Palestinian Jews: where nationality trumps religion

Palestinian Jews: where nationality trumps religion
4 min read
13 Dec, 2014
There are Palestinian Jewish groups who do not recognise Israel, or even any right to a Jewish homeland. So what does it mean for them if Israel succeeds in calling itself a Jewish state?
The Samaritans of Nablus do not recognise Israel [Getty/AFP]

A few years ago, I failed to secure funding from the Palestinian ministry of culture for a documentary about Palestinian Jews. They were just not interested.

The script was about the Samaritan sect, which is probably the smallest religious minority in the world, with half of the sect living in Mount Gerizim in Nablus and carrying Palestinian citizenship, and the other half living in Israel and carry the Israeli citizenship.

The Samaritans believe that they are the original Jews and do not recognise Israel as a Jewish state, or even a state for that matter. Yasser Arafat made sure the Samaritans were represented in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The Neturei Karta are another Jewish group that identifies as Palestinian and does not recognise the state of Israel. In fact, the Neturei Karta believe it is religiously forbidden for Jews to have their own state. The group recognises the PLO as the sole legitimate authority in Palestine.

Arafat appointed the group's leader, rabbi Moshe Hirsch, as minister of Jewish affairs in his first government after the Oslo Accords.

In preparing for the documentary project I contacted some Palestinian Jews who identified far more strongly with their national Palestinian than their religious heritage.

Famous Palestinian Jews

Among those was the Jerusalem born musician, Ilyas Davidson, who migrated to Iceland and received Icelandic citizenship and insisted that his formal papers mention his Palestinian origins. Another Palestinian Jew is the late activist, actor and director, Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was the director of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, which was established by his mother Arna to teach theatre to the youth of Jenin refugee camp.

I cannot forget the Fatah member, Ilan Halevi who passed away two years ago. I told him about the project over the phone and he said: "It is not too late, although this subject should have been covered a long time ago."

There is no better example for a Palestinian Jew than the member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, Uri Davis, who has been part of Fatah for decades and lives in Ramallah.

     What would happen if the US, which has an influential Jewish minority, said that it was a Christian state in its constitution?

The idea for the film came when I met an old lady named "Umm al-Abid" in Beirut, and I discovered that her real name was Sarah Cohen from Jerusalem, who had married a Palestinian from Jaffa in 1946.

However, she and her husband were displaced to Lebanon during the Nakba, where they lived in Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp until its fall in the 1970s.

Today I remember the buried script of the documentary in the midst of talk about the Jewishness of Israel. I had hoped to raise the question of identity in the state of Israel, and if Judaism was the national identity in the state, what would Israel do with those who do not consider it as so?

If Israel has the right to consider the majority religion its national identity, can we not imagine what would happen if the US, which has an influential Jewish minority, said that it was a Christian state in its constitution?

Where will the loyalty of American Jews be in this case? Will they consider themselves Americans or foreigners? Will they accept the Christianity of the US or consider the country to be anti-Jewish?

Enshrining Jewishness in Israel's constitution and demanding Palestinians recognise that move is a continuation of the ghetto mentality. This project will not only harm Palestinians and make them second-class citizens, and Arab nations that are suffering from a rise in Islamist radicalism - it will clearly harm Jews themselves, both in Israel and the world.

That was and remains the idea of the film. Some of its characters are no longer here; Juliano Mer-Khamis was assassinated in Jenin, and Sarah Cohen and Ilan Halevi have passed away and I do not know what happened to Davidson, the Palestinian Jewish musician.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.