September 2007

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News and Opinion

Under the Big Top

-- Marc J. Rosenstein

We moved to the Galilee from Philadelphia in 1990, settling in Shorashim, a small rural community founded by former Americans. Since Shorashim was at that time a "moshav shitufi" (a communal settlement that is in many respects similar to a kibbutz), I had the luxury of guaranteed employment with the flexibility of being able to try different jobs in the moshav economy. In the first two years I assembled electronic circuit boards, wrote student guides for an educational software publisher, led text-based educational tours of Galilee sites like Safed and Pekiin, and washed pots in the dining room of our youth hostel.

At the end of those two years the moshav privatized, and I ended up the director of the hostel/seminar center. Our most popular program, designed for summer Jewish youth groups such as NFTY, USY, Ramah, and Young Judea, was an informal visit to a nearby Arab village, and an encounter with the local teenagers. It was usually I who gave the introductory lecture before setting out for the village, and I tried in my shpiel to take a balanced position, pointing out both the strength of Israeli democracy and the fabric of shared values that seemed to characterize the Galilee – and the work yet to be done in terms of creating equal opportunity and shared civic loyalty. I succeeded in convincing myself that we were on the right path, and that the Galilee could be seen as a sort of model of what Israel would look like if we could get it right.

Then, in September of 2000, with the outbreak of the second intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, riots erupted across the Galilee and in the "triangle" around Um el Fahm, a Northern Israeli Arab town. Roads were blocked with burning tires. Traffic lights and storefront windows were smashed. Cars were pelted with rocks. Fires were set. The police were not prepared for this, materially or psychologically, and responded in ways that were shown by later investigations to have been incompetent, inappropriate, and worse. Thirteen Arabs were killed by the police, and seven years later the anger over the police behavior – and over the failure of the entire system properly to investigate and resolve the issues arising from that behavior - still simmers.

The responses of the Jewish population to these events can be divided roughly into two categories: those who saw the riots as confirmation of what they had always suspected -- that the Arabs were not loyal citizens, that they were not committed to peaceful deliberation, that they were waiting for the opportunity to drive us into the sea, that a vision of coexistence of Arabs and Jews in Israel or anywhere in the Middle East is illusory, soft-minded optimism; and those for whom these violent, scary events were a kind of wake-up call, a jolt coming to remind us that, for example, my enthusiastic description of Israel as a democracy in the process of self-perfection was a bit naïve and self-serving. For those who saw the events in this light, the term co-existence began to grate. It became clear that for Jews, coexistence meant "quiet," while for Arabs it meant "justice." And so, it seemed, those two coexistences could no longer cheerfully coexist.

Standing on my porch watching the forest across the valley burn, listening to the rhythmic chanting of the mob in the adjacent village, for a few moments I found myself feeling disillusioned, depressed, deceived, and wondering if the message of the experience was not indeed one of the hopelessness of any vision of shared existence here. However, after a few days and a number of conversations with Arabs and Jews, I found myself in a different place, knocked down from my naïve optimism, but not depressed; rather, more aware of the daunting challenge of creating a state that is both democratic and Jewish. (The Arabs have a joke -- of course Israel is a democratic Jewish state. For the Jews, it’s democratic and for the Arabs, it’s Jewish).

In the ensuing months, a number of local initiatives cropped up, seeking to respond constructively to the newly revealed rips in the social fabric of the Galilee. With time, most of these petered out. People got busy, but more importantly, I think, they got frustrated. It turns out that genuine good will, personal friendship, and even ideological commitment are often not enough for a project or an organization to have noticeable impact on Arab-Jewish relations. It is worth while cataloging some of the impediments to "normalization:"

Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. Ever since the first Zionist settlers arrived over a century ago, we have been arguing among ourselves as to just what that means – for Jews and for others. It seems that there is no way to reconcile the concept of Jewish state with a pluralistic, multicultural model like the United States. So what model do we intend? A post-World-War-I model of ethnic nation states containing ethnic minorities with specific rights guaranteed by treaty? A return to some mythical ethnically pure state, from which all the Arabs would somehow disappear? The fact that we have never clarified our vision of a Jewish state puts all the citizens who are not Jewish in a kind of limbo. The state does not know what to do with them and they do not know what to do with the state.

The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who chose not to flee in 1948, have ethnic, religious, and kinship ties with those Palestinian Arabs who live outside the borders of Israel, whether as refugees or as natives in their lands. No matter how firmly rooted, loyal, "Israelified" the Arabs of Israel might become, they are still suspected by many Jews and by various institutions of the state as potential traitors, whose loyalty to their people may transcend their loyalty to their state. This constant suspicion and its public expression, regardless of how rational it may seem to the Jews, certainly cannot serve as a motivation for the Arabs to feel loyalty to and sympathy for the state. It is daunting to think about what will happen when Israel succeeds in achieving peace with all its neighbors. We will then be faced, finally, with having to decide how to define and relate to our Arab citizens (20% of the state) without the distraction (or excuse) of our suspicion that they identify with our enemies.

Unlike the United States melting pot of a century ago, Israel’s majority and its minority have agreed on a policy of a relatively high degree of cultural autonomy and separation. We generally live in separate communities, attend separate [government-run public] schools, speak different languages, listen to different music, live according to different cultural norms. The great "levelers" of Israeli society – school and army – barely touch the separation between the two peoples. Mixed neighborhoods and schools are rare exceptions. We rarely talk to each other. On several occasions when Israeli Jewish adults have participated in our programs of encounter with Galilee Arabs, I have heard the comment, "You know, I found this program very upsetting. It made me realize I’ve lived here all these years and never once had a conversation with an Arab…"

Moreover, this mutually accepted exclusion of the Arab minority from majority culture has allowed a number of destructive pre-modern cultural norms to flourish in Arab society, most notably abuse of women and clan-based governance. The results include dysfunctional communities and families, personal suffering, and a widening of the cultural, educational, and socio-economic gaps between Arabs and Jews.

The shadow of the Holocaust darkens all public discourse in Israel. We do not argue about who has the more moral or practical or hopeful vision, but over who has the prime claim to victimhood. Victims, of course, have the high moral ground – and no responsibility. So everyone, it seems, wants to be one: the Christian Arabs, the Druze, the Bedouins, the Orthodox, the secular, the kibbutzniks, the dwellers in development towns, the handicapped, the aged, the gay, the straight, women, men, those who serve in the army, those who don’t, the new immigrants, the native born, Galileans, Negev residents, even Holocaust survivors – there is probably no identity category that does not have good arguments to prove that they are the ones who have been the victims of the greatest injustice/neglect/discrimination/deception. That is why they are entitled (to whatever) and why they are not responsible for any nasty things they might do. The Arabs are as good at this game as anyone else, which is too bad, as it has not gotten them any farther than it has gotten the rest of us.

On the one hand, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and one can find encouraging examples of Arabs who have risen to high positions in business, the professions, public administration – even the army (the Druze and Bedouins, who serve in the army, are, after all, Arabs), and there is a growing educated middle class, and impressive young community and political leaders who are seeking to improve the Arabs’ opportunities and status through constructive, self-critical leadership. On the other hand, you do not have to look very far to find glaring examples of discrimination and public expressions of racism that are simply taken to be part of the environment. No one gets worked up about them.

I think that there are many people who believe that we are destined to live in a state of perpetual conflict with the Arabs here. Others believe that ultimately we will have to expel them. My sense is that most Jews here simply do not have a long-term vision of a solution. They have a vague commitment to democracy and equal rights and opportunities, but they also have a commitment to a Jewish state that somehow "belongs" to the Jewish people. Exactly what the status of the Arabs should be is something we really don’t have to think about just now, do we?

Alas, I believe that after a century of putting off thinking about this question, it is catching up with us. We have had to share this land with others throughout our history – ever since Abraham first stopped by. There was never a time when we were alone here. Rarely have we had full sovereignty and political independence and when we did, it was centuries before current conceptions of democracy and human rights were considerations to be dealt with. Now we are in a real bind. We have power and sovereignty – and we also have a modern consciousness that will not allow us simply to jettison all those ideals of freedom and equality, of justice and mercy that we have absorbed over the generations. So where do we start?

One of the projects that grew out of those discussions after the riots of 2000 was a Jewish-Arab youth circus (actually, two, in different locations in the Galilee). I have been privileged to be involved in one of these, the Galilee Circus, which today comprises 50 children and teens (ages 10-17), half of them from the Jewish city of Karmiel and half from the surrounding Arab villages. After reading the above catalog of weighty hindrances to Jewish-Arab normalization in Israel, one might justifiably wonder, just what do kids on unicycles have to do with The Arab Question?

I have learned a few things from the circus that I think do indeed have relevance to our situation. First of all, a few observations (influenced by talking to youth circus professionals from other countries, and reading the works of the late circus artist, teacher, and scholar Reg Bolton): The circus is…largely independent of language – it is actually its own, international, nonverbal language…non-competitive, communal, representing a tradition of a multicultural "family"…based on mutual trust…dedicated to making people happy…occupied with fears – overcoming them or laughing at them.

In our context, a youth circus offers a model of shared cultural experience that is very rare here. In the circus, there is absolute and total equality. No one knows or cares if you are an Israeli Arab or an Israeli Jew – or something else altogether. What matters is how you perform and how you contribute to the group. Soccer, that great international game, sometimes seems an attenuated form of gladiatorial contest. At Israeli soccer games it is not uncommon to hear chants of "kill the Arabs." You do not hear that at the circus.

The circus presents a model and asks the question: can there be such a thing as an Israeli identity, that is large enough and universal enough to include both Arabs and Jews, without requiring them to give up their Arabness or Jewishness? Can those kids who juggle and tumble together so easily find a way to live together outside the tent? What could be the elements of a common culture? The answer to this question is not obvious, but it is obvious to me that unless we create a common denominator of culture and civic commitment, the long-term existence of the state is in jeopardy. It seems to me that there are a number of steps that need to be taken – and that can be taken – now:

We need to expand the opportunities for shared cultural experience, by investing in projects like the circus and Arab-Jewish theater groups and sports clubs, or in organizations fostering Jewish-Arab cooperative work for shared civil goals like environmental quality, improved services for the handicapped, helping the refugees from Darfur, etc. We need to expand, exponentially, the settings in which Jews and Arabs work together to address common challenges – we need less talk (about our feelings, about our historical insults, about our identity dilemmas) and more action.

We need to open a thoughtful deliberation about the costs and benefits of cultural autonomy and the lack of an Israeli national culture (and universal public school system). Separate but equal is, we know, not equal, and the Arabs pay a very high price for the compromises we have made regarding educational autonomy and release from national service. This applies, of course, not only to the Arabs but to the Orthodox as well.

We need to create forums, in print and in direct encounter, for a discourse of vision instead of victimhood. We need to elicit from our leaders and our intellectuals their proposals for the good society and the ideal state, so that the public can begin to argue about the future instead of about the past.

Like many revolutionary movements, Zionism had a pretty good idea of what it wanted to overthrow (the reality of Jewish life as a religious minority in a world of awakening nationalism), but no consensus regarding what it wanted to create. Hence, we have had Orthodox, Reform, utopian, socialist, liberal, and messianic Zionists, and probably more. The revolution succeeded. There is a Jewish state. In order to keep it, we are going to have to define it -- a difficult challenge requiring painful decisions and brooking no delay. Rabbi Tarfon said it well (Mishnah Avot 2:20): "The day is short and the task is great, the workers are lazy and the wages are high – and the master is impatient."

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