Arab Students With Israeli Citizenship Grapple With Their Identity
Arab Israeli women take part in a protest after a student was killed in a reported police shootout in the northern Arab Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, on Feb. 5, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Arab Students With Israeli Citizenship Grapple With Their Identity

Some say they are treated like second-class citizens and face institutional, social discrimination

The Israeli government says the social and political rights of Arab citizens are equal to the rights of Jewish Israelis and has granted these citizens, with the exception of Druze men, an exemption from compulsory military service. However, Arab Israelis – many of whom self-identify as Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship – often say they are treated as second-class citizens and face institutional and social discrimination.

Around 21% of Israel’s population is identified as Arab, according to a 2021 report by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. These 1.982 million people include 1.62 million Arab Israeli citizens as well as approximately 362,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem who hold permanent resident status but not full citizenship.

The Media Line spoke with five students from across the country to hear how they relate to their Israeli citizenship.

We’ve started to call ourselves Palestinians living under the Israeli government, rather than Israelis

Ibrahim Hojerat, 18, is a recent graduate of the Givat Haviva International School (GHIS), a coed Jewish and Arab boarding school in northern Israel. Hojerat told The Media Line that he identifies as a “Palestinian who lives under Israel’s authority.”

Ibrahim Hojerat. (Courtesy)

He explains that he has noticed a gap between his generation and that of his parents, who label themselves as Israeli.

“For our generation, there’s been an awareness on social media of what’s happening to Palestinians around the country and, because we’ve been paying attention, there’s been a shift and we’ve started to call ourselves Palestinians living under the Israeli government, rather than Israelis,” he said.

Hojerat will study medicine at Tel Aviv University in October, in a class made up of both Jews and Arabs. He says he “absolutely” hopes to practice in Israel but wants to see the situation improve in the country through collaboration.

“Arabs and Jews need to learn together and experience different cultures exactly as I did at GHIS. We really got to know each other there and I learned how Jews think about Arabs and how Arabs think about Jews,” he said.

Hojerat has hopes that in the future “everyone will be equal. I really don’t have problems if we share the same land – if we also get to share the same rights. That’s the main thing, the main discrimination is the unequal rights and opportunities. My Jewish friends also tell me they see it like that.”

It was very difficult for me to sit in front of a Jewish Israeli and hear them say that the things I see happening in front of my eyes are not true or that they have ulterior explanations

A fellow graduate of GHIS, 19-year-old Issam Shihabi, who grew up in east Jerusalem, identifies himself as a “Palestinian citizen of Israel.”

Issam Shihabi. (Courtesy)

Shihabi told The Media Line that he made the decision to attend a mixed school because he wanted to meet Jewish Israelis “who I live side by side to. My only interactions with Jewish Israelis before then were with soldiers at checkpoints or border police officers who insulted me while I went through my day in Jerusalem.”

Shihabi elaborated: “I knew there was more than that – than these people who oppress me. I wanted to see the sides to that, talk to these people, and make myself heard to try to change the established status quo.”

Asked if he had made friends with Jewish Israelis, Shihabi spoke of a classmate-turned-close friend. “She was a settler from Efrat; beforehand, I had a completely different conception about who these people were and what they thought, and when I met her, I got to know that there was more to it than that.”

He spoke of the impact this relationship has had on his daily life and his wider perspective. “When I read the news, I no longer see it through just my eyes anymore; I see it through the eyes of my classmates from Georgia, Kosovo, Ethiopia, Russia, the Golan Heights, from Palestine, Hebron.”

For Shihabi, the events of May 2021 – which saw violence between Arabs and in Israel’s mixed cities – required a steep learning curve.

“When I went home in that period, I was seeing Israeli police attacking peaceful protesters – throwing stun grenades, gas bombs, and all of that,” he said. He added that attending GHIS forced him to have challenging conversations with his classmates. “It definitely was not easy in that period. … It was very difficult for me to sit in front of a Jewish Israeli and hear them say that the things I see happening in front of my eyes are not true or that they have ulterior explanations.”

But he saw from these events that a future peace for the country will begin “with empathy and understanding about where the other is coming from.” This requires having conversations where, in the end, both sides can understand each other’s experiences and histories better.

I would describe myself as an Israeli citizen first

The Media Line spoke to Yusuf, 19, from Haifa, who is studying computer science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, whose assessment of his identity differs from his fellow students. Yusuf acknowledges that he is a Palestinian but says, “I would describe myself as an Israeli citizen first.”

The reason, he explains, is that “I am very influenced by Israeli culture; I find that everyone studying in Israeli universities is very influenced by the culture.” He says he does not see his community taking issue with his describing himself as an Israeli.

Yusuf said there were times when he felt he was treated differently than his Jewish Israeli friends.

“I’ve had situations where people refused to serve me at a restaurant; in the Old City of Jerusalem, they started searching me and putting me on the ground,” he said. But he also said he thought that this was a product of ignorance.

“I feel like the educated people don’t make this difference – in my university, I don’t find people discriminate against anyone and even an Arab,” he said.

In Jerusalem, you really feel the conflict. I think that the Jews are more patriotic in Jerusalem, it’s hard for me to go to a Jewish bar here, but in Tel Aviv or Lod I find it very normal

Lana, 22, grew up in Lod but moved to Jerusalem to study math and computer science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Media Line spoke to her while she worked at The Gateway, a cafe and wine bar in the Old City.

Lana described her experiences from Lod to Jerusalem. “Growing up in Lod is more of an Israeli environment and you don’t see the conflict that much. My family has Jewish neighbors and my brother and I have Jewish friends. It’s normal there … but in Jerusalem, you really feel the conflict. I think that the Jews are more patriotic in Jerusalem, it’s hard for me to go to a Jewish bar here, but in Tel Aviv or Lod I find it very normal,” she said.

Lana says she believes that politicians are exacerbating these divisions. “I feel as voters there’s a lot of things out of our control and we don’t feel like we have a say because it’s very limited what the Arab parties can do.”

She added that she felt, in recent years, that the government had heightened discrimination toward Arabs, explaining: “The law that the Arabic language is not an official language and the new citizenship law make me worried.”

In July 2018, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. Supporters say the law puts Israel on an equal footing with other democratic nation-states, defining a special relationship between the state and a particular national group for which the state is their homeland, without infringing on the individual rights of members of various minority groups. But the law pointedly spells out that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” and demotes Arabic from being one of two official state languages to being one with an undefined “special status.” These and other aspects of the law have drawn widespread criticism, particularly among Arab Israelis, many of whom see it as challenging the country’s democratic credentials.

Lana says this makes her concerned for the future of the country, as has the close relationship of Yair Revivo, Lod’s mayor, with former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has encouraged the advancement of discriminatory policies in Lod.

“In Lod, people are used to living together but the mayor is very close to Bibi and you can see he is influenced by his politics. He’s buying up places in the Old City, preventing Arab businesses from continuing, and if you go into a Jewish or an Arab village in Lod, you can really see one has government investment and the other doesn’t. The mayor is just creating friction,” she said.

I feel like I’ve lost part of my Arabic identity

Noor Abu Ras, 24, a clinical psychology student and university course coordinator at the Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam School for Peace, told The Media Line that she defined herself as “a Palestinian who has had Israeli citizenship forced” on her. Noor agreed that social media had impacted her identity.

Noor Abu Ras. (Courtesy)

“I think that my generation is more connected to the Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza, the occupied lands, and in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, and I think the internet has done a lot of the work,” she said.

Abu Ras says that she is sad that her regular use of Hebrew in Israeli society means that her Arabic had become less fluent.

“It’s difficult for me because I feel like I’ve lost part of my Arabic identity,” she said. She adds that when she travels to Arab countries, she is often treated with hostility and misunderstanding at the border.

“They see the passport I use and they see me like I’m an Israeli who speaks Arabic. And it’s a hard situation for me and it’s hard for them to define as well,” she explained, often leaving her to not feel accepted in either community or country.

Abu Ras says her work through the School for Peace has given her hope for peace in the future. She explains that the program facilitated conversations between Palestinian and Jewish students that enabled the students to understand each other’s culture and history better.

She told The Media Line she does not know if her hopes for peace are naive or realistic, but that she wants a future where “we can all live together in one country – with no occupation, no army, and where the refugees can come back.”

Isla-Rose Deans is a student at the University of Leeds and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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