Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2005, page 74

Book Review

Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle

By Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Pluto Press, 2004, 236 pp. List: $22.95, AET: $17

Reviewed by Sara Powell

“WHAT RIGHT brings in Russian Jews and what kind of peace deprives Palestinian refugees of the right to return home?” asks former Yale professor Mazin Qumsiyeh in his latest book. The author’s answers to these and other questions constitute the essence of Sharing the Land of Canaan—and makes it part handy reference for virtually every possible question with regard to Israel and Palestine, and part Middle East peace proposal.

Qumsiyeh argues that, since Russian or other Ashkenazi Jews have very little in common genetically with Sephardic or “Oriental” Jews, or with Arabs—indeed with any of the Semites who originally settled the land of Canaan—they therefore are not entitled to “return” to a place from which they never came. Noting that Jews and those of other religions have lived peaceably in the Holy Land forever, Qumsiyeh believes that they can do so again. Indeed, he insists, they must, given that time cannot be turned back and Israeli “facts on the ground” are so entwined with Palestine that the situation is irreversible.

According to Qumsiyeh, a “peace” that deprives Palestinians of their right to return home is no peace at all. This should not come as a surprise, since he is a co-founder of Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right of Return Coalition. However, Qumsiyeh backs up his argument with history (genetic tracing, documentary, and archaeological) as well as with the documents of international law—the Fourth Geneva Convention, numerous United Nations resolutions, its charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among the most important.

A geneticist, Qumsiyeh discusses in the early part of the book the ancient peoples and cultures who occupied the land now so fiercely contested. This study in “biology and ideology,” though fascinating, will likely alienate many readers, for, despite its careful documentation, the topic is highly controversial, as the author notes. However, he does not use genetic data to argue that those Askenazi Jews resident in Israel or occupied Palestine should leave. Rather, he urges all who inhabit the land, as well as those in the diaspora, to share the land as one democratic secular nation. In fact, each section of the book is meant to lead to this conclusion—that, given human rights and international law, economics and environmental practicalities, the “Sharing of the Land of Canaan” is an inevitability.

Given that Qumsiyeh is himself a Palestinian denied the right to return to his homeland, his fierce condemnation of Zionism as a racist and apartheid system is not surprising. Yet he also deplores narrow nationalism in an increasingly global world. Indeed, calling the land Canaan—a name based on an ancient shared history—is an interesting and perhaps valuable contribution. It allows for both Palestinians and Israelis to save face by creating a third, united nation. In response to the many who have argued that, if Israelis want a democratic state, they must be willing to give up their Jewish state, Qumsiyeh points out that, demographically, Israelis will not always have a choice. He also points out, however, that neither will Palestinians have a choice about sharing their land, given that there is now a distinct, Hebrew-speaking, Israeli nation which cannot be dispossessed—any more than it was or is right to dispossess their Palestinian brethren.

The idea of a single secular nation on that tiny piece of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River (although Qumsiyeh also tosses out the idea of possibly incorporating Jordan—with its huge Palestinian population—into this one state) is not new. The late Edward Said was one of its most eloquent proponents. Moreover, Qumsiyeh points out, it was not until 1988, when statehood was declared, that Palestinians supported a possible two-state solution.

Qumsiyeh cautions, however, that although such a state is inevitable, it is by no means imminent. He concludes on an optimistic note, however: “We Canaanites, who invented the alphabet, domesticated animals and developed agriculture, and made this arid land into a land of milk and honey, surely can do this....We can either remain locked in our old mythological and tribal ways, or we can envision a better future and work for it. The choice is obvious.”

Qumsiyeh has provided a valuable tool for implementing that choice.