Israeli Arab protest
Israeli Arabs protesting on Land Day, 2010. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
Text size

Ever since I moved to the Galilee about six years ago I have become particularly aware of the Arab citizen’s existence in the State of Israel. Six years have passed, and every day I feel both more optimistic and more pessimistic about the chances of Arabs integrating as equal citizens who actually feel equal.

What do you think about the state of democracy in Israel? Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter (#israeldemocracy).

From my new vantage point the picture constantly grows clearer and fuzzier, and is certainly not a simple one. When I sit in a coffee shop, despairing over my children fighting, sticky with chocolate, and at the next table sits an Arab of my age, despairing at his children who are sticky with chocolate and fighting − I feel how alike we are, how viable and broad the bridge is between us. This feeling of “brothers-sitting-together” could shatter to pieces at any moment, because of a small and mundane event − or, for instance, when I watch the fireworks and festivities that erupt with amazing timing when the siren is sounded in memory of those who have fallen in Israel’s wars. Then I feel the gap, the difference, and confront the deep fear that dwells in my heart, of the significance of this difference.

It is not simple being an Arab in the State of Israel and not simple to be a Jew in it, either. And to make matters even more complicated, we have been bombarded recently with a wave of loyalty bills, which elicit foolish responses from both the right side of the political map and the left side. And I get angry, feel that I do not belong to either of them. And I am fearful, because the fabric of the relationship is so fragile, and I become furious because I see the justification that motivates this wave, but it is clear that these laws will not serve it.

Every time new legislation along the lines of the so-called “loyalty bill” is proposed, I gaze with wonder at the stupidity behind it, at the impossibility of putting it into practice without causing real damage to the state, and ask myself what the real, deep motive is for such proposals. The answer emerges from within me: It is fear. Fear of the Arab population in this country. But the fear is age-old, and cannot explain the trend that has taken root recently, spurring wave upon wave of nationality and patriotism bills.

What has changed? Wherefore now this abundance of all manner of laws and legislative proposals that have emerged in unison, like a chorus of crickets, which may be suspected of being coordinated by various elements − although each is really acting out of independent interest, and even competing with each other?

I have been helped substantially in resolving this issue by the automatic counter-response that has come from the left side of the political map: i.e. the cries of “Fascism! Fascists! Fascism is here!” I will put this simply: Fascism is not here. But idiocy, childishness, one-dimensionalness, a lack of empathy and parliamentary brutality − these are here. But fascism? No. Israel has nothing remotely resembling it, coming close to it or drawing inspiration from it. No less than because of the wave of loyalty bills, I am outraged by this response to people working within the laws of the Knesset, and by the label of “fascist” being applied to anyone who tries to support the positive bond that supposedly exists between the state and its citizens.

‘Anything goes’

A few years ago, a man I know won an award in some field of art. The excited winner went up to receive his prize and in his speech said that Israel is a fascist country. Just like that. Without qualifying his statement. And aside from the noisy reactions that greeted his declaration, there was no indication per se of any objection to his words among the audience, the reporters or liberal thinkers present. And how nice that the man descended from the podium and was not hustled into a dark car by men dressed in black, but rather returned in safety to his house, where he did not find that it had been broken into or that his children and wife were missing, but instead presented the award to them and rejoiced in it.

There is a sweet irony in the gap between that man’s pleasant fate and the pronouncement he tossed out. The pages of history and of literature can testify to the evil and bitter fate of countless people who were even less defiant vis-a-vis regimes like those of Mussolini in Italy or Franco in Spain. ‏(I am deliberately leaving out Germany; we have yet to see the day when some prize winner testifies that Israel is a Nazi country.)

But even among those who do not declare that the state is fascist, you can increasingly find easy and careless use of this word. Fascism cannot be treated as a dictionary term relating to the discipline of political science, because it carries heavy historical baggage. All the cricket-like lawmakers who are behind the loyalty legislation do not command Blackshirt brigades, do not march through the streets carrying flags and torches ‏(I came upon such a march recently in Lublin, Poland − scary‏), and do not terrorize weak populations by means better left unmentioned. They propose bills. That is all.

Therefore, the cries of “Fascists, fascists” aimed at them are especially outrageous. ‏This is particularly notable in the case of Avigdor Lieberman. It is easy to analyze and understand why the foreign minister draws fire. There is no doubt that in the chorus of crickets he is the most powerful, most significant and largest. But it is difficult to understand why those who attack him do not see that he and his friends are operating solely within the parliamentary framework, and within the law. The ease with which Lieberman is called a “fascist” ought to be even more painful to any decent human who recalls where he came from. Ever since World War II, fascism has been the “Amalek” of people who came from the Soviet Union, and to them it is an especially offensive epithet. But what does that matter? He won’t feel it, he’s a fascist after all‏.

This reality − of “anything goes,” of the attempt of individuals to exclude from legitimacy anyone whose actions are not to their liking − compelled me to think that perhaps the wave of loyalty laws is closely connected, or is even a direct response to what the Arab MKs have been doing in recent years within the legitimate framework of democracy. I do not know to what degree I am right, and perhaps I am even wrong, but in recent years the instances of “playing with fire” by a large number of these MKs has reached new heights.

In the case of the flotilla designed solely to embarrass and entrap Israel, an Israeli MK serves ‏(metaphorically‏) as the battering ram, and afterward testifies to the world about the barbarity of Israeli soldiers − soldiers that we know, who come from within our midst, whom we know are obviously not sadistic bullies. And at a time of war between Israel and Hezbollah or Hamas, MKs rush to give advice and hand out little “tips” to the enemy. And at every anti-Israeli conference, no matter how wacky and extremist, there is the inevitable speech by an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset.

Everything is legitimate. Arab MKs can also attend a conference, the crux of which is denial of the Holocaust, or discrediting Zionism or coming up with ways to hurt Israel. They are allowed to appear at universities all over the world and expound upon Israel’s atrocities. Generally, even after proper investigation, it turns out that they have not exceeded the legal boundaries. In this state of affairs, everyone who cares about this country can only seethe and explode. That is what I do. And if I, with both empathy and a certain logical understanding for these positions, feel this way, what will a person from the far Israeli right feel? And what will he do if he also happens to be a member of the Knesset?

For this reason it seems to me that it is precisely in the face of the legal and outrageous conduct of the Arab MKs that the wave of loyalty laws arose from the right side of the map. For every fear − new legislation intended to frighten. Mutual exclusion; people of deliberate defiance versus people of deliberate defiance. People of “So it’s like that, huh? Then I’ll give you what for!” − versus people of “So it’s like that, huh? Then I’ll give you what for!”

And most of the Israeli population, Jewish and Arab alike, are in the middle, taking heat from both sides.

It’s not easy being a citizen in this country. The basis for the state’s existence includes several elements that compel it to be unique, peculiar, abnormal, and mainly incapable of being quiet. A key element is the fact that from a geographic standpoint the state was founded in a place where there was already a population that told the new settlers politely,

“No thanks.” Or maybe not politely.

Just as Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz battled with the question of how halakha ‏(traditional Jewish law‏) “contends” with people who are not in the least interested in living according to it − so the state and its legislators must deal with the question of how to act in a place where so many law-abiding citizens prefer that their state not exist. By forcing them to do certain things? By exempting them? By turning a blind eye? By appointing an investigatory committee?

The impoliteness with which the local Arab populace treated the move to establish the Jewish state − in other words, the countless bloody incidents and the War of Independence − created a situation that cannot be resolved if you do not wish to resolve it. In every drunken bar brawl, after you’ve separated the hawks, you try to keep at least one of the parties away from the place; preferably, both of them. Otherwise, glances are exchanged, declarations are made and the fighting resumes.

In view of this example, it is plain to see how hard it is to build a joint country for Jews and Arabs after everything that has happened between us ‏(and no, keeping one of the parties away from here is not a solution, thank you‏). Did anyone imagine that the descendants of the defeated side and the descendants of the victorious side could live together in one country without problems, grudges, hostility or suspicion? It would be one of the strangest occurrences in human history if the two sides were existing in the Israel of today without baggage, without mutual recrimination.

We can expect a more optimistic time only in the future, perhaps. In the days of those who have yet to be born, but on whose behalf we must already take the trouble to act and to restrain ourselves. First of all, empathy is required. I, a keen Zionist and Israeli patriot, can feel empathy for any Arab Israeli who prays for the nonexistence of the State of Israel. I understand what he feels. I don’t justify or support him, but I understand. And am worried.

And afraid.

My father was a boy in Poland before World War II, and loved it even though it did not love him. Around him was covert anti-Semitism and blatant anti-Semitism − but he, as a Jewish Polish child, loved the stories of his country’s history, loathed its enemies and revered its athletes, and hoped someday to become a great Pole.

There’s nothing you can do about such a situation; it is the manifestation of an urge that exists in every human being, and causes us to band together in countries, peoples, associations, brigades and clubs.

A desire to belong

Israel’s Arabs also want to belong and − if you only let them − want to belong to what can be called Israelihood. For the time being this is no trivial thing, as far as they are concerned. In my daily Galilean life, I run into Israeli Arabs who cannot be suspected of malice, and they tell me little anecdotes about encounters, with everything connected to the establishment and the government. Little stories of discrimination and cruelty, the extent of whose truth I have no way of knowing, but it is clear to me that they are embedded in the hearts of my interlocutors, who believe they have genuinely experienced them.

A tiny matter that demonstrates the trouble we are all in is the national anthem. In other words, the arrogant demand that Arab athletes sing it, every last word, before they go off to play for and represent a national team. I myself never understood this custom of singing the anthem before sporting events, but never mind. The problem of the Arab players on Israeli national teams is not theoretical. The words of the anthem, which stir my heart, speak of Zionist sentiment − that which swept Jews here from all parts of the world, to the displeasure of most of the Arab locals. Why force their descendants to sing these words?

Will the singing and the correct pronunciation of each word, reflecting perhaps some sort of pride, ensure their loyalty?

The same goes for signing loyalty oaths, as though we were living in one of the chapters of the book “Catch-22.” The intention of the people behind the bill is to box the disloyal into a corner. To defy and be punished, or to force them to bow their heads and sign. If they had demanded from my father’s father in Poland that he sign a declaration of “ceasing to yearn for Zion” − he would have signed. Absolutely. Out of fear. And he’d quietly have gone on, yearning for Zion.

I myself do not want to live in a country where people are made to sign declarations. I want to live in a country where such proposals are redundant − in a country where all of its citizens want it to exist, and are proud to belong to it.

Is this possible? Yes. Instead of dragging Israel’s Arabs into corners, where they would have to choose between punishment and signing by compulsion, it would be better to conduct the long and difficult process, fraught with land mines, of bringing the Arab public into Israelihood. That which will exist here in another 50 years, for example. I personally want Israel to be a country in which the Arab minority feels a natural part, but I understand that this may not happen in my lifetime ‏(even though I am planning to lead a long life‏). Until then, the need will arise over and over to use restraint in the fact of all sorts of laws, actions, statements and other things that extremists on each side come up with. Each and every one of the silent majority of Israel’s citizens must summon up empathy, conciliatory behavior in light of reality’s complexity, patience − and a little sense of humor.

Since I have expressed here my identification with many rivals, I cannot help but conclude with an oh-so-Jewish story, that of the rabbi who was approached by a man for help in some financial dispute. The rabbi listened to the man’s side of the story for a long time and finally declared: “You’re right.” The man left pleased, and then along came his rival to see the rabbi. The rabbi listened for a long time to the other party, and at last declared, “You’re right.”

After the latter departed, also pleased, the rabbi’s wife came and asked the rabbi how it could be that the two men had made completely contrary claims and yet the rabbi told both of them that they were right. The rabbi replied in a tired voice, “You’re right too.”

Long live the State of Israel.

The writer’s novels, “Our Holocaust” and “The World, a Moment Later,” were both published in English by Toby Press.