Apr 30 2010
Alienation is part of life, even in highly livable societies like Canada. We sometimes feel alienated from our work, the politicians we elect to represent us, and even those closest to us. But sometimes, alienation can come about from unrealistic expectations. Arabs in Israel often feel alienated from a state that doesn’t seem to want to represent them, but is that even a realistic complaint for what is actually a minority group to make?
In Canada, we have our own debates over how much immigrants and First Nations ought to be pressured to integrate, rather than self-isolating into ethnic ghettos and reserves. The situation for Arab-Israelis (or Palestinian Israelis, as they identify themselves) is even more complicated. This is illustrated in my latest article at the Rediscovering Israel site, Identity and Alienation in Israel:
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…