The Arabs in Israel

There is almost no Arab community that has lived in its homeland for dozens of years in a truly democratic state.

Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 300 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 300 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
The topic of the Arab sector in Israel is politically charged and represents contradicting narratives – one Jewish, the other Arab. Just as there are differences of opinion within the Jewish sector, there are variances in the Arab sector, and attitudes toward the Jewish sector, the state and its institutions can often even represent polar opposites.
To start with, there is no such thing in Israel as one “Arab sector”; rather, there are several Middle Eastern populations, some of which are not Arab, and they differ from one another in religion, culture, ethnic origin and historical background. Parenthetically, it is debatable whether there is one cohesive Jewish sector in Israel. Therefore, when we use the terms “the Arab sector” and “the Jewish sector,” it will be only for the sake of simplicity.
WITHIN THE Arab sector here, there are a number of ethnic groups that differ from each other in language, history and culture: Arabs, Africans, Armenians, Circassians and Bosnians. These groups usually do not mingle, and live in separate villages or in separate neighborhoods where a particular family predominates. For example, the Circassians in Israel are the descendants of people who came from the Caucasus to serve as officers in the Ottoman army. They live in two villages in the Galilee – Kafr Kama and Rehaniya – and despite their being Mus- lim, the young people do not usually marry Arabs.
The Africans are mainly from Sudan. Some of them live as a large group in Jisr e-Zarka and some live in family groups within Beduin settlements in the South. They are called “Abid,” from the Arabic word for “slaves.” The Bosnians live in family groups in Arab villages.
The Armenians came mainly to escape the persecution that they suffered in Turkey in the days of World War I, which culminated in the Armenian genocide of 1915.
In general, it can be said that the Arab sector is divided culturally into three main groups: urban, rural and Beduin. Each group has its own cultural characteristics: lifestyle, status of a given clan, education, occupation, level of income, number of children, and matters connected to women – for example, polygamy, age of marriage, matchmaking or dating customs, and dress.
The residents of cities – and to a great extent also the villagers – see the Beduin as primitive, while the Beduin see themselves as the only genuine Arabs; in their opinion, the villagers and city folk have lost their Arab character. The Arabic language expresses this matter well: The meaning of the word “ Arabi ” is “Beduin,” and some of the Beduin tribes are called “Arab” – for example, Arab al- Heib and Arab al-Shibli in the North.
The Beduin of the Negev classify themselves according to the color of their skin, into hamar (red) and sud (black).
Beduin would never marry their daughters to a man darker than she is, because they do not want their grandchildren to be dark-skinned. Racist? Perhaps.
Another division that exists in the Negev is between tribes that have a Beduin origin, and tribes whose livelihood is agriculture (fellahin), who have low status. A large tribe has a higher standing than a small tribe.
The Arab sector in Israel is divided into Muslims, Christians, Druse and Alawites. The Christians are subdivided into several sects – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant – and among the Muslims, there is a distinct sect of Sufis, who have a significant presence in Baka al-Gharbiya. There is also a Salafi movement in the country. The Islamist movement is organized along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The religion of the Druse is different from Islam, and Muslims consider the Druse heretics. Because of this, the Druse are supposed to keep their religion secret, even from each other, and therefore most are juhal (ignorant, of religious matters). Only a small number of the elder men are aukal (knowledgeable in matters of religion). In the modern age, there have been a number of books published about the Druse religion.
The Alawites in Israel live in the village of Ghajar, in the foothills of Mount Hermon, and some live over the border in Lebanon. They are also considered heretics in Islam, and their religion is a blend (syncretism) of Shi’ite Islam, Eastern Christianity and ancient religions that existed in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Their principal concentration is in the mountains of al-Ansariya in northwest Syria, although some are in Lebanon and some migrated southward and settled in Ghajar.
The meaning of the word “Ghajar” in Arabic is “Gypsy,” meaning foreign nomads with a different religion. In Syria, the Alawites have ruled since 1966. The Assad family is part of this heretical Islamic sect, and this is the reason for the Muslim objection to their rule. According to Islam, not only do they not have the right to rule, being a minority, but there is significant doubt as to whether they even have the right to live, being idol worshipers.
Some parts of the Arab sector are communities that have lived in the land now called the State of Israel for hundreds of years, but a significant part is the offspring of immigrants who migrated here mainly in the first half of the 20th century – especially after 1882, when Petah Tikva was established.
Many people from neighboring lands migrated here at that time to work in the Jewish farming communities.
Many migrated from Egypt even earlier, to escape being impressed into forced labor as the Suez Canal was being dug. This is how the al-Masri, Masarwa and Fiumi families, as well as many others, came here, with names testifying to their Egyptian source. Other families have Jordanian names (Zarkawi and Karaki, for example), Syrian ones (al-Hourani, Halabi), Lebanese (Surani, Sidawi, Trabulsi) and Iraqi (al-Iraqi).
The Arabic dialect that most of the Beduin in the Negev speak is a Saudi-Jordanian dialect, and because of their familial ties to tribes living in Jordan, when the Beduin become involved in matters of blood-vengeance, they escape to family members in Jordan.
The connection between Arab families in Israel and groups in neighboring countries should not be surprising, because until 1948 the borders of Israel were not hermetically sealed, and many Arabs of “Sham” (Greater Syria) wandered almost totally unimpeded, following their flocks and the expanding employment opportunities.
The division between traditional and modern outlooks exists in each group, meaning that in each group there is a subdivision: those who are more connected to the tradition of the group and those who are less connected. Among the young, one sees more openness and less adherence to group tradition, and it can be assumed that the youth of the next generation will generally adhere even less to the group’s traditions. This is obvious among the Beduin groups, because among the young there are more than a few who challenge the Beduin’s socially accepted ways.
Education also plays an important role in the changing attitude toward tradition, because Arab academics are usually less linked to social tradition and the framework of the clan, and live more within the framework of nuclear families (father, mother and children). They also tend to move to more open areas, such as mixed cities like Acre, Ramle and Lod, and even to Jewish cities such as Beersheba, Karmiel and Upper Nazareth, where they adopt a modern lifestyle.
The shift to the city is also connected to a change in the source of livelihood. There are more in the independent professions and fewer in agriculture – a change due partly to the confiscation of the lands of absentees after the War of Independence.
Beyond the religious dividing line that differentiates Jews and non-Jews, another basic division exists between the country’s Jewish and Arab sectors in their general approach to the state.
For most of the groups within the Jewish sector, the State of Israel fulfills two roles. One is the political and governmental embodiment of the Jews’ aspirations to return to themselves and to regain the independence and sovereignty over the land of their fathers that was stolen from them after the Second Temple’s destruction.
The symbols of the state are Jewish: the national anthem, which includes the words “the Jewish soul yearns”; the flag, which represents the prayer shawl; the Star of David; and the seven-branched menorah. Hebrew is the official language of the state, and on Jewish holidays, the governmental institutions are closed.
The second role of the state in the eyes of most Jews is functional: to provide its citizens with security, employment, livelihood, health, education, roads, bridges and social services.
For the Arab sector, the first role does not exist. The State of Israel is not the embodiment of their diplomatic and political dreams. The national anthem is not their hymn, the symbols of the state are not their symbols, and our Independence Day is their Nakba (disaster). The second role as well, the functional, is only partly fulfilled in matters of education, planning, roads and infrastructure. One may argue about the causes and reasons, but the facts are clear: How many Arab members are there on government companies’ boards of directors? How may Arab judges are there in the High Court? What is the pro- portion of Arabs in the academic staff of universities? That said, one cannot ignore the phenomenon of reverse discrimination, either. Laws of planning and building that are observed almost fully within the Jewish sector are very loosely observed within the Arab sector, especially in the Beduin sector in the Negev. How many thousands of buildings have gone up in the Negev without building permits, on land that does not belong to Beduin? How is it that there are no sidewalks in Umm el-Fahm, and the distance between the buildings is about the width of the cars? Another example of reverse discrimination exists in the area of marriage. If a Jew dares to marry a woman before he has completed the process of divorce from his present wife, he will find himself behind bars. But if an Arab marries a second, third or fourth wife, the state pays a monthly children’s allowance for each wife separately and without asking too many questions.
Another case of discrimination in favor of Arabs exists in the area of housing. About 90 percent of the Jewish sector lives in apartments, and about 10% in private houses. In the Arab sector the picture is the reverse.
But the characteristic that most unites the country’s Arab sector is the environment in which they live. All the Arabs in the world live in one of two situations: in dictatorships in their homeland, or in dictatorships in the diaspora. There is almost no Arab community that has lived in its homeland for dozens of years in a truly democratic state. The Arab citizens of Israel are the only Arab group that lives on its land (especially if you ignore the lands from which they originated) in a democratic regime that honors human rights and political freedoms. This is the reason Arabs outside Israel envy Israel’s Arab citizens and call them “Arab al-Zibda ” – “butter Arabs.”
The writer is director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation) and research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University. Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.