'I wanted to meet these people'

Smadar Bakovic returned to Israel to teach herself and others about an oft-overlooked minority.

smadar bakovic 88 298 (photo credit: )
smadar bakovic 88 298
(photo credit: )
What drives a young Jewish Israeli woman to travel unaccompanied into the heart of unfamiliar, sometimes openly hostile, Israeli Arab villages during the violent and painful months of the second intifada? "Looking back, I realize that I was actually very na ve at the time," Smadar Bakovic, 30, says of the experiences that led to her to write Tall Shadows. "I didn't really know what I was going to face. One of the reasons I wrote this book was the high degree of ignorance I had about the Israeli-Arab issue. I needed to learn what was going on. I wanted to meet these people." Born in Haifa and raised on Moshav Neve Ilan, Bakovic spent six years traveling across the United States, including living on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. She attended college in Montana and Wyoming and at Bates College in Maine. In May 2001, she began her research on the Israeli Arab population with the financial aid of a Phillips Student Fellowship. "My mother actually came up with the idea that I should do my [Phillips Fellowship] project about Israel," Bakovic recalls. "Coming back to Israel would challenge me, because it challenged the self-denial I had about the [Israeli-Arab] issue, like most other Israelis. Most Israelis don't want to see it or hear about it. They say that it's fine like it is right now, that there is no problem. I took on the responsibility to do what I can to raise this issue among Israelis. Israel is a country that I love, and want to be proud of. I speak of the less popular things in our society with hopes that we can change them." The author studied conversational Arabic and conducted her interviews primarily in that language. Even so, language was not the only barrier to dialogue. First there was the issue of trust. Was it hard for a Jewish woman to go into the homes of Israeli Arabs and get them to talk about their lives? It wasn't that hard because I made my contacts first with women. I knew enough about Arab society to know that in order to gain the trust of the women I would have to first get permission from the father of the family, but I had to meet initially with women....I had a very big plus being a woman. Listening to these women speaking openly about men, about politics, and about religion was very fascinating. Were the people interviewed completely open and honest with their answers? I knew that in writing this book I was not going to hear things that were 100% truth, but that was not my objective. I wrote this book with the intent of giving Israeli Arabs a platform to express their feelings, regardless of whether this was fictitious or truthful. What was true was what people felt in their minds. They feel they are being discriminated against, and that they are second-class citizens because they are Arabs. Many people ask me, how do I know if it is true? I don't know if what I heard was the truth, but this a very personal book, dealing with people's feelings. That is what we have to work on as a society. Do you still maintain friendships with the subjects of your research? I have very deep friendships today with Arabs in Umm el-Fahm and Arara, and in east Jerusalem. Growing up I felt a total lack of contact with these people. I come from an open and pluralistic family, but I was disconnected from Arab people and Arab culture. Today, I have a very deep love and affection for a lot of these people, even though I disagree very strongly with some of their beliefs. Bakovic has worked for the United Nations in Geneva where she served as a researcher for the Committee on the Status of Women and the Working Group on the Girl Child. In March 2004 she moved to eastern Turkey where she researched Kurdish women and Turkish Sunni Islam. She's also been a member of a multi-disciplinary team implementing initiatives on behalf of Israel's Druse population with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. So what's next for the burgeoning writer? "I am writing another book, about Turkey this time," she replies. But Bakovic remains passionate about issues concerning Israeli Arabs. "I discovered the human dimension of the problem. I think that one of the main reasons I went about this project is because I love my country, but I feel that there are a lot of things that we still have to work on as a society in order to be better."