Op-Ed and Experience Refection by Cameron Cushner
Last Fall, I was the Outreach Director for American University Students for Israel. I was tasked with coming up with event ideas and reaching out to other student groups to make them happen. One event that I thought would be fun was to host a “Taste of Israel” event. It would not only be social and fun, but it would also paint a picture of Israel beyond the context of conflict. The idea was well received. My fellow executive board members were ready to make suggestions:
“We can have German food for the Ashkenazis!”
“We can have Ethiopian food for the Ethiopian Jews!”
“We can have Israeli salad!”
Yeah, that all sounds great!. As the litany of Jewish cuisines continued, I began to think. These all sound awesome, but what about Palestinian food? I posed the question to my colleagues and they seemed puzzled?
“What’s that got to do with Israel?”
Evidently, fewer people than I thought knew that 20% of Israel’s population is Palestinian Arab.
I began to think of the mouthwatering foods that my maternal grandmother, whose ancestry traces back to Arab Christians from Haifa, made when I would visit: her wara’ aynab, her malfouf, her knafeh. All so delicious, and apparently irrelevant, when it comes to talking about the foods of the Land of Israel.
We ended up not having the event because of financial constraints and timing issues, but the discussion from the meeting still stuck with me. I wondered, for American Jews, is there a place for Arabs in Israel? The issue isn’t ignorance in a hateful sense, but ignorance in the sense of a lack of exposure. American Jewry, for the most part, seems to have always bought into this idea that the Land of Israel was, more or less, uninhabited until the return of the Jews en masse. This is simply untrue. You have cities like Acre, Gaza and Jaffa, which were active ports through the ages. Tzfat and Jerusalem were also large centers before major Jewish migration. Even Nablus, a city not very well-known by those unfamiliar with the Middle East today, was an extremely important center of trade during the Ottoman era. Arab farmers across the country were growing olives on the same plots for centuries. Many Arab explorers, scholars, thinkers, and Christian Saints lived and worked in the Holy Land for centuries, but it always seems as though my American Jewish friends think nothing happened between the expulsion of the Jews in the First Century AD and the end of the 19th century.
This issue of forgetting Arabs in Israel also applies to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Generally, the Israeli Government represents the “Israelis” (Israeli Jews) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) represents Arabs living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (sort of). But who is looking out for the Arab citizens of Israel?
The Israeli Government and the PA have talked about land swaps as a means to reach an end to the conflict. Meaning, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which discriminate against Arab citizens with regards to housing, would be exchanged for certain Arab villages. While the Israeli government seems okay with this idea, the Arabs who live there don’t want to change sovereignty. Those who live in these villages were not consulted with the idea, and it seems unlikely that they would go along with the plan.
Population swaps have also been discussed, whereby Israeli Jews would move back inside the Green Line and Arab citizens would move to the Palestinian State. Again, the ministers and bureaucrats who came up with this plan ignored the wishes of their Arab constituents. Arab citizens of Israel live in the same cities and villages that their ancestors have lived in for centuries. Furthermore, Arab citizens of Israel know that moving to Palestine would mean significant changes in quality of life. They stayed during the Nakba. They stayed during the Six Day War. They’re not going to just give up everything. This lack of recognition is not just something that I, a University student in the United States, take issue with; it is an issue that a lot of my Arab friends in Israel face every day.
On my last visit to Israel, I met a university student in Jaffa named Mariana. She works at the Basma Cafe on Louis Pasteur Street, a hot spot for Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and tourists alike. She enjoys her life in Jaffa, but when it came to her identity, she always felt stuck in limbo. She felt as though she could never truly “be” Israeli because of her ethnicity, language and home culture, nor really “be” Arab because of how immersed she is in Israeli society. She mentioned that she wished people were more understanding and that schools and other institutions would do more to teach about Arab history in the Holy Land.
Beyond the ignorance, discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel is fairly common. Many Jewish Israelis see Arabs in Israel as a labor class meant to work in menial jobs. These attitudes affect the lives of Arab citizens of Israel. My friend Muhammad, for example, lives in Majd al-Krum, a large Arab village in the Upper Galilee region. He’s about to finish high school and wants to study business at Tel Aviv University. He’s spent the past two years trying to save up money in order to do so. He’s been trying to get a job in Tel Aviv to help speed up the process, but has encountered the same issue several times: many of the places with which he has consulted have policies that don’t allow them to hire anyone who hasn’t served in the IDF. While it doesn’t flat out say “Arabs need not apply”, that is its consequential intention because Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the IDF the same way Israeli Jews are. These anti-Arab attitudes are continuing to isolate Arab Israelis from the rest of the population.
There are also some who want to limit the political rights of Arabs in Israel. In the past year there, was a Member of Knesset who suggested that the right to vote should be earned by IDF Service. This idea also connects back to an infamous statement that Prime Minister Netanyahu made in the last election about his party members need to get out and vote because “the left is bussing the Arabs out to the voting stations”. In addition to rhetoric, there are also laws that specifically target the Arab population. According to Adalah, a non-profit organization that fights for the civil rights of Arab Citizens of Israel, there are currently 65 laws in Israel that either target Arabs or are disproportionately enforced on the Arab population.
These attitudes have gone beyond words and laws to societal violence. Israeli Jewish youths have carried out acts of vandalism and violence toward Arab citizens as well as their property and community institutions. These violent instances are popularly known as “price tagging”. One of the most infamous instances of this “price tagging” in Israel was when arsonists attacked the Church of the Multiplication in the Galilee region in June of 2015. Those indicted for the attacks have a history of hate crimes against Arabs in both the West Bank and Israel. Unfortunately, a small number of these hateful acts culminate in arrests and indictments of the perpetrators. There are several instances of hate crimes against Arabs in Israel, especially in the West Bank, that go investigated as well as acts of terror against Arabs that aren’t defined as such.
Despite all of these issues, I will say that there is no better country in the Middle East to be an Arab citizen than in Israel. The democratic traditions and foundations of the State of Israel allow for groups like Adalah to exist and operate without fear of being shut down arbitrarily. Arab society is thriving, especially in Haifa, where Arab youth is present, active, and socializing in their own center of culture. Liberal values in Israel have made this a possibility. However, just because life is better than in other Arab countries, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. The same applies to American Jews regarding the recognition of Arab citizens of Israel’s history and presence.
American University, for example, did something very new and exciting on our birthright trip to raise awareness of the fact that there are Arabs who are Israeli citizens and what their lives are like. We spent a few hours at a high school in Majd al-Krum, talking to the students there about their lives and their identities as Arab citizens of Israel. The other students on my trip remarked how enlightening it was to learn more about the Arabs who live in Israel and listen to how their own religion, ethnicity, citizenship and way of life develop how they see themselves in the world around them. The American students also left with a better understanding of the existence of minority communities in Israel. I hope that this idea of exposing American Jews to these Arab communities catches on and that the Jewish community can work to recognize and understand the story of our cohabitants in the Holy Land. Maybe when the “Taste of Israel” does happen at American, there will be a big tray of Knafeh accompanied by a write-up on the history of the Arabs who live in the Land of Israel.
This article is an op-ed, a.k.a. opinion editorial. The opinions presented in this article do not represent those of the AU Center for Israel Studies. These views are only those of the author.