Our Shared Heritage

    June 2009            
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Book Review

By Jay Levinson

Our Shared Heritage: An Anthology of the Region's Shared Natural and Cultural Heritage, An Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian Project

ed. Dr. Yusuf Natsheh, Al-Quds University.

Jerusalem: 2008

This slim tri-lingual volume gives concrete example to themes that are both widely known and unfortunately ignored --- Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians share common environment and history. While each group has chosen to highlight its own moments in the spotlight of history, there is a common thread that runs through all sectors. It is all too easy to stress differences. Coexistence is only possible if we emphasize what is of mutual interest and concern.

Examples are plentiful from the earliest periods in recorded history, as people moved from seasonal migration to permanent settlement. Not only was building construction similar throughout the area. The ubiquitous availability of the same type goods clearly shows a commercial connection throughout the region. A bilingual Egyptian-Semitic ostracon unearthed at Tel Arad is the most blatant indication of economic interaction.

One distinctive innovation in the region is the introduction of the phonetic alphabet. As cuneiform was common in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphics was the Egyptian standard, phonetic systems of various sorts were the rule in this area as government clerks kept various types of written records.

As years went by the Romans dominated the entire region and imposed their architecture throughout. Isolated examples are Beit Shean in Israel, Sebastia in the Palestinian Authority, and Pella in Jordan. Ampitheaters were common, as were streets adorned with high columns.

Ethnocentric thinking is frequent, and in that spirit Jews tend to think of Herod as a megalomaniac despot responsible for massive construction projects in Jerusalem and Masada. The Herodian is most often added as an afterthought, but Makawer, on the eastern side of the Jordan Valley is rarely mentioned. Its purpose was to defend Herod's territory from attack from the east. This is a clear lesson. We must expand our horizons and think in terms of a geographic expanse not delineated by modern borders.

The Nabateans are well known for their impressive capital in Petra, rediscovered in the 19th century. The building fašades carved into the red rocks are a marvel not to be forgotten by any tourist who sees them. The Nabateans, however, are responsible for much more. Petra was the hub on an incense and general trading route that tied the Middle East together, ranging from ports on the Mediterranean coast to sites in the Arabian and Sinai Deserts. There is also evidence that trading extended as far as the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Besides Petra in Jordan, Ovdat in the Israeli Negev and Antidon in Gaza were key locations for the Nabateans.

A good model of behavior is Salah Ad-Din (Saladin), the Moslem ruler who defeated Christian Crusader forces at the Battle of Hittin (1187). His doctor was Maimonides (Rambam), and he promised access to holy sites to his vanquished Christian adversaries.

There are numerous other examples of common heritage in this well-thought-out book, but they only add to the basic message that Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians must find grounds for co-existence and mutual cooperation, cherishing a joint past while concurrently enjoying unique group culture.

If there is any problem in this book, the basic theory of locating historical events and sites in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority does fit our modern mind-set, but the method contradicts historical reality. These political divisions are less than one hundred years old. Over the centuries much of the land they cover knew no boundaries. At best, in more recent centuries they were administrative areas in the Ottoman Empire, a unifying and not dividing rule. The entire area was the home to common concerns and interaction.

In purely Jewish terms, we must come to grips with the fact that although we have our own civilization, religion and history of which we must be proud, we were also part of a general culture and economic framework of which we must be equally proud --- a pride which we must share with our neighbors.


from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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