The popular hobby of creating DIY "solutions" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on behalf of its population afflicts not just politicians and activists but also writers. Adam LeBor's new book departs from this convention by, unusually, insisting that it is only within relations between the people themselves that any form of settlement can be achieved. His examination of the conflict through the narratives of successive generations of Arab and Jewish families in one (usually overlooked) city, Jaffa, is for me the most significant recent contribution to the literature. The curious reader with no ideological axe to grind, but an interest in the people and their fate, could do no better than start here.
The biblical port of Jaffa had been for centuries one of those Mediterranean cities (like Alexandria, Salonika and Beirut) where Muslims, Christians and Jews had co-existed - in Jaffa's case, under Ottoman control. LeBor's narrative charts the intersecting lives of several families: those arriving in Jaffa as refugees from persecution in Europe, and those fleeing from Jaffa as refugees when the Israelis conquered the city in 1948.
Throughout the 19th century, until the 1921 Arab riots in Jaffa, the Jewish Chelouche family - who arrived in Palestine in 1838 from Algeria and opened a money-changing shop - could sit, as Jews and Arabs did in every port around the southern and eastern Mediterranean, with the Arab Hammami family, who owned a shop in the clothing and textile market. They would drink coffee, smoke, talk, and invite each other to weddings as neighbours and fellow-businessmen. Despite the deterioration of relationships as more and more Jews arrived in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, Jaffa maintained its position as one of the Middle East's truly cosmopolitan cities. But the forces of history were decisively against it.
The Chelouches became founders of the new city of Tel Aviv, which would eventually swallow Jaffa itself, and the Hammamis were driven into exile in 1948, with only memory and history the foundations of their identity. They could build their lives abroad, but they could never rebuild the lost Jaffa - the house, the streets, the neighbours - that were the foundations of their own sense of self.
One member of the Chelouche family would become the organiser of the emigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel, in the years after the creation of the state in 1948. Meanwhile, Said Hammami became PLO ambassador to London, assassinated in 1978. A miserable catalogue of decisions made by both the Jewish and Arab leadership permanently affected the personal relations between individuals who remained.
Jaffa, once a city of "grace, courtesy and intelligent conversation", became incorporated as the poor relation to its younger sibling, Tel Aviv. The old informal and formal contacts were severed by distrust and hatred. Jaffa today is known as the place where the only thriving co-existence between Jews and Arabs is in the drug trade.
Perhaps the most poignant story is that of the relations between the Chelouches and the Sammarras. At the end of the 19th century, Aharon Chelouche found a young Arab boy crying in the street because his father had sent him from his village to sell a camel, which had been stolen from him. Chelouche gave the boy a silver coin to give to his father to make up for the loss. In 1917 the Turks expelled Jaffa's Jews inland and the once-prosperous Chelouches found themselves starving and peddling rags. The young boy who had once been rescued by the family sought them out and loaded them with food and money.
Through successive wars, chance encounters have continued up to the present, with the debts of honour and gratitude never forgotten, always repaid when the bitterest of feelings had to be overcome to do so. These intermittent relations have mirrored the changing fortunes of Arabs and Jews, first in Palestine, then Israel.
LeBor is not a Middle East expert; his beat was the war in former Yugoslavia and this Central European experience gives him an invaluable perspective in assessing the phases of the conflict. He concludes that it is not separate, or significantly different from wars elsewhere, and that "Perhaps the time has come to focus not on politics, but on the connection between people, and to build a new future from the bottom up, one also rooted in the past."
Instead of burdening Israelis and Palestinians with our political fantasies, we need to listen to what they have to say - about their own lives, and their own histories. And more important, only by each hearing the other's story can there be any hope of human reconciliation. It is in the stories that the future lies, and Adam LeBor has magnificently, and sympathetically, told them.
Linda Grant's 'The People on the Street: a writer's view of Israel' will be published by Virago in MarchReuse content