, no. Mansour Abbas of the Islamic Movement of Israel, the Member of the Knesset [Israeli Parliament--Econlib Ed.].
Russ Roberts: Oh, of the Knesset. Sorry, they have the same last name. One is Mansour and one is Mahmoud. Sorry.
Hillel Cohen: Yes.
So, Mansour Abbas, he came from the same school of thought. He came from the Muslim Brotherhood Organization, and he now a member of the Knesset, and he believes in the partnership between Jews and Arab, between Muslims and Jews. He even declared that he can accept Israel as a Jewish state. And he condemned what Hamas did in October 7th.
So, how come that from the same school of thought, you have such different--and they pray the same prayers, they have the same books that they read. Not only the Holy Quran, but also the books of the leaders of Muslim Brotherhood. The main reason is the difference between if you live in a relative equality or you live under occupation. It's not the same.
And, I did a research about that. So, this was the only time that I did quantitative research, and I gave questionnaires to hundreds of Palestinian students for education, both in the West Bank and in inside Israel, and asked them question about narratives and about rights, about peace with Israel, and so on and so forth. And, the interesting point for me, the result were that about the historical narrative, about the rights of the Palestinians, there was no debate. This is our land, and the Jews came here and they tried to take the land from us. They don't have--I mean, they didn't have right to do that--and so on and so forth.
But, when it came to what should be done, the Palestinian-Israel, most of them were, first of all, against the armed struggle. Against using violence.
Second, they were more accepting the presence of Jews here. And, what they wanted was a kind of partnership. And, the Palestinian in the West Bank, I mean, they can be from the very same family--that you know--Palestinian and Israel and the West Bank. They say, 'No, the Jews have no right here. They have to go wherever they came from,' And so, on and so forth.
Of course, this is--it was after the Second Intifada, because the same questions when they were asked before the year 2000, also, many Palestinians in the West Bank accepted the idea of Jewish presence and Jewish sovereignty on part of Palestine.
So, what we have here is the condition of leaving the political options that they have and so on and so forth, and not the police state of the Palestinian Authority, which is also--this is a totally different story.
And, if I may add another point. The other point is that you said: you know there is a strong peace movement in Israel. There is a strong protest in Israel against the government, and so on and so forth.
Russ Roberts: That peace movement is smaller today than it was on October 6th--
Hillel Cohen: True--
Russ Roberts: for better or for worse. Yeah--
Hillel Cohen: Sure. Sure--
But, Palestinians, many years, they told me, 'We don't care about what you say, we care about what you do.'
And, even when Oslo Agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization were signed in 1993, there were 100,000 settlers in the West Bank.
During the seven year of Oslo process, before the eruption of the Second Intifada, there were 200,000 Jews settling in the West Bank. Meaning, the number of settlers doubled.
For Palestinians this was the most important factor. They said, 'You are telling us that you want peace and you want to negotiate, and you might be ready to establish a Palestinian State in the West Bank, and meanwhile, you send hundred dozens of thousands of Jews inside. So, we don't care about what you say.' Today, we have almost half million, I mean 480,000 settlers in the West Bank. So, who cares about, you know, 50 people who held, or 500 people who held Palestinians to reach Israeli hospitals? It's nothing.
I mean, the Palestinians, I mean the people, I guess Palestinians who were helped by these people wouldn't go to kill them. But, for us, a Palestinian, it means nothing. This is what I understand from what they tell me. Okay, there are nice people among you. There are nice Palestinians who saved Jews in 1929. It has nothing to do with the great story of the national debate here. You want the whole land from the river to the sea. And, this was a decision--this was part of what the last Netanyahu government declared--that all the territory between the river and the sea is for the Jews, and there will not be another national entity in this territory. So, what exactly you tell me, that there are some nice Jews?
Russ Roberts: Of course the--just to be clear, when Netanyahu for propaganda and PR [Public Relations] reasons says that from the river to the sea is Israel, he of course does not mean to expel the Arab-Israelis that you were mentioning who elected Mansour Abbas to the Israeli Parliament. Which I think would shock many people who did not know that: there are Arab members of the Israeli Parliament. There's Arab members of the Israeli Supreme Court. But, that the Hamas, 'From the river to the sea,' does not allow for Jews to have a presence in the land of Palestine as a minority. You disagree?
Hillel Cohen: How come that you say it? According to what? I mean--
Russ Roberts: Well, the original Charter and their subsequent remarks after October 7th was, first, they like to kill Jews, and second, they would repeat October 7th, millions of times. Now, maybe a million times. Maybe they meant by that until they were allowed to run the current state of Israel as a--well, I don't know what you would call it, a theocracy? There would be Jews there with minority rights. There's no Arab country right now where Jews can live comfortably. So, it's not an encouraging idea, 'from the river to the sea,' for Jewish people.
Hillel Cohen: Yes, but in--
Russ Roberts: In Hamas' words.
Hillel Cohen: Yeah, it's not encouraging. I can understand it's not encouraging for the Palestinian, the Jewish state, 'From the river to the sea.'
But, Hamas, according to Hamas' Charter--that most people know what is written in it, without reading it. Hamas's charter includes also the very, it's Article 31. I'm not a spokesperson, you know, for Hamas, but I spokeperson for truth.
Russ Roberts: Go.
Hillel Cohen: It says that under Islam, Jews and Christian and everybody can live peacefully under the rule of Islam.
So, it's not about expelling the Jews. It's about Jews accepting the sovereignty of Islam in the Holy Land.
Now, there the Article Seven or Eight with the story about the trees that will tell that they are Jews behind us, which is a story for about the last day, not about political--I don't know, settlement. It's not settlement [inaudible 00:49:59] the behavior today. So, it's totally different.
And, I mean, this is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. I mean, if you want to--not you personally--but if one wants to quote Hamas charter, better he read it from the beginning to the end and look at the discrepancies within it. I mean, this is very important--
Russ Roberts: And, it's been revised since its original publication.
Hillel Cohen: No, the original. I speak about the original, which is more antisemitic. Even in the original, they accept Jews.
Now, of course, we can say, 'No, we don't want to live under Islam.' Okay, this is our right. We want independent, whatever. But, we have to be accurate about what they say.
Russ Roberts: Agreed. Hillel is trying to ruin all of my preconceived beliefs, which I appreciate.
Russ Roberts: But I want to come back to something you said about the West Bank and paying attention to actions versus [?] words. So again, for listeners who are unaware, the West Bank, which was acquired by Israel in the defensive--what most people would say is the defensive war of 1967. Israel suddenly inherited a large number of Palestinians. Israeli leaders felt that that land was crucial to create a buffer zone, to reduce the risk of future wars from our national neighbors--Jordan, for example, or Syria in the case of the northern in the Galilee. So, that land was taken.
And then the question was: what's going to happen there? And of course, originally it was a full military occupation. We didn't annex it. It was supposed to be negotiated whether we would give it back with certain terms. But, eventually the Israeli army was basically running it. And then, over the years we have ceded--Israel has ceded, C-E-D-E-D--ceded control increasingly to the Palestinian Authority, but not completely.
So, it is still--of course, there is an Israeli army that frequently goes into places like Jenin and other places to stop what we fear are terrorist attacks. But, it's not pleasant to live there. It's not pleasant to live there under the Palestinian Authority. It's not pleasant to live there with the presence of the Israeli army. And, the cooperation between those two is fraught with all kinds of problems.
But, the point is that, after 1967, many Israeli settlers created towns and cities in that territory, which are islands of Jewish settlement within this much more widely Arab population.
But, here's what I want to ask you. Just [?]establish this for clarification. When people say that the settlements are the problem, the barrier to peace--which is what you just suggested, that the expansion of the settlers from a 100,000 to 200,000 and now almost 500,000, that's what is part of the problem--a lot of people say, 'Oh yeah, well, how come in 1929 they slaughtered Jews when there were no settlements? There wasn't even a state.'
Now, there are many answers to that, but I want to let you answer that, and then I want you to talk about a more practical and interesting, I think, historical question. You suggested that a lot of Palestinians have become accepting of the fact that there's a Jewish presence in what they call Palestine and what we call the State of Israel.
And by the way, we've said nothing about the religious challenges of this problem, which you talk about your book very, very thoughtfully. But, over a hundred years, there is a bunch of people who have become accepting that, 'Okay, so there's a Jewish presence there and it's a Jewish state, and maybe we should live with that. But we want our own state, too.' And then I think the question is--the practical strategic question is, first of all: Do you think that's true? You seem to think it is. And then, secondly: A lot of people would argue that, 'Well, that's what the settlements are. Eventually they could tolerate the presence of Jews in the West Bank as well.' True or false? Well, not true or false to such a thing. Bad question. How do you think about these issues?
Hillel Cohen: No, no, it's nice question. I mean, even in true or false. I think that this is what the right wing believed before October 7th, and what we see is that it doesn't work like that. I believe that they still believe in it. I mean, that more power would bring--I mean this idea of the Iron Wall of Jabotinsky. In 1923, Ze'ev Jabotinsky published these famous articles, "An Iron Wall," in which he said that native people usually wouldn't accept foreign settlements among them, but--and this is very natural. So, he really understood the Arab rejection of Zionism. But, he added that if we will be strong enough, if we build an Iron Wall between them and us and they would understand that they cannot actually expel us or take us out of the country, they would accept our presence.
Now, this is partly true, of course; but the problem with Zionism--if I might say, us, as Zionists--the problem of Zionism is what is called in Arabic [?]tawassul iyya[?], meaning expanding itself all the time. I mean, 'Okay, you put an Iron Wall in the 1948 border and we accepted it. So now you move it farther to the east in order to take more land. And then you want more and more and more.' So, this is not Iron Wall, this is curtain that you move everywhere to where you want. And, if it's curtain, it cannot stand attacks. And, this is the situation that we are here. We made our Iron Wall into a curtain.
Russ Roberts: Two things, or maybe more. First, for listeners who have never--I don't think the word 'Jabotinsky' has ever been mentioned on the program. So, Ze'ev Jabotinsky is called a Revisionist Zionist. That essay--I think we'll find a link online for it--of 1923, is really an extraordinary essay. Many of the Zionists before him and many after said, 'Zionism, a Jewish state in the land that is called Palestine, the Arabs will like it.' And of course, some do. There's a lot of advantages to living here as an Arab, as opposed to, say, in Gaza or in the West Bank or in Syria. So, Arab-Israelis, who are full citizens, they may be uneasy with the Jewish state. They may prefer something different. But it's not the worst thing that could happen to someone living in the Middle East.
But, there was a certain idealism and romanticism and, really, dishonesty in suggesting that we as Jews coming to our ancestral homeland--a phrase we haven't mentioned yet, part of our moral high ground--we would be embraced. It would be great. The desert would bloom--which it has--and there will be a great high-tech sector, and it will all be good. And, of course, many Arabs work in the high-tech sector, and it's all great. They're going to love us. It's going to be fantastic. Well, that was--Jabotinsky in 1923 said, 'That's a lie.' These are people who have lived here for a long time. They haven't had their own state. Doesn't matter. They've lived in--as you point out, very, very powerfully in the book--they live under Arab rule. It may not be Palestinian rule the way we think--
Hillel Cohen: [?]--
Russ Roberts: of nationalism, but it's not Jewish rule. And, they're not going to like living under Jewish rule. And, Jabotinsky said: 'Let's not condescend and treat them like some kind of primitives who we can bribe with the candy of material wellbeing that might accompany the creation of the Jewish state.' Which turned out to be true. Incredible standard of living here compared to the rest of the Middle East in our immediate neighborhood, and certainly for the Arab-Israelis who live here. He said, 'Don't treat them like children, like we can bribe them with candy. They're going to have national aspirations and tribal feelings, and the only way that we can survive here is that Iron Wall.'
So, that's just background, again, for listeners. What I have trouble with, with the narrative, as you said, is that it's a curtain. They're always moving it. And we move it because they start wars with us. We didn't want to move the curtain in 1967. If they hadn't surrounded us with armies amassed to attack us. That was not an offensive war to gain territory.
But, I see you shaking your head on the YouTube version of this. So, explain why I'm wrong.
Hillel Cohen: Look, I am not here to debate with you about Zionism or about politics. What I do as historian is to try to make people understand the other side. My own view, sometimes, of course, I tell it; I don't hide my views. But, my views were shaped by many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many hours of talking with Palestinians from Hamas, from Fatah, from none of them, people who worked in Israel, people who never worked in Israel, with intellectuals, with farmers. This is what I did for 30 years, okay? So, what I'm trying to do is to help people who want it.
Now, I would add, I understand that many people do not want to know or to understand the Palestinian version of reality, or Palestinian perspective or whatever, because it doesn't fit what they want to hear. And, I know--many times when I start, I don't know, a lecture, I say, 'I'm sorry, I'm going to say things that you might not be interested in. If you feel uncomfortable, feel comfortable to leave.' I mean, people to be uneven, they don't want it. They want something to strengthen them, especially in times of conflict, of bloodshed. Why should we understand the other? Okay, I understand this view. I understand it. But, this is what I do. This is [?] the only [?] important thing that I can do.
And it is based--so when I say, 'This is what the Palestinian feel,' I mean, so to tell me, 'No, I think differently.' Okay, think differently. I mean, maybe I also think differently. Not everything that people tell me, I accept. I sit with settler. I sit with people from who are going to pray in the Temple Mount, Jews who pray in the Temple Mount, because I have to understand. I have to know what they feel, what they think, what are the political views. And then I can tell this to the Palestinian and this to the Jews. And, I teach crowds who are consisted of Palestinian, Israeli together, and I tell them both narratives. I mean, if you want to take it, take it, but to debate with me? Okay, my opinions are insignificant. I mean, even my kids don't ask me what I think. I mean, sometimes they do. Who cares?
Russ Roberts: You're not alone there. My kids don't ask me what I think very often either, but I take your point. I didn't mean to debate you about whether their feeling about a curtain was right or wrong. But that's an important point, right? That's the way they see it. I may feel that they're wrong to see it that way. I may feel that they don't have as rich an understanding, but I could be wrong as well, of course.
Hillel Cohen: You are wrong. You are wrong. You are wrong.
Russ Roberts: Which part?
Hillel Cohen: I'll tell you the exact part. No, generally you are right, and I'm fascinated by your insights. But, about the very point of the wall and the curtain: Israeli settlement in the West Bank was not a result of a war. It was--
Russ Roberts: Oh, I agree--
Hillel Cohen: Yeah, it was in order to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. When Ariel Sharon was the Minister of Agriculture, and then the Minister of Defense, he said it so many times: Go to the West Bank, live there so that there will not be a Palestinian state.
So, if we go to the former question of yours, so how come that they don't care about Israeli democracy and the peace movement in Israel? They don't care because they see what's really going on on the ground.
Russ Roberts: Fair enough. I didn't mean to dispute that, and I certainly agree that the settlements, although there's a religious component we're not going to get into, was very much a real politik move to reduce the likelihood of a Palestinian state. Which, we could debate, again, whether that's good or bad; is not relevant right now. I was reacting more to the 1948 part. So, I think we're on the same page.
Russ Roberts: Let's close. Let's come to the future. One of the hard things right now for me living here and spending too much time on X, formerly known as Twitter, is the dueling narratives of both sides of who has the moral high ground in Gaza on October 7th--the disbelief that certain things did or did not happen.
Of course, one of the most extraordinary parts of this historic moment is that unlike you, who had to spend those many, many, many, many hours in the archives digging through and discovering documents that were not well known, is that a lot of October 7th appears to have been broadcast. It was recorded, posted on social media. We have a lot of footage, and there is always the uncertainty, especially in the future, about whether footage is real or not. It looks pretty real. It certainly was revealed in real time. It wasn't posted months later and changed and different.
So, we have something slightly different than we had in 1929. But, it doesn't matter. We've all got our own narratives. We have our own facts. Tragedies happen. There's a debate about whether it really happened, who actually did it. And these are part of a form of entertainment, a form of sport, a form of collecting hits and clicks and eyeballs. It's pretty depressing.
So, my question is, given that you have, for 15 years or however long it was, you explored the reality of 1929. Now it's 2024 in the aftermath of October 7th: it looks like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As I said, there's so many parallels when you read your book. And, they published it nine years ago; it could have been written today about today's events. There were heroes on both sides, helping do the right thing, but there's a lot of bloodshed on both sides. I do think I have the moral high ground, but I'm open to the understanding that it is more complicated. I don't think it's, 'Well, both sides do bad things. There's nothing more to say.' I don't agree with that. Again, for listeners, I definitely think that's the wrong attitude.
But it looks really similar, and it's almost a hundred years. You got any optimism for both our people and our neighbors about how this might get better? And, you can react to anything else I said, as well.
Hillel Cohen: Since October 7, I swore that when I asked this question, I say, yes, I have optimism. Before I said, I don't have any optimism, because I knew that 7 October is coming. We all knew. Actually, we all knew, and we tried to close our eyes; and we did. Every person who deals with Israeli-Palestinian affairs can show you a couple of pieces that he wrote, or she wrote, that in couple of--I mean, it's matter of months or years that such eruption would happen. It was clear. This is why I was not optimistic before.
And now, the question is whether we, both Palestinian and Israeli, is with maybe the help of the international community, which feels that we reached the level of bloodshed that we can now try to find another way to live together. So, this is the kind of optimism--not the best optimism, but yeah.
Russ Roberts: That's it? That's the best you could do?
Hillel Cohen: Yeah. Maybe you can find a better optimist than mine.
Russ Roberts: I'm looking. I'm looking.
My guest today has been Hillel Cohen. His book is Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929. Hillel, thanks for being part of EconTalk.