May 12, 2006

The Palestinians of 1948

JAFFA and JERUSALEM - There are more Arabs in Israel than there are in Beirut. One Israeli in five is an Arab. They aren’t Israeli Jews. Nor are they the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. They were born and raised in Israel. They carry Israeli passports. They have full rights of citizenship. They vote in Israeli elections, and they field their own candidates in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. They don’t clamor for a state of their own, nor do most of them wish to join a Palestinian state once it is born. They hardly - ever - have anything to do with the terrorism campaigns waged by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, Islamic Jihad, or Hamas. They are the lucky ones who were not driven out, who did not flee to the wretched refugee camps of Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria during the Naqba - the creation of Israel - the “catastrophe.” They are Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians of 1948. And they are almost completely invisible and forgotten outside of Israel.

I wish I could tell you that Israeli Jews and Arabs have created a groovy urban Middle East melting pot culture like the Lebanese have. But I’d be fantasizing or lying. It’s not that they hate each other. But they do seem to fear each other. The sense I got from talking to various people is that many Jews are afraid the Arabs might hurt them, and most Arabs do their best to keep their heads down and steer as wide of politics and the conflict as possible.

Nevertheless, here is a picture of modern Israel: a mosque minaret rises in front of a Jewish hotel on the Tel Aviv beach.

Tel Aviv Mosque.jpg

There is a huge difference between Media Israel and the Israel that actually exists in the world. Israeli Arabs are written straight out of the manichean ethnic clashistan narrative.

I went to the Arab city of Jaffa hoping to find a few who would be willing to sit down and talk. The only trouble is I went there on Saturday, the Jewish religious holiday, when almost all the stores were closed and there were hardly any people out and about. (Muslims in Israel close up shop on the Jewish sabbath, just as Muslims in Lebanon close up shop on the Christian sabbath.)

Jaffa is attached to Tel Aviv like a Siamese twin. The two cities really are one. Tel Aviv began as a Jewish neighborhood of Jaffa almost 100 years ago, nearly a half-century before Israel even existed. It is perhaps sadly fitting, though, that Tel Aviv and Jaffa retain their own respective names. There isn’t much mixing of Arabs and Jews here. You can walk from downtown Tel Aviv to downtown Jaffa in twenty minutes, but the cities are worlds apart.

Every Israeli I asked admitted that anti-Arab racism is a very real problem, that Arabs have a hard time renting apartments in Tel Aviv even though discrimination is against the law. That does not, however, mean that Jaffa is some kind of a ghetto. It isn’t. It’s a lovely place, actually, one of the finest Arab cities I’ve seen.

Jaffa Mosque.jpg

Jaffa from Below.jpg

Jaffa Steps.jpg

I saw no evidence that Israeli Arabs are poorer than Jews. It’s hard to visually compare the economics of a modern city with an ancient one. But I can visually compare the economics of Jaffa with other old Arab cities I’ve been to. Jaffa rivals or beats every one of them.

Jaffa Wall.jpg

Jaffa Street.jpg

One outdoor café near the Visitor’s Center was open even on Saturday afternoon. I ordered a 7-UP from two young Arab men with dreadlocks working the counter. They looked like crosses between hippies and surfer dudes. They smiled warmly when I said a few words to them in Arabic with an American accent.

Jaffa Cafe.jpg

At least one spoke fluent English. I asked if either would be willing to sit down with me for a few minutes and be interviewed. Both visibly cringed. The very idea was clearly dreadful to them. One immediately vanished into the back. The other gave me a fake smile and shrugged his shoulders.

“I have no politics,” he said. “And he has no English.” But I knew his co-worker spoke English. He understood exactly what I said and he got all twitchy about it.

Were they shy? Were they afraid that because I’m American I might be hostile? Did they just want a low profile in Israel so they could stay out of potential trouble? I do not know.

I wanted to hear what Israeli Arabs had to say for themselves. In the meantime, though, I would have to rely on what Israeli Jews said about them.

Allison Kaplan Sommer introduced me to a friend of hers who moved to Israel from South Africa because he could not stomach the wretched apartheid regime. I can’t print his name because he’s a wire agency reporter who is forever banned from having opinions.

“There is discrimination here,” he said. “You’d have to be a fool to say there wasn’t. But it’s not entrenched in law or ideology. There is no law that says the Israeli Arab or Muslim is a second-class citizen. It’s true that they suffer social discrimination. But it isn’t legal.”

I couldn’t resist the following question: “What do you think about the accusation in the West that Israel is an apartheid state?” I said.

“It makes smoke come out of my ears!” he said. “The only way the analogy holds truth is within the context of a one-state Israeli solution. But the Israeli mainstream has reconciled itself to a Palestinian state…The Israeli government recently voted for an Affirmative Action program for Israeli Arabs in the civil service. This would have been unthinkable in South Africa.”

This guy isn’t one to put up with apartheid. He was repeatedly arrested in his native South Africa for demonstrating against the racist policies of the then-white government. He proudly wears the scars on his arm where unleashed government Dobermans bit him in 1977.

“I knew from the age of ten that I could not stay in South Africa,” he said. “I disliked it intensely. It was easy to move to Israel because it’s an immigrant country. People who move here get lots of assistance.”

Benjamin Kerstein also acknowledged racism is a real problem in Israel. “There is racism here,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the most disgusting racism you can imagine. But it’s important to realize it’s not institutionalized.”

Yossi Klein Halevi, the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Republic, met with me in his office at the Shalem Center.

“How can someone be an Israeli-Palestinian?” he said. “It’s an impossible identity.”

Halevi Book Cover.JPG

“It’s true that Israeli Arabs have more freedom than Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East,” he added. “But it’s not enough. We need real co-existence in a single society. I want an Arab Israeli to feel part of Israel.”

I headed back to Jerusalem's old city during the day when the market was open and other people were out. It looked like a completely different place than it did when I went there at night.

East Jerusalem People.jpg

East Jerusalem Gimcrack.jpg

Jerusalem Old City Market.jpg

I met an Israeli Arab named Samir while shopping for a necklace and a pair of earrings for my wife. He asked for a ridiculous amount of money for the jewelry and, without really meaning to, I actually laughed at him.

“Come on,” I said. “I can pay far less for this stuff in Beirut where I’ve been living. And Lebanon is expensive.”

I offered him one-eighth his asking amount, though I knew I would end up paying a lot more than that.

“Please sit down,” he said. Perfect, I thought. The Arab social ritual was about to begin. He knew we would both be there for a while. And it was only polite - and also more pleasant - to talk about something other than money. “Would you like some tea?” he said.

“Please,” I said. “Of course. Thank you so much.”

As long as you aren’t dealing with Hezbollah psychopaths, Semtex-strapped “martyrs,” or Al Qaeda head-choppers, Arabs really are the most pleasant people you can find anywhere. There’s nothing quite like going to a place where you can regularly and reliably pull up a chair (or a space on a carpet) with total strangers and share coffee, tea, cigarettes, and conversation while basking in the glow of instant warm friendship. Arab hospitality alone is reason enough to visit the Middle East instead of Europe on your next holiday.

I sort of understand why Israelis fear Arabs. Yasser Arafat, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etcetera ad nauseum, are murderous maniacs. And they get all the attention. At the same time I’m completely baffled. You are not going to run into those types while hanging out with regular folks in the Jerusalem market.

“Would you like a cigarette?” I said to Samir.

“No, thank you,” he said as he handed me an ashtray. We sipped from our glasses of tea.“I don’t smoke. And I don’t drink anymore, either. I have only one vice. Can you guess what it is?”

I had an idea. But I didn’t want to offend him. So I hinted at my guess with a question.

“Are you married?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “But I can’t sleep with only one woman. One just isn’t enough.”

“I thought you might say that,” I said. “That’s why I asked if you were married.”

“My wife will throw me out if she catches me,” he said.

“Be careful, man,” I said.

“I don’t do it here,” he said. “Only when I am traveling somewhere else.”

We talked about travel. And then we talked about politics.

“What’s it like for you as an Israeli Arab when Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other?” I said.

“We don’t get involved,” he said. He then placed the tips of his index fingers on his cheekbones just below his eyes. “We watch.”

“When there is, eventually, a two-state solution, do you want to live on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side?”

“The Israeli side!” he said instantly and emphatically as if there were no other possible answer. “None of us want anything to do with the Palestinian Authority. They are corrupt. They are impossible. They are not straight. No one can deal with those people.”

“Are the Israelis straight?” I said.

“No!” he said. “But they are better. Which side would you rather live on?” he asked rhetorically. “Should I prefer Arafat and Hamas just because I’m an Arab?”

He asked me what I thought about Israeli-Palestinian politics. I told him I didn’t know anymore, which is true. During the Oslo “peace process” years I was staunchly on the Palestinian side. Every time a suicide bomber blew up himself and others during the intifada, and every time I saw Palestinians cheerleading the gruesome attacks, and every time I saw polls of Palestinians that showed the majority didn’t want a two-state solution but the complete destruction of Israel, I felt my sympathy for the Palestinian cause bleed away. Eventually there wasn’t much left.

It was easy to be pro-Palestinian when terrorism was relatively rare and when most said they merely wanted their own sovereign country. And it was easy to be pro-Israeli during the horrific waves of suicide operations against innocents in the early 2000s.

Things are different now. The intifada mostly is over. Brutal Israeli crackdowns mostly are over. Palestinians and Israelis are each locked in their own quiet holding patterns, cautiously waiting to see what the other side will do next. It’s hard to have strong opinions when not much is happening.

“I like how you think,” Samir said. “Do you not have any money? I will help you. I will give you the necklace and the earrings if you don’t have any money.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But I have money. I might buy them. Just not for your asking price.”

He laughed. “I know,” he said. “I ask high. If a German comes in here he’ll pay whatever I ask. You wouldn’t believe it. You Americans are not so easy.”

I noticed lots of Christian jewelry for sale. I wasn’t sure if I had accidentally wandered from the Muslim Quarter into the Christian Quarter. It's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.

“Are you a Christian?” I said.

“No,” he said. “I am a Muslim. But I sell Christian things. And I sell Jewish things. Why not? I don’t care what is your religion.”

Samir also sold items with fused religious imagery, like this one:

Jewish Hand of Fatima.jpg

That’s the Hand of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. And that's a Jewish menora in the center of it.

For all the conflict and the hate and the bullshit, Israel may be the only place in the world where you can buy something that is Jewish and Islamic at the same time. If you do go there and buy something like that, chances are an Arab will be the person who sells it to you.

Israelis are not what I would call friends with the Palestinians of 1948. But they aren’t enemies either, though they once were. Making peace with the Palestinians of 1967 will not be easy, to say the least, especially when Hamas is the government in Ramallah. But there’s nothing eternal about Arabness and Jewishness that makes it forever impossible.

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. Your donations today make tomorrow’s dispatches possible. Thank you all so much for your help so far.

UPDATE: I have been corrected in the comments. Turns out the Hand of Fatima is only the Islamic name for this symbol. It is older than Islam, and both religions have incorporated it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 12, 2006 11:48 AM
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