Every once in a while, a shred of cultural discourse — a speech, a poem, a song, or a graffiti campaign, emerges with such velocity that one is forced to look and listen. This week it’s been the short video by Mohammad Zoabi, a teenager from Nazareth. Zoabi is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. But judging from the video uploaded to condemn the kidnapping of three Jewish teens in the West Bank, Zoabi’s identity is anything but hyphenated. Except for the amateur pacing and unpolished facial expressions, one almost wonders whether the video may have been commissioned by Israel’s hasbarah effort. Zoabi does have relatives in high places, but not one who would participate in such an initiative. Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, a cousin, thinks that the teen’s self-defined identity is sick and twisted.
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The video is arresting. But it’s also the most complex and head-scratching piece of political theater I’ve seen in a long while. To my eye, it vacillates wildly between moral clarity and political confusion, between idealism and cynicism, and between shortsightedness and visionary. Here are the takeaway points as I see them:
1.Zoabi the junior is morally courageous in condemning the kidnappings outright. Unlike MK Zoabi who, in a discursive move of which Orwell would be proud, declares the action not to be terrorism, Mohammad Zoabi is right. Kidnappings of civilians — particularly of minors — are a sure-fire way to strike terror into the hearts of one’s enemy. And despite MK Zoabi not being “surprised,” Mohammad rightly speaks out against the move which only manages to keep the tragic cycle of violence and military reprisals alive.
2.All the same, Mohammad Zoabi is politically misguided in dismissing the Palestinian Authority as “terrorists” who Bibi should not negotiate with. Negotiations — including the tough hashing out of the array of contentious issues still defining the conflict — is the only path forward. Certainly, the optics of the PA having just entered into an agreement with Hamas only weeks before the kidnapping aren’t great, to say the least. But we need to play the long game, remembering that there will always be spoilers — even among potential coalition partners.
3.That an Israeli flag appears somewhat incongruously in the background of Mohammad’s video reminds viewers that there are huge strides remaining in inculcating a proper and robust civic identity in Israel. Why shouldn’t Mohammad be allowed to feel patriotic to the country of which he’s a citizen, without being subject to death threats and the calling of his identity “distorted?”
4.On the other hand, Mohammad’s statements reveal some confusion between the idea of nation and state. More than an academic distinction, this division cuts to the heart of the political conundrum that is contemporary Israel. “Am Yisrael Chai,” he declares near the end. “The nation of Israel lives.” He should realize though, if he has not already, that Am Yisrael is a synonym for the Jewish people, of which he is not one. (Add to this the unfortunate trend of anti-peace-process Israelis trying to drown out peace marchers with balcony shout-singing of the Am Yisrael Chai song.) This points back to the importance of the State of Israel needing to do a better job of promoting a civic identity that transcends the subnational categories of Arab and Jew. Recall that one cannot simply have “Israeli” written on one’s identity card. Rather, the Arab and Jewish “ethnic” categories are those which the State uses to define and categorize its citizens.
5.Still, listening to Mohammad’s trilingual speech is one of the best antidotes to the despair wrought by wondering whether Israel will ever be able to enjoy a cohesive sense of identity among its citizens. His perfectly accented and cadenced delivery in English, Hebrew and Arabic, respectively, make me hopeful for the kind of robust multiculturalism and cross-cultural fertilization Israelis will need to enjoy to live contentedly in the gaps between their subnational identities. Once the boys have been brought home, that is, and the collective punishment — both ongoing and reactive — that defines the occupation ends.
You can watch the three-minute video here.