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Reconsidering the Implications of “Israeli”

Today's blogpost was written by Majorie Tolsdorf, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Lod

We arrived at the high school an hour before the debate competition began. All of the participants were organized into three rooms – Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Hanan and I were initially ushered into the tiny room for Arabic speakers, given that she is Arab and studies at an Arab high school, and I was simply the volunteer teacher tagging along for the ride. Much to the surprise of the event organizers, Hanan asked where the English-speaking group was situated. Consequently, we found ourselves in the largest auditorium in the school, designated for Israeli high school students who would be presenting their debate topics in English. This group was theoretically the most advanced of all the debaters, considering that English is rarely anyone’s first language in Israel. Hanan was the only Arab participant in the room.

We sat together with the principal of her high school and a few other teachers who came as the official Hanan cheerleading squad and watched countless speeches presented by students with varying degrees of English; all Jewish, some with impeccable English gifted to them from parents of English and American origins. When Hanan finally took the stage, my colleagues and I couldn’t contain our enthusiasm. We were so proud of her as she presented clearly and confidently in her fifth language. The audience also seemed taken aback. Clearly Arab participation in the English portion of the competition was a rare occurrence.

Hanan’s speech regarded the impact of social networking sites, such as Facebook and Instagram, on a student’s capacity to learn in Israeli public schools. She concluded her lecture with an innovative proposal that encouraged school administrators to take advantage of the mass addiction to social media by creating profiles on various sites for their schools. This seemingly unfavorable characteristic of younger generations could be used for the purpose of connecting youth to each other, to teachers, and to events and opportunities on local, national, and international levels. Her ideas were brilliant and impactful, expressed articulately in the international language.

Her decision to partake in this national debate competition stemmed from a desire to acquire experiences that would push her outside of her comfort zone. She is self-purportedly the type of person to sit back and watch, but she made a resolution. She decided that this year would be the year of consistently trying new things for the sake of progress and self-growth.

Her determination to write, memorize, and present a speech entirely in her fifth language emanated from a slightly different place. Hanan is a native of Lod, a city that most Israelis describe as “broken.” This adjective frequently refers to the people who consider Lod to be home. She lives in the Rackevet (train) neighborhood, a part of the city infamous for violence, fueled by crime family activity, in which even local residents feel uncomfortable walking around after dark. Her mother is Romanian, and her father’s family settled in Lod in the 1960s from Saudi Arabia. She believes that having a connection to Romania has cultivated in her an open-minded worldview. She speaks five languages fluently (taking into account that spoken and written Arabic differ greatly from each other), which makes her an outlier among her peers. Although Arabic is the primary language of conversation between family members and at school for most Arab-Israelis, her first languages were Hebrew and Romanian. She only started consistently using Arabic in kindergarten. When she began learning English a few years later, she fell in love. “English speaks to me in a way Arabic never has.” Therefore, she decided her presentation could only be in English, regardless of an assumed preference for the Arabic language that is automatically coupled with the Arab identity.

“I love knowing. I always aspire to know everything. I’m really curious, and I enjoy [delving] into most topics.” Her thirst for educating herself, acquiring new knowledge, and continuously learning from the surrounding world shines brightly in all her interactions with peers and teachers at school. She confessed that sometimes she doesn’t feel like she completely fits into her little world in the periphery of Israel. She loves every genre of music, and her favorite show is Supernatural. Like anyone her age, she has no idea what she wants to do in the future. Her parents want her to become a doctor, but her passion lies in playing the contrabass. She spends her free time playing music with (primarily Jewish) friends at a local music school and reading all kinds of novels in different languages. Talking to her feels to me like talking to any over-achieving, ridiculously inspiring 10th grader from my hometown in Northern Virginia.

When most Jewish-Israelis who I have met talk about the Arab narrative in this country, they’re not thinking about people like Hanan. I’m not convinced they’re even aware that people like her exist in their country. Hanan is the epitome of the utmost potential our future generations have to offer this world. It’s not really important where she comes from, what religious beliefs define her private spiritual life, or which ethnic identity she owns. Her character and her heart are golden, and she is anything but broken.

Hanan doesn’t consider herself Palestinian. Although there are many Israeli-Arab citizens of Israel who do, it is important to note that each individual holds their own personal identity, even in a country as divided as Israel. I have found that most of my Jewish-Israeli friends and acquaintances regard all Arabs as one large group, rarely considering the intricacies within Arab society that make each city, family, and individual unique.

This is a huge part of the problem in mixed cities such as Lod. There are people who can see the potential for a bright, peaceful future in Israel. There are students, like Hanan, who see so much beauty around them and remain open-minded and accepting of others. Regardless of the discrimination they face from the Israeli government, Israeli-Jews, and other Arabs, their positivity and optimism is boundless. There are Arabs whose ancestors were Bedouin, forced to relocate to central cities from the Negev Desert after the Sinai Desert was returned to Egypt, a political move that came with a newfound necessity to make room for Israeli military bases. There are descendants of Arabs from the West Bank, some of which were offered Israeli citizenship after providing intelligence to the Israeli government to help combat potential terrorist activity. There are Arabs with ties to Gaza. There are even Arabs whose families have lived in cities such as Lod for generations, boasting family lineages linked to this land far before the creation of the state of Israel.

Arabs span multiple countries, cultures, and religions. An “Arab” is any person with roots from Saudi Arabia, which leaves a lot of room for diversity. Some Arabs are Christian. Some are Muslim. Some Arab women wear jeans and leave their hair uncovered, while others choose to wear hijabs or burcas. As an American who frequently lives in foreign countries, the locals around me normally assume every American I know is obese, speaks loudly in public, knows nothing about the world outside of the United States, and loves hamburgers. It sounds funny, but it’s real. If I can own my personal identity as a Virginian, a Jew, a Democrat, and a feminist, all under the category of “American,” then why wouldn’t I afford the same right to define oneself to people from other countries? The same principle applies to Israeli Jews. They are secular and religious, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, and Sephardi. It’s impossible for Israeli-Jews to accurately define Arabs as one cohesive group, just like it’s impossible for a pro-Palestinian American to group together Jewish Israelis, or Jews in general.

Arab citizens of Israel differ greatly from Palestinians living in disputed territories. My Arab-Israeli friends and colleagues in Lod are active members of Israeli society, and they love their country despite facing discrimination daily. Some feel simultaneously rejected by Jewish-Israelis and by Arabs outside of Israel, not limited to the Palestinian territories. When they travel to other Arab countries or the West Bank, they feel rejected by and completely separate from other Arab populations. Israel is a place where soccer teams for Arab girls exist. Citizens enjoy the benefits of living in a first-world democracy. Although many Arab-Israelis feel marginalized, they wouldn’t trade their lives and their homes in Israel for life in an Arab nation.

For me, this year was intended to provide a deeper look into "the conflict in the Middle East." I slowly began to realize that this topic requires a much higher level of consideration regarding the complexity of the sources of enmity within Israeli society. A narrative about two very diverse groups that has been simplified into a tale of two homogenous masses that loath each other won’t suffice in the search for true understanding. A picture of Israel cannot be painted in shades of black and white as most of the world vehemently tries to do.

Israelis vs. Palestinians? Jews vs. Arabs? I realized through my experiences in Lod that the most important part of any story, be it about conflict or peace, is the individual. The number of problems that exist simply due to lack of communication between people who believe they understand everything about each other without even speaking is astounding. There is so much diversity in the Arab and Jewish populations of Israel, it seems that neither side can see the whole image clearly.

Hanan believes that one of the biggest problems in the world derives from people who are close-minded to ideas that differ from their own. I asked her how she deals with the pain she endures in her surrounding world. Her response was simple and eloquent: “I strive to always be happy, remain positive, and avoid falling into this hole of negativity and depression [that exists around me.] I see murders and wars happening around me constantly, and sometimes it’s hard to remain positive, but no matter what, I always try to be happy.” She dreams of a future Israeli society comprised of Arabs and Jews living peacefully hand-in-hand. She has many Jewish friends, which isn’t true for many Israeli-Arabs given that they are isolated in their own communities, because her music school has exposed her to the greater Israeli society. “Of course every religious and ethnic group in Israel has bad people, but still, there are always good people out there. How can people hate each other when both sides are so pleasant?”

Although she holds such an optimistic opinion about the potential for a successful shared society that includes all populations in Israel, I asked her what she believes she has done or can continue to do in the future to promote the creation of the sort of Israel she wants to live in. She responded by saying that the nature of the relationship between Arabs and Jews has been defined by hate for as long as anyone can remember, and therefore small things won't ameliorate the situation. If such a bright student feels powerless in the struggle to make life in Israel better for all of its citizens, a change desperately needs to be made. This change can start with the rejection of stereotypes, with a conscious effort to understand all sides of a story before debating the intended concluding moral.

So I urge you, whoever you may be, however you relate to Israel and the events occurring here, to expand your opinions of this country beyond a monochrome depiction of its people. These generalizations exacerbate conflict and promote its continuation. If we think about our own identities and how we differ from the stereotypes used to describe our own families, our own nations, we can apply this idea to any other group of people. We can find a way to understand others through a common desire for the right to self-identify, no matter how fundamentally different we may be.

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