by Norman Berdichevsky (December 2014)
Many observers of the Israeli scene are convinced that the extreme views of the elected Arab Knesset members are a true measure of the community’s rejection of any accommodation of living peacefully and harmoniously with the Jewish majority. To do so is a common error in the mistaken and often ignorant understanding of Arab culture and the realities of Middle Eastern politics that characterize almost all of the so called “pundits” and reporters working in the field for major news gathering agencies. This includes the BBC at the top of the list with a huge staff of competent professionals and many years residence in the region. This short-sighted view has been put into dramatic relief by the universal praise accorded to the so called “Arab Spring” as a huge progressive step towards “democracy” and the recipient of extravagant praise from President Obama. He cavalierly abandoned his strongest ally. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak. in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader Muhammad Morsi only to see the Egyptian people rise in defiance against the islamists in what has been called the largest mass political demonstration in history.
How can one explain the apparent massive shift in sympathies and the ignorance of our State Department that continues to repeat the same mistake? Ignorance of Arab culture, language and mentality lie at the bottom of all these turnabouts.
George Deek is a young Christian Arab from Jaffa and Israel’s vice ambassador to Norway who addressed a gathering hosted by the Norwegian group “With Israel for Peace” in Oslo on October 27, 2014. His speech is being characterized as “the best speech an Israeli diplomat ever delivered” and made waves for many people who had no idea that Israel has had several prominent non-Jews in its diplomatic corps. Most observers who are aware of the unrelenting hostility of Arab Knesset members do not give sufficient recognition to the prevailing opportunism that characterizes the political culture in the region of the Muslim Middle East embracing Arabs, Iranians and Turks. This means there are no real political parties, no free press or independent judiciary—hence the expression “The Arab Street,” i.e., the opinion shaped by the inability to confront the power of intimidation exercised by the prevailing majority and conventional wisdom.
In the “street,” questions and issues of policy are not debated. They are manifested in street demonstrations, almost always orchestrated. In stable states with strong governments, the “people” support the government. In weak states, extremist religious and political groups capable of using force, coercion and the threat of violence hold sway because they promise greater pain and punishment than the rewards offered by the government. The 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) appear to be united in their crusade against “Zionism” which serves as the whipping boy and repository of all blame to explain away their failure as nation states. These attitudes have been shared in large part by the Arabs in Israel but are primarily the result of intimidation – intense pressure applied against them by neighboring regimes and terror groups to prevent any tendency to seek an accommodation.
In a masterful speech, Deek swept away all the emotional verbiage that has drowned the conflict and revealed what lies at its core, It is all the more impressive because Deek’s family were refugees in 1948 and readmitted to Israel with full citizenship rights.
How come the displacement of the Jews from the Arab world was completely forgotten, while the tragedy of the Palestinians, the Nakba, is still alive in today’s politics? It seems to me to be so, because the Nakba has been transformed from a humanitarian disaster to a political offensive. The commemoration of the Nakba is no longer about remembering what happened, but about resenting the mere existence of the state of Israel. It is demonstrated most clearly in the date chosen to commemorate it: The Nakba day is not April 9th – the day of the Deir Yassin massacre, Or July 13th – the day of the expulsion from Lod. The Nakba day was set on May 15th – the day after Israel proclaimed its independence.
By that the Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster of the Nakba is not the expulsion, the abandoned villages or the exile – the Nakba in their eyes is the creation of Israel. They are saddened less by the humanitarian catastrophe that befell Palestinians, and more by the revival of the Jewish state. In other words: they do not mourn the fact that my cousins are Jordanians, they mourn the fact that I am an Israeli.” By doing so, the Palestinians have become slaves to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment, prisoners in the world of frustration and hate. But friends, the evident yet simple truth is – that in order not to be reduced to sorrow and bitterness, we must look forward. To put it more clearly: To mend the past, first you have to secure the future.
Regardless of what customs, traditions, ethnic origins or religious sentiments Israel’s non-Jewish population groups continue to bear or even cherish, many would probably accept some formula for a unified national identity, common educational system, and full equal rights and responsibilities including conscription if a full scale peace agreement were achieved and a choice given to become citizens of a Hebrew state with a Jewish ethnic majority. A minority (but a growing one) has been willing to admit this publicly. Of course, attempts by ultra-orthodox circles in Israel to redefine Israel with an exclusivist religious character intensifies the issue. It is an unfortunate part of the more than 66 year struggle within Israel since its founding to use a halachic (Jewish religious law) definition of “Who is a Jew.”
George Deek is typical of a growing number of highly educated Israeli Arabs who are fluent in Hebrew as well as Arabic. Israeli linguist Eliezer Ben-Rafael emphasizes that the native Palestinian Arabic dialect in current and popular usage in Israel differs substantially from the literary form (Modern Standard – the fusha) used by those with a higher education for entertainment, reading, education, listening to the media. He explains why many Israeli Arabs find it easier to use Hebrew textbooks in many subjects rather than those from Arab countries which the Ministry of Education is thus reluctant to import and are in the literary form of Arabic. Israel is a state where language is a powerful factor encouraging acculturation to values and norms traditionally ignored or despised in the Arab-Muslim culture of the Middle East such as freedom of conscience and expression, women’s rights and religious liberty.
The Egyptian author, Nonie Darwish, made this clear in a recent interview with Jamie Glazov in explaining how many Arabs are handicapped not simply because of the prevalence of so many dialects that often frustrate mutual understanding among themselves but by their need to assimilate concepts of political behavior they had not previously acknowledged. This point has been further elaborated by Tarek Heggy (born in Egypt in 1950), a petroleum expert, and lecturer at several US, European and Moroccan Universities, author of 13 books in Arabic.
In a newspaper article published in the Cairo daily newspaper Al Ahram on September, 29, 2002 entitled “Our Need for a Culture of Compromise,” he wrote, ”I went through all the old and new dictionaries and lexicons I could lay my hands on in a futile search for an Arabic word corresponding to this common English word, “compromise,” which exists, with minor variations in spelling, in all European languages, whether of the Latin, Germanic, Hellenic or Slavic families. The same is true of several other words, such as ‘integrity’, which has come to be widely used in the discourse of Europe and North America in the last few decades and for which no single word exists in the Arabic language. As language is not merely a tool of communication but the depositary of a society’s cultural heritage, reflecting its way of thinking and the spirit in which it deals with things and with others, as well as the cultural trends which have shaped it.”
Professor Sammy Smooha of Haifa University who previously had been extremely pessimistic about Jewish-Arab coexistence interpreted a recent poll in a more favorable light showing that the acceptance of Israel by Israeli Arabs actually increased markedly between 2012 and 2013. Just over a year ago, Israeli Channel 10/Nana reported (in Hebrew) that a poll’s surprising results bucked conventional wisdom:
The research showed that between 2012 and 2013 there was an increase in the percentage of Israeli Arabs recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state from 47.4 to 52.8 %. Similarly, the percentage of Arabs who define themselves as “Israeli Arabs” without a qualifying Palestinian identity added on has increased. There was a more pronounced rise in the percentage of Israeli Arabs who believe that Israel can exist as a Jewish majority state to 43.1% up from 29.6% a year earlier.
The number of Israeli-Arabs who accept their identity as such without identifying as Palestinians increased from 32.5% in 2012 to 42.5% in 2013. In 2013, 63.5% of Israeli Arabs consider Israel to be a good place to live up from 58.5% in 2012. Of course, all those statistics were gathered before the outbreak of violence by Israeli Arabs as a consequence of the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Nevertheless, the most recent polls confirm that a majority of Israeli Arabs if faced with the inevitability of a change in citizenship would not vote for a transfer or change making them Palestinian citizens. Such a state without any Jews would rapidly become another Syria! These were the very words uttered by the moderate Bedouin Arab candidate in the last Knesset election, Aatef Karinaoui from the Negev town of Rahat who formed the first demonstratively pro-Israel Arab party, El Amal Lat’gir — “Hope for Change” in Arabic for the Knesset elections of January 22, 2013. He is a “traditional Muslim” of the same type that was most frequently involved in cooperation with the Jews during the Mandate. He has openly criticized the “Arab spokesmen” in the Knesset and intellectuals who continually question Israel’s legitimacy:
Arab members of Knesset are setting a fire. They feed off of the politics of division and don’t represent the Arab public. The Arab Knesset members do nothing to educate them or advance their situation… But at present there is no alternative to the current leadership. Our leaders have defrauded us for 60 years. Give us a single Knesset mandate and we will do more for the people in four to five years than they have done in 60. “We want to prove that we are loyal and faithful citizens,” he says. “And we also need more attention and support from the state.… I’m a proud Arab and a proud Israeli too. I’m not Palestinian.… Look at Syria. Look at Egypt, look at Libya, look at Tunisia, and look at Bahrain: the problem is not Israel, it’s the Arabs.”
For many Arabs, the State of Israel is conflated with Judaism, regarded as a powerful rival of a militant “expansionist” Judaic civilization that Muslims are taught to imagine Islam had successfully confronted in the seventh century under the leadership of Muhammad. For several decades of the 20th century, “Zionism” has been regarded everywhere in the Arab Middle East as the equivalent of a powerful mythical international conspiracy identical to the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a scam-forgery endorsed by the Czarist regime at the end of the 19th century.
Nevertheless, the obvious signs of brutality and the violation of human rights in Gaza by Hamas, in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen where the “Arab Spring” triumphed and the growing instability in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have not been lost on Israel’s Arab population who have begun to critically rethink their role in the country following a near collapse of Arab nationalism.
The latter has given way to the vision of a triumphal Islamism and the stated goal of restoring the caliphate, a view certainly not embraced by many Christian Arab, Druze and Circassian segments of the population who understand that cooperation and coexistence in Israel is an essential and inevitable part of any desirable future peaceful scenario. It is no accident that few Arab Israeli men seek marriage partners with women from the West Bank who are much more conservative, not likely to work outside the home, and not proficient in Hebrew.
Nevertheless, for the media – any incident of anti-Jewish hostility manifested by Israeli Arabs gets exaggerated visual coverage in an absurd over-representation compared to inter-ethnic or inter-religious turmoil anywhere else in the world, while quiet progress and good will is never a feature story. Jewish-Arab cooperation in Israel extends to thousands of enterprises on every level from garages, restaurants, sports teams including Israel’s national soccer team, the Egged bus cooperative, the trades and professions, in the police, courts, diplomatic corps.
However, the lack of an appropriate framework and symbols by which the Christian and Moslem population can identify with the state, rather than a specific grievance based on prejudice, is the problem which Israeli statesmen, educators, philosophers and politicians have not sufficiently addressed. Knowledge of Hebrew is much greater among men and those who work in the Jewish sector of the economy outside of the village. Hebrew is needed for higher education as there is no university in Israel especially for Arabs. The shortage of appropriate skilled jobs for Israeli Arab university graduates has always been a primary factor in antagonism and resentment towards the state.
The concept that speakers of Arabic today constitute one nation has never matched reality and has been repeatedly demolished by sporadic but numerous civil wars in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria and among various Palestinian factions. Among the Palestinian Arab population in Jordan, who constitute a majority, there is growing speculation that the King may not endure and that his personal rule over them will follow the other rulers deposed by the “Arab Spring.”
This may happen sooner rather than later and pave the way for a realistic agreement between a true Palestinian-Jordan and Israel to reach an accommodation over the territory presently administered by the PA (Palestinian Authority). There are already open calls from Jordanian citizens (in exile) for an accommodation with Israel and assertions that the people must seize the initiative from the inept and corrupt PA in the “territories.” The well-known Palestinian academic, Sari Nusseibeh, President of al-Quds university in East Jerusalem, once a strong proponent of the two-state solution and now in favor of some kind of three-way federation of Israel-Jordan-Palestine has supported recognition of Israel as “a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish” much as Greece is a largely secular state but one with close links to the Orthodox Church. Immediate pressure from Arab nationalists subsequently caused him to tone down his statements yet his vision remains.
Five generations of Zionist pioneers created an authentic national Hebrew community for whom “A Jewish state was not a Judaic state.” For most Israelis except the extreme ultra-Orthodox for whom the term “Jewish” will always be defined in religious terms, Jewish identity has been decided in a national sense once and for all and in only one place – in Israel, not Uganda, Argentina, Birobidzhan, affluent American suburbs or ultra-Orthodox Jewish Diaspora neighborhoods.
Several prominent Jews who have served as Foreign Minister or Secretary of State of their countries such as Henry Kissinger and Hector Timmerman of Argentina have taken rigid hard line positions against Israeli interests and have provoked the intense criticism of their fellow Jewish citizens at home. They are the reverse of a George Deek – a Christian Arab and proud Israeli defending his country – the land of his birth and those of his ancestors. No matter that Israel’s Fundamental Law of Return and ideology as the “Jewish State” regards Kissinger and Timmerman as enjoying a legal “right” to automatically acquire Israeli citizenship. Both are undeniably “Jews” and yet loyal to the nation they owe allegiance to and not Israel.
This was the normal situation in most of the past 2,000 years of history and has not changed. It is no less true that there are “Arabs” and “non-Jews” who are Israeli citizens and loyal and patriotically serve their homeland such as George Deek and are ready to defend it with their lives, even if faced with considerable animosity from family, friends and neighbors.
Many Jews in the Diaspora, even those who pray daily from the traditional prayer book are unable to read or speak Modern Hebrew, whereas a majority of Israel’s Arab citizens are competent in it, or may actually prefer Hebrew especially in professional occupations. A recent study indicates that as high as 60% of the adult Arab population in Israel is proficient in the language (compared to 90% of Jews). The issue of language and its relationship to national identity presents several ironies and remains a dilemma for the State of Israel and its Arab citizens and resident non-Jews (see my recent book, Modern Hebrew, The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language (McFarland, 2014).
Israel, like Finland or Belgium or Canada is bilingual, but the relationship between majority and minority is much more problematic and emotional. No matter how sympathetic Jews in the Diaspora may be towards the “Jewish state,” the majority do not define themselves as sharing the same “nationality” and the overwhelming majority are unable to experience the reality of Israel first hand even if they have been there a number of times, thus missing out on a considerable content of jokes, word-plays, popular songs and literature. More and more Israeli Arabs have made considerable progress in their careers and education through mastery of Hebrew and would be loath to give up this advantage in a monolingual, monocultural, monoreligious Palestinian Arab state.
Even the world of fiction has begun to pay attention to the new dynamic multi-cultural Hebrew society of Israel. A recent best-seller, “The Last Israelis” by Noah Beck, creates a scenario aboard an Israeli nuclear submarine with a “mixed” crew of 35 sailors, three of whom are a Christian Arab, a Druze and a Vietnamese-Israeli “gay,” all of whom respond loyally to the call of a common patriotic sentiment to defend their homeland and give very plausible reasons for doing so. They portray a growing sense of Israeli civil society that is more powerful than differences of origin, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.
George Deek’s speech deserves to be heard by all. (http://homespunvine.com/an-incredible-speech-by-arab-israeli-diplomat-george-deek/ )
Norman Berdichevsky is the author of The Left is Seldom Right and Modern Hebrew: The Past and Future of a Revitalized Language.
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