Israeli Arabs must show Jews, Arabs can live in peace - Nazir Majali

Journalist Nazir Majali’s new book invites the country’s majority and minority to understand each other better.

 NAZIR MAJALI: Working on master plan for Jews and Arabs to work side by side. (photo credit: Muna Abu Shehadeh)
NAZIR MAJALI: Working on master plan for Jews and Arabs to work side by side.
(photo credit: Muna Abu Shehadeh)

“Every person was once a member of a minority community. And everyone who is currently in the majority could one day find himself in the minority,” writes author and journalist Nazir Majali in his new book, The Responsibility of the Minority. “Some people choose to be part of a minority community, while others were not given a choice in the matter. Some are born into a minority, and they begin paying the price for this from day one. The same thing can be said about being part of the majority. In wars between the majority and the minority, the loss is inconceivable.”

Majali fully understands what it’s like to be born into a minority culture. Born in Nazareth, his father is a Bedouin from Beisan (now Beit She’an) who worked as an Israel Police officer, and his mother, who is Muslim, is from Syria. Majali went to the Latin Patriarchal School in Nazareth. In his book, Majali writes that Arab-Israelis are not a minority that moved into an area belonging to the majority population, but just the opposite.

“We were born here,” he explains. “We were part of the majority here for hundreds and even thousands of years. Then, suddenly, under tragic circumstances, we became the minority. We did not initiate the process through which we became the minority, but we still need to deal with this reality.”

Majali, 70, is married to Abtahaj, who works in the Nazareth Municipality as a consultant for the advancement of women, and together they have three children. He was editor in chief of the al-Ittihad daily, and he also taught at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He sat on the editorial board of the now-defunct Eretz Acheret magazine, hosted a current affairs show on then-Channel 2, and still participates in weekly radio and TV programs, including on Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya and Sky News.

I believe with all my heart that the majority is responsible for the majority, and the minority is responsible for the minority,” Majali states. 

 RA’AM LEADER Dr. Mansour Abbas.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) RA’AM LEADER Dr. Mansour Abbas. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“When I was appointed chief editor of al-Ittihad, I understood that each word I wrote has influence, and therefore I need to be extremely vigilant of everything I publish,” Majali continues. “As the editor, the word ‘responsibility’ held great meaning for me. Every incident that took place in Israel was an impetus for me to write this book. I received lots of encouragement from the director of the Shaharit think tank, Dr. Eilon Schwartz. 

“I took all the thoughts and ideas I’d learned over the years, and brought them together in my book in a concise manner. If a person who belongs to the majority can see what life would be like if he were in the minority, and vice versa, both sides would be able to better understand what they stand to gain from the conflict, as well as what they’re missing out on.

“On the one hand, Arabs who are Israeli citizens symbolize the State of Israel’s greatest loss. They are the failure of the Arab nation in general, and specifically of the Palestinian people. They could have served as a bridge that brings people together and builds trust. It’s been a long time since the Arab public in Israel took on this important role in a serious fashion. Still, better late than never. Just by looking at how many Arab-Israelis work in Israel’s hospitals and study in Israeli universities, we can see that it’s possible to live and work alongside each other with mutual respect. 

“I’m striving to create a master plan for Jews and Arabs to work side by side, and so I’m beginning with my side – the Arab side. We need to do everything necessary to move forward, to take the initiative and push onward without expecting anything in return. I am doing what I think is right for the future of my children and grandchildren. I am sure that there are many good Jews who will join us on this initiative.”

Majali’s book was published during a particularly explosive time, just as the Citizenship Law was being reexamined, around Nakba Day and journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral procession and the latest coalition crisis. “When I talk about Arabs and Palestinians, I am referring to families and my people,” Majali continues. 

“When I talk about Jewish Israelis, I think of them as our partners. When I meet with Jews in London, we suddenly realize that we all come from the same place. We’re talking about people we could be standing with while waiting in line at a café, or in a class at university. Most Arabs and Jews get along well. And nearly 30% of hospital staff is Arab. No Arab-Israeli has gotten ahead in his career in this racist environment without a Jewish Israeli offering a helping hand, and these good deeds will always be remembered.”

And yet both sides are highly suspicious of each other.

“Yes, that’s true. When I began delving into Jewish history, I learned that the Jewish people have many reasons to be afraid, and I didn’t want the Arabs to give them any more reason to be fearful. That’s not the role we were meant to play.”

According to Majali, both sides have missed out on opportunities to make all our lives better. “Throughout the years, most Israeli leaders, with the exception of a small number, have looked at Arab-Israelis as part of the greater Arab enemy,” Majali adds. 

“On the other hand, Arab leaders – including the Palestinians – have also let opportunities slip through their fingers by being overly suspicious. At first, we were labeled as traitors for remaining here. Afterward, we were encouraged to join the liberation army. And if any of us ever spoke about a desire for a peaceful coexistence with Israel, we were ignored. Some of us wanted to engage in talks, but for years the Jews didn’t distinguish the differences between the different groups.”

You speak as if the conflict just started a few decades ago, when the roots actually go back much further. 

“In the past, they knew how to overcome hostility. Take, for example, the Golden Age in Europe, in Andalusia, where the Jews and Muslims not only knew how to work together, they learned how to live together, too.” 

What’s your opinion about Arab-Israelis serving in the IDF?

“I’m against compulsory conscription, but I think each person should have the choice to volunteer and do what’s best for them personally. But I do think that everyone should be responsible to carry out some sort of national service, so that everyone feels like they are contributing to society. I grew up in a family where volunteering was a very important value, and I believe this too. I want our children to start college at the same age as the Jewish students, and for them all to be on the same page and understand where the others come from.”

What’s your opinion of the Citizenship Law?

“The Citizenship Law is doing an injustice to Israel’s Arab citizens. It will lead to even more discrimination, and now no one is willing to amend it. Israel has taken a step in the wrong direction. Arab-Israelis now feel like there is no longer any place for them in Israeli society. It’s even causing hard feelings within the Druze community.”

Majali writes the following in his book: “Why aren’t Israel’s Arabs interested in being part of a Palestinian state? The truth is, living as citizens of the State of Israel, we are much safer and have better lives than we would in other Arab countries. 

“I’m in no way saying we are better than our brethren in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Arabs living in the diaspora. On the contrary. They are better than us in many respects, and both communities come from the same gene pool. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up our Israeli citizenship, mentality or way of life. That is simply out of the question.”

What kind of role does the Arab leadership play in your plan?

“Some of the positive acts our leaders are carrying out, such as speeches made by [Joint List MKs] Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh about the Holocaust, are examples of what you can achieve when you are on the correct path, and instead of lashing out at the other side, you honor their grief. When [Ra’am (United Arab List) leader] Dr. Mansour Abbas joined the coalition, he took a positive step that expresses the will of the people – well, at least the people who voted for him. According to surveys, the vast majority of Arab-Israelis want to be involved in Israeli society, and not live in a separate community. 

“I am in favor of full integration. Arab-Israelis are the ones who are deciding what their goal is, and I believe in encouraging leaders at the grassroots level. The reason the PLO officially recognized the State of Israel was in part due to the influence we’ve affected.”

Why do so many people choose to play the victim card?

“We learned that skill from the Jews. The Jews have also been victims, and the Nakba turned us into victims, too. The Arabs understand the viability of playing the role of victim – just look at how the world views Israel. And yet, I don’t want to be the victim who just cries and talks about the Nakba. It’s time we took responsibility for our own lives. It’s in our best interest for Israel to be strong.”

The conversation I, a Jewish-Israeli woman, am having with an Arab-Israeli man, is taking place in fluent Hebrew. If it were to take place in Arabic, we would have needed the help of an interpreter. 

“My daughter, Mislon, teaches Arabic in Jewish schools,” Majali continues. “She’s authored two Arabic school textbooks, and also teaches her Jewish students about Muslim holidays, history and customs. Learning Arabic is a great tool that helps Jewish Israelis learn about their Arab neighbors. It would be amazing if all Israelis would learn Arabic, but I’ve no complaints.”

Aren’t you concerned about the criticism some people have expressed of your viewpoint?

“Being fearful will not make our lives any better. Fear can be a catalyst for change, for progress. On the one hand, fear can make us be more careful, but it can also help us decide to push for change so that we won’t have to be fearful anymore. I criticize others, and so I need to be able to accept criticism, too. I am constantly searching for paths that will lead to a new way. 

“Terrible things are currently happening around the world, which shows us that we’ve learned nothing from past wars. I truly want to believe that we have learned from our past mistakes, and I don’t want our community to shy away from the responsibility we have to identify this incredible opportunity. We must take action. 

“I am an Arab-Israeli, and my father is Palestinian. All of my family lives in the territories. My mother is Syrian, and her family lives in Syria and Lebanon. We are victims of the war twice over, and so we have double the responsibility and duty to bring this conflict to an end. 

“Look at this beautiful land here in the Galilee, where you see how Jews and Arabs live. The Arab minority must take up the mantle and promote change that will show the world that Jews and Arabs can live together in peace.”■

Translated by Hannah Hochner.