48 Arab-Israeli or Palestinians?
Alaa Ashkar - 09/03/2007
What is the difference between the old generation who grew up in the first years after the creation of the state of Israel and today’s young generation in terms of self-perception?
The situation faced by the older generation who grew up in the first years after the creation of the state of Israel was extremely difficult, as the Palestinian population went from being the majority to the minority in such a short time frame. They faced harsh conditions as the majority of people were deported and had suddenly become refugees inside and outside the country.
The Palestinian people who remained within the borders of the created state of Israel were the weak side of the Palestinian community, a community which faced a difficult economic situation. The fact that the Palestinian people were facing so much poverty and did not have strong leadership made it easier for the new state of Israel to control people. The Palestinian population in Israel faced military rule for about two decades and people could not leave their villages without permission – it was a similar situation to what the Palestinians in the West Bank are now facing. As this was the context that people were living in at that time, their main interest was surviving and providing basic needs like food for their families.
On a psychological level people were left with a strong feeling of defeat, a feeling of humiliation and of fear. Young people today often refer to the older generation as the ‘Military-ruled generation’, as elders are perceived as afraid, never speaking about politics, and less proud of their community, themselves and their nation than today’s generation of Palestinians in Israel.
Over the years starting from the 1970s, people went back to feeling a sense of belonging and pride of what they are. It took years to overcome this oppression and feeling of defeat. In the 1970s and 1980s people started to feel proud again, they wanted to become more engaged in what they are doing and to have a say in what goes on in social and political fields. As a result of this, a lot of Palestinian organizations were set up over the last twenty years and today young people consider the Palestinian part of their identity of great importance.
To your opinion can we say today that Arabs in Israel have a collective identity relating them to a common history?
The collective identity that the Arabs in Israel have is the Palestinian identity – the words associated with the occupation, such as ‘Nakba’ and ‘refugee’, have the same connotations for all Palestinian people. All these issues are part of every Palestinian person’s consciousness. The Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel don’t have their own national identity but share the collective identity of all Palestinians. Since the 1950s the Israeli government has tried to create a new identity, known as the ‘Arab Israeli’, for Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel,. I think this was a false and distorted identity, which is why most of us stick to our Arab Palestinian identity and history. At the end of the day the fact remains that we are all Palestinians in spite of living in different regions, countries and being divided by borders.
What role plays the state of Israel in forming the identities of its Arab citizens and also Jews who come from completely different regions and cultures such the Middle-East and Eastern Europe?
Concerning the Arabs, the state continues to attempt to erase the sense of belonging that we naturally have to Palestine and to the Arab world. In my opinion the state has failed in this aim.
Concerning the Jews, the Zionist movement wished to create the new Israeli person, different to the Jewish person in the diaspora in that he/ she would be more proud and stronger. The state wished to disconnect the people who came here from their previous cultural and social atmospheres.
For the Jews from Arab and Eastern countries, the state looked at their culture as an inferior one and in many ways they tried to suppress it and to encourage them to adopt the Western Ashkenazi Jewish values instead of the culture and values they came with. School curriculums, the media and the army made people internalize the notion that Arabs and the East are inferior and in order to succeed in life you must be a Western Ashkenazi person. In order to do this you must change your identity completely – your accent, your food etc; many people adapted to be a part of this system.
The State continues to play an important role in shaping and forming new identities within its population.
It is frequent that youngsters in Israel do not get involved in the interior cultural debate. Do you see that as a sort of indifference on there part and an acceptance of there present reality or is it more because of a lack of information on socio-political issues that concern the Arab population in Israeli medias?
The process of youth becoming more indifferent to politics and more interested in their own personal issues and self-development is a global one. The same thing applies to Arab and Jewish society today in Israel. For Arab Palestinian youth in Israel, the low level of involvement is a result of a number of issues. People are disappointed of the political system and don’t believe they can ever change it, so often they feel it is pointless attempting to do so. Also, many young people don’t have a high level of social and political awareness and often don’t have enough information on the situation. These are usually the two reasons why youth appear to be apathetic to the interior ongoing debates, but it is still important to raise the social and political awareness of youth and we must remain hopeful that we can make a difference and change something, even if it is not on a large scale. Small changes in the local environment and local community are still important changes.
The Lack of mutual understanding in the Israeli society leads to misjudgments, prejudice and creates stereotypes nationally and distorts the perception of Arabs in Israel internationally. It seems that NGOs like Baladna are the last hope for an equal and pluralistic society in Israel. Talk to us about your work and its impact on social life in Israel.
Basically there is no such thing as one “Israeli society” – there are societies in Israel. This is particularly the case when speaking about Palestinian and Jewish people. Everyone is living in their own social, educational and cultural system.
In the political sphere, there is a majority taking all the decisions and disregarding the minority completely. This is where all the problems stem from, as a political system which disregards the minority creates a society which begins to demonize them. Many things could be solved if there was a more open and democratic system which reached everyone.
In Baladna Association for Arab Youth, we are trying to empower our society in general, particularly the youth. We are trying to make the gap that exists between the two societies smaller, especially because Palestinians suffer a lot of discrimination and unequal opportunities. This is the role we try to fulfill, and we work mainly for and with youth.
Is the cultural exchange between Arabs and Jews in Israel active enough to your opinion? What levels does it include? (Schools, foreign and local cultural centers, conferences…)
In most cases the two societies live in their own social and cultural circles and there is not much interaction between them, but I don’t think that the problem stems from cultural differences. I think that the political system is the cause of the lack of cultural exchange between Arabs and Jews. I believe that cultural exchange will come naturally when we live in an open democratic society which does not discriminate a person because of his ethnic origin.
These problems will be solved naturally if the state defines itself as a state of all its citizens, and not just the majority. Once this happens, cultural exchange will come as part of a natural process.
Do Arab NGOs in Israel cooperate with the local public sector such as the Ministry of Education, Municipalities…etc. what is the nature of this cooperation?
The Arab NGOs in Israel cooperate to a certain level with them but I think in many cases we have been blocked from receiving the support we should be entitled to getting and which the Jewish organizations are getting. This is because of the government’s discrimination policies.
Does the international community fund activities like Baladna’s? Who are these structures and what subjects interest them?
Yes there are members of the international community who are interested in funding NGOs working with Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel. Usually they are interested in working in the fields of human rights and advocacy, gender, empowerment etc.
For you as an activist seeking to strengthen the capacities of the Palestinian community in Israel, what do you say to all the young Arabs of Israel who immigrate abroad out of deep disappointment of the socio-economical situation, hoping to find a better life elsewhere?
Although we face a lot of frustration, I still think it is important not to emigrate and to try and improve things internally within our society here. There is still enough space for people to contribute to society for a better future and also be able to work on self-development here. Alaa Ashkar