May 2006

In recently approving an effective ban on marriages between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel’s Supreme Court has shut tighter the gates of the Jewish fortress the state of Israel is rapidly becoming. The judges’ decision, in the words of the country’s normally restrained Haaretz daily, was “shameful.” By a wafer-thin majority, the highest court in the land ruled that an amendment passed in 2003 to the Nationality Law barring Palestinians from living with an Israeli spouse inside Israel – what is termed “family unification” – did not violate rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws.

There were some remarkable admissions in a piece by the distinguished Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling in the immediate wake of the British teaching union NATFHE’s vote yesterday to offer members moral backing if they boycott Israeli universities. British academics opposed to Israeli colleagues’ complicity in the lengthy and continuing occupation of the Palestinians are now advised to boycott them and their institutions. Today, and quite incidentally, Kimmerling wrote in the daily Ha’aretz newspaper of a decision taken by his own institution, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to offer a special fast-track degree programme to members of the General Security Service, or the Shin Bet, which has used its fearsome intelligence gathering abilties to maintain the occupation of the Palestinians for nearly four decades.

The guiding principles of Israel’s new coalition government agreed last week to free Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pursue his big idea: “hitkansut,” a Hebrew word embracing ideas related to “convergence”, “consolidation” and “ingathering.” In practice, it means Israel will begin shaping the final borders of the Jewish state over the next few years. For Israelis, the plan has one main, traumatic outcome: some 60,000 Jewish settlers located in the remoter, smaller settlements will be forced to leave their homes, much as Gaza’s settlers were made to depart last year. Israelis are braced for more tears, threats and pictures of flailing youths manhandled by soldiers.

With his coalition partners onboard, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is plotting his next move: a limited withdrawal from the West Bank which he and his government will declare as the end of the occupation and therefore also any legitimate grounds for Palestinian grievance. From hereon in, Israel will portray itself as the benevolent provider of a Palestinian state — on whatever is left after most of Israel’s West Bank colonies have been saved and the Palestinian land on which they stand annexed to Israel. If the Palestinians reject this deal — an offer, we will doubtless be told, every bit as “generous” as the last one — then according to the new government’s guidelines they will be shunned by Israel and presumably also by the international community.

About 2,000 Palestinian demonstrators gathered on the slopes of the Carmel mountain near Haifa while most Israelis celebrated their 58th Independence Day with open-air barbecues and parties. The Palestinian refugee families were joined by 150 Israeli Jews in an annual procession to commemorate the mirror event of Israel’s independence called the Nakba (Catastrophe), that drew the overwhelming majority of Palestinians from their homes and out of the new Jewish state. This year, the families marched to Umm al-Zinat, a Palestinian farming village whose 1,500 inhabitants were forced out by advancing Israeli soldiers on May 15, 1948, a few hours after Israel issued its declaration of independence.

Across Israel, the sirens have been blaring out this week, closing shops and offices early and bringing Israelis to a minute’s silent halt wherever they find themselves, whether in the house or pulled into a layby at the side of the road. Israel has been commemorating its soldiers who fell in the country’s many wars: a long roll call of names appeared on television screens, and military cemeteries were packed with visiting families. But yesterday, on 3 May, the sombre mood finally lifted as Israel celebrated its 58th Independence Day, marking the declaration of statehood on midnight 14 May 1948 (the anniversary varies every year because it is commemorated according to the Hebrew calendar). Boisterous youngsters piled into the streets, enjoying free public concerts and firework displays, and families headed to the forests for barbecues. Every other car seems to be flying an Israeli flag.

Coffins on Our Shoulders plots the troubled contours of Jewish-Arab relations in the Holy Land over the past century through two interweaving narratives. The first, intimate one comprises the stories of its two authors’ experiences of being Israeli – one a Jew, the other a Palestinian Arab – and the separate paths that led their ancestors, willingly and unwillingly, to their citizenship in the new state. A second, related narrative provides a series of contextualising analyses of ethnic politics in Israel.