As a social scientist with broad cross-national interests, I subscribe to a number of periodicals that provide reasonably reliable information on what goes on in different parts of the world. But every couple of weeks or so I go to Harvard Square and browse for what looks interesting in the kiosk that sits in the middle there. Last week I picked up the international edition of The Jerusalem Post, the major English-language newspaper in Israel. Newspapers provide a flavor of everyday life that is often missed in the publications I normally read. In this instance I was intrigued by an advertisement in the real estate section for an apartment whose attractions include a health club and an automatic elevator running on the Sabbath, as well, under “Matchmaking”, an ad by a “wealthy, attractive and cultured widow” in her seventies who is willing to consider an offer from America. Much of this newspaper contains more or less ominous stories about the political upheaval in Egypt. It is somehow reassuring that, in the midst of all this, there may be an elderly religious lady about to use the automatic elevator to meet her American date in the health club.
There is one story in the newspaper that I found humanly intriguing in a somewhat similar way. Entitled “Love thy neighbor?”, it deals with young Arab citizens of Israel moving to Tel Aviv. Apparently this is an increasing phenomenon. Not only is Tel Aviv a good place to find a rewarding job, but it is the most cosmopolitan city in the country where young people, Jewish or Arab, can have a more exciting life than in the often provincial communities from which they come. The key character in the story is Areen Shahbari, a 28-year old woman from a “secular Muslim family” in Nazareth (the town with the highest Arab population in Israel). Ever since her teens she aspired to work as a television presenter. So she went to study communications at Tel Aviv University, in her third year there landed a job with the largest television production company, and worked herself up to heading a talk show devoted to women’s issues. This is a success story that could surely be replicated in the lives of many young Jews moving to the big city from some small town. But for Shahbari there was the additional factor of her ethnicity. She tells us that in Nazareth she never had to think about being Palestinian. She lived almost exclusively with fellow-Arabs, had very few contacts with Jews. In Tel Aviv she came to discover herself as a Palestinian. She does not tell us whether this discovery had any political implications, but it overshadowed her daily life and affected her sense of self. As soon as people noticed that she spoke Hebrew with an Arabic accent, they would ask her where she came from – “it was more suspicion than being interested”. Despite her successful career, she always felt excluded from the Israeli mainstream. She has now returned to Nazareth. The rest of the story confirms her experience of exclusion. Israeli Jews are indeed suspicious of the Arabs living among them (and it is hard to blame them after decades of relentless terrorism); it is very difficult for Arabs to rent or buy housing in Tel Aviv.
There are many difficult identities in our pervasively pluralistic world: What is a black Norwegian? A Belgian Muslim? Or, for that matter, a Pentecostal Greek-American? But the identity problem of Arab citizens of Israel is distinctively severe. They carry a passport which identifies them as citizens of a state defined as the homeland of a nation to which they don’t belong – as one individual thus burdened put it, “my nation is at war with my state”. As is frequently the case with difficult identities, disputes over terminology express the problem. The Israeli establishment commonly refers to “Israeli Arabs” or “Arab Israelis”; people thus designated prefer to describe themselves as “Israeli Palestinians” or just as “Palestinian Arabs”, asserting a common nationality with their co-ethnics outside the borders of the Jewish state.
World attention has been understandably focused on the relationship of Israel with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and on the increasingly depressing outlook for an agreement that would make a two-state solution possible. If that solution turns out to be terminally unattainable, the outlook for the region is grim. But so is the outlook for Israel, which since its founding has precariously defined itself as being both a democracy and a Jewish state. Unless the land “between the river and the sea” (that is, historic Palestine) can become a “homeland” for both nations, one or the other of these two designations would likely become increasingly implausible. However this larger drama plays itself out, the problem of Arab citizens within Israel will persist and challenge the self-definition of the state.
I think it is possible for outside observers to have empathy with both sides of this issue. The State of Israel was created as an act of rebirth after the horrors of the Holocaust and experienced as a miraculous realization of centuries of yearning by a people in exile. Yet when Israelis celebrate Independence Day, Palestinians commemorate naqba, the “catastrophe” of their subjugation and dispersal by the state being celebrated – and they correctly point out that they were not responsible for the Holocaust and never shared the yearning for Zion. There has been an ongoing campaign against Israel, mainly orchestrated by leftist intellectuals with a very selective outrage agenda: Compared with the massive violations of human rights across most of the Middle East, Israel has a reasonably decent record. This is even true of its occupation regime, which is indeed guilty of various violations, and which has as its centerpiece the settlement policy which is largely responsible for the collapse of the so-called “peace process” (which has produced a lot of process and no peace).
The condemnation of Israel as an “apartheid state” is even more unfair when it refers to the situation of its Arab citizens. Already the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed as Arab armies were converging to destroy the new state, guaranteed equal rights to all its inhabitants. To a large extent this promise has been kept. Arab citizens have full civil rights, access to the courts and the welfare system, and a network of Arabic-language schools. Arab citizens can vote for any party, but there are explicitly Arab parties and its elected representatives sit in the Knesset. Arabic is an official language. The Supreme Court has been especially vigilant in protecting Arab rights. This does not mean that there have been no discriminatory policies. Public funds have been unequally allocated as between the two communities, Jewish land claims have been favored over Arab ones, and there has been a more or less underhanded policy to reduce the Arab population of East Jerusalem. But quite apart from anything done by government, there is the economic, social and cultural situation of a people living in a country with which they find it very hard to identify.
This is not a small problem. There are about 1.5 million Arabs within Israel, a little over 20% of the population. Since the Arab birth rate is higher than the Jewish one, there was talk for some time of a “demography bomb”, which would lead to an Arab majority. This has turned out to be a miscalculation: The Arab birth rate has declined, the Jewish one has increased (largely due to the lusty fertility of ultra-Orthodox Jews – many of whom reject the State of Israel, which creates yet another problem). Nevertheless, the Arab population of Israel is estimated to reach 25% by 2025 – enough of a demographic worry, if Israel wants to be both a democracy and a state defined as Jewish. The Israeli leadership is of course aware of this issue. It has long assumed that, as part of a putative two-state solution, there would be a land swap, annexation by Israel of parts of the West Bank in which there is the most populous concentration of Jewish settlers, and in exchange a transfer to the Palestinian state of some areas within Israel with a heavy Arab population. It is unclear how such a deal could be realistically achieved without massive coercion. Even leaving aside the fact that many settlers believe that every part of historic Palestine is forever promised to the Jewish people by God (and divine promises are usually non-negotiable), there is the additional fact that, according to polls, over 80% of the Arabs in the targeted swap areas do not want to be part of a Palestinian state: Whatever their grievances, they don’t want to give up the very concrete advantages of Israeli citizenship.
Let it be stipulated that Arab citizens of Israel have legitimate grievances. The basic fact is that they constitute a significant and growing population who have great difficulty looking on the State of Israel as their own: Every one of the state’s symbols excludes them – the flag, the anthem, the public holidays, even its very name. The Jerusalem Post story mentions Aziz Haidar, a Palestinian sociologist with a degree from the Hebrew University, whose work has focused on this community. His 1995 book on the topic is aptly titled On the Margin. He was an important member of a committee which in 2007 issued a document on “the future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel”. It called for a “consensual democracy” (whatever that could mean in practice), in order to end the present situation of an “ethnocracy” – “a democracy for its Jewish citizens and a Jewish state for its Arab citizens”. A key sentence in the document reads: “Defining the Israeli state as a Jewish state, and exploiting democracy in the service of its Jewishness, excludes us”.
It is often said that, if a two-state solution fails to be realized, what will emerge by default is a single binational one in which, if it is to be even remotely democratic, Jews will become a minority of the electorate. There are rumors that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is now expecting such a future. But be this as it may, there is an additional scenario that is rarely discussed: Even within its present borders, Israel is already a binational state. One may, in a surge of presently implausible optimism, imagine that there will eventually be two states living peacefully side by side “between the river and the sea”: The problem of how Jews and Palestinians can coexist within a democratic Israeli state will clamor for a solution.
Areen Shahbari comes from Nazareth, sometimes called the Arab capital of Israel. Needless to say, one of its chief assets is its attraction for Christian pilgrims. The website of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism describes it as “a city of religion and faith… of modern culture and Middle East charm”. The last quality, mainly located in the picturesque alleys of the old center, is of course provided by the local Arabs (some 70,000 of them). The tourist information is intended to attract Christian visitors, who can put many churches and other holy places on their itinerary. The list is topped by the Church of the Annunciation, built on the supposed place where her conception was announced to the Virgin Mary by the angel Gabriel (incidentally, the same angel who, Muslims believe, dictated the Koran to Muhammad). The tourist propaganda, oozing with Christianity, does not mention that the majority of the “charming” Arabs are Muslims. Neither does it mention Upper Nazareth, the Jewish town built on a hillside overlooking historic Nazareth.
Upper Nazareth was founded in the 1950s, for avowedly strategic reasons in a region with the heaviest Arab population in Israel. At the time an Israeli military spokesman, with remarkable candor, said that the town was “to safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee as a whole, and to demonstrate state sovereignty to the Arab population”. The town now has about 40,000 inhabitants, over 90% Jewish. Its hillside location looms over the Arab city at its feet. It stands in a long tradition, dating back at least to the late Middle Ages, when it was the custom in Europe to build such fortresses on top of conquered territories. The English term “stronghold” refers to this – an edifice to ensure that the conquered land remains “strongly held”. (The German term is even more suggestive – Zwingburg – literally, a “coercion fortress”.) Many such fortresses were built all over Europe (also by the Crusaders in the Middle East), in areas where the loyalty of the local people was in doubt. The custom was so common that it was called one of the prerogatives of royal authority (regalia).
I have only been in Nazareth once. It was quite a few years ago. I had been invited to give some lectures at the University of Haifa. My host (a Jewish professor known for his concern for Arab students in his classes) took me for a tour through the Galilee. We arrived in Nazareth. As we parked, I looked up and saw the massive overhead presence of Upper Nazareth – large modern buildings, sharply different from the architecture of the Arab city. I was struck by the contrast. I asked what the hillside town was. When my host explained, I observed spontaneously: “The people down here see this every time they look up. They must hate you”. I don’t remember what, if anything, he said. But I recalled this incident when I read the Jerusalem Post story. I imagine teenage Areen going to school below this monument to Israeli power, learning her Hebrew with an Arabic accent. There is no evidence in the story to indicate that she nursed hatred. She only tells us that she was dreaming of becoming an anchor person – in a television studio in Tel Aviv.