The Second Lebanon War started on July 12, 2006 with the kidnapping by the Hezbollah of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and the shelling of the army outpost on the Golan. Within a few days, events spun out of control.
I was visiting from Israel with my daughter in Berkeley when I first heard the news of the kidnapping on CNN. I must confess I didn’t pay it much mind. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about what was going on. I worried about the soldiers, and wondered how Israel would respond. But years of unrest and tragedy had turned the awful, the previously unthinkable, into our way of life.
My oldest daughter had been born about 8 months before the 1982 First Lebanon War. By the Gulf War in1990, she had been joined by her two siblings. They were all still young enough to think it was fun to run into the sealed room when the air raid siren sounded, and slip on their gas masks. My son was too small to manage his, and his older sister had to help him while I put my baby daughter into her protective tent. The Second Lebanon War in 2006 was my daughter’s third war in 24 years, not counting the two Intifadas. When it broke out, my son was already an air force reservist and my youngest had just finished high school. Enough time had passed for them to have developed a hard patina, a careless, off-handed attitude to the sirens and the booms of the missiles falling around them in the Jezreel Valley where we live. They are Israelis and I admire their courage, but there is a price that has had to be paid. They have been churned from sweet milk into heavy butter, some denser substance I don’t entirely recognize as mine.
The war was over by the time classes started, and the discomfort of that first encounter at school in which incidental opponents pretended that they were not, passed with the few innocuous words we’d actually voiced. Though our two kidnapped soldiers were still POWs—to be returned two years later in pine boxes—we all settled back into the college routine, and what had been mostly pretense at that moment reverted to our more naturally easy manner with one another. Yet any ambivalence I might ever have felt about working in an Arab, predominantly Muslim college as a Jewish woman in Israel had been highlighted by the war. I began to see things at the college in a slightly different light, aided by the gradual, sobering revelations that unfold in any new environment over time. More significantly, I had been forced to face the reality that at any given moment in my interactions with my Arab colleagues, students and acquaintances, there would now be a complex dynamic at play between conviction and skepticism, credence and mistrust, affinity and alienation—on both sides.
The sense of challenge and mission with which I’d come to the college, my belief in the project of coexistence, and the good feelings I’d had whenever I came to work for the two years prior to the war was being undermined by these concerns. From the moment I no longer simply wondered about how they responded to me as a Jewish alien in their midst, but began also to question how I responded to them, my view of these dynamics at the college, and their manifestation in the broader realm of the country, became increasingly more problematic to me.
When people outside Israel think of American Jews making aliyah—moving to the Holy Land—they see them as either romantic idealists or perpetrators of oppression. Either they’re acting out a dream or they’re engaging in some form of imperialism or colonialism. Of course, it could be both. American Jews typically make aliyah out of choice and a certain degree of idealism. Most American Jews who have come to Israel are more or less ardently Zionist. And though most immigrants who’ve made aliyah in the last 30 years or so have come with a rather right-wing settlement agenda, it was quite different when I arrived.
My coming to Israel after the Six Day War had its romantic element, to be sure. It was easy to feast the imagination on the hundreds of contemporary magazine photographs and travel posters of young, tanned, smiling Sabras in rolled-up shorts and work shirts picking glimmering oranges off trees in sunny groves, and the always exotically beautiful, shapely girl soldiers and handsome, swarthy, young men posing in khaki with their Uzi rifles. I was also motivated, though, like others of my generation, by a desire to relinquish any identification with the values of domination, materialism and militarism that had taken over in America during the period of the Vietnam War. I didn’t plan to bring these values with me, and it didn’t dawn on me in those heady, patriotic days awash in those colorful images that I was actually about to join the dominant segment of a militaristic society. I never even thought of the Arabs living inside the country.
It is admittedly strange for someone brought up on socialist, humanist, pluralist precepts as I was to have so easily been able to disregard a population that saw in our Independence Day their Yawm an-Nakba (Day of the Catastrophe). But as a new immigrant, it took all my energy to figure out how I fit into this place. And then, the more integrated into the country I became, the more I grew to see Arabs in a typically Israeli light—as people I’d never personally have to deal with, whether I’d choose to support their grievances or, like the majority, ignore them.
Although there are hierarchies among Jews in this country delineated primarily along ethnic and class lines, Jewish Israelis are never more unified or more strongly identified as Jews than when they shore themselves up as one sector against a perceived enemy, and this includes the minority Arab population in Israel. This happens especially when our security is being actively threatened, but not only then. For most Israelis, their underlying mistrust of Arab Israelis’ intentions informs their very notion of themselves as Israelis.
I have always believed it would solve many conflicts and do away with a lot of hostilities if we could loosen the stranglehold identity has on us. But this is a romantic notion, and the romantic has little foothold in a country where identities within and without are continually at loggerheads and omnipresent—in the separate languages, separate school systems, radically different cultures, separate towns and villages, and separate dreams. And since I am no longer a new, naïve American immigrant, this belief has been relegated to the best of all possible worlds. The reality of this one is harsh, and dictates a coarsely unsentimental world view. Because here, since its inception and defined by it, Israel has always been ‘we’ and ‘they’.
For their part, Arabs in Israel struggle with their identity too, probably a lot harder and more problematically, and with fundamentally more untenable choices of how to stitch it together. They are, after all, Israelis, not immigrants, yet possess a hyphenated identity that stamps them with the mark of the despised alien wherever they turn. They have to contend with the animosity of the Jewish majority inside the country and that of the larger Arab community outside it. As Arab Israelis, they trigger mistrust among Jewish Israelis for being Arab. Partly in reaction, a sizeable and increasing number today identify themselves as Palestinian Israelis, increasing the sense that their loyalties lie elsewhere, though they don’t necessarily mean that. Most mean that they insist on maintaining their separate culture, traditions and religion even as they try to make it here. Then again, they elicit suspicion and disdain in the Arab world for being Israeli, which is to say implicitly collaborative, though their intent is not to distance themselves from their Arab heritage. But they want to maintain that heritage in a country that offers them a better life than any Arab country they see outside it.
Once at the college, I was able to see just how much the identity of one is bound up in the identity of the other in the relationship between Arabs and Jews and how compounded the dissonance in the mélange of identities that constitutes the unrelenting friction between them. I was able to see how our very divergent cultures are also interwoven; how our mistrust of one another, though not completely unfounded, is also neurotic; how our strong desire to ignore one another can be countered by the more valuable attempt at understanding, and our desperate wish to be rid of one another can be offset by an effort at embracing; how we both may want to live in peace and plenty but don’t always have the same idea of what that would be.
And still, though the romantic idealist in me would love to win the day, I cannot leave a partial picture, even if heartfelt. If nothing else emerged from the days back at the college following the Second Lebanon War, and has gained momentum ever since, it was the gradual certainty that though our lives are interwoven, we are in significant ways separate entities. That even when we embrace one another, the gesture is not binding. That though we are often unreasonably suspicious of one another, there’s much that remains undisclosed so that we may never finally understand one another, or know how rational or irrational that mistrust, hard as we might try. That the attempt itself may not be reciprocal. And that one people’s peace could very well be predicated on the other’s eventual disappearance.
During my time at the college, I have felt oddly identified with the Arabs. I credit my experiences both as an immigrant here and a first generation Jew in North America for this, someone always somewhat different from the hegemonic surroundings, always identified with the minority. Yet quite unexpectedly, my being at the college among Arabs has heightened my sense of being Israeli since I have delved into the belly of the beast, as most Israelis would see it. I feel I know more than many people about the country by mingling with that suppressed ‘Other’ in our society. But in fact, this was not all that has made me feel more Israeli. In the end, despite my revelation of the commonality between Arabs and Jews, despite the satisfaction and gratification in the affable meeting of disparate cultures, and despite their warm welcome, I still feel like an alien in their midst and on their turf. My own identity came much more sharply into focus, perhaps actually solidified, not only by being among them but also by not being one of them.
No matter how long I will have been at the college with them, I will not feel more Arab. Nor, in fact, do I want to. Despite any original ambivalence about my identity, and any amount of sympathizing with their situation, I am a distinctly Jewish Israeli in an Arab environment.
It was on a spring day on my way towards the fields that I saw a figure in the mallow which grows wild throughout the unfarmed land in the valley…. As I got closer, I saw that the figure in the mallow was an old Arab woman. She was walking through the growth, stooping to pick the broad-leafed plant and gathering it in a bundle on her arm. We have lots of uninvited guests on the kibbutz, ‘poachers’ I guess would be the word for it, who drive onto the kibbutz lands or park on the perimeters and come in to pick our fruits and crops. We look at it as stealing yet turn a blind eye to it. For one thing, in a large community like ours, it’s hard to know who’s been given permission to be there. Sometimes an unfamiliar face is connected to us in a way that is not immediately apparent. It might be a friend of a worker, a parent of one of the boys on the soccer teams that rent our soccer field for practice, or someone who has simply decided to help themselves to some of our property. And short of wrestling the intruder to the ground, detaining him by force and calling the police, there’s not much to be done on the spot. Besides, we have to pick our battles. How serious a crime do we really want to make of picking a bagful of grapefruits? For another, neighboring Arabs are often allowed, even asked to come pick the “weeds” they use for food, climb the uncultivated olive trees to shake the branches free of their olives, bring their herds of cattle and goats to chomp away at the overgrowth between trees or clean up the fields after harvest and before the earth is plowed under for the next crop. We’ve established a kind of ecosystem and collaborative equilibrium with them, and unless the financial loss is significant—as it is when livestock is poached—we let the offense go.
Well, here was an old Arab woman—clearly no guest, worker or parent, but no one I’d think of blowing the whistle on. In fact, it suddenly seemed important to me to catch this woman’s eye and say “Shalom” to her. And so I did, with a smile to acknowledge her, to make her feel welcome. She adjusted the covering on her head, blinked at me through squinting dark eyes and smiled quickly in return….
I turned my head a little and saw a male figure a bit further down the path. I felt the fear in my stomach. There I was, a woman alone, walking toward an Arab man who was just standing there, watching me. But I decided to keep walking. I thought to myself that I couldn’t insult them by turning back. And I wasn’t going to change my route because they were there. I wasn’t going to be a coward and I couldn’t allow myself to be paranoid and racist. By putting one foot in front of the other, I could overcome all these things.
When I got close enough, I realized that the man must have been the woman’s husband. I saw now that he was old and had a handsome face with a thick, white mustache. One hand was holding his clearly aching back, the other a basket of weeds. I felt like a fool for having jumped to conclusions, and relieved, needless to say. Needing to make amends for my first reaction, though he’d never know or be insulted by it, I pointed to the basket as I walked by him and said, “That’s going to be tasty.” He looked at me and somewhat warily replied, “Nazareth.”
Evidently he hadn’t heard me, or had misunderstood me. In that one place name he’d given as an answer, he was letting me know he was a neighbor, and therefore a friend, someone who could be where I’d found him with some impunity. He was primed to hear only accusation and hostility, and felt he had to justify himself despite my affable intention to make small talk. That stung. I took it personally that he’d suspect me of suspecting him, that he’d feel he had to protect himself from any form of abuse from me.
But of course he was right. My first impulse had been to be nervous about this old couple because they were Arabs. I was more afraid of Arabs, young and old alike, than I was of Jews. Had I thought these were Jews trespassing on our land I’d have been angry that they were stealing from us, but less afraid of them. And yet, I think of Arabs in some respect as just partaking. I see them as the true people of the land, people who’d lived off it before we (re)settled it, who’d perhaps picked their greens in these fields while we were sitting in small, airless rooms in another country, solemn and pasty-faced from too much studying and too little sunlight. I know my facts are a bit skewed: These fields in the Jezreel Valley were swamps when we arrived early in the 20th century. We dried them up and got malaria doing so before they became arable and life-giving. And of course not every Jew in the Diaspora sat hunched over the holy books from morning to night and made the life of the mind in the devotion to God the pinnacle of existence. Still, these differences were true enough of enough people in our two cultures—the one living off the soil, the other only adopting that kind of existence with the rise of the Zionist concept of the “new man” in his own land—to let me get away with this thought. In addition, Arabs, though not disenfranchised, do suffer discrimination in our society, and I feel it is a kind of tithe we ought to pay—to let them continue to take from the land what it naturally has to offer.
Still, my initial reaction on seeing this old Arab couple in the mallow justified the answer, “Nazareth” that the old man gave me. It was an answer learned by rote over the years of dealing with the Jews in the area’s kibbutzim, and had also been right on the mark in relation to me.
At the traffic circle by the large mosque on the main road in town, he stood in the road and walked out in front of each car as it slowed down on approaching the island, his hand outstretched and his face presented in a grimace of exhaustion and misery. He was barefoot and unkempt. His clothes were dirty and torn and his dark skin was white and dry at the elbows and heels. Some drivers gave him money when he walked up to their windows, some did not. I was hoping to be able to drive by him. I don’t like being accosted, impinged upon, forced to be generous.
I was next in the line of cars. I recalled what we’d heard at the college: These beggars were posted at their stations by men who were, for all intents and purposes, their pimps. They took the money the beggars accumulated for some paltry return. There are women with babies living in the sun all day on the islands at intersections, and boys walking up and down the lines of cars waiting at traffic lights, soliciting. This boy, no older than six, was the youngest I’d ever come across. I was furious that anyone would put such a small child out in the street to beg. But at that moment, I was no less furious at the boy for stepping in front of my car and not letting me pass. I made a rapid sweeping motion with my hand to shoo him aside, and when he didn’t move right away, I honked my horn at him. I gave it the lightest tap but the sound reverberated in my conscience like the deafening strike of a gong all the way to the college. I was angry at a culture that would do that to a child instead of putting him in school; at a town that would not clean up its streets and take care of its residents and visitors; and at a country that would forsake its Arab citizens and help create such blatant poverty.
It’s true that responsibilities are shirked around here and passed from one functionary to another, one authority to another, one government to another, one people to another, till it disappears down the ever-deepening well of our dissatisfaction with what is going on in the country. It’s true that if our government—whether by design or ineptitude—doesn’t do right by the Arab community and provide it with the full array of infrastructure, services and amenities enjoyed by the Jewish sector (though there are disparities within the Jewish sector as well), it should be held accountable.
It is equally true that whether or not the powers that be are held accountable, the Arab community should step up and take care of its own. Yet we know that the dynamics of oppression make the oppressed minority both dependent on and defiant towards their oppressors. They lose their sense of agency, and their sense of dignity relies on this defiance. They are both objectively limited in what they can do, and subjectively unable to rise to the challenge. Most Israeli Arabs expect to be taken care of but are also vigilant against being co-opted by the Israeli society. By and large, they do not want to do military or national service. They do not want to give up their separate education system. They are fervent about maintaining their religion. They are wary of their customs, traditions and language melting away into the hegemony. All this is further complicated by the ingrained suspicion the Arabs harbor that if they do take charge of their own situation, they will either be thwarted by the government or wind up absolving it of the responsibility to the Arab population. This state of affairs is fine with the government, and the society at large, which claim that if Arabs do not see themselves as having obligations to the State, the State is not obliged to grant them all their rights. This vicious circle is a microcosm of the troubles in the entire area: it has no recognizable beginning (who started what and is, therefore, to make amends first?), and there’s no end in sight.
And yet, no matter how well I think I understand these dynamics, and even no matter how dismayed I might be that the Arabs in Israel do not take their lives more fully into their own hands to make them better, I feel no less guilty for not being a big enough part of the solution. I was no less angry at myself for being such a damn hypocrite, and just driving by that little beggar boy. Could I consider myself an opponent of social injustice when what I seem to really want is not to be bothered by it when it is staring me in the face? Can I say I’m sympathetic to the problems of the Israeli Arabs and angry at our government for its part in creating them and then ignoring them when I sit in my car, roll up the windows to keep the beggar boy’s little, dirty hand from jabbing through into my space, and then drive past him as if he were another traffic annoyance on my way to work?
Stern of countenance and icily quiet, Fareeda looks more like a nun to me than any of the strictly attired girls. She wears a khimar, or loose headdress, rather than a scarf, and a long, loose abaya, all straight lines and stark.
The first time I saw their wedding pictures, which they bring in frequently and share with one another with great glee and pride, I was very surprised. The bride is always dressed in the most delicately and finely adorned, low-cut dresses—colorful on the first of the two-day celebration and white on the day of the nuptials, fitting tightly around the bodice, hair fully exposed and all a-glitter with pins and ribbons, pearls and jewels. The face is made up like a perfect ceramic doll. This and their engagement party are the only times that they are paraded out in all their feminine glory. Surprised as I usually am by seeing these albums, Fareeda’s wedding album completely bowled me over. A strikingly beautiful, tall, shapely woman smiled out at me in poses both coquettish and full-facedly elated. I was at once very glad to see her in this bridal array, and very sad to have lost her underneath the thick folds of her forbidding cloaks. How can it feel like a loss to me when to them the transformation to Exceptional Muslim Woman is a cause for jubilation?
…I spoke to several other girls about the Muslim garb, and on occasion had them write about it. Nabeeha, who came to the college dressed in hijab and jilbab, and wearing only black or brown, wrote me a piece in Creative Writing about her beautiful, long hair. I’ve told the scarved girls how curious I am to see what’s under there, and they sometimes bring me pictures. (Their mystery evokes my interest about the unknown, the exotic, the veiled and concealed. How can this keep men’s imaginations at bay?) I dare not use the word “hiding” to them, though this is decidedly what I feel they are doing, and have had to accept their adamant insistence that they can’t just take off their scarves in the classroom, even behind the closed door, even though we are all women in the class, because it is a public place and a man might walk in. The idea is as unimaginable to them as if we were talking about stripping to our underwear. I never got the chance to feel what I imagine is the heft of Nabeeha’s long, wavy tresses, heavy with scented oils.
Jameela spoke out during one of our lessons in 3rd year about how she hoped she would one day be able to accept her duty to her God (they always refer to God using the possessive pronoun) and exchange her Western attire for the modest dress and head covering expected of every Muslim woman. Looking at Jameela that morning, the day that would happen seemed far, far away. She was a fashion-conscious and sensual young woman, always stylishly colorfully clothed (compared to others), her eyes heavily made up in color coordinated shadows and black kohl, with large earrings hanging down alongside her neck. I thought she was just talking the talk. This is what they’re supposed to feel. But by 4th year, Jameela had covered up. In a piece she wrote for class, it became apparent to me that she’d done so because she was losing both her husband and her desire for him. She’d gone from wearing tight-fitting, revealing, tastefully accessorized clothing to wrapping herself up and donning drab garments. …Jameela never admitted to the mundane, secular impetus that I suspected had led her to adopt the hijab and modest dress, and perhaps the choice of the more spiritual over the physical that went with it. But… Jameela began to gradually tweak her hijab after a while into interesting twists and braids, and hanging longer and more bejeweled earrings from her lobes. She began wearing more close-fitting pants and wrapping the lycra blouses a little more snuggly around her full figure…. Something about Jameela remained insistent. And I was pleased to see that.
Rafa wrapped herself up against the evil eye. That’s how I saw it. Her children and husband were an endless source of worry and stress for her. Her sons broke their legs, had problems at school, and got sick with all kinds of ailments. Her husband worked long hours and had been to hospital several times himself in the three years I’d known her. She had developed some distressing symptoms the year before which I thought she’d been told was a heart problem till I found out from the school psychologist that she’d been suffering from panic attacks and was on medication. Unable to keep up with the material, she’d begged her way through two-and-a-half years of college, asking for and getting extensions and leniency. After she wrapped herself up, there were more broken bones and hospital stays. The new manner of dress didn’t seem to prevent those. She eventually started wearing jaunty caps over her headscarf, and smart suits. It seemed to me there was a connection between the frustration and the faith, or at least the strictness of her obedience….
Would these women have felt such a need to emphasize their orthodoxy—and cover up—had we, the ‘other’, not entered their territory? Has our very presence helped push them into distinguishing themselves from us, scurrying further into the protection of tradition and insulation? It is an ego-/ethno-centric thought, to be sure, and may be completely absurd, but perhaps one to consider just the same. The hijab and the long clothing are both symbol and protection—symbol in the eyes of the community of a woman’s loyalty to God, and protection against invasion—of men and of the external world, primarily the “decadent” Western world. Of course, there is a religious revival all over the Muslim world, and not just among Arabs in Israel. But this revival could be, at least in part, a form of protest against the incursion of the West into their spheres of influence and their way of life.
Israeli Arabs may live this more modern lifestyle, but they have to grapple with the paradoxes and dichotomy, with reactionary responses from family and community—both close and far-flung, and with their own sense of what is permissible. They do so mostly by ignoring inconsistencies. They live with them much more easily than Westerners do, who have programmed into them the preeminent value of binary logic, regardless of the nuances effected by postmodernism. Arab women, for whom the modern way of life offers more possibilities than it offers the men, simply by virtue of their having fewer rights in their community and a more constricted sphere of action, live with all the more ambivalence.
It also seems to me, an admittedly liberal, modern North American, that donning the concealing clothing—even (perhaps especially) among those modern women who might daringly be wearing the most blazingly red, skin-tight sweater blouse underneath—is an act of denial. It is fundamentally a denial of the body—… a denial of visual pleasure, a denial of femininity. At the same time, the very act of concealment is carried out in tandem with a warped logic of justification that would appear to counter this assumption. The body is free under the covering—free from degrading standards of femininity and beauty, and free from the male gaze. It is protected and hidden, leaving the woman to be appreciated for who she is and not what she looks like. This is the modern Arab “feminist” argument, still strapped to the dichotomy of internal and external, essence and appearance.
So, is it choice when, as my students see it, covering themselves—in whatever form it takes and to whatever degree—is what their God demands of them? They can choose to ignore God’s bidding, to be sure, but it would constitute a minor sin punishable on the Day of Judgment. For most, the price is higher than that of foregoing some already questionable freedom. Because their freedom to choose not to obey is only hypothetical. In actuality, they cannot bring themselves to consider such a thing. There would have to be an official reinterpretation of the religious texts for a deviation from the norm to be permissible.
And in fact, such is the case. There is an on-going dialogue among the students regarding whether the Qur’an explicitly requires women to cover themselves. Is a covered woman necessarily a good religious woman? Many covered women do bad things and don’t follow Allah’s teachings. This dialogue indicates stirrings within the community, and might explain in part the inconsistency we are witness to at the college. Despite the strictures of the religion and the feeling they all seem to share that being ready to wear the hijab is a goal to wish for, the majority of the women at the college do not dress traditionally. Despite their professed desire to follow the demands of their God, many blatantly disregard the statements issued by the college in the last few years trying to halt the march gaining speed away from the modest dress code.
But there is quite a difference between Israeli Arab women and those in Egypt, Iran or Yemen. Our Arab women are daily exposed to and affected by the Israeli version of a modern, Western society—fast paced, ambitious, au courant, outspoken and critical. And I have learned since my conversation with Talal that there are temptations calling to both men and women from this other life which they in fact give in to. I have heard the same hushed tones I met with in Talal’s office that indicate uncomfortable disclosure of behavior not really condoned by their religion or their society. Bolder admissions would only come in my classes from some of my students whose trust I gained through years of friendly, interested contact, and from those students who were simply bolder in speech and willing—and perhaps even eager—to point their fingers at behavior carried out by those who were bolder in action. Now the Muslim society in Israel is not all that severe regarding certain kinds of transgressions, but the tenets of Islam remain the same as they are anywhere in any Muslim community. Interpretations may vary somewhat, the more “primitive” precepts discarded—such as clitoridectomy, which our women shudder at. (I do notice the relativity and ambivalence creeping into my narrative on Arab Israeli women, those I’ve encountered at the college in particular. They are ‘ours’ relative to those Arab women outside Israel, and they arouse in me ambivalent feelings of closeness, not only because they are our students but also because they are generally warm and friendly, inviting reciprocation from me. This feeling, however, is relative as well to the distance I feel because in so many ways they are distinctly other than me.) Certainly among the more educated and the middle class, there is more tolerance for secular behavior even as there is more leaning politically towards Islam. There is more allowance for Western influence even as there is more awareness of the need to preserve their culture. This dual movement is logical even if paradoxical. Still, it is in the nature of the religion not to allow for too much straying.
“I am a secular person.” This answer astonished me since I hadn’t thought such a thing existed in Muslim society, certainly not in the smaller, homogeneous, more traditional towns, like the one the college is located in, as opposed to the cities, and not among the middle-aged as opposed, perhaps, to the younger people. I was finding out that there was more politicization, more disenchantment regarding their treatment at the hands of the Israeli government, more identification with the Palestinians, and more of a return to fundamentalist Islam as a form of self-identification among the younger, culturally savvy Arabs than among their parents or grandparents (even as there was this other emerging trend towards attempting to succeed in the modern, economically upward mobile Israeli society).
I continued to ask questions, prying into a delicate area, I suppose, because Talal told me he’d answer me but only if we continued the conversation in his office. Once there, Talal admitted that he was one of the few secular people at the college, and in the minority in town. From the hushed tones in which he began to speak, I assumed he was about to divulge some intimate piece of information to me that he wouldn’t want anyone lurking outside the office to overhear. Rather naïve of me to assume such a thing. As if he were so dissatisfied with his society and religion that he had been waiting for just this opportunity to disburden himself to someone he hardly knew—and a Jewish woman, yet! But this assumption seemed reasonable to me at the time. How could anyone, I wondered, who has been exposed to other possibilities actually be happy with the kind of strictures and limitations imposed by Islam?
“Does being secular mean that you don’t believe in God?” I asked Talal, since it seemed that Muslims were either more or less religious, not entirely secular in the sense of atheist or agnostic.
“No, no,” he insisted, just as Maysoon had. “I’m a secular person yet I believe in God. But for example, I don’t pray. I don’t fast. I don’t go to Mecca. I don’t carry out all the mitzvoth of Islam. (Yes, this Israeli Arab who was doing his doctorate in Hebrew literature and could put me to shame with his knowledge in the field and perfect control of the language, used the Hebrew word for commandments, an intentional sign of his integration into Israeli culture.) There are those who pray 5 times a day, fast at Ramadan, go to the mosque every day, at least on Friday when they are obliged to. They lead a religious way of life. For example, a religious family isn’t willing to go to the beach with their children. There are families that go 2 or 3 times a year….
Speaking with Talal and the girls made me recognize the often reductive way we see Muslims, the way we stereotype them, and how difficult it is not to until we see a reason to question our assumptions. We often don’t see anything beyond what we think we know until we are shown, and it is perhaps not always in the Arab Israeli’s interest either to present themselves in any other way—for both social and religious reasons. And, of course, in some cases we’re determined to see them in two-dimensions and black-and-white, no matter what.
Some months earlier, Lubna had finally gotten her husband to agree to throw out the garbage after supper. But on this first attempt to modify their roles, the very first time he was going to help Lubna clean up, his mother intercepted him as he was on his way out the door. (In Arab fashion, his family lived on a separate floor of the same building). And she started yelling at him, “What are you doing? Where are you going with that?” She grabbed the bag out of his hands and dragged it to the bin herself. Later, she scolded Lubna for putting the family at the mercy of wagging tongues. What would the neighbors say about a husband who was sent by his wife to throw out the garbage?!
Perhaps Christian, but also Arab. Perhaps modern, but married into a traditional family. Perhaps Lubna had spent time abroad as well as in a predominately Jewish student environment in an Israeli city, but she now lives in a small town at the northern tip of the Upper Galilee. Whatever aspirations towards a more egalitarian marriage she might have had, Lubna is not about to throw too much of her weight into changing the accepted norms of the society she lives in.
So, I have to question what freedoms we are talking about when we converse, a Jewish feminist and her Arab students and colleagues. What are our terms, our frames of reference? We use the same words, but they mean such very different things. Or we express ideas we think are being understood, but they are not, at least not the way we intended them to be. We speak the same language, but what it signifies comes from the speaker’s separate system of signs. We think we agree, but quickly discover how wide the differences and how little we do. The listener only hears what she wants to hear, and comprehends mostly what she already knows.
Rafa once told me, “We, as Arabs, need many things.”
“Like freedom,” she answered in a clear voice. “Freedom inside us. An Arab might say ‘I am an education person’. But if you get close to him, if you have a relationship with him, you discover that he is a traditional person. He says not what he has inside him.” She stopped there, and no matter how I tried to get her to explain herself, she wouldn’t go on. Rafa couldn’t (wouldn’t?) express what she wanted to say, and I had all the proof necessary of the lack of “freedom inside” them to express themselves and to act accordingly. After 4 years at college, she was one of those same educated Arabs—still too traditional to finally allow herself to be transformed and motivated to act on the freedom of thought that had clearly touched her.
When Aarif got up in front of the class, he introduced the topic by acknowledging that it was volatile, but that it needed finally to be addressed. The classroom was a strange venue, he acknowledged, not least because he was a lone male speaking to a room full of women, but he hoped that wouldn’t matter. The topic, it turned out, was sexual relations among Muslims outside the marriage bond. …
Before anyone could say a word, or even think if they wanted to object to hearing about and discussing the subject, in he plunged, first giving what he claimed to be a historical overview of pre-Islamic, pre-Arab conventions on the Arabian Peninsula. According to him, women were the center of society then, and ran the sexual show. A woman would hang a flag outside her tent as a sign that she was “ready,” and the men would stream in to have sex with her. When she got pregnant, they’d all return to her tent and she’d pick, according to criteria of her own, the one lucky guy she decided was the father. What unconstrained sexual pragmatics!
On it went, a slightly lurid history of sex in the Arab world—though full of gaps and holes, and riddled with perhaps dubious facts. But it sure got everyone sitting up and interested.
He then went on to speak about the Qur’an and what’s written there regarding adultery.
And so began the fray.
Aarif explained that 80% of the Qur’an is made up of “changeables”—precepts that are flexible and given to reinterpretations. Twenty percent is fixed. And then there are the amendments and commentaries. As I’d already understood from previous class discussions, this 80% flexibility is the basis for much argument and heated disagreements among them.
For example, Aarif affirmed, praying to God is part of that mandatory 20%, but praying five times a day is not. Haniya vehemently disagreed. She was the first to pounce at his jugular saying that he couldn’t argue his point about praying without evidence, which he indeed had not brought. Therefore, continued Haniya, it remained a question of her knowledge against his. Following Haniya’s lead, several other students got into attack mode. They were being uncharacteristically aggressive toward this presenter. … The discussion was to them inflammatory, and dangerous. They began to talk heatedly about punishments, stoning, honor-killing.
At last, he got to the point of his talk—that Muslims should open themselves to love, both spiritual and physical. The girls squirmed. The first response from some of them was to ask if he would accept his sister fornicating with a man out of wedlock. He said he didn’t see why he should have anything to say about it at all, why he should be his sister’s steward, why she couldn’t do whatever would make her happy. I was strongly affected by this unexpected attitude coming from Aarif…. An Arab man protesting a laissez-faire attitude towards his sister. It was extraordinary. Perhaps he was only saying this to appear to me, his Western teacher, to be progressive and devoid of sexist patriarchal sentiments. But if so, he was also painting a picture of himself to this audience that was anathema to the culture—at least if taken to its logical conclusion. Perhaps Aarif got a kick out of being the black sheep, so different from his parochial environment, but if his deeds matched his assertions, it was no less courageous and admirable.
“And what would you have to say if it was your daughter?” Inaya challenged. Well, that was below the belt. Now it was his turn to squirm. He stiffened and hesitated for one second too long. They jumped at him, pelting him with their moral rocks. Trying to swing the discussion back from where it had detoured, he awkwardly asked why they were posing personal questions. And so, on the heels of his weak evidence regarding the Qur’an on prayer in Islam, they uncovered his second weakness. They flicked at it and made him twist in the wind with more questions of this kind, and Aarif did everything he could to avoid revealing anything about his childless, divorced, semi-bachelor status to the girls.
But he soon bounded back when he asserted that adultery is a phenomenon that everyone thinks is prohibited by the Qur’an but, in fact, is not. He then proceeded to interpret the law regarding adultery and its punishment. The punishment for adultery is not death, he maintained, but stoning. “Stoning to death,” Haniya called out, quoting in Arabic from the Qur’an, and others agreed.
“Not necessarily,” Aarif countered. And then, finessing away from the point, he explained, “In order for a woman [a couple? Another matter of interpretation.] to be subjected to stoning, it must be proven by four witnesses that the act was committed. Would any adulterous couple,” he asked the class, “make love [this is how he always intentionally put it] in full view of anyone, let alone four people? “And actually,” he continued evenly, having managed the slalom and reaching his goal, “we all speak against adultery and sexual relations outside marriage, but we all know that it is being done everywhere.”
I gasped silently. No one disagreed.
“Maintaining these precepts about extra-marital sex make us liars. We are liars; we are fake.”
No one contradicted him.
“If we didn’t have these rules, we’d all be living in a jungle, like animals,” Inaya finally shouted out. “There’d be no need for marriage!” she cried, and others agreed, laughing derisively. (I later discovered Inaya was going through a divorce at this time.) This is their inevitable slippery slope argument. Western society manages to have both fornicating and marriage. But just as Aarif faltered on the question of his hypothetical daughter which was too close to home, too hot even for him, he didn’t pick up this thread either. I doubt he’s necessarily in favor of marriage. Aarif has been around. He’s lived in Europe, married a non-Arab woman and then divorced, met and consorted with many foreigners both in Israel and abroad. He is most likely a “fornicator,” with a world view to suit his needs. But I appreciated his liberal view and glad he’d opened up a topic that was allowing me to see under the public face of Muslim society.
“What about virginity?” Dhuha asked.
“What about it? Why is that important?”
“Well, if a man marries a woman who’s not a virgin, he’ll throw her out. A woman who is not a virgin at marriage will get no respect.”
“Don’t you find it ridiculous,” Aarif responded, “that a woman’s worth is measured by her membrane alone?”
“Well, what if I do? What can I do about it?”
“Why not have sex with someone you love?”
This comment evolved into a rapid fire exchange between Aarif and Haniya about her relationship with her fiancé. She insisted that there was no sexual contact between them (which we can believe or not) but finally wound up saying, “I am acting not only for myself. What about my parents and my family? How will society treat them if they found out I was being sexual with my fiancé?” Which led to someone underscoring that this kind of behavior was simply unacceptable to society. And this brought the whole discussion full circle, as it inevitably always does, back to the fundamental principle informing all their thinking and serving as reason, evidence and conclusion in an argument: the society, based on the Qur’an, accepts or doesn’t accept whatever it may be according to a very simple and unchallenged principle: If something is allowed in the Qur’an, it is good; if it isn’t allowed, then it is unacceptable.
Freedom is a strangely elastic and slippery concept and one, like democracy, morality and truth, I believe, tautologically, people should always be free to grapple with, examine and reassess—and thus at least attempt to own and be held accountable for. “Choices” are, unfortunately, often imposed even in free societies, but there must always be recourse to questioning and doubt. Our students at the college have been educated in the paradigm of Islam teachings of the Qur’an. They’ve been read to, fed the didactic interpretations of selected passages, and been expected to learn by rote. In fact, they’ve been trained not to interpret since the Imams do that for them, not to question since their elders and all authority figures within their society and religion always know best and want only what’s good for them. These limitations can’t help but hasten and ensure the covering up of the individual’s search for her own identity and the values she elects to live by.
…[W]omen have only recently begun to question the limitations placed on them regarding career. Having entered the work force in any significant way only in the last 15 years or so, women were more than happy to make the previously unimaginable leap from housewife and stay-at-home mother into the world outside the home. They were thus allowed to help their husbands contribute their earnings to the household. But their jobs are seen as supplementary, and their primary roles at home remain paramount. Their mothers-in-law help with the children since they are mostly of the old school and don’t work outside the home. This allows the young wives to complete their studies, and then begin working. But they’re expected home to cook, clean, and take care of the children and the husband. This translates into jobs that are often undemanding, part-time and close to home. My students claim their husbands help them, but I can’t get out of my head a conversation I had with a student teacher at a conference some years prior to my working at the college. She told me that she was in her senior year—still studying and already working full time. She had three young children at home. In the evening, when her husband returned from work, he’d plunk himself down at the table in the kitchen and read the paper. She might be preparing her lessons in the other room but he would call to her to come into the kitchen, where he already was, to pour him a glass of water. And she would go! Could she do otherwise? Could she refuse her husband’s command? In some discussions on the matter of relationships between men and women (a favorite topic), there were girls who said they agreed with the idea that husbands should, if necessary, hit their women to keep them in line, to “educate” them in the proper behavior expected of wives. And those who didn’t agree but didn’t want to get hit? What were they to do? And even those women whose husbands didn’t hit them—would they brave the shame of being considered bad wives?
Narmin’s Sweet Confection
• 250 gr. hazelnuts
• 250 gr. almonds
• 500 gr. peanuts
• 500 gr. white sesame
• 500 gr. honey
• 3/4 packet of dates ( mashed)
Toast each nut separately in the oven. Then, crush them in the mixer. After that, put all the ingredients in a pot (with the honey and dates) on a low flame, and stir for a couple of minutes.
Finally, put a small amount in aluminum foil in the form of a snake and roll it. You can put coconut on the aluminum foil.
Sakhteen wafyeh, as Narmin would say (bon appetite).
Upon arriving in town, I had driven past a police car. Normally when I see the police, my immediate response is fear and loathing—a carry-over from younger, rebellious days strengthened by various traffic violations over the years. But today, driving through an Arab town on this morning of unrest, I had felt relief and a sense of security when I saw them. The police car had been parked alongside a second, weather-beaten, red car belonging to a Jewish woman. I wondered for a second if she’d been assaulted by stone throwers as a traffic patrol car, with its two Jewish policemen, had been assaulted in Jerusalem earlier that week. And then, as I drove by two teenage boys on their way to school who were eying the passing cars, I fully expected to be pelted with stones, too. I could hear all the people who’d ever voiced their surprise, consternation or dismay at my working in an Arab college in an Arab town. I imagined them saying how I should have known I’d not be immune to Arab hatred if things ever got heated, which they inevitably do. But I arrived at the college unscathed and undisturbed.
And then I remembered what Talal once explained to me about the town living under a stigma. “People think that we don’t accept coexistence, but actually the opposite is true. The best example is the soccer team, the only team that has Arabs, Jews, Christians, Druze, players of all ethnicities. The captain of our team is a Jew from Beit She’an. So maybe because of the stigma, people want to change things. They want to show our real side here, that we are, in fact, in favor of coexistence, that we can live together. “I see that sometimes you walk around here in town. Have you ever felt anywhere that you’re not welcome? Everyone accepts the other cordially. People here want to live together peacefully. Never mind the economic difficulties that exist for us and the discrimination. That’s another matter. We have our representatives in the Knesset. Let them take care of it. Here we can live together. There is no other alternative.”
I can’t say that I was never afraid again, but I’ve never needed to be….
…What makes [teaching at the college] exhilarating is that I am privy to the “other” world, a world normally set apart from Israeli society. Though there are places, like Haifa and Nazareth, where Jews and Arabs live together, most Arabs live in insular villages and towns, with their own education system, their own local governments with municipal infrastructure, protecting and maintaining their own language, customs and lifestyle, from food to home furnishing, hairstyles to roads. The only Jews who enter these enclaves are salesmen and suppliers, guests and tourists, and some educators. At the college, I am let in and made to feel at home and comfortable—though I am not under the illusion that I see everything, or that all their welcome hasn’t got its limits. Neither their wariness of me, nor mine of them has been entirely suspended just because I’m there. It is in the places we meet, on the common ground despite the otherness, that I find the most pleasure, surprise, satisfaction.
So, though I wasn’t entirely convinced at that moment that the detractors hadn’t been right that I might someday be injured in some way, I shifted my focus to my colleagues and students who I’d be seeing in a few moments at the college, who had never caused me harm, had never hardened their smiles or cooled their greetings and conversation under the worst external provocation. It was as if we truly did enter another world when we walked through the gates of the college, a world of our own making. This was our world, insulated from the constant aggravation of enmity; a ‘safe’ environment, strikingly removed from all reality beyond it; effectively, casually and (un)self-consciously created, in which we lived together with respect and affection.
Was I kidding myself? It is my great wish that I was not.
The Islamic world is a closed world. Few people on the outside really know about it, while the majority have a negative and wrong idea about Muslims and are afraid of them, especially in the Western world. I believe that we should open ourselves to people who don’t know about our world in order to change this view about our world, religion and culture.
On the other hand, Muslims in Israel have begun to forget their roots as Arabs and to assimilate with Jews. So we should discuss the “Muslim World” in order to stop and remember that we have a special culture that shouldn’t be forgotten, especially since we as Arabs in Israel have gotten to the point that we don’t know anything about our culture and religion.
The Islamic world has its positives and negatives, but its positive points outweigh the negative. So why not show people how beautiful it is, and let them learn more about our world?
Hayaam also once pointed out to me that there is a difference between Arab and Muslim, and that the religion is what is beautiful about their culture.
The idea that they are forgetting who they are was an eye-opener to me, though it should have been apparent that this could be true 60 years and 3 generations after they became part of the State of Israel. I hadn’t realized, though, how the push and pull of the two cultures resulted in more than simply the struggle to maintain their values, customs and even history. They had arrived at the point where they had to battle the possibility of actually losing a hold of them.
Ironically, one student combined the isolationist approach and the alarm regarding their fading knowledge of their own culture:
People all over the world are becoming more interested in knowing more about Muslim women. The media sheds light on the status of Muslim women in Arab countries. The topic is discussed frequently and thoroughly. They should stop talking about Muslim women in the Arab world since people don’t need to know more. Now, they know more about us than we know about ourselves.
One Holocaust Remembrance Day some years back, I came in to teach my Academic Writing course at the college, but I did so with a heavy heart. It somehow felt wrong to be going about my business teaching English to Arabs without talking about the holocaust with them. The feeling of inappropriateness was amplified by the fact that I was pretty sure my Arab students would not be very sympathetic or—maybe worse—even interested in this day since it symbolized for them not the honor of the fallen or a testimony to the survivors, not a call to never forget the horrors perpetrated by anti-Semites or the millions who were murdered by the Nazis—our families, our people. No, I was more or less certain that it symbolized for them the principle cause of their families being uprooted, their people being coerced, forced or manipulated into giving up their lands and way of life since Israel was declared a state by the U.N. in 1948 in part in answer to the great need of the Jewish people after the systematic attempt at their extermination. It matters little to the present-day animosities that before us the British were colonizing the Arabs here, and before the British, the Ottoman Empire sat on them, going back some 100 years before the U.N. granted the Jews sovereignty over 55% of the territory that was Palestine.
I decided, instead of generalizing, to be more personal by giving them a little background on the Holocaust and a lot about my family and what they had gone through, including the fact that as a result of the atrocities, my family was left to its barest bones, quite unlike the large families they enjoyed. I never knew my grandparents, I told them, nor most of my aunts or uncles or even some of my cousins. I thought I owed it to all of them to pay my respects in even the least receptive of situations.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the assault by Yafiah on the figures mentioned in the pages I’d distributed to them. “We know that these numbers aren’t correct. We know you exaggerate to get sympathy from the world for everything you do, and for getting our land. And if you were so badly treated, why are you making a holocaust in Gaza?” I felt a hot wave begin to crawl up my neck. I explained the term ‘holocaust’ in order to show her and the class that it wasn’t used as a hyperbole for what happened to the Jews during World War II. “Yes, that is exactly right,” Yafiah nodded. “Why are you killing our people by the millions?” I suggested that it was she who was exaggerating. “No. I heard it on Al-Jezeera.” Again that familiar feeling: shock and awe. Shocked at what I was hearing, the propaganda machine that I was coming up against which I’d had only the mildest notion of before. And awe at the gullibility, the ease with which they could be told blatant untruths and believe them.
I thought I could turn things around by asking Yafiah for proof in hard facts. Who was the gullible one here? Yafiah emailed me charts and explications taken directly off a Muslim fundamentalist internet site. I suppose I could have gone into an academic dispute with her and done my own research, but I realized not only that she could have accused me of simply getting my facts from sources supporting my claim against hers, but also that it was futile to try and convince her she was wrong. More importantly, who was right and who was wrong was not the point, not even who’d win in the right to feel victimized, vengeful, angry and uncomprehending. As a teacher and as an educator in a project of co-existence, it was my duty to keep our exchange focused on acknowledging each other’s narratives—and going forth from there to accept each other and work together for a better day.
Unsuccessfully completed, I must say. How do you get past the difficulty of accepting the other’s narrative when you know it to be a lie? And a lie whose express purpose is to make your narrative look like a lie. And a false narrative that is the premise of all that follows? This is, to a great degree, at the root of our emotional and psychological incapacity to finally and firmly grasp any opportunity to go forward together, to accept and trust each other. The slightest off-putting stimulus will send us rebounding into our corners.
Israeli Arabs move in a changing, multi-layered society. As a result, they have developed a complex world view incorporating layers of different values and understandings into a matrix unique to this part of the world. The Israeli society, of which they are a part, has become more open to incorporating Arabs even as it has become more conservative and racist. There are Arab doctors and lawyers working alongside Jews in hospitals and offices around the country whose concrete was poured and floors tiled by the fathers and uncles of this new Arab middle class.
The Arab sector has also progressed, and has begun to provide a demand for professionals. The aspiring bourgeois minority, polished and groomed, with a Hebrew that rivals that of any well-educated Israeli, are also, however, the openly discriminated against second class citizens to whom some doors are closed due to issues of national and military security. Israeli Arabs cannot rent, build or buy homes everywhere they choose. Very few of them teach in universities or make their way into the upper echelons of corporations. Their representatives in the government have never been, and will likely never be, asked by the Jewish parties to form a coalition with them as members of the government. They are identified with the enemy even though “some of our best friends are Arabs” and some of them, most notably the Bedouins and the Druze, serve in the army alongside our Jewish soldiers.
At the same time, they are members of traditional families whose loyalty is first and foremost to that extended family and to its conservative way of life—its customs, values, dress and food; its social status, its political position and its land. They are members of the religious community, mostly Muslim, some Christian, whose allegiance in this regard is often the watermark of the truly loyal Arab—especially in facing their brethren in the Arab world who severely question their allegiance and authenticity. They remain, to a degree, unblemished by the westernization they can use to their advantage but do not give in to, never fully adopt or, in fact, think very highly of.
The complexity of their existence as a disliked minority also results in certain features that run through their national behavior. For example, there are only limited attempts to take advantage of the possibilities that can be found here—if admittedly more restricted for Arabs—for a better life than, as they themselves admit, they’ll find in any other country in the region.
Actually, it is no wonder that Israeli Arabs have difficulty in wholeheartedly grabbing the opportunities offered them by the horns. They are Arabs, part of a conquered nation and a people that gave up their exclusive tenure on the land. They are also part of a religion and a tradition that do not foreground pluralism or multi-culturalism, or necessarily foster humanism. Why would they choose to see the State of Israel as their final stop, as a country they should embrace and call their own, their land of milk and honey?
Aarif spoke to these seemingly rhetorical questions when he said, “We can’t integrate. We can’t. Maybe I’m too extreme talking about this, but nobody wants us to integrate with them.”
“You mean, you can’t integrate because of others?” I asked, expecting him to go the route of victimization yet again.
“That’s one reason, but mainly it’s because of us. We’re proud. We’re too proud.… It’s fake. It’s a Greek today wanting to dream all day about Aristotle. We have to work for what we think we are, or want to be. But we don’t. Just on a simple level, you can’t go to the university and on your first day say, ‘Give me my BA certificate now and I’ll do the 4 years’. No, you get your certificate on condition that you work hard for 4 years. You want to build trust first and then be a part? No. It’s the opposite. You’re just turning things upside down. You have to work and prove that you are a part. Then you get to be an integral part of it. I think we don’t even have the right to protest. Because we don’t give. And it has to be give and take.”
“Is it just a matter of convenience that you don’t give? Why do you think there’s such a great opposition to becoming a part of the society?” As I ask this, I really wonder why he is more ready to fault his people than I am.
“I think it’s because the majority of people cannot decide on their own. We have the religious side, which is very strong in the Arab community. But even there, things are not clear. There are people who don’t even want to consider it. But I think that many people, the majority, want to take part. So, why don’t we volunteer for the National Service and become an integral part?”
“Ok, why? Tell me.”
“This is what I’m asking you,” he answered, turning the tables on me.
“Well,” I begin, giving him a chance to gather his thoughts while I speak. “There is a basic mistrust of the Israeli intention in canvassing the Arab population to join the National Service, or to contribute anything to a country defined as Jewish and Zionist. And there’s also the fear of being sucked out of one’s own culture. It’s as if the Arabs in Israel are saying, ‘If there’s a change made, if we become more Israeli, then we are going to lose what we have’. And that attitude is being held on to for dear life, even though it does not offer very much. I mean, obviously it’s who you are and you want to defend it, but that way of thinking also seems to present a very big problem.”
“It’s not a problem,” he rejoined, “not that big a problem. It has to do with this matter of fake and real. You want to be a part of this country. But you can’t expect to do it with your conditions. It has to be with the country’s conditions.”
“But you do not want the country’s conditions.”
“No, they don’t want the country’s conditions.” With this change of pronoun, Aarif, like Lubna, was bent on dissociating himself from the Arab consensus. “If you want to be an integral part of this country, you have to go to the army. You have to do at least the National Service.”
“You have to pay your taxes,” I added, referring to the evasion tacitly accepted by the government as part of maintaining the status quo in the country. Arabs aren’t forced to participate as full citizens, and so we can continue not to have to treat them as such.
“You have to!” Aarif exclaimed. “But the people sometimes ask, ‘Is it ok to take part fully in the country?’ They’re not sure, because it is being made unclear.”
“By whom?” I asked, again waiting for an explanation, for incrimination.
But Aarif answered without blinking an eye, “By the religious people who write in the papers, and politicians. You see,” he went on, “Arabs are not built, they’re not designed, to accept freedom. It doesn’t fit us.”
I recall the discussions with my students about freedom, and how frustratingly contradictory or non-committal their statements often were. “And democracy?” I asked.
“Democracy is weird for us. We’re not ready to discuss it. You’ll hear many say they want democracy, but they don’t.”
“So the democracy in which you live, and the democratic trappings in the Arab sector, are also fake? Here, in Israel, Arab Israelis have been living with “democracy” for the past 2 to 3 generations.”
“Yes, we enjoy it, yes. But it’s not like in the Jewish society. It’s paradoxical. We are torn into many pieces.”
So, wouldn’t Israeli Arabs feel they could fare just as well among their brethren in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria—maybe better, without the discrimination they have to contend with here—benevolent as we may think it is? I have to wonder.
I was reminded of Hakim’s surprising account of how he is treated by Arabs whom he meets when he goes on his yearly Haj to Mecca. Devout Muslims, he and his wife, Lamees, come, just like all the others, to pray and fulfill their holy Islamic duty. Yet they are met with a certain amount of derision for being Palestinian Israelis, collaborators with the Zionist enemy. It has not stopped them from going, though as Hakim has indicated, this attitude they run into makes them feel very bad.
But neither has it motivated them to pack their belongings and move their family to Saudi Arabia, or Hessa to relocate to Egypt. People don’t behave that way, do they? They don’t just pack up and leave their lives, uproot themselves and their families because of politics. Not usually. Not even when it would perhaps be in their best interest.
Of course, they may no longer be able to, at least not without having to face the “real” Arabs who would not so quickly forget, or want to forget, that these Israeli Arabs are tainted Arabs. “Teflon” as they might appear to us, so deeply, firmly and unchangeably rooted in their own traditions that nothing can ultimately change their makeup, there are people like Aarif, and some of my other students and colleagues, who at least apparently criticize their culture for lack of discipline and ambition, and want to climb the social and economic ladder inside the country they live in. For this, they have been branded by all other Arabs as traitors to their people for being content to live with and among Israelis, rather than rising up against us. Given this, they might not have access to any more avenues of success in Arab countries than they have here, where Arabs of any stripe are, for the most part, automatically identified with our enemies.
Thus these more “enlightened” local Arabs who identify themselves as both Palestinian and Israeli find themselves “between the chairs,” as we say in Hebrew, that is, without a place. Neither nation will accept them with open arms. Dual loyalties of the kind I might enjoy with my Canadian and Israeli passports are a luxury they most certainly do not have.
On the other hand, as Aarif declared, they may not want to go where they’d have to give up a lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to.…
More cogently, they may not want to give up what has actually come to define them, and defines not only who they are—Israeli Arabs, or that more paradoxical label ‘Palestinian Israelis’—but also what that involves—an ethos, a spirit, a set of values, even a culture, a language and customs that are Arab and Muslim to be sure, but conspicuously modified by their living in Israel, among Jews.
It is a choice, at least to a significant degree, isn’t it? The Palestinian Israelis have chosen the good life, or at least have chosen not to give it up. They can’t then, in good faith, wish us gone, because we provide them with the opportunity for that life. It is our “gift” to them, booby trapped as it might be, and its allure preempts their wholeheartedly declining it even when they are afraid of the price—a price they have, in fact, already been paying. It would sometimes seem, in that case, that they protest against the way of life they themselves have chosen to lead, or at least have not forsworn, for fear of looking too complacent, too complicit with the enemy. Possibly they don Muslim fundamentalism like a cloak, like a jilbab, not only to safeguard against losing their identity to the hegemony but also to hide the fact that they are already in the process of doing so.
“Do you believe that a Muslim will accept a Jew in the Middle East?” Aarif threw out in our conversation, challenging me. “Never. Never. Even after thousands of years. Never. Things should be different, but nobody will accept Israel in the Middle East. Nobody.” I feel a little sick hearing what we (at least on the left) don’t let ourselves dwell on, so cavalierly put into words by a moderate Arab.
“So what Israel is doing,” he continued, “strengthening itself financially and militarily, has 2 functions for us: It protects Israel itself, and we are part of it; and it protects us also from being with Arabs. Do you know what Arab-phobia is? Educated Arab people who live in Israel have Arab-phobia. We sometimes discuss this matter of what we would do if Israel decided that we had to leave and go to an Arab country. What would we do? Everybody would kill themselves.”
So, is it circumstances on the ground or a national character that makes me and most Jewish Israelis feel and act suspicious, untrusting, cautious, and somewhat paranoid? Is it circumstance or character that makes most Arabs feel exactly the same way about us?
Which of these—my personal and/or national experience and character—makes me nevertheless feel that, however easy it is to slip into the negative stereotyping, however justified it at times seems to be, it is a disservice to them, to us, to our joint humanity, to accept this attitude as justifiable? While I still do ask this question, which can be sloughed off as a residue of my former, and what even I by now consider, sappy liberalism, I also have to ask why, and why now, I am asking it. I suppose the answer to the last question lies in the fact that after (despite? because of?) several years of working and socializing with Arab colleagues and students and staff, I mostly find myself thinking, maybe more than before, I don’t understand them. I don’t know who they are, after all.
For thirty-five years of living in this country I have been exposed to the general Israeli understanding—myth or not—that the Arab is two-faced and untrustworthy. This attitude has it, basically, that when you have anything to do with an Arab, you can play the “friendship” card but you must always watch your back. You maintain a certain camaraderie with your Arab associate, you make use of him for whatever you need, and whether you abuse him or are careful not to, you never believe him and always suspect him.
Though I would never have wanted to believe that I might fall into this way of thinking, I have been watching myself slide from the minor liberal infraction of talking about Arabs as “they” as opposed to “us” into the more blatantly bigoted suspicion, with only the slightest provocation by any unsavory or disagreeable behavior, that the myth of pervasive dissimulation is fact.
Anyone who hates war cannot like what we have inflicted on the civilians during the war on Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead” December 27 – January 18, 2009). But we are fighting for our lives—both metaphorically and literally, both politically and existentially. What we do today affects both the situation on the ground short term and the alignment of forces in the area long term. In the immediacy of war with terrorists whose intention is to destroy us, it is hard to argue that we should assess the amount of damage we will wreak before eradicating that threat. In any case, I find that I can’t.
I hate it when I see pictures of the devastation in Gaza, but defend the strategy to massively overpower them. If we are facing an enemy, we have the right to fight to win, to bring our boys back home. These words—‘enemy’, ‘home’ –hold for us very specific connotations. Our history, the history of the Jewish people, is full of enemies that have wanted to obliterate us, not simply to gain some land or access to water. And home is a place in the world we have made for ourselves where our soldiers return for hugs and kisses, hot meals, family talks and good times with their friends. They are our children, and all we want to do is protect them and watch them grow. They are our heroes precisely because of the incongruity: They’ve only just squirmed out from under our watchful parenting and are now putting their lives on the line for our safety. They just finished performing awkwardly in their high school graduation play, and are now in the theater of war, dealing with the kinds of things no child should even have to think about. I want my son to be a decent and caring human being, but when he is in danger, I want him to do anything he has to do to appear on my doorstep again.
But there is also a disturbing point emerging in this war which was not evident in previous ones: Too many of our soldiers, our children, carry very little guilt. They with great facility justify the killing and can too rapidly define a situation as warranting it. They have few qualms about being racist, bigoted, unbending in who’s right and who’s wrong—the ingredients that ultimately lead to these situations of aggression. They will probably make no effort in the future to bridge gaps between Arabs and Jews or question their attitudes. If things don’t change on the ground, they won’t soften. They require no tears from anyone nor do they shed any.
Though I defend them so heatedly, this concerns me. My kids talk dirty about the Palestinians, are blatant right wingers of the worst kind during hostilities. And there have been too many periods of hostilities, I’m afraid, to give them the chance to come up for cleaner, fresher air. “Throwing the Jews into the sea was always the preferred option for the Arabs, and now the Gazans are positioned just where we want them,” my youngest was saying during the news on television. I can’t stand listening to comments like this coming out of their mouths. And yet I understand them. During this war on Gaza, I’ve often wanted to carpet bomb the place, and only managed to rein these feelings in when I heard myself expressing them out loud. I had to make the conscious effort to stop myself and return to the ‘me’ I recognized and could live with. They, too, are people, I remind myself, like trying to come out of a bad dream. Violence only leads to violence, I repeat like a mantra, and have to hush up the tail end of that thought: And so does everything else.
There are these two ‘me’s now, the two sides of myself in relation to the Arabs, much more sharply defined and contrasted as a result of this last war, much more worrisome, and indicative of the complexities of our lives here. But I am at least ambivalent, conflicted about my humanist values and my militaristic patriotism, my leftist politics and my unquestioning support of the government’s hawkish behavior once we’re in battle. Our soldiers are not. I know where their unequivocal attitude springs from and recognize its essentiality among those who go to war and have to fight to win, but the same is true for their counterparts on the other side. In the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the tribal nature of the Arab culture together with the religious nature of Islam that demands total submission makes it very easy to ignite them, incite them, turn them into shaheeds, or martyrs, in the name of Allah, in the name of their honor, their name, their land.
So I see a real problem here. Not only for the future of my children as human beings and for the country’s ethos, but also for our political and existential future. And that is why, if some real progress towards peace isn’t made by my generation on both sides, there will most likely not even be an attempt to make it in the next.
I have come to believe that a leftist who has reached ‘a certain age’ is a person who, because she is more and more discerning, has to more and more consciously hold on to a moral code that quite frankly easily erodes under the burden of reality on the ground. The idea of a country freed of the causes of this constant struggle—to uphold its values, to ensure democracy, to maintain its internal security, to deal fairly with people of whose good intentions we can never be entirely certain—is tantalizing, a little too tempting for comfort. But there it is. Too much seething, too much pressure in the pot, too often the threat—or the thought of the threat—of the lid blowing, and all you want to do at some point is turn off the fire.
I am ashamed to admit these feelings, sporadic and infrequent as they might be, but here they are, on paper, indelible and very sad.
It’s not just that I’ve begun to see these things through their eyes, but that my own vision has changed. If I look at myself today, I am not the same person I was when I began this journey. In my politics, my humanism, my loyalties, my values, I am changed, sometimes disturbingly so. In a very strange way, I’ve become both more like the Arabs I’ve been spending these past 6 years with, and yet also more Israeli than I’ve ever felt before. I also find myself paradoxically more understanding and less forgiving, more involved and less trusting, more informed and less certain.
That is, indeed, what I seem to be left with. At any given time, I am conflicted. I go back and forth like a pendulum that has broken free of the hinges of linear time, wound instead by the tight springs of cause and effect. I may have started further to the left than most, but at each instance of disappointment and disillusionment, I veer, like the rest of the country, father to the right and lately, when I return, I find myself not much beyond the center.
I am not sure who this person is. Or what this country has become.
Some three years ago or so things started to change in the Arab community.
Girls and boys started to hang out together more openly. Boyfriends were brought to meet the parents when the couple felt the time was right. Sexual relations? Still not something admitted to openly, but in a discussion in our Oral Proficiency class this year, 5 out of 16 women said –anonymously—that they were in favor of premarital sex. That’s a huge leap from the year Haniya, Dhuha and Inaya were yelling at Aarif for voicing his liberal opinions on the subject. One student in this Oral Proficiency class said she thought it would be good if at the end of the year, those in favor would be able to proclaim their position out loud. It was a great comment.
More Arab men have started to join the army. One such student is sitting in my freshman year. I was very moved to find out he had served, and when he expressed surprise at my reaction, as if a young Arab man in the Israeli army was a natural occurrence, I thought that was wonderful, too.
More Arabs are doing National Service. In one of my classes, 11 out of 18 students were in favor of contributing in this way where several years ago, just about everyone was against it. These young people see Israel as their country, and though still not eager to serve in the military, they are in favor of giving back, which they know will also help them get ahead.
Men and women have begun to draw away from the strictures of their conservative community and families. They are a new generation, and they say so. They are building their own homes apart from the family complex. Some even want to move out of their villages, but unfortunately run into the sometimes veiled, sometimes blatant discrimination of the Jewish towns into which they’d like to move.
Women have started to go their own way, at least to a certain degree. More of my students are going on to their second degrees. A few are talking about going abroad for a year of studies. They’ve become ambitious beyond what has traditionally been defined as women’s work—nursing, education and social work, whose hours allowed them to be home when the children and the husband were. They are getting married later (though nowhere as late as their Jewish counterparts who now, on average, get married at 29), and postponing getting pregnant (though not by much, for the most part). There are more Arab families encouraging their daughters to first get their college degrees.
I am ready to think that I’ve been part of that change. Clearly the Arab community was already coming to the end of the lean years when it made the choice to recruit me and my Jewish colleagues to teach in the college and let us loose on the students. But I am doing my bit.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Beginning 1
Chapter 2 The Big Cover-Up 30
Chapter 3 Freedom 65
Chapter 4 Meeting 85
Chapter 5 Friction 102
Chapter 6 Revelations 134
Chapter 7 Condemnation 171
Chapter 8 The Split 190
Chapter 9 Reflections 215
Epilogue Glimpses of change: The 7 fat years? 231