Who are they?

Several of our headlines have dealt with an issue that is always in the near background: 

Who are the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs? How do they think? and Is there any chance of living in a condition of peace, or at least reasonable quiet?

One of the headlines came from responses to a comment by a prominent radio journalist, Razi Barkai. He began a mini-storm by questioning the policy of holding back the bodies of Palestinians killed while attacking Israelis, noting the feelings of Palestinian families, and comparing them to those of Israeli families waiting the return of bodies from the 2014 conflict in Gaza.

That the incidence occurred on the widely listened to Army Radio added its bit to the furor. 

The government minister that Barkai was interviewing at the time challenged the comparison, and the issue heated up further when the station arranged an interview with a parent of a soldier killed in Gaza, whose body is being held by Hamas. 

Barkai said in response to criticism:

“The only comparison was . . . from the point of view of the feelings of a bereaved Palestinian mother and a bereaved Jewish mother, I don’t think there’s a difference. If I hurt you, then I expressed myself unsuccessfully ”

Israeli families demanded a more explicit apology, as well as an investigation by the management of the Army Radio, and the suspension of Barkai.

An initial response was to reduce Barkai's regular program in length. Politicians expressed themselves on both sides of the issue. The station's management stood by Barkai, and after a few days restored his program to its original length.

Barkai's reputation as a long serving professional, his own experience as a bereaved brother of an IDF soldier, as well as an underlying Judaic willingness to argue without silencing one another helped to keep the squabble in appropriate proportion.

Since then, both the Minister of Defense and the Police Chief have avoided criticizing Barkai, but have said in prominent forums that Jews differ from Arabs in how they respond to death. For them, Jews mourn, while Arabs praise sacrifice.

In such matters it's wise to admit that we're in the mud of comparing the feelings of cultures associated with millions of individuals. There are wide differences within each community.

There are Arabs who celebrate the death of family members, and say that they wish that other children will follow the brother killed for the sake of Palestine. There are also Jews who qualify their mourning by affirming the value of personal sacrifice for the sake of Israel or the Jewish people.

The differences may be clear, as long as we recognize the overlap, and the suffering of individuals on both sides of the cultural divide. 

What's elusive is weighing the differences, and judging what they mean for our mutual futures.

The second rash of headlines concerned what the General at the head of the IDF Intelligence Corps was reputed to have told the inner government cabinet that decides on key matters of national security. 

He was reported to say that it was important to begin a process of negotiation with the Palestinians, and without it Israel should expect an escalation of violence. He described conditions in both the West Bank and Gaza, including a comment that in a few years conditions in Gaza would make the area "uninhabitable." 

The General and the Prime Minister refused to specify what was said in the closed session of the cabinet. Other sources quarreled with the journalist who described the meeting, claiming that the comments were taken out of context, and were more highly qualified than was reported.

Nonetheless, the Chief of Intelligence came under fire for talking peace in the context of an increase in Palestinian violence, not taking account of Palestinian rejectionism, and the IDF's prime concern with defense. 

In the background were proposals from IDF sources to allow Hamas to open a port on the coast of Gaza, along with procedures to assure that it would not be used to import weaponry.

This is part of a larger argument--a long way from being resolved--that Israel would benefit by making life easier for Palestinians, and reducing the incentives for violence.

Critics said that the head of IDF Intelligence was involving the army in politics. and made the point that giving benefits in a wave of violence would only encourage more violence. They note that Hamas is using cement provided by Israel to rebuild housing for the sake of tunnels meant to attack Israel.

Adding to the complexities in assessing the culture of Israel's minority, which is somehow related to the vast majority of Arabs/Muslims who surround us, are quite a few individuals who have spoken or written forcefully against what they view as the prevailing attitudes toward Jews and/or Israelis. Intellectuals, journalists, and political activists from Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Arabs from Israel have expressed themselves in admiration of what Israel has accomplished, and for the openness of its democracy to individuals (Arabs as well as Jews) having different views.

Strong pro-Israel comments have come from close relatives of Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi, the most shrill and outspoken of Israel's critics from within its political establishment. For a video clip, with English translation, of Zoabi's sister, click here.

More complex and tantalizing insights into Israeli Arab culture come from the fiction produced by Sayed Kashua and from his  frequent articles in the cultural section of Ha'aretz.

Kashua's writings suggest the mixed feelings of an Arab who seems to respect Israelis, feels frustration from the Arab culture, senses limitations imposed by Israel on its minority, and has chosen to leave Israel for life and career opportunities in the United States.

Kahua's novel גוף שני יחיד, whose title the publisher translates as Second Person. is a fascinating and convoluted story about two Israeli Arabs.. 

Both principal characters express admiration for the culture of Israeli Jews, and integrate well in work, with individuals, and frequent visits to coffee houses in Jewish areas.

One of the characters adopts the identity of a Jew he had cared for, after the Jew died. The novel ends with the Arab's romance with a Jewish woman--who knows him as.Yonatan Forschmidt--warming up but as yet unresolved, and apparently unconsummated. Kashua's main characters are puritanical about sex.  

Kashua also tells about young Jewish women--students at an art institute--who sleep with Arab men at least partly for the sake of political correctness. 

Both of Kashua's major characters show the undersides of Arab culture. One becomes convinced that his wife has betrayed him, or may.not have been.a.virgin before their.marriage. He overlooks a good life as an attorney and their two children, considers killing her or demanding that her family do it, or beginning divorce proceedings in a Muslim religious court that will give him exclusive possession of the children.

He does none of those things, but stays with his wife and kids, and continues with obsessions about her fidelity.

The father of the other major character was shunned by his family and forced out of his home village on account of his cooperation with authorities. In both her original and new village, his wife was said to be a whore who.would sleep with anyone, including Jewish officials who could provide the family with small favors. The boy who grew up to be one of Kashua's major characters was an outcast among his peers, known as the son of a mother who was a whore and a father who helped the enemy. We last see him as Yonatan, with unresolved identities as Arab or Jew.

Kashua's main characters are well integrated into Israel's dominant Jewish culture, but also show strong, and perhaps dominant identity as Arabs. They also show the signs of living between two worlds, and more than a bit of discomfort with their situation. Most of the other Arab characters in his book are not as well integrated, and some are clearly antagonistic to Jews.

The Israeli reality demonstrates a great deal of interaction that mocks accusations of Apartheid, along with significant barriers of culture between us and them. Even if we speak the same language, we come to every contact with different histories, or different views about our shared history.

We can ask similar questions about majority-minority relations in other democracies. Details differ, but problems of comprehension remain, along with problems in designing programs that will ease tensions, improve the lives of.both minority and majority, and reduce violence.

Americans might think of individual African Americans they know, or their President, as well as ghettos and prisons showing the hopeless underside of Black culture.

Deciding if one country's minority is more successful, better integrated, or suffers more than another country's minority is a task that stumbles on the cultural borders within each country that get in the way of full candor, understanding, or cooperation.

Jews know, despite success in numerous fields, that it isn't easy being a minority. Especially, perhaps, a minority that carries the label of being different from the majority, an outsider, and the stigma of stereotyped behaviors.

Comments welcome


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
[email protected]