'A Jew Who Only Arrived Yesterday to Israel Is More of a Landlord Than You'

'How can I know that tomorrow they won’t come to my village and throw me out of there?' asks Palestinian columnist and author Odeh Bisharat. Upon publication of his new novel, he talks about understanding Arab youth's anger bursts and his readers being ready for a gay character

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Odeh Bisharat. 'There’s an automatic assumption that I’m not part of the country, its wealth, its construction.'
Odeh Bisharat. 'There’s an automatic assumption that I’m not part of the country, its wealth, its construction.'Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Ronen Tal
Ronen Tal

When Odeh Bisharat was six years old he traveled with his family for a fun day in Tel Aviv. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Shalom Tower, which was under construction. Odeh’s father, who was a construction worker, wanted to show his family the flagship project of Israeli architecture, in which he was participating.

“The building wasn’t finished yet,” recalls Bisharat. “We stood in front of the skeleton and saw the workers’ elevator ascending and descending. When we returned home to Yafiah I told everyone that we got to see the tallest tower in the Middle East. Some of the kids didn’t even believe that such a thing existed.”

It’s not only because of a nostalgic longing for childhood that Bisharat shares this memory. When right-wing politicians and their representatives in the media complain that the Arab citizens don’t share the burden or don’t demonstrate enough gratitude to the government – that’s an opportunity to add his modest contribution to the pathos-laden discussion about building the land: “There’s an automatic assumption that I’m not part of the country, its wealth, its construction,” he says. “But look, my father was one of those who actually built the State of Israel.”

He is 63 years old, married to Suhar, he’s a high school teacher with a doctorate in biology, the son of a family of refugees that was expelled in 1948 from the village of Ma’alul after the conquest of Nazareth, and settled in nearby Yafiah (also known as Yafa an-Naseriyye). His two sons – Khaled, a plant geneticist, and Yazid, an electrical engineer at Intel – moved to Tel Aviv and Haifa because of their careers (the couple also have a daughter, Hala, in 12th grade).

Bisharat. 'I want [the two-state solution] and believe in it. Common sense says that in the end it will happen.'Credit: Gil Eliyahu

But he never left, insists on holding on to the only place that was a home for him. From Yafiah he sends his finely honed political articles, which are published in the Arabic press and in Haaretz. They naturally deal with racism, the occupation and discrimination against Arab citizens – but not only. Recently, for example, he defended the right of Gilat Bennett, the prime minister’s wife, to fly with her children to a vacation abroad without asking her husband’s permission, and saw the story as an opportunity to establish “a more profound understanding of gender, citizenship and individual freedom.”

Now he’s publishing a third novel: “The Late Tammam Makehoul,” (Am Oved), which he wrote in Arabic and translated o Hebrew himself. The hero of the story is Jawad, a 60-year-old man who recently retired from his work in a government ministry and comes across a death notice that reveals to him that his childhood sweetheart, Tammam Makehoul, has died. Her death sends him on an inner journey of recollection, longing, and an honest examination of the past, one that may cost him a final and decisive parting from his wife Salma. Like Bisharat’s previous books – “The Streets of Zatunia” and “Donia” – he provides an insider’s look at Arab society in Israel and at the changes that it has undergone in recent decades – but also discusses universal subjects such as ageing, female sexuality and the deceptive nature of memory.

Two revelations related to Tammam’s romantic relationships after their breakup shake up the world of the adult Jawad. The first of her partners is Samir, a young Arab who was arrested after it was discovered that he photographed security sites and sent the pictures to a Palestinian organization in Nablus. The second is Danny, a Jewish man with whom she emigrates (temporarily) to the United States. Although Bisharat insists that his heroine represents only herself, he agrees that the events of her life also reflect the emotional reality of the Arab community in Israel, including his own.

“As a member of a family of refugees, I live with a constant feeling that our lives could disappear in the blink of an eye as though they never existed. On the one hand we live in a society that’s becoming increasingly violent, and on the other you feel that the country is ignoring you, marginalizing you. A Jew who only yesterday immigrated to Israel from Paris is more of a landlord than you, who have lived here for generations. The attempts to restrict the Arabs, to expel them from their places in Lod or the Negev, immediately arouse associations with 1948. How can I know that tomorrow they won’t come to my village and throw me out of there – maybe not outside the borders of the country, but actually, who knows. There are crazies in this country who are ready for anything. The fear, the suffocation, infiltrate my writing too.”

How?

“My character, Tammam, lives with her family in her childhood neighborhood in Nazareth. In a way that protects her, provides her with the warmth of home, but she suffocates within that, wants to break out, and she also does so through her choice of partners and the freedom to have sexual relations with whomever she wants.”

Falling in love with a Jew and living with him before marriage, isn’t that a terrible taboo?

“I didn’t write a documentary work. My heroine is a private person, she’s not a stereotype, and I allow her this space to choose whom she loves. That’s the power of literature, which allows you to enter some kind of bubble inside all the storms surrounding you. I don’t write in order to debate with someone from a different political stream. Literature is not confrontation. When I write about this woman, and about her doubts and her pain, it’s not in order to confront someone else’s pain and doubts.”

Refugee children in Nazareth in 1950. Bisharat is the son of a family of refugees that was expelled from the village of Ma’alul after the Israeli conquest of Nazareth in 1948.Credit: AW / UN Photo

And personally, do you accept such relationships?

“I have no problem with that. To oppose relations between an Arab man and a Jewish woman and vice versa is to oppose nature. People are attracted to one another regardless of their national origin. It’s coarse intervention in human nature to dictate to someone to whom he should connect. An Arab patriot still loves his people even when he’s in love with a Jewish woman.”

Could your readers accept a story about a lesbian heroine? A gay hero?

The cover of Bisharat's third novel, “The Late Tammam Makehoul.” He wrote it in Arabic and translated it to Hebrew himself.Credit: Yehuda Dery/Moran Barak/ Am Oved

“I think they could. I don’t have such experiences, so I don’t write about them, but Arab society in Israel is very open, very accepting, and I don’t think I would be boycotted if I wrote about such people. It’s a tremendous thing that’s happening in Arab society – the acceptance of people who are ‘different’ and their right to live as they wish, and that includes gays and lesbians. And in general, you can’t decide what happens in other people’s bedrooms.”

And the uproar surrounding Al Arz tahini, which conservative groups called to boycott after the company announced that it would fund a hotline for LGBTQs in the Arab community?

“This whole matter was an unsuccessful sectarian political experiment. It’s like the way [United Arab List MK] Mansour Abbas and others can say in Hebrew that they have no problem with that, but in Arabic they’ll exploit it to collect more votes. And that’s the worst thing about politics. The job of the politicians is to push society forward, but there are some who will incite against gays or any other group – Arabs, Jews – only in order to accumulate power. We need red lines for politicians too, but apparently in Arab society they learned from [former Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu how to cross all the lines in order to get another 10,000 votes.”

Netanyahu. As though it’s possible to have a conversation without mentioning him. For years Bisharat – who in the past was the secretary general of Hadash, a left-wing Jewish-Arab party, and also serves as a member of the executive committee of the New Israel Fund – has been identified with the approach that Israeli Arabs should cooperate with the democratic, egalitarian voices in Jewish society. And then came Netanyahu, the man who won more than one election campaign by creating groundless panic about the danger of Arabs, tried to tempt Mansour Abbas with promises and by stroking his ego, so that he would help Netanyahu survive politically, and in the end sent him straight into the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

But even this poetic irony doesn’t purify the wrongdoing for Bisharat, and in this case the wrongdoing is the presence of the United Arab List in the government He doesn’t share the enthusiasm of parts of the Jewish community at what looks like Abbas’ political cunning and his willingness to take risks. After a long hesitation, in an attempt to find the correct term to describe his attitude towards Abbas, Bisharat says that he is “opposed to Abbas’ approach.”

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas. "His approach is to be ingratiating," says Bisharat. "I’m in favor of cooperation, but from a position of equality."Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Abbas threatened not to vote with the coalition if the Jewish National Fund did not stop planting trees next to the Bedouin villages in the Negev. Meanwhile the practice has been discontinued.

“Abbas said ‘Thanks to me the tractors withdrew,’ but the JNF announced that in any case the planting was planned to last three days. He’s taking credit for fictitious achievements. His approach is to be ingratiating. I’m in favor of cooperation, but from a position of equality. From the moment the government was formed, Bennett has been talking about all the Jewish national symbols. Abbas for his part declares that the State of Israel is a Jewish state and will remain so, and is in effect saying, ‘You don’t have to acknowledge my narrative, I’m only interested in civil issues.’

“But civil issues are also a result of a nationalist approach. After all, we’re excluded and discriminated against because of the political situation. What’s going on in the Negev can also be presented as a civil issue. But what’s happening is that there are people who have been living there for generations and instead of allowing them to live on their land they’re trying to steal another 1,000 dunams [about 250 acres] from them. After all, any Jew can get 1,000 dunams for isolated farms in the Negev. There are a million dunams in the desert, and the Bedouin Arabs live on only 3 percent. That’s discrimination and that’s wickedness. But it’s clear that the Negev Bedouin will win. They have no choice.”

What is this victory?

“They’ll remain on their land, they have nowhere to go. Will they place them in camps? Sixty years ago in Sde Boker, [Israel’s first prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion called on the Jews to come to the Negev, but they aren’t coming. Who will come to the desert? Only the desert people who already live there. And it’s not only the Negev. In the Galilee they’re wounding the land, destroying the mountains in order to build another highway and to bring another 10 families to some hilltop community. And then they talk about environmental quality. They’re constantly thinking how to take over more and more land, in the name of ideology. And when ideology enters the picture everything is disrupted. Ideology says that if it’s an Arab then we have to take it from him and to a Jew we have to give.”

Bedouin protesting the Jewish National Fund tree-planting next to their village in the Negev. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

What difference does it make to ideology if the Bedouin live in a tent encampment or in Rahat?

“I’m not their spokesman. But a logical person will think that it’s more reasonable for them to live where they’ve always lived and to build schools and clinics and pharmacies for them there, and slowly but surely they will have engineers and doctors and high-tech workers. At the moment, MK Walid Taha [of the UAL] can’t force Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to connect even a single home to electricity. The United Arab List MKs have no real influence, it’s like the mukhtar during the military regime.”

And on the other hand, gangs of young Bedouin are running riot with no one stopping them. The crime and violence there only supply additional ammunition to those who claim that there’s no point in talking to the Arabs and the only way to deal with them is with force.

“There are no budgets, the shepherds living there are persecuted, they aren’t allowed to grow their vegetables. There are no factories, no schools, so what will become of them? There’s a large group of marginalized teenagers there because they don’t have all the basic things that a child in Tel Aviv or Yeruham has. The government is creating a malicious project that forces people to become marginalized and causes them to erupt and to resort to violence, and then it rolls its eyes and says ‘Why are things like this?’ Because you’re responsible for this injustice.”

And maybe the best way to deal with this injustice is to be a part of the government and to fight from within, certainly after the Netanyahu years?

Writer and columnist Odeh Bisharat at his home in Yafiah on the outskirts of Nazareth.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

“I also agreed that we had to get rid of Netanyahu, the arch-inciter who incites Arabs against Jews and in effect everyone against everyone, but my approach is that we can’t be inside an Israeli government. To give support from outside – that’s all right. On issues of budgets and construction and a battle against violence – we have to be there and use all our power. But there’s another, national-political story, and it includes the occupation and the siege of Gaza, and we can’t be there. Should I be a part of those who impose a closure on Ramallah? Will I tell the air force to bomb Lebanon? That’s inhumane. So I leave to the Jews the occupation and the wars and the tension with Iran – which many think is also a fiction – and let them sink into the mire of the West Bank.

“On the other hand, I have no problem with supporting the government from outside, the way the Joint Arab List agreed to recommend Benny Gantz [as prime minister] with all its 15 seats, and then came his two musketeers [Yoaz] Hendel and [Zvi] Hauser, and torpedoed it. We have to choose our playing field, and we can’t be on the playing field of the occupation. I can’t represent Israel to the world and tell everyone how much the Arabs have progressed, and keep silent about what’s happening in Gaza. I know that there are Arabs in the foreign service who are capable of doing that, I’m not.”

So we could say that in effect you’re willing to cooperate in order to get budgets and to exploit the state for your own benefit, but not to be a partner to its national goals.

“Is occupation against my people a national goal? Are you as a Jew willing to send your child to burst into the room of an Arab child in the territories at 2 A.M.? Or to send an old man to freeze to death in some warehouse? That’s an anti-national, anti-humane and anti-Jewish goal. Even in my nightmares I wouldn’t imagine that my son is doing such things, and Jewish democrats don’t send their children on those missions. For them it’s an honor to be in prison instead of in the occupied territories.”

We’re meeting in the BIG Fashion mall at the entrance to Nazareth. All the stores in the complex are branches of large Israeli chains. At the entrance they insist on a Green Pass and everyone is wearing masks. On the soundtrack they’re playing Amy Winehouse and Green Day. We could just as well have met in the commercial center of New Ramat Aviv. But just as we all saw last May, this sleepy all-Israeli routine could explode at a moment’s notice. Bisharat is unequivocal in his opposition to the violent rioting by Arabs that erupted then in the cities of Lod and Acre, but – well, there’s a but. “These were eruptions of anger among the Arabs, and these things are unacceptable and must be condemned. But those who sent full buses there were the settlements,” he says referring to the clashes in mixed Jewish-Arab cities sparked by the May conflict between Israel and Gaza.

A car set on fire in Lod during the May 2021 Arab-Jewish clashes. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yeshuv

Many people in the Jewish community, even those who vote for the center-left, believe that in their heart of hearts that many Arab citizens support this violence when it’s directed against Jews.

“Not at all. I feel a great deal of pain that the Arabs have reached such a situation. What are you talking about? Absolutely not. It doesn’t make me happy, neither internally nor externally. I don’t want young Arabs to be seen as arsonists, so even from that aspect I’m opposed to it. I want young Arabs to demonstrate with dignity. I feel pain and disappointment that our younger generation does what it does. But I also understand that that’s what happens after the garin torani groups arrive there,” he says referring to the phenomenon of young religious Jews setting up communities, often in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, where they run social, religious and educational activities.

Why is it wrong for Jews to come to live alongside Arabs in cities included within the boundaries of the State of Israel?

“Arabs live in Nazareth Illit [aka Nof Hagalil], my son lives with his family in Tel Aviv. He works there, he didn’t move there in order to turn Tel Aviv into an Arab city. The intention of the people in Lod and Ramle is to Judaize. To take over. They say, ‘We have a right to live anywhere,’ but we know the truth, and the state subsidizes their stay there. It’s a malicious project of a wicked government, and then people are surprised that our young people react as they did. It’s like sending someone to the beach and telling him not to get wet. And all that is related to the nation-state law, which aside from the issue of [the downgrading of the Arabic] language, doesn’t even mention the Arab citizens. They’re instilling an awareness that Jews are preferred and Arabs are worth less.”

Do you still believe in the two-state solution?

“I want it and believe in it. Common sense says that in the end it will happen. Israel doesn’t have to control the entire West Bank because of the places sacred to Jews. Just as there’s no need to occupy Ukraine so that ultra-Orthodox Jews can get to the grave of Rabbi Nahman [of Bratslav]. I’m familiar with the voices that say that it’s too late and in the end there will be one state. But it would be an apartheid state, in which the Palestinians would live in their camps and cities and wouldn’t be able to move around freely.”

So we’re not yet there at the moment?

“We’re on a slope towards apartheid.”

Do you ever ask yourself, why we were fated to live with the Jews of all people, with their difficult history and their fear that at any moment a second Holocaust could take place?

“Yes, we’re the victim of the victim.”

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