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Oren Kessler
Author, “Palestine 1936”
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Arabs in Israel: More Israeli, more Palestinian

As they integrate into a state defining itself as Jewish, the need to assert their own distinct identity assumes new urgency
The Ziyadne siblings, Aisha and Bilal, with family at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba after being freed from Hamas captivity, December 1, 2023. (Courtesy)
The Ziyadne siblings, Aisha and Bilal, with family at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba after being freed from Hamas captivity, December 1, 2023. (Courtesy)

We live in a chapter unlike any other in the century-old Jewish-Arab conflict. On October 7 Hamas terrorists massacred some 1,200 Israelis and took nearly 250 hostage in the bloodiest day – by far – in Israel’s 75-year history. Israel has responded with an air and ground campaign more devastating than any in Gaza’s history, with at least 18,000 dead – both civilians and militants – according to Hamas authorities there. And yet under the radar – far from Twitter hot takes, provocative protests and gob-smacking Congressional hearings – a trend has been growing that has been scarcely noticed beyond the bounds of the Holy Land.

More than one-fifth of Israel’s citizens are Arab, and despite their guaranteed equality, they have for decades complained of persistent discrimination in employment, housing, and resources. To most Arabs in Israel, the country’s 2018 law defining itself as the Jewish nation-state is inherently prejudicial. To them, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election-day warning a few years prior that Arab voters were rushing to the ballot box in “droves” exemplified their subordinate status.

Yet recent years have seen Arab citizens make unignorable strides into Israel’s educational, economic, cultural and political mainstream. They are more integrated into the Jewish state’s daily life than at any time since the country’s founding. It may therefore appear paradoxical that they are increasingly self-identifying as Palestinian.

“We feel that we are more Israeli and more Palestinian at the same time,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, which promotes Arab-Jewish equality and cooperation within Israel.

His NGO is based in Lod, the troubled mixed city near Tel Aviv that was a flashpoint of Jewish-Arab strife during the last Gaza war two years ago.

“Personally, we are more Israeli, he said. “Collectively, more Palestinian.”

With growing confidence, he said, young Arabs in Israel are rejecting the notion they must choose between, on one hand, associating themselves with the past and future of the Palestinian people, while on the other participating in the life of – and demanding equal citizenship in – the state where they were born and live.

“The young generation – not all, but most – would very much like to strengthen its Israeliness, as individuals,” Abu Rass, who also teaches at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, told me. “They go more and more to the universities and to high-tech, and they see themselves as Israelis. But then the nation-state law comes and pushes them down and reminds them they are something else – the other, the non-Jews. It’s humiliating.”

And yet.

Over the last decade, Arab enrolment in Israeli universities has more than doubled. At Tel Aviv University, their representation in programs linked to the lucrative high-tech industry doubled in just five years. At Haifa’s prestigious Technion, Arabs now form 22 percent of the student body, and at the University of Haifa over 40 percent.

In medical school and as doctors, their representation now matches their overall proportion of the population (no mean feat, given the old cliché of Jewish overrepresentation in the field). A quarter of nurses and nearly half of all pharmacists hail from the Arab community; the Covid crisis demonstrated just how vital a public-health role they played.

The trend extends to the media. In 2007, Lucy Aharish became the first Arab journalist to anchor a major television news program. Now the panels of most major news channels include Arab voices, who command tens or hundreds of thousands of followers on Hebrew social media.

In 2021 Haaretz profiled Suleiman Maswadeh, a young journalist from Jerusalem’s Old City, who is now the main correspondent in the city for the leading national news broadcast. Maswadeh – who like most Palestinian East Jerusalemites has Israeli residency but not citizenship – was until a few years ago a hotel waiter with no knowledge of Hebrew.

Finally, that same year an independent Arab party led by MK Mansour Abbas – with an Islamist orientation, no less – joined a governing coalition for the first time, providing the decisive push to topple Netanyahu after 12 years in power.

“Israelization” and “Palestinization,” to use the scholarly terms, may seem contradictory processes, pulling in diametrically opposed directions. But for Israel’s Arab minority, particularly the younger generation, each force appears to intensify the other. As Arab education advances in Israel, young Arabs learn more about history – both Jewish history (the Zionist enterprise, the Holocaust) and crucially, Palestinian history, centered on the flight and expulsion of the Nakba. And as they integrate into a state defining itself as Jewish, the need to assert their own distinct identity assumes new urgency.

These countervailing winds have been in evidence ever since October 7. On that day, the Nazareth-born actress Maisa Abd Elhadi posted support for the Hamas onslaught to her 30,000 Instagram followers. She has since been indicted for incitement to terror.

And yet days later Mansour Abbas called on Hamas to release its women and children hostages, and this month went further still, condemning the group’s attack as “inhumane” and “against the values of Islam.” More than 20 Arabs were among those murdered by Hamas on October 7, and at the time of this writing, several Bedouin kibbutz workers remain among its captives in Gaza. A relative of those captives, the minibus driver Yosef Ziyadne, raced to the scene of Hamas’s music-festival massacre, packing 31 people into his 14-seater van and speeding through fields to save their lives.

In short, like so much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s complicated.

That extends to terminology as well. Are they Arab Israelis? Israeli Arabs? Perhaps, as some say in Arabic, “’48 Arabs,” deliberately omitting the word “Israel”?

A recent German-Israeli academic survey found that the most widely favored term – adopted by some 40 percent of respondents – remains “Arab in Israel” or “Arab citizen of Israel.” Another quarter identified as just plain “Arab” or “Palestinian,” omitting the word Israel. But more and more, particularly among the more educated and politically engaged, a hybrid identity is ascendant, one stressing both national and civil affiliations, such as “Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

Such is the term favored by Ayman Odeh, head of Hadash, the predominantly Arab socialist party in Knesset. “The ‘Israeli Arab’ is detached from his roots and his identity is drained of meaning,” he has written. “He’s like a hybrid creature that does not belong to the Palestinian people but is also not fully Israeli in the Jewish state.”

The article was written in Hebrew, and the original word was not “hybrid” but kilayim, or “mixture” – an arcane prohibition in Jewish scripture against grafting seeds, crossbreeding animals and combining certain fabrics in clothes. An Arab citizen employing an esoteric term unknown to most diaspora Jews exemplifies the crosswinds pushing against Odeh’s community.

Moreover, his protestations notwithstanding, it is precisely a hybrid identity that is on the ascendant within his constituency.

The “most growing identity is a hybrid identity, which is ‘Palestinian in Israel’” or a similar combination,” said Prof. Sammy Smooha of the University of Haifa, who coined the concept of “ethnic democracy” to refer to Israel. “I think that’s what’s going to take over.”

Abu Rass told me his two identities are in constant conversation, and in times of peace, complement each other well. However, in times of crisis  — like now — it is clear which takes precedence.

“My Palestinian-ness is very strong; it has the upper hand on my Israeli citizenship, yes,” he said. “On an everyday basis I’m Israeli – I work, I teach at the university. But I always return to my Palestinian-ness. It’s my home, my culture, my collective.”

Identity is a difficult business, and few identities are knottier than that of those people, call them Arabs or Palestinians, who are citizens of the Jewish, democratic State of Israel. There are obvious benefits to citizenship in a country that is considerably more developed, economically and politically, than any of its neighbors. There are equally obvious pitfalls to being associated with a people with whom that country has been locked in conflict for most of a century.

Internationally, the moment is not congenial to nuance. The Hamas-Israel war has demonstrated, yet again, just how simplistic and tribalistic is the state of commentary, above all on social media, on matters Israeli and Palestinian.

It is perhaps those in between – those inextricably linked, for good or ill, to both their state and nation – who may remind the rest of us what it means to live with contradictions, to coexist with complexity.

About the Author
Oren Kessler is author of “Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict,” one of the Wall Street Journal’s 10 Best Books of 2023
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