Apr 30 2010

Identity and Alienation in Israel

Published by at 12:17 am under Rediscovering Israel

With her television-reporter good looks and modern style, Nadine Hamed looks like any number of hard-working yet fun-loving young professionals you might find on the streets of Toronto or Vancouver.

Nadine exudes absolute confidence. Indeed, she is articulate in a way that might make Canadian parents wonder how they went wrong in raising their own young-adult offspring who, “like, you know, doesn’t, uh, talk so good”.

We meet in a lively, colorful restaurant on a main street in Nazareth. Nadine is a delightful conversationalist right from the start, thoughtful in her answers yet given to flashes of witty spontaneity. The TV sports journalist speaks North American English without any hint of accent. She is ambitious and indicates she’d move to the USA to work for a big network in a heartbeat if an opportunity came up. While she lives in her mother’s house, she is dating a young man whom she first met in high school.

But Nadine isn’t from Canada. She lives in the West Bank city of Nazareth. That’s not a refugee camp, but she does reside in what the international community defines as Israeli-occupied territory.

As an Israeli Arab, she has the same rights as Jewish Israelis, in precisely the same way as Canadians who are ethnically Italian, Haitian or French all share the same rights. The political system and rule of law that exist in Israel are for all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages in this place.

Still, Israeli-Arabs like Nadine give voice to feelings of alienation.

“I feel like this country doesn’t represent me,” Nadine says, pointing to the symbolic trappings of the Jewish state such as the flag and anthem. “Although Arabic is a official language in Israel, you use it only with Arabs. I want each student to learn Arabic at high school so they can be more open to our society.”

I pause for a moment and realize what she seems to be asking for is something akin to Canada’s official bilingualism, where pretty well all Anglophone students at least receive one French class a day until grade 11. In Canada, these efforts have not resulted in functional bilingualism; Canadians with those skills all tend to live in Quebec and Ontario. But perhaps this sort of thing could work in Israel, given the far smaller geographic distance separating Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Of course, even the phrase, “Arab-Israeli” is contentious. That is what Jewish Israelis call those people who are ethnically and culturally Arab, who live within internationally-recognized Israeli territory. But Nadine doesn’t see it quite that way. “I’m a Palestinian Israeli,” she says, noting that other “Arab-Israelis” tend to define themselves in the same way, in unity with Palestinians living in Gaza or parts of the West Bank.

Other aspects of Israeli life seem unfair to her. For instance, all Israeli students can study the Jewish religion in high schools, while Islamic studies are not included. Job opportunities in government seem limited for Arabs, she says.

Nonetheless, Nadine seems to feel that much of the tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel is augmented by stereotypes and media drama rather than genuinely irreconcilable differences. “If each person learned how to accept the other without judging him from first sight, everything would be different. I know this sort of thing exists everywhere in the world, but here — and because of the fact that I’m part of a minority, I can face this type of situation more often.”

The lunch is over far too soon, but the tour group has a few minutes outside the restaurant as we wait for our driver. I ask our tour guide, Uri, about Nadine’s comments about her feelings of alienation from the Israeli state. A professor at an Israeli university, he’s an expert in cultural identity, naturally enough, as a living example of a multi-cultural identity; he was born in Jerusalem and raised in South Africa the U.S. and Israel.

He has empathy for Nadine’s perspective, but he doesn’t hold back. “Nadine feels that the Israeli state doesn’t really represent her. Actually, she’s right. It doesn’t. But that’s not necessarily a critique of the Israeli state so much as an indication of the challenge of Arab-Israelis like Nadine to come to grips with the national character of this country.”

Unlike Canada, Israel was never envisioned as a country with several founding peoples (Indeed, even that Canadian founding myth has been the result of a bit of modern revisionism, evolving over time to explicitly add First Nations to the two European colonial powers as brothers in Confederation).

When Israelis declared independence, they explicitly planned on creating a Jewish state, in the same sense that France is French or China is Chinese – only a far smaller territory that wasn’t even contiguous. That was the country that the original Zionist founders wanted.

It is only through an unlikely historical sequence of surviving and counter-attacking against a genocidal onslaught from Arab nations that Israel has found itself in possession of Arab (or, if you choose, Palestinian) territory. But these territorial acquisitions through conquest do not make it incumbent on Israelis to change the nature of their state any more than the American conquest of Mexican territory might have obligated Americans to adopt Latino customs. Today, the American flag remains the stars and stripes, with the eagle from the Mexican national symbolism nowhere to be seen.

Thus, If Nadine and other Arab-Israelis are waiting for the Israeli state to change to accommodate their minority culture and heritage, their sense of alienation is unlikely to go away any time soon.

But as Israel gets on in years and even those who explicitly oppose the state come to realize that the country is here to stay, perhaps simple pragmatism will begin to tweak those expectations. With the passage of time, this may happen, in the same way that Quebecois (well, some of them) and most Newfoundlanders seem to have come to grips with – and even take pride in – the reality of a Canadian state. But in the meantime, patience may be a virtue in short supply.  

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