The Forgotten People: life through the eyes of Israel’s Arab minority

*Below is an abridged version of the original article, which can be viewed here.

On a balmy early-summer morning in the port city of Jaffa, Irene Nasser fidgets with her fork, gently prodding the milky skin of an egg-yolk resting on top of her shakshuka—a traditional North African dish brought to Israel by Jewish immigrants from Tunisia and Morocco in the early 1950s. On the surface, Irene is a mystery. Her mop of wavy, sun-silhouetted black hair, furtive black eyes, black tank top, black jeans and black motorcycle boots all shroud her origins in monochromatic ambiguity.  In this country (or two or three, depending on who you ask) beset by a century of conflict between Jews and Arabs, it is not always easy to distinguish what common conviction would have you believe are two entirely distinct people. Both run the spectrum of ethnic physiognomy, the broad palette of skin tones and eye colors, of religiosity and wealth, some of which, often enough, overlap.

Our conversation takes place in English, but Irene also speaks Hebrew and Arabic with equal fluency. Even our locale, the Old City of Jaffa with its narrow cobblestone streets and angular buildings arcing out into the open expanse of the Mediterranean, offers no clues. Almost seamlessly integrated from the south into Israel’s cultural and economic capital, Tel Aviv, over the years Israel’s Jewish residents have continued to populate this once predominantly Palestinian space. Today, Jaffa is a mixed city and a wellspring of cultural activity, of hip bars and restaurants, art galleries and shops, as well as drug-ridden neighborhoods of violent crime.

In places of hostility and war, identity tends to develop rigid confines. Yet Irene is one of those rarities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a child of mixed birth perpetually trapped between rival notions of “the other.” Her Palestinian-Muslim father met her Israeli-Jewish mother while the two were theatre students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem during the 1970s. Their first meeting was serendipitous in that the theatre program’s director had asked the two of them to go on stage and act like “ducks in love.”  In 1977 they wed in London because Israel does not allow civil marriages—making it impossible for citizens of different religious backgrounds to wed in the state. Irene’s Jewish grandfather summarily disowned his daughter for marrying a Palestinian, sitting shiva or mourning for an immediate relative, as if his daughter had died. It was not until twenty-two years later, as he was on his own deathbed, that Irene’s mother, Hannah, would see her father again.

“People are talking,” were his first words to her.

In the early years of their marriage the couple moved around frequently, finding it difficult to rent apartments. Irene’s father, Riad, avoided being on the lease. His Arabic name dramatically limited their options because of discrimination in the hotly contested city of Jerusalem. Eventually, they settled in his hometown of Tira where they were more accepted, but life remained challenging. When she was twelve years old, Irene’s parents took her and her older brother to live in the United States in order to offer them a life free from the anxiety of growing up in a mixed household in Israel. When Irene was seventeen she returned on her own to the only place she ever felt was home. For years she would slip seamlessly between both communities without ever enjoying full acceptance in either one.

“I think most of my life there has always been a sense of feeling rejected,” she says, her words slow and measured. “I even went through cycles of hating my parents for getting married and for putting me in this position. It was more tough when I went through phases of being confused—not confused about my identity—but confused about categorizing it and how I spoke about it. Is it tough now? I think sometimes maybe I feel a sense of shame.”

While Irene’s personal struggle with identity brings into sharp focus what it means to be both Arab and Jewish in a society where national identity means everything, there are over a million and a half Palestinians struggling with what it means to be both Palestinian and Israeli. In fact, nearly twenty percent of Israel’s population is Palestinian-Arab—Muslims, Christians, Druze and others—a serious glitch in the idea of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. In 1948, around 750,000 Palestinians were made refugees during the war that would birth the State of Israel. Some 160,000 Palestinians, however, stayed put and became citizens in a country that was no longer theirs. They are the forgotten people, who both societies and the rest of the world conveniently ignored for much of the last sixty years. From Israel’s standpoint, they are both a demographic threat and an unwanted minority that complicates the national project of Zionism. For other Palestinians and much of the Arab world, their naturalization in Israel was an act of betrayal, akin to a daughter who had eloped and was now living with the enemy. Caught in the middle is a community whose future hinges on the resolution of a conflict that has no end in sight.

Over the six decades since the saga of Israel’s Palestinian minority began, much has changed in their daily lives and circumstances. In 1948, the Palestinian upper-class and urban intelligentsia had, by and large, been part of the exodus of refugees that was now living outside the borders of the new Israeli state and those who remained were mainly the poorer and less sophisticated villagers and farmers. From the beginning they were viewed suspiciously and were an easy target for the new government, especially in the tense atmosphere following Israel’s founding, when the infant state was trying to survive and consolidate its position. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, considered the remaining Arabs a potential fifth column and his government instituted a system of control that would prevent the emergence of a strong, united minority.

Between 1948 and 1966, the Arabs in Israel were placed under a system of military government separate from the civil government established for Israel’s Jewish citizens. The community was bound to a regime of travel restrictions that kept them isolated in their individual towns and villages. By the early 1950’s, the government had enacted a series of laws used to seize the Arabs’ vast landholdings and property. In only a few short years the Israeli government would expropriate some 750,000 acres of land owned by refugees and Arab citizens alike and make them available for Jewish-use only, including more than 25,000 homes in urban areas, 35,000 acres of vineyards and citrus fields, over 10,000 shops, businesses and stores, as well as moveable property such as furniture, art, books, bank deposits and stock shares—an issue that is still at the heart of grievances towards the state. Most importantly, through these early policies Israel succeeded in creating a largely destitute, dependent and acquiescent minority that has never posed any collective challenge to Jewish control of the State—or at least opposed the discriminatory policies leveled against them.

Renowned Israeli-Jewish sociologist Sammy Smooha explains the delicate balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority in terms of “red lines” that keep the entire edifice intact.

“There is a system built between Arabs and Jews in Israel, which is not fair to the Arabs—I am saying it is not fair—but it strikes a deal between the Jews and the Arabs, or between the State and the Arabs, which works out for both sides,” Smooha explains to me in his office at Haifa University.

“Arabs in Israel are stakeholders in Israeli society. This means they will not break up the system because it works for them. The deal is: this is a Jewish State. The Jews control the state; the symbols of the state. Decision-making is made by the Jews. The Jews control immigration, the Law of Return, they control national security, they control the culture of the state, the language—the language is bi-lingual but we know Israel is run by Hebrew, not Arabic. So this is the Jewish nature of the state. It is a national state of the Jews. But Israel is at the same time democratic and I take Israeli democracy seriously. Arabs have rights. They are not equal in rights to the Jews but still they have these rights and they appreciate very highly their Israeli citizenship.”

“Red line” is also an expression often used by Palestinians to describe the limits of their freedom in Israel, in terms of how far they can go without backlash from mainstream society. Often the lines are psychological, self-imposed and internalized boundaries that govern daily behavior. Many Palestinians I spoke with talk about ceilings they say Israeli society places on their potential achievement; aspirations they say were stifled; and positions in the workforce they feel they are unable to get. Arab citizens also see Jewish immigrants from all over the world come to Israel and go through a process of integration that they have never experienced, something that fuels their resentment and bitterness towards the state.

More than that, however, there are deep, lingering questions over what it means to be a non-Jewish citizen in a Jewish state. Or what it means to be a Palestinian citizen of Israel in an Israel that is at war with Palestinians.
Dr. Smooha anticipates that the political situation will deteriorate in the future unless the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership can reach a two-state compromise, which he believes will make the internal tension between Israel and its Arab minority easier to resolve. Without it, he says, Israel will continue to view a large portion of its citizenry as belonging to the enemy and will avoid empowering them in any way.

Time, however, is quickly running out on the peace process. As the opportunity for partition into separate Palestinian and Israeli states slips away due to the increasing number of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories and the inability to reach a settlement at the negotiating table, the pressure on Israel to choose between its settlements and its democracy will continue to grow. And without the prospect of peace with Palestinians, Israeli society has increasingly become concerned with the demographic stratification of the state. The numbers of Jews and Arabs have already become virtually equal in the country’s entirety, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are still ultimately under Israel’s control.

Conditions in the West Bank have also become increasingly volatile over the last few years, prompting concern over an impending third Palestinian uprising. As disillusionment with the peace process and the promise of national sovereignty has become more pervasive amongst Palestinians, it has raised the possibility that the next iteration of popular discontent may recast itself as a call for equal rights in a single, bi-national state. The question then becomes, will that call reach the ears of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who also feel themselves locked in a struggle for equal rights? Could that then coalesce into a single movement across the Green Line? It is a possibility that would fundamentally alter the nature of the conflict and the prospects for peace and equality.

How Israel chooses, or is able, to respond to the challenge of incorporating its current Arab citizens will be an important indicator of the way things are likely to proceed. Can an Israeli identity that is inextricably bound up in Zionism, the founding ideology of the state and of Jewish nationalism, be flexible enough to accommodate others in a civic rather than ethnic conception of citizenship?

* * *

In a sleek television studio on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Sayed Kashua is getting ready for another season of his hit television show, Arab Labor. Kashua meets me in the large parking lot outside the building. He is friendly but quiet, cracking jokes in muted tones and snickering at himself. With short dark hair, fair skin and wide set eyes, he has the mild manners and introspective nature of a bookkeeper with a good sense of humor.

Sayed Kashua’s diffidence belies his celebrity status in Israel. Now one of the country’s most famed and controversial novelists, Kashua is also a columnist for Israel’s preeminent left-wing intellectual newspaper Ha’aretz, and a screenwriter who has done the seemingly impossible in Israel: create a TV show that is almost entirely in Arabic, with a predominantly Arab cast, and get Israeli Jews to tune in. Arab Labor, which takes its name from a pejorative term used to describe shoddy work or menial labor jobs in Israel that Arabs usually occupy, is a sitcom based on a theme woven into all of Kashua’s work: the Arab male citizen of Israel desperately trying to fit into the dominant Jewish-Israeli society. The show satirizes the life of Amjad, a quirky journalist and family man who walks the delicate balance between the Arab and Jewish communities, while trying to convince his wife and young daughter to do the same.

Kashua has been recognized for his cross-cutting criticisms of both the Jewish and Arab communities inside Israel—often using his darkly sardonic humor as a vehicle for social commentary. In the highly tense atmosphere of inter-ethnic relations in Israel, his work has been met with both praise and criticism, particularly from inside the Arab community, which, feeling embattled, is sensitive to opprobrium within its own ranks. He is also the author of three books of fiction written in Hebrew that are loosely based on his own life and experiences.

Like Irene, Sayed Kashua was born in the Palestinian town of Tira, which is wedged in on the country’s narrow coastal plane between the Mediterranean Sea and the hills of the northern West Bank. Tira is located in a region known as the Little Triangle that was ceded to Israel by Jordan as part of the Armistice Agreement of 1949. Through a trivial act of diplomacy, Sayed Kashua was born in Israel and not the occupied Palestinian territories.

When he was fifteen years old he was accepted into a prestigious program at a new Jewish boarding school for gifted students called the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem. Despite the tremendous opportunity, Kashua was wary of leaving his hometown and casting out into the wider world of Israeli life. For young Palestinians who grow up in all-Arab towns and villages, full emersion into Israeli society can be daunting.

“It was terrible,” he says of the early experience. “I did have a few friends but it was very tough at the beginning. I was a stranger, it was very clear.” The biggest obstacle was the Hebrew language, which he, and many like him, spoke inadequately compared to their Jewish-Israeli peers.  He was teased for his “Arafat” accent. Arabs in Israel generally study in separate Arab schools, which have different curricula and where the main language of instruction is Arabic. The schools are often substandard and lack the resources of the nation’s Jewish schools, leaving many young Arabs unprepared for entry into the real world. Most Palestinian citizens do not make this encounter until they reach the college level, where many initially feel unable to compete with their Jewish counterparts, who begin university at a later, more mature age, after fulfilling their mandatory military service.

Kashua went on to study sociology and philosophy at the Hebrew University. After graduating he worked as a journalist at a local newspaper in Jerusalem where he says he was considered a star writer until October 2000, when political realities would put him in conflict with his Jewish colleagues. In September of that year, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip were once again in a state of revolt that came to be known as the Second Intifada, and tensions inside Israel’s Arab communities were on high alert. In Arab towns inside Israel, a general strike was called and demonstrations in support of the Palestinians across the Green Line (the Armistice Line of 1949 that distinguishes the occupied territories from Israel) and against discriminatory policies inside their own country culminated in the killing of thirteen Arab citizens by Israel’s security forces. Kashua’s coverage of these events alienated him inside the newsroom.

“Suddenly I became the enemy and people started talking to me differently,” he says. “Then the manager of the newspaper asked me to stop writing ‘that way’ because advertisers [were] quitting.”

In his second novel, Let it be Morning, Kashua’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, describes the same course of events that he had endured in real life:

Two days and more than a dozen casualties later, the riots were over. I went from funeral to funeral, mourner to mourner, interviewing parents as they wept and assigned blame and expressed horror. Then things calmed down. No more tires were burned in intersections, there were no more rallies, no more funerals, and life seemed to be going back to normal. No more spontaneous outbursts like the ones that had cost the locals so dearly. If only it could really have been over in two days—but no, nothing had gone back to what it was before. Ever since those days, something had been broken, something had died. Two days of demonstrations had been enough for the state to delegitimize its Arab population, to repudiate their citizenship. Two days that only served to stoke the Jewish fires of vindictiveness. Those two days had changed my life.

Kashua began to receive death threats and felt that life had become unsafe for him and his family in the Jerusalem neighborhood where they lived. He decided to move his family to Tira, as Irene’s father had done nearly two decades earlier. The episode is indicative of the perilous situation endured by the Arab minority when events in the larger conflict between Israelis and Palestinians force them into confrontation with the Israel’s Jewish majority. Tensions rise, identification becomes sharper, and loyalty becomes the imperative issue. Caught in the middle, many shirk away from these moments for fear of being branded traitors by both sides.


Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel reached their peak after 1993, when Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Israel’s prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, reached out to the Arab citizens of his country in an effort to alter the negative dynamic between them, and to garner domestic support for his divisive peace process. Rabin’s coalition hung together by a thread, having only 61 of 120 seats in the Knesset, one more than what was needed to form a government. Although the Arab parties were not included in the coalition (no Arab parties have ever been a part of a governing coalition or held a cabinet level post), Rabin used their support from the outside to keep his government afloat. The experience allowed Arab politicians in Israel to exercise more influence than ever before in their history. The good times did not last however; after Rabin was killed in 1995, relations have been in steady decline.

October 2000 was a watershed moment in the Arab minority’s relationship with the state and society. Hundreds of Arabs had been arrested for “rioting” and many were jailed. Despite the killing of thirteen Palestinian citizens, no one was found directly culpable and not a single police officer was prosecuted. In 2003, the Israeli government released the findings of a state-sponsored inquiry into the events known as the Or Commission after its chief investigator Theodore Or. The report was highly controversial and most official blame was laid at the feet of Arab politicians for “incitement.” The report, however, also highlighted systemic problems in Israel’s treatment of its minority, including official failure “to allocate state resources in an equal manner,” and “to create equality for its Arab citizens or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomenon.”  Despite the groundbreaking acknowledgements and recommendations contained in the report, the state failed to take concrete steps to implement them.

Smooha, the Israeli sociologist, describes the 2000s as the “lost decade,” when rapprochement between the majority and minority was possible but squandered. Many analysts began pointing to an inevitable clash between the two groups and disaffection on the part of Arabs became more palpable. For one thing, Arab participation in national elections, which had always been remarkably high, plunged between 1999-2009, sliding from 75 to 53 percent. Protests against state policy also became more frequent and the nature of Israel’s wars—in the occupied territories between 2000 and 2003, Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008—were more one-sided, chauvinistic and violent—engendering greater dissatisfaction from within the Arab community. The decade also witnessed a dramatic rightward shift in Israeli society, as well as the rise of extreme ultranationalist politicians to power, who have been more openly hostile to the Arab minority. One example is Israel’s most recent Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, himself and immigrant from Moldova, who routinely advocates that the Arabs should be subjected to loyalty oaths and population transfer.

In the television studio, Kashua muses over the concepts of loyalty and equality. He says he identifies himself as a Palestinian but tries to work within the Israeli system in order to make life better for his children’s future.

“For me, I do act like a citizen of Israel. And it is strange, too. I know I am an unwelcome citizen but this is the only citizenship that I have now. It’s technical but still it’s the only one that I got.’”

Kashua, who writes in Hebrew, tells me that symbols like the Star of David on the flag and the hatikva as the national anthem would not bother him if he felt really accepted and that Israel was a Jewish state only in name.

“If it was just a symbol, if I feel totally equal and Palestinian citizens in Israel feel totally equal, feel secure and in no way discriminated against by the Israelis, and there was no occupation, then, of course, maybe I will put a picture of Herzl in my bedroom!” he says jokingly, referring to the father of political Zionism.

Kashua’s positions on identity, citizenship, and Israeli nationality are reminiscent of another Arab-Israeli writer and poet named Anton Shammas. In the 1980’s, Shammas worked feverishly to lay the ideological foundations for an Israeli identity that would include Palestinian-Arabs. In his book, Arabesques, which was published in 1986, Shammas wove a complex tale of history and identity that became the first novel written by an Arab in Hebrew. Shammas ended up losing the battle over Israeli identity, however, and eventually retreated from Israel and moved to the United States.

The effort to forge such an identity has had other advocates but made little headway. On October 3, 2013, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that there was no such thing as “Israeli nationhood,” in a landmark case that had been in the courts for over 40 years. Israeli identification cards distinguish citizens based on their leom, or ethnicity, usually marking “Jewish” or “Arab.” Upholding past rulings, the High Court ruled that their was no “Israeli” identity distinct from a Jewish one.


In Let it be Morning, Kashua’s protagonist moves back to Tira for the very same reasons as Kashua had in real life, after having been isolated in his newsroom for reporting on the events of October 2000. The book quickly turns dystopian when the Israeli military, for an unknown reason, puts the village under a complete siege. As food and water supplies dwindle, and no one is able to leave the village or find out what is happening, people start to panic and turn on each other. The novel ends with a sudden announcement that Tira, along with most Palestinian citizens of Israel, has been ceded to a new Palestinian state as part of rapid negotiations between the PLO and Israel. In effect, the community has been bartered away in a manner in which they have no say—deus ex machina.

The fictional scenario symbolizes the role of the powerless bystander that the Palestinians in Israel have played and the fear of not having a voice in their own destiny. Arab citizens of Israel have had almost no role in the peace process that will ultimately have an immense impact on their lives. Some Palestinian citizens of Israel feel disinclined to lose their Israeli citizenship if peace is eventually made. Others harbor more irredentist sentiments about repatriating to a Palestinian state should it come into existence. Some have not waited around and have already picked up and left.

* * *

In her cozy, one bedroom apartment in Ramallah, Abir Kopty is hard at work organizing an upcoming protest against Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In a matter of days it will reach the highest levels of government, including the Israeli Supreme Court, and provoke an executive order from the Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, to shut it down. Abir is petite with straight, collar-bone length black hair and small, attractive features. She talks with her hands, a cigarette perched between her index and middle fingers, her accented speech rising at the end of every sentence as she explains the motivations behind how she went from an accountant working in a small town in Israel to a full-time activist and spokeswoman for the Palestinian popular resistance.

“I can’t be an individualist,” she says, emphatically. “I can’t think about myself and say, ‘Okay, I have a career, I have a good life. I have a nice apartment. I have a car. Everything is fine.’ I cannot watch the injustices and just close my eyes.”

Abir Kopty was born in Nazareth in 1975, the eldest daughter in a family of Coptic Christians. From a young age, politics played a formative role in her life, shaping her perceptions of the world around her. Her family home, located in downtown Nazareth, was next door to the headquarters of the Communist Party,  a mixed Arab-Jewish party that was for a long time the most influential political force among Palestinian citizens of Israel because of its anti-Zionist ideology. In periods of tension between the community and government, her street was often a flash point for major clashes between demonstrators and Israeli police forces. She remembers vividly witnessing men shot dead in front of her eyes during the same protests that would bring Sayed Kashua at loggerheads with his Jerusalem newspaper.

“Since I was a child, I was inhaling tear gas, watching the shabab (young men) escaping through our alley near the house, giving them onions to counter the teargas. So it was part of my childhood. All of these scenes I have them in my head all the time.”

Her father, a retired school teacher and theatre actor, was politically-minded and imbued his children with a strong sense of Palestinian identity. In school, she was outspoken and argumentative, a trait she says her teachers appreciated and encouraged. Abir, like many others, says her generation is vastly different from that of her parents and grandparents. They were born and raised in the Israeli system, educated in Israeli schools and colleges, without the direct experience of the Palestinian Nakba or ‘Catastrophe’ that resulted from the War of 1948. People of her generation often describe their elders as weak, afraid of the Jewish majority, and uneasy about pressing too hard for their rights. For decades the Arab citizens of Israel believed that if they remained passive and made the Jewish majority feel they could be trusted, then they would be granted equal rights. History has not played out that way and the younger generation seems more willing to be assertive.

“I think the older generation, the generation of the Nakba, they feel incapable of changing anything,” explains Abir. “The Nakba was a trauma. It took years until people understood what really happened and for many years after [they lived] under a military regime. They accepted the reality and that’s it. I think my generation, the one born with citizenship, having a better life but still seeing this picture, that there is occupation, they are not willing to be silent and accept the reality. I think my generation is more willing to challenge.”

In 2009, Abir left her life in Israel and relocated to the West Bank, at first working for the Government Media Center of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The job was bureaucratic, however, and Abir felt constrained. On the weekends, she found herself joining the burgeoning non-violent protests in small Palestinian villages that were being directly affected by Israel’s wall and expanding settlement network. The grassroots organizing by village residents allowed her to play a more effective role in challenging the occupation on the ground. Eventually she quit her job in the PA and became a full-time activist and spokeswomen.

“Before I came to live [in Ramallah], I would speak about the occupation as a slogan, as a term,” says Abir. “But when you come to live here, you face daily life under occupation. You understand how the occupation functions and you understand that you also live under occupation [in Israel] in a different form. And when you see that bigger picture, you belong to the bigger cause.”

Abir Kopty’s physical migration from Nazareth to Ramallah helped to spur an evolution in her perspective on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Tracing the continuity of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians as a singular process of settler-colonialism, she views the division among Palestinian communities as a policy of divide-and-rule initiated by Israel to ensure Jewish hegemony over the larger indigenous population. It is a rejection of the dominant tendency among analysts of the conflict to compartmentalize Palestinians inside Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the refugees into separate issues with separate problems and solutions. According to Abir’s point of view, all Palestinian communities are vestiges of the same nation—disbanded through war and colonization—and cannot be separated by the individual circumstances of their day, however different they may now appear.  For Abir, this single problem of Palestinian oppression demands a single answer: one democratic state for all Arabs and Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

* * *

On one of my trips to Nazareth to see Abir, she introduces me to her friend Tareq Shihada, a paunchy, intelligent, and good natured man of forty-five with dark skin and deep creases under his eyes. Tareq does not share Abir’s uncompromising approach to Israel. He is a pragmatist who believes in working from within the system to get things accomplished for his community. Everywhere he goes, people stop to say hello and shake his hand. Others give a salutary honk from their cars as they pass by, subtle recognition of the work he does for his community. Twelve years ago, Tareq made it his mission to change the face of this city, which like other Arab towns and neighborhoods in the country, was relatively impoverished despite its religious and historic significance and the potential goldmine in tourism revenues it was failing to capture.

Partnering with a wealthy local businessman named Walid Afifi, Tareq established the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association, aimed at galvanizing local businesses to stimulate the economy. The association began a marketing campaign to generate tourism and encourage local businesses to get behind the effort. They petitioned for entrepreneurial grants, lobbied for state funding, and organized activities throughout the city that would draw crowds and cause people to take an active interest in revitalizing the city. They even pushed teachers to educate their students about Nazareth with the hope of nurturing the next generation of residents and influencing their parents in the process. The plan worked and Nazareth has succeeded in turning around its fortunes. It now boasts many of the best restaurants in Israel and a steady flow of domestic and foreign tourists that have brought life back to the city.

“We gave people a sense of pride in their city again,” Tareq says, with a smile. “They look around and see what is happening here. There are more hotels, more restaurants, more bars, more outdoor events. Suddenly they start to feel, ‘wow, we can live here. It is beautiful to live here.’”

Interestingly, Nazareth is not even Tareq’s hometown. His family comes from a place just north of Nazareth called Saphouria, which dates back to the Greco-Roman period, and which some experts believe to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. Once the second largest city in the Galilee, the region in the north of the country still densely populated by Arabs, Saphouria was destroyed by the Israeli military in the War of 1948, its homes leveled with bulldozers, and eventually replaced with the Jewish community of Tzippori. The original residents of Saphouria, many of whom stayed in Israel as citizens of the new state, were designated “present absentees” and lost their land to the Custodian of Absentee Property, a governmental body set up to incorporate all the property left behind by Palestinian refugees.

Tareq’s family were considered refugees despite never leaving the country and were forbidden from returning to their village to claim their property even though they held Israeli citizenship. The case is hardly uncommon. Over one quarter of all Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel in 1948 were designated as “present absentees,” compelled to forfeit all their property to the state, much of it to make way for the flood of new immigrants the country was absorbing. Many people turned to the courts in the hope of receiving justice, but were unable to get their property back. The case of the present absentees is one of the most agonizing in the history of this land because the people were treated like ghosts, visibly present to see their land and property taken from them but considered absent in the eyes of the law. Hillel Cohen, a respected Israeli academic and expert on the issue, called it “one of the most concrete expressions of the structural conflict between the state of Israel and its Arab citizens.”


On my second visit to see Tareq, I ask him to drive me to Saphouria, which he agrees to willingly, although I know it must be difficult for him. We drive north out of Nazareth, passing large billboards displaying political advertisements in the run-up to the Israeli parliamentary election. The Galilee’s modern highways are carved through ancient stony hills, which the winter rains have turned verdant. Israeli soldiers on leave crowd every bus stop. Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack”  improbably plays on the radio as Tareq tells me how his family was forced to flee their land, whose lush pastures he points out along the way. For many years, Tareq’s grandfather was able to lease back part of his agricultural land from the government annually in order to farm. As a young boy, Tareq would help his grandfather till the soil and harvest the olives, tomatoes, and mulukhiyya, a nutritious spinach-like green eaten throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  “Until my grandfather died, every year he would go to farm the fields he rented from the government,” he explains. “They couldn’t build, just tend the land.” Eventually, the younger generations of his family were no longer interested in farming anymore and they stopped renting their land back.

As we enter the moshav of Tzippori, an Israeli communal village similar to a kibbutz, Tareq becomes visibly upset. A large wooden sign at the entrance to Tzippori welcomes new people to come join the community. It is not an offer extended to Tareq and his family.

“This makes you feel very angry. This is what they call chutzpah, and they don’t know what you feel. The young [Israeli] generation comes here and says, ‘we own this place.’ They can build, they can do whatever they like,” he says in an aching tone, as we enter a newly constructed section of upscale single-family homes and cottages.

Tareq has spent years doing research on his family land. Over ten years ago he went to the Israel Land Administration, which keeps historical records, and found deeds in the name of his grandfather and his four brothers totaling some 3,200 dunums (approximately 790 acres), he says. It is property he will likely never have access to, but he does not give up hope.

“I think information is important to have. You live your whole life with people telling you about Saphouria—your grandpa, your grandma—and you can feel it that this is something you grew up with,” he says, “and this is something they have taken from you.”

Tareq finds a place to park and we set out on foot. Much of the old village, now only ruins, is fenced off. It takes a keen eye to see the remains of what once was: the uneven mounds of earth; cut stones poking out of the ground. We walk along a muddy path, past some of the older homes of Tzippori that have been here for decades, now.  Several times I worry to myself that someone will come out of their house with a shotgun and tell us we are trespassing. Tareq has none of these qualms, or at least he doesn’t show them. He walks around with all the confidence of ownership.

“You see stones, I see houses,” he tells me. “This is where my family residence used to be. Can you hear the stones talking?”

* * *

In the brisk dawn, I flee south from Haifa toward Jerusalem on Road 6, the superhighway running along Israel’s spine. My tiny rental car drifts dangerously in the strong wind coming off the sea, a grey speck zipping forward beneath the wide, cerulean blue sky. To my east, I pass a string of Arab towns and cities, identifiable by the minarets of their mosques standing erect in the morning light rising over the foothills of the West Bank.

In a single year, the Arabs of Palestine went from an overwhelming majority to a slim minority. And within the course of a single generation the names of rivers, mountains, cities, towns and streets have been changed from Arabic to Hebrew at a dizzying pace. For those old enough to remember the way things were, it is a disorienting transformation that is hard to truly fathom. Four hundred former villages remain buried like unmarked graves under cacti and pine trees, or the construction of new towns. For Zionism, it is an integral part of the rebirth of the Jewish nation. For Palestinians, it is liquidation of their living memories and the supplanting of their heritage. They are narratives like oil and water.

I steer my car into Tira. It is no longer the small town that Sayed Kashua described. Still, the drive in feels isolated from the surrounding Jewish communities, and visibly poorer as well. Over the years it has become overrun by gangs surviving on the drug trade. Its buildings are shabby, a mix of stone and concrete and plaster. The town is bustling, however, full of cars and people going about their business.

Parking my own car along a dusty street, I enter a coffee shop. Men are seated around playing cards. I order Turkish coffee and a warm boreka and splay out my papers on the table. The man running the shop, dressed in a white track suit, eyes my notes warily and asks me where I come from and what I am doing. I give him a straight answer that appears to ease his suspicions.

“Ahlan wa sahlan,” he says, which literally means, “you are among family, may your path be easy.”

The day has begun to warm up. I get back in my car and don’t look back.

* * *

In philosophical terminology, identity means sameness, the unchanging principle that defines an object irrespective of its relation to others. In colloquial terms, we tend to perceive identity as more mutable, something that evolves over time and with our experiences. In a culture that emphasizes individuality, identity can empower acts of self-definition and self-expression. In reality, there are aspects of identity that we can choose and those we cannot. It seems we are born somewhere on the spectrum of gender, race and sexuality. On the other hand, we choose our politics, our profession, our subculture. We pick out the pinstripe and cufflinks, the thick-framed glasses and skinny jeans, the pierced eyebrow and forearm tattoo.

Identity can also be inherited—bound to a family, a tribe, a nation, a religion. It can be sharpened by power, politics and the competition between social groups, bringing people together or driving them to war.  Identity, whether we accept it or not, is the prism through which we perceive and, in turn, are perceived.

For Irene Nasser, the ongoing political crisis has only intensified her connection to Palestinian identity.

“There was always a clear understanding that I was Arab as a child,” explains Irene. “But I think as I have become more politicized as I have grown up, that sense of identity as an Arab became a lot more grounded in a sense of identity as a Palestinian. And the blue (Israeli) ID that I carry throughout my life has become less and less significant in how it defines me and I have grown to reject it more and more.”

Irene believes this is not just her unique experience, but one shared by many Arab citizens in Israel. Yet for most Jewish-Israelis, Palestinian identification is still threatening and unacceptable. In an index report by the Jewish-Arab Center at Haifa University, an average of seventy-five percent of Jewish-Israelis polled over seven years believe that anyone who identifies as a “Palestinian-Arab in Israel” cannot be loyal to the state and its laws.

From the outset, the Israeli establishment tried to sever the connection between their Arab citizens and the rest of the Palestinian people. The term Israeli-Arab was used as an alternative, Palestinian symbols were deemed illegal, and any references to a Palestinian nation and their history and culture were kept from the class room and public life.

As children, Arab citizens of Israel are made to sing the hatikva, a song about Jewish yearning to return to their ancestral homeland and reclaim it as their own. They are given Israeli flags to wave with the Star of David and pledge allegiance to the state of the Jewish people. On Israel’s Independence Day this polarization is most pronounced, as citizens choose between celebrating creation or commemorating loss—the lynchpins of two irreconcilable narratives.

It is important to remember that Israel was established to provide a national home for the Jewish people, and for the Jewish people alone. This underlying spirit informs all aspects of life and leaves the Arab minority excluded from the full rights and privileges afforded to their Jewish peers. Loyalty to this Jewish state is both the Arabs requirement and their paradox. It is a paralyzing complexity that, it seems, many wish to never think about, preferring a form of voluntary amnesia in order to make life possible. A close examination of the Palestinian-Arab community reveals an Israeli society that is deeply divided and a democracy that is not as vibrant as it appears from afar—despite the Arab community’s active participation in elections. Ethnic affiliation governs a person’s acceptance and full and equal participation in political, social, economic and cultural life.

Despite the myriad complexities that have formulated in the identity of Israeli-Arabs over the last sixty years, pulled between competing loyalties, a common denominator can be found: Some people, like Sayed and Tareq, have found various ways of accommodating and coming to terms with the complex arrangement of where they live. Others, like Abir and Irene, have not and will continue to resist. But none feel welcome.

Irene Nasser bemoans the false promise of assimilation, saying no matter how far you are willing to go, no matter the extent of self-sacrifice, a Palestinian can never be an Israeli in the full sense of the word, or expect full acceptance.

“Look at me! I am a great example,” Irene says. “I’m registered as Jewish. I speak Hebrew fluently. According to the Jewish religion, I am Jewish. And I know Israeli culture. I can fit into Tel Aviv, you would never know that I wasn’t from Tel Aviv.  But I am still, when it comes down to it, I am still not pure. I am still not good enough. According to your Jewish laws, according to your own ministry of interior, I am one of you, but I am still not one of you! Because of my last name and because of my father. That is all it is for them.”

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