Identity and crisis

A riveting dialogue provokes readers to reconsider long-held assumptions about Israeli Arabs and state.

surrounded book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
surrounded book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Surrounded: Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh Stanford University Press 224 pp.; $24.95 An Israeli Arab friend of mine, Saleh, is married to an American woman. He is conflicted: Though part of him would prefer to raise his children here among his family, he chooses to raise them in the US. One of the reasons he gives is that his two boys, as the children of a Muslim Arab, will not be able to join the army and thus will not reap the benefits of serving the State of Israel. When Saleh comes to visit the village he grew up in, a stone's throw from Lebanon, he looks at the army age young men standing around, "doing nothing," and he doesn't want his sons to join their ranks. But what happens when Israeli Arabs join the other ranks - those of the IDF? This question serves as the touchstone for Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh's academic yet accessible Surrounded: Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military. The title is deceptively simple, however. Surrounded is not a myopic look at the small number of Israeli Arabs who serve in the military - rather, the topic serves as the lens through which Kanaaneh examines the state of Arabs within the State of Israel. According to Kanaaneh, who is from Galilee, holds a PhD from Columbia University and currently teaches at New York University, Israeli Arab soldiers "offer a unique perspective on citizenship in Israel... They put Israel to a critical test: Are these 'good Arabs' who will go to almost any length to become Israeli allowed into the fold?" Kanaaneh first grounds the reader in a sense of what it means to be outside the fold, to live surrounded by pressure as an Arab in Israel, a country she refers to as "a military with a state attached." She tackles issues of identity, discussing the often shifting, often contradictory and always complex ways Israeli Arabs perceive themselves. She takes on the carving up of the whole of Israeli Arabs into the subcategories of Druse, Beduin, Christian and Muslim. And she highlights not only the complicated relationship the Israeli Arabs have with the state but with each other and with the Palestinians who reside beyond Israel's borders. Once Kanaaneh has laid this intricate groundwork, she launches into the particulars, as well as the consequences and rewards, of Israeli Arab service in the IDF. She leaves no stone unturned, offering the reader fascinating glimpses at everything from a brief history of Druse and Beduin military service to the issues of gender and masculinity in uniform to the glass ceiling encountered by the Israeli Arab members of the IDF. Surrounded is at its most compelling, however, when Kanaaneh allows the interviewees to speak for themselves, via excerpts of interviews. When we hear the voices of Israeli Arabs who have chosen to serve in the military, the multiple identities lived by these men, and the handful of women, are most clearly illuminated, as are the variety of circumstances that compel them to serve. What the interviewees share with the reader is sometimes surprising, sometimes not, and often contradictory. One soldier, Shafiq, says that he joined the IDF to help defend the state: "I consider myself a Zionist... I entered the army with the motivation of defending the state, the law. I am an individual in this state, and it is my right to defend everything in it." But Shafiq goes on to critique the status of Arabs both within the military and within the country. "It is very easy to see that there are no Arab officers at the very highest rank. This is because the state is still considered Jewish. If it were a secular democratic state for all its citizens, then there could be an Arab commander-in-chief or an Arab president." Admittedly, Shafiq's reason for joining the army stands apart from the majority of Kanaaneh's interviewees. But early on in the book, she offers the caveat, "[R]esponses are clearly contextual; as might be expected, my own identification as Palestinian likely influenced the answers I heard." It's a problem one of her interviewees was not shy to point out to her: "Frankly, 'How do you identify yourself?' is not a good question. It depends on where I am... If you ask me here in my village among the people of the village, I'll tell you I'm a Palestinian Arab. Everybody tailors his answer to the situation he is in." The reader is invariably left wondering whether Kanaaneh's voice might have obscured those of her interviewees. She considers the issue of how her opinions and identification may have influenced her subjects in her afterword, and she speaks about it at length. Surrounded is beset by another problem - it suffers throughout from its own overabundance. The topics at hand are too many and too tall an order for too short a book. It seems as though Kanaaneh has sacrificed depth for breadth. Surrounded, then, reads a bit like a primer rather than a deep discourse. But it is a riveting dialogue nonetheless, one that provokes readers to reconsider long-held assumptions about not just Israeli Arabs and the state, but the nature of the conflict itself. Kanaaneh writes: "[T]he dual 'sides' of a conflict are not natural, preexisting and ahistorical. When asking why someone is on the wrong side of a war, one has to inquire how those 'sides' came to be in the first place. And the answer often is militarization and war itself." By deconstructing the often overlooked phenomenon of Israeli Arab service in the IDF, Kanaaneh offers a fresh look at the sometimes arbitrary lines drawn in the rapidly shifting sands of Israeli society.