Apr 30 2010

The Theory of Alienation

Published by at 7:36 pm under Israel,Israel-Palestine,Middle East

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…

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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “The Theory of Alienation”

  1. dirkon 01 May 2010 at 2:58 am

    you wrote…”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”…

    This is what you think First Nations are doing or trying to do,”self isolating themselves into ethnic ghettos or reserves” ?
    It’s telling that you lump First Nations people in with immigrants,which implies wrongly that they are just another ethnic minority with similar problems when it comes to “fitting in”. Now I could be wrong… but that’s the impression I get from reading your post.

    you wrote…”(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)”…

    I suppose in one sense you are correct in that First Nations Peoples wanted to live as independent peoples not become part of Canada per say,this is made quite clear in many many Treaties, beginning with the two-row wampum (1690’s). But none the less F.N peoples played a huge role in the creation of Canada,indeed they stood with the British to defended the country from U.S expansionist tendencies, indeed without F.N allies Canada might have been absorbed by the U.S. (this is but one example)

    you wrote…’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”…

    surely you jest,the lands that ended up becoming Israel(as mandated by the white European powers of the day) were not empty there were many many Arabs. So since day one Israel had a multi-ethnic population.
    check it out…

    *LINK REMOVED BY NEW MEDIA EDITOR. THIS SITE WILL NOT PROVIDE WEB TRAFFIC FOR THE COMMENTER.*

    So basically your position is, its not really Israel’s fault that 20% of the pop (Israel proper)is Arab its theirs for resisting the creation of a Jewish only state (populated by European Jews fleeing Christian Europeans)on their lands. Further more seeing as the intention was to create a Jewish state, they(Jews) have no obligation to respect the rights of the Arab minority(an accidental minority 😉 ).
    Yikes… ?

    Then there’s your obvious support for the idea of a state founded on religion,imagine if Christians attempted the same thing,or for that matter Muslims. They would be quickly be labeled as being theocracies…just saying

    P.S please do not read this comment as an attack. I write because I am genuinely interested in understanding how you arrive at these conclusions.

  2. jnarveyon 02 May 2010 at 12:24 am

    I will respond to a few of your points, Dirk (DB). My responses are indicated with JN:

    DB: “This is what you think First Nations are doing or trying to do,”self isolating themselves into ethnic ghettos or reserves” ?”

    JN: Many First Nations people do self-isolate themselves on reserves. There’s no disputing that.

    DB: “It’s telling that you lump First Nations people in with immigrants”

    JN: That’s not accurate. I name both immigrants and First Nations as distinct groups, though there is some overlap between challenges faced by both immigrants and First Nations in Canada.

    DB: “But none the less F.N peoples played a huge role in the creation of Canada”

    JN: I’ve never disputed that.

    DB: the lands that ended up becoming Israel(as mandated by the white European powers of the day) were not empty there were many many Arabs. So since day one Israel had a multi-ethnic population.

    JN: Here, you try to mislead my readers by denying facts. The original plan for Israel envisaged distinct territories, some containing mostly Jews and the others mostly Arabs. When the Zionists declared the creation of an independent state, they laid claim only to the Jewish territories. The Arabs immediately invaded with plans to exterminate the Jews of the the newly restored nation.

    In the process of several wars, Jews did conquer territory outside of the original “Jewish” territory. But initially, the land was indeed demarcated along ethnic lines.

    DB: So basically your position is, its not really Israel’s fault that 20% of the pop (Israel proper)is Arab its theirs for resisting the creation of a Jewish only state (populated by European Jews fleeing Christian Europeans)on their lands.

    JN: More attempts to mislead. Israel was not founded by European Jews fleeing Christians. It was founded by Jews, period. Many of the original Zionists were in fact descendants of the indigenous Jewish population of the region, not just immigrants from Europe or other parts of the Middle East.

    This point is critical and is often overlooked by Canadian commentators. There are several indigenous groups that belong to the region, which include both Jews and Arabs. To deny the indigenous connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is an assault on historic truth. To illustrate, one might as well deny the indigenous connection of the Squamish people to the west coast of what we now call Canada.

    DB: Further more seeing as the intention was to create a Jewish state, they(Jews) have no obligation to respect the rights of the Arab minority

    JN: No, I wrote that the Jews have no obligation to incorporate Arab symbols and cultural identity into core aspects of their state. That’s very different from not respecting their rights. Indeed, Arabs in Israel have their rights respected in a far superior manner to how they would be treated in the territories of Israel’s neighbors, such as Syria or Egypt.

    DB: Then there’s your obvious support for the idea of a state founded on religion

    JN: I have made no such claim. Indeed, the vast majority of Zionists who helped form the Israeli state explicitly rejected a country founded merely on religion. Today, the majority of the population still sees secularism as a positive thing.

    Israeli identity has always been about something far more than religion.

    Conclusion: DB. I’ve posted your comment and my response as a “teaching moment” for my readers.

  3. truepeerson 05 May 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Jonathan, it might be worth accenting your point that alienation is a fact of life. It’s a universal anthropological fact because all human society or culture has as part of its minimal or necessary structure, a centre/periphery relationship: all forms of culture entail a centre of attention, something(s) sacred (beautiful, good, desirable, etc.) in relation to which we are all more or less distant, peripheral, alienated.

    Postmodern leftist thought makes a scandal out of this human necessity of alienation, making suspect and “deconstructing” all forms of the sacred, seeing them as the source of invidious differences in power that victimize one or another, unless they are accetable (for now) because they empower and serve the interests of “historically marginalized groups”.

    The problem with making a scandal of alienation is that it doesn’t and cannot lead us to some Utopian wholeness but only to nihilism – we need norms, centres of attention, the sacred, to create differences (our varying degrees and shades of alienation) and thus to create a basis for exchange or reciprocity of our differences. In other words, history is not a conspiracy of power as the left usually has it, but a necessary and ongoing construction, through interaction that no one controls, of shared virtual realities (the sacred) from which our personal reality cannot but be one of alienation in some shape or form; these alienating virtual realities serve as the basis for human consciousness and interaction. Thank God for alienation!

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