Updated: Apr 4, 2021
Israel is so much more than the sum of its parts.
This piece was difficult to write. Difficult to digest. Difficult to explain. But I’m giving it a shot because its been on my mind for over two months and I feel it helps me understand why I love this country so much.
Its been a tough summer in our neck of the woods. And that is indeed an understatement. Now the fighting is over and the negotiations have begun and we hope ‘they’ come to some kind of agreement. Both of ‘them’, Israel and Hamas.
Within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are many sides, many issues of paramount importance that can be argued, discussed and learned, ad nauseum…
But for me, this time, there is one thing that has especially moved, affected and stayed with me these past few weeks. It is a deeper, more visceral understanding of the relationship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews in Israel; this dysfunctional, co-dependent drama that makes this country so special and worth getting to know.
Fact: 20% of Israelis are Israeli Arabs.
Fact: Israeli Arabs are generally divided into four groups; Muslims, Christians, Bedouins and Druze. All Israelis. With Israeli citizenship. And civil rights. And voting rights.
But what does that mean?
What does it mean to be an Israeli Arab during a war between the country you live in and the extended family and relatives you have across the border in Gaza?
Where do you stand? What do you do? Where do you direct your anger and frustration?
What about feelings of guilt for living in the safety of a democratic Israel, while watching Arabs in neighboring countries being slaughtered, gassed, bombed by their own Arab brothers?
What about Hamas rocket strikes against your own home? Where do you direct your anger then?
What happens to an Israeli Arab soul when at the same time he is fearful of incoming Hamas rockets, angry at Israeli bombings of Gaza, feeling guilty for living in Israel, feeling thankful for living in Israel, frustrated with the Israeli government’s inability to adequately address his community’s needs, upset with Israeli Arab leadership that has lost touch with its voters, furious at the way Arab governments kill their own people, horrified as images of dying Palestinian children are flashed over and over on TV screens as the world media cannot get enough of the suffering of the people of Gaza?
And despite of it all, life goes on here in Israel. Israeli Arabs work, study, shop for groceries, do business, raise their kids. Alongside the Jews.
The complexity of Israeli Arab life in Israel is absolutely fascinating and at times unbelievably ironic.
Cases in point. All from this past summer.
Aug. 24th – Hamas mortar shells fall at the Erez Crossing, injuring several Israeli Arab taxi drivers waiting to transport sick and wounded Gazans from the border to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals. Three of the taxi drivers were Bedouin and one was from East Jerusalem. (Read more)
Aug 4th – The life of a Israeli Jewish soldier seriously injured by an Arab drive-by shooter was saved by an Israeli Arab doctor, Professor Ahmad Eid, head of surgery at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. Professor Eid insists “There’s no drama here.”
Oh yes, professor, there is. There certainly is. Read about Dr Eid’s amazing story here.
July 20th – Ghassan Alian, an Israeli Druze Arab and Commander of the elite Golani Brigade in the Israeli Defense Forces, was wounded in the first days of the military operation. His demand to be patched up quickly and to return to his troops endeared him to the Jewish majority and made his Druze community proud. However, not all Israeli Arabs were impressed. Alian was criticized and even received death threats for his role as an Arab commander in the IDF. (Read more)
July 29 – Israeli Police decide not to investigate Israeli Arab Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi’s apparent praise for the kidnapping of 3 Jewish teenagers, whose abduction and murder ignited this summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
In this article, we read of the story of Israeli Arab Mohammad Zoabi, a young, family member of that same MK Haneen Zoabi, who unabashedly spoke out on Facebook against the kidnappers of those 3 Jewish boys. His mother told the media that her son had to escape to a safe house abroad due to the threats to his life.
“My son dared to express his feelings toward the Jews who had been kidnapped,” she said. “As a mother, I am proud of him. I received many threats. One reporter wrote that my son should be kidnapped and raped. With all due respect, I am not impressed with the Israel Police. I am disappointed. They wait until something happens, and only then do they get involved.”
The Zoabi family, a very prominent Israeli Arab family from Nazareth, exemplifies the internal conflict of being Arab, and Muslim and Israeli, all at the same time. Their struggle for identity is certainly not easy. (Read more)
Two Israeli Arab Bedouin IDF Army doctors are being court-martialled for desertion. This is the story as far as I understand it: Two Bedouin brothers, outstanding students in school, decided about 9 years ago to follow the ‘Atudah’ program in the Israeli Defense Forces, where top students first attend university with an all paid scholarship from the IDF, then enlist for several years and serve in their corresponding profession. These brothers became the very first Bedouin ‘atudah’ doctors in the history of Israel. They became officers and served in the IDF as doctors, providing care for all patients, regardless of their background.
This summer, as the Israeli Air Force began bombardments in Gaza after many days of rocket attacks from Hamas, these two brothers, like many other Israelis, became distraught at the media images of dead and injured Palestinian Gazans. As they knew their unit would eventually join the fighting, they became conflicted, didn’t know how to respond and where to turn, so in an act of desperation they abandoned their posts and went home. They deserted.
After a week of gut wrenching soul searching, they reconsidered, decided they had made a terrible mistake and returned to their base, apologized to their commander and asked to return to their duties. However, they were arrested and have been sitting in jail since then.
Although they had abandoned their post, deserted in fact, the story of their pain and anguish and their eventual return and regret has touched the hearts of many Israeli Jews and there are many who petitioned to have their punishment reduced. Read the latest on their ongoing trial here.
July 19 – A rocket shot from Gaza towards the Negev desert landed in an Israeli Arab Bedouin encampment, killing Ouda Lafi al-Waj, an Israeli Bedouin man and seriously wounding his children. (Read more) Most Israeli Arab Bedouins in the Negev live in towns but there are several tens of thousands who live in unauthorized, unrecognized encampments without adequate facilities. Because the encampments are not authorized by the government, they are considered open areas and are not included under the Iron Dome protective airspace. Crazy. And painfully unfair.
May – The Israeli Defense Forces began sending draft notices to Israeli Arab Christian youth, inviting them to enlist as do their brothers the Israeli Druze and the Israeli Bedouins. This move came after several years of campaigning by Israeli Arab Christian Greek Orthodox Father Gabriel Nadaf, who believes that Israeli Christians should enlist and do more to integrate into Israeli society. In fact, more and more Israeli Christians are joining the ranks of the Israeli armed forces in an act of solidarity with the only country in the Middle East where they are free to practice their religion and are safe from persecution. Its quite scary to be a Christian in the Middle East these days and Israeli Christians struggle to define their role as Israeli citizens. (Read more)
And finally, this past Monday I attended the Galilee Arab Jewish Conference – Fighting Racism and Working for Cooperation. One of the speakers was Dr. Khawla Abu Baker, an Israeli Arab psychologist and college professor, and it was during her talk that I finally realized I was able to put pencil to paper (in this case fingers to keyboard) and write what was on my mind. I now had the words I wanted to say.
Dr Abu Baker’s specialty is the psychology of Arab Israelis, mainly their mental and emotional profile.
As she started her talk, I began to take notes and furiously translated her thoughts into my journal. I want to share some of her words, as they still resonate for me. The following are some of my notes:
“Palestinian Israelis suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); they constantly struggle on the outside and from within, always angry and fearful; when the brain is under constant stress, it changes itself and adapts to its environment, always under danger; this causes psychological and cognitive changes that affect thoughts, behavior; this PTSD must be treated and if not addressed gets relived over and over; we don’t have periods of calm long enough (need to be 6 months or more) to get over our PTSD and recover from our trauma; all Israelis, Palestinian and Jewish alike.
In 1948, 85% of Palestinian Arab society had to relocate and build a new life somewhere else; they lost their place in the world; many still carry the keys to the homes they lost; every war reawakens that trauma; every war causes them to relive traumas from previous wars, never ending; leads to depression, helplessness, loss of hope; these feelings of rage bring on the need to take revenge
And now, an important personal note — Her use of the term Palestinian Israelis bothered me. When I guide tourists, I clearly state there is a difference between the Palestinians (which are those who live in the West Bank and Gaza) and Israeli Arabs (who live in the state of Israel). I find this definition helps the tourists understand how complex the situation is.
However, as I was listening to Dr Abu Baker, it dawned on me that MY defining and labeling THEM as ‘not’ Palestinian was part of the problem! They ARE Palestinian and are proud Palestinians, with a Palestinian heart and soul and language and culture, with family across the border separated from them a mere 65 years ago and then again 46 years ago. My problem with labeling them as proud Palestinians was MY problem, and if Israeli Arabs want to call themselves Palestinian Israelis, who am I to say it isn’t so? I need to get over it. Huge aha moment for me!
And that’s when it struck me. I am also traumatized! So is my family and my community. I started this post by saying how difficult this summer has been. For all of us here in Israel. All of us.
Dr Khawla Abu Baker continued: What we have here is almost identical to a domestic violence situation; it passes from generation to generation and without treatment it becomes a cycle of violence and abuse; victims and perpetrators both develop their own ‘narratives’ to justify their behavior.
Question from the audience – “What is the medicine?”
“both Jews and Palestinians need to understand there are two sides to a coin; both have to be compassionate and accept each other’s pain and injury as real”
Understanding that the Palestinian – Israeli – Arab – Muslim – Druze – Bedouin – Christian is stuck in a precarious, delicate and sometimes impossible situation.
Between a rock and a hard place.
And that Palestinians and Jews will heal from their trauma only after long, long periods of calm, free of violence.
First peace. Then healing.