Living in Israel, speaking fluent Hebrew, voting for the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and learning Hebrew poetry is causing more than one million Israeli Arabs to suffer from an acute form of split identity.
Approximately one-fifth of Israel’s citizens constitute a large minority, often referred to as the Israeli Arab sector – although many call themselves Palestinians. Most of them (excluding those living in eastern Jerusalem) enjoy full citizens’ rights, but they nevertheless feel excluded and discriminated against by the dominant Israeli-Jewish society.
The words of Israel’s national anthem may begin to help explain why:
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
"The anthem represents a view I do not agree with; I cannot support it because it comes at my expense… and does not represent equality," says Liana Fahoum, a 21-year-old psychology student at Haifa University.
Fahoum – a Muslim – defines herself as a Palestinian living in Israel. Her grandparents, she says, were born in Nazareth (today an Israeli city in the Galilee) long before 1948, the year Israel was established.
Before the establishment of Israel, Fahum’s grandparents were part of a majority population. The swift change, which turned their descendents into a minority, was not easy to swallow. The fact that many of them still regard themselves as part of the larger ‘Umma’ (nation) of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East also contributes to this feeling of dissonance.
A Sense of Discrimination
In October 2000, Israeli policemen shot dead 13 Israeli Arabs during large-scale demonstrations in support of the start of the second Palestinian uprising. Then prime minister Ehud Barak ordered the establishment of a State Commission of Inquiry to investigate the events of that month.
Three years later, the Orr State Commission of Inquiry presented its findings. In its extensive report it also investigated the reasons behind the demonstrations, determining that Israel had failed to create "reasonable harmony between the [Jewish] majority and the [Arab] minority," thus generating a sense – and a reality – of discrimination among the country’s Arab population. The Arab minority in Israel, the commission determined unequivocally, was discriminated against from many aspects.
Alwan Aghbariyya, a young high-school teacher from Ein Ibrahim, describes his own sense of discrimination.
"I respect Israel’s existence both from the democratic and international [recognition] aspects. I am, however, troubled by the fact that the state does not acknowledge me as a citizen who has rights, history and culture, which affected and promoted the entire mankind," says Aghbariyya.
According to Aghbariyya, Arab culture and history are pushed aside in favor of the Jewish ones, when it comes to the curriculum he teaches.
"We teach poetry written by Jewish poets such as Shlonsky and Tchernikovsky, but we are not allowed to teach Mahmoud Darwish. No doubt, there is a need to change the curriculum in Arab schools," he says.
Aghbariyya is not alone. A recent initiative by the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel (HFUCACI) is working toward the establishment of an Arab education administration within the Israeli Ministry of Education. The committee demands the reshaping of the Israeli Arab education system and wants to be involved in determining its contents.
The committee asserts, for example, its wish to teach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both points of view: the Zionist, which is the only narrative taught today, alongside the Palestinian.
Continuing in the same way, with the Ministry of Education forcing its curriculum upon Arab teachers, will further deepen the alienation of the young Arab generation, the committee warns.
On July 2, 2008 an Arab resident of eastern Jerusalem slammed a bulldozer he was working with into pedestrians, cars and buses in the capital’s main road. Three people were killed and dozens were wounded in the attack. So far, the investigation has not found any links between the attacker and Palestinian terror organizations.
His friends and neighbors also revealed that he did not attend mosque prayers often. In short, the attack could not be linked to any Palestinian terror-related aspirations of the attacker. In other words, he may have simply been a lone wolf, driven by a non-nationalistic motivation.
Nevertheless, the horrendous murder was quickly used by several Israeli politicians, as well as by the general public, as yet another "proof" of the threat emanating from the Israeli Arab minority.
Though relatively scarce, the involvement in terrorist activities of Israeli Arabs emanating from the West Bank is a cause of concern for the Israel Security Agency (ISA).
During 2006 24 Israeli Arabs were arrested for their involvement in Palestinian terror. The recruitment of Israeli Arabs by Palestinian terror organizations in the West Bank makes it easier for these organizations to smuggle weapons into Israel. Israeli Arabs can also move freely inside the country and have full access to Israeli targets.
Despite the relatively small number of terror-related arrests among the Israeli Arab minority, a survey conducted among the Israeli Jewish population reveals an alarming picture.
More than 60 percent of respondents see this minority as a security and demographic threat. More so, 40% say the state should encourage Israeli Arabs to leave the country, while 70% say they would not agree to reside near Arabs.
Adding fuel to the fire, ‘Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab member of Knesset, over the past few years has visited enemy countries such as Syria and Lebanon, hailing the Palestinian resistance.
In April 2007 Bishara fled Israel upon discovering that an ISA investigation against him was underway. It was then revealed that the investigators suspected Bishara had delivered sensitive information to Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In other words, Bishara, one the loudest representatives of the Arab sector, was suspected of treason.
No Trust, No Knowledge
"The problem is that it’s easy for the [Israeli] Jewish society to blame the entire Arab society because of ‘Azmi Bishara’s treason," says 30-year-old ‘Alla Al-Khu’sari, an Israeli Arab graphic artist.
Al-Khu’sari explains that even though Bishara has not yet been indicted, the Arab society as a whole is already suffering because of what he allegedly did.
"The press has a very important role in this. A survey revealed that of the Jewish media outlets’ reports, only 3% deal with the Israeli Arab sector, despite the fact that the latter constitutes 20% of the population. Also, most of these reports deal with negative issues," says Al-Khu’sari.
This limited knowledge Jews have about Arabs is one element that further pushes them away from their Arab neighbors, Al-Khu’sari maintains. A second element is the acute mistrust between Israeli Arabs and the Israeli governments since the establishment of the state.
"The Jewish society sees what its government thinks and does with regard to the Arab sector. That’s why David from Tel Aviv might come to Umm Al-Fahm [an Israeli Arab city] to fix his car, but he would never come here to get to know us," he says.
Al-Khu’sari is concerned about what he refers to as a "widening gap between the Jewish and Arab societies in Israel." He believes the two sides must open channels for dialogue in an attempt to find solutions instead of apportioning blame.
For that purpose he started an Internet forum called "Arabs." Approximately 200 members – Jews and Arabs – participate in this forum, discussing "current events in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the world at large."
The forum was created four years ago, and since then many of its members have begun holding real-life meetings in Jewish and Arab communities.
The next step for Al-Khu’sari will be to create a website which will reflect the Israeli Arab reality from an Arab point of view. The writers will use the Hebrew language in order to enable their Jewish target audience to better understand their way of life and views.
Al-Khu’sari admits that until the age of 17 his way of thinking was similar to many in his sector.
"I could only see the Arab point of view," he remembers.
But then something happened, which completely changed his life. Part of his left hand was cut off in a work accident and he was forced to undergo yearlong therapy. During his recovery in hospital, Al-Khu’sari met many Jewish patients and grew closer to the Jewish society.
Later, Al-Khu’sari met his future wife in a web chat room. Her name was Hagar and she was Jewish, but that did not bother either of them. They married two years later and went to live near Hagar’s family in what might be regarded as a bastion of Israeliness – a kibbutz.
The first year was the hardest for the couple, when they quickly learned that external incidents could have a tremendous effect on one’s life.
During that year an Israeli Arab suicide bomber from Umm Al-Fahm detonated himself inside a restaurant near Haifa. Among those killed was an entire family from Yagur, the same kibbutz Hagar and Al-Khu’sari lived in.
"I grew up in Umm Al-Fahm and the kibbutz members knew it. They looked at me as if I were the terrorist," he says.
Today, after seven years, Al-Khu’sari feels he belongs to the kibbutz. His experience taught him that in order to bring people closer together, it is necessary for them to meet and learn about each other first-hand.
If the two societies keep moving away from each other it will result in an explosion, he says.
"If we do not move closer, we are all doomed," Al-Khu’sari concludes.
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