'I Live in Peace With My Two Identities, Jewish and Arab’

It was life in New York City post 9/11 that caused Israeli researcher Dr. Hani Zubida to question his identity. His new TV series looks at the fragile coexistence in Israel's mixed cities following the violent clashes between Jews and Israeli Arabs last May

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Hani Zubida, creator of 'One City, Two Peoples.'
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

Almost a year has passed since the riots that took place in mixed cities across Israel last May, during the last bout of fighting between Israel and Gaza. Jews and Arabs were quick to establish reconciliation initiatives. They handed out flowers in Haifa and smiled for the cameras; some held the Israeli flag aloft in one hand and stickers reading "no to violence" in the other.

But the events of May 2021 opened a deep and painful chasm in Israeli society. There is no amount of hummus that can heal the wounds between Jews and Arabs – but there is a real need to ask the tough questions and take a good look at the coexistence that fell apart.

In his documentary series, "One City, Two Peoples," Dr. Hani Zubida takes viewers to five mixed cities in Israel: Lod, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and Ramle. Created and presented by Zubida, the series was directed by Amit Farbman. It recently premiered on the Knesset channel and is available to watch on YouTube.

Through conversations with residents, social activists and political leaders, Zubida reflects the events through the lens of social and political processes that preceded them. He explains why the roots of the riots go far deeper than "us" versus "them." Alongside a process of judaization in mixed cities by means of "Torah nuclei" – groups of Orthodox Jewish families that move into underdeveloped cities – he points to the growing social and economic gaps between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, many of whom have lost faith in coexistence or never believed in it to begin with.

'I don't hide my Arabness. They say I don't represent the Mizrahim, but I don't have to'

"It started with the events of October 2000," Zubida says, referring to a week of violent confrontations between the Israeli police and the country's Arab citizens, leading to the death of 12 Israeli Arabs and one Palestinian from Gaza.

"I was studying for my Ph.D. in the United States when I saw reports that they had shot Arabs in a demonstration in Umm al-Fahm. I thought, is there any situation where Jews would be shot at a demonstration," Zubida says. "I realized that they shot them because they were Arab; that Arab citizens are dehumanized and that's why they can be shot. It stayed in my head, and the idea developed after I returned to Israel."

Zubida, 55, married with two children, personally experienced discrimination a year later, in the wake of the terror attack on the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. "They asked me come to the immigration office and show them my papers.

I started thinking, who am I, what am I, and who am I dealing with? I realized that it wasn't a local Israeli problem, it had landed in our back yard in New York. For a year, I couldn't speak Arabic on the street, I couldn't speak Hebrew either. What was happening in New York is also what happens to Arabs in Israel. I was planning a series on mixed cities even before the riots," Zubida says.

'I’m an Israeli – I was in the army'

Zubida is a political scientist who received his Ph.D. from New York University. His research deals with social identities, voter behavior, politics, migration and Israeli government and society. He was born in Baghdad and immigrated to Israel with his family in 1971, when he was five years old, after his uncle was arrested and hanged in Iraq. The family was sent to an absorption center in Netanya. From there, the family moved to Petah Tikva.

"My mother was a schoolteacher in Ramle. The principal was Abed al-Rahman Masarweh. I spent a lot of time with his sons in Taibeh. Arab identity was present in my home growing up. In New York, I had nowhere to run – I would stand in front of an American and I couldn't say 'I'm Israeli, I was in the army.' From their point of view I was born in Iraq, so I'm an Arab."

In Israel too, Zubida couldn't outrun his Arab identity. While working on the series, he ran into quite a few difficulties. "During filming we had trouble sitting alongside one another, Jews and Arabs," he says. "They refused to sit together, and there were some, both Jews and Arabs, who wouldn't speak to me because of my opinions. It was important for me to let different voices be heard. In one case, I spoke to a guy from one of the Torah nuclei in his synagogue. It was important for me to hear everything he had to say."

In the segment on Acre, Zubida allows the social complexity of the city to come through the different voices. Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman says: "In Acre we live next to one another, not together." On the other hand, Reut Getz, head of the Ometz nucleus, says: "I live in a building that's mostly Arab. We live together like neighbors. Just because we live together doesn't mean we need to have a unified identity or create common ground. No. I'm not interested. They're not my people, they're not in my tradition. Their identity is of the Palestinian people, and the moment there's a war at Al-Aqsa, they'll toe the line in that war. And the truth is, I'll toe the line of the Temple."

"That interview one of the saddest moments I'd had in years," Zubida says. "It revealed the inability to see another person as a person. She doesn't see us as human beings, but as a collective, claiming that it's a necessary reality. That hurt me personally. The motif repeats elsewhere in the series. For me, it's a really difficult point."

Some claim that the series incites against the Torah nuclei, blaming them for the riots. After all, there are no Torah nuclei in Umm al-Fahm, or on the road between Be'er Sheva and Arad, and there were riots there.

"Members of the Torah nuclei were given space to say everything they wanted to say. There's no mixed city where we didn't approach the Torah nucleus and ask to speak with members. The issue is the Torah nuclei's takeover of public property. Nobody has the right to take over public housing and state resources. It's important to stress that this mainly applies to Lod.

"They're not all as heavy-handed as the Torah nucleus in Lod. I'm against violence in any circumstance, but it's important to understand what the Torah nuclei want. When they say: 'I want to Judaize a certain place and take over public housing and public resources,' there's a problem – not with the Torah nuclei, but with the state. I want the state to do something about it. They manage to harness politicians to their advantage, and that's their right, but at the same time, it's my right to point out the problem. As a citizen, I have a right to know and understand what's happening, and it's clear that there's a problem in Lod," Zubida says.

Zubida doesn't blame the Torah nuclei for all of the problems in the Arab community of Lod. "I can easily buy a gun in Lod. When there's a shooting, a mother can get hit by a stray bullet. There are layers to the problem, and the Torah nucleus is one of them. There are business interests that have come in and want to take over the Old City, which makes it feel like the walls are closing in. Everyone I spoke to in Acre expressed that feeling."

Counterintuitively, Jews from Arab countries seem to have internalized anti-Arab racism in Israel, even though it seems logical that Mizrahi Jews would show more solidarity to weaker populations like Arabs and refugees.

"Some Mizrahim have been pushed to the point of extreme nationalism. They think that the only way to love Israel is to see it as a state for Jews only. But you can still love Israel if non-Jews live here. Unfortunately, many Mizrahim have been stuck in the working class – woodcutters and water bearers for the Ashkenazim – they found themselves competing with Arabs in the labor market. At the same time, they want to differentiate themselves from the Arabs," Zubida says.

"I don't hide my Arabness. They say I don't represent the Mizrahim, but I don't have to. I represent a perspective that allows me to love my country and believe in a Jewish state, not only because of what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust, but over the last 5,000 years. Nevertheless, I believe the state doesn't have to be alienated from its surroundings, the neighboring Arab countries, or from the non-Jewish people who live here. In Israel, everyone want to speak English and be like Americans, but we live in the Middle East and almost no one speaks Arabic."

"As for the refugees, Netanyahu's government's settled them in south Tel Aviv, not north Tel Aviv. If Bibi [Netanyahu] really loved the second Israel, he would move them, but that doesn't serve his goals. And that is my problem. I don't think Bibi is the messiah. [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett and [Health Minister Nitzan] Horowitz aren't the messiah either."

His uncle’s murder

In January 1969, Zubida's uncle, David Dallal, was arrested. He was only 17-years-old and was eventually executed by hanging. Hani’s mother, Hana Yehezkel Dallal-Zubida, described the events on a website devoted to communities uprooted from Arab countries: "It was at the end of the Six-Day War and the defeat of the Arab countries.

Tensions were high and the government was looking for a way to justify its failure. Who was the scapegoat? The few Jews remaining in Basra. How do you redirect the anger of the masses against the quiet and discipline Jewish minority? By spreading rumors in the media that there are spies in Iraq, and who would they be if not the Jews? They brought down the Iraqi army. Nothing sparks anger in the street like striking at the Jews."

"My brother heard the police from his sickbed," the testimony continues, "and innocently went downstairs to tell my mother there was nothing to worry about. He said he would be right back, and it was better for them to take him than to bother our father. He was so sure he'd return, he left with complete confidence because he had nothing to hide. He didn't know that he'd been sentenced before they knew who he was. The trial was one big farce.

"On the first day, they brought out the accused and asked what they did. They all denied the allegations, and their words were edited before being broadcast that evening. In the morning they were tortured. By the evening they all admitted their guilt. That's what happened to my brother David, after unendurable torture, he surrendered and confessed. They were hung with ropes still on their necks, and they covered their bodies from head to toe, so that the signs of abuse wouldn't be visible. The undertaker came to us that night and said, 'they told me that one member of each family can come, but I advise no one to come. It's too difficult to look at.' After the parade of executions, Jews began to disappear."

Zubida says that many Jews from Arab countries bear terrible scars of their last years in their home countries. "I know what happened in my family after my uncle's death. We all lived with the daily fear that something would happen to our children, that someone would hurt them. It hung like a cloud over all of us. On the other hand, my uncle's murder was an institutional-governmental act by an inhumane regime that did similar things to their own people. Just to gain a few years more in power, they turned the anger against a vulnerable minority. It made me very critical of government institutions, and all sorts of nationalist, fascist and religious ideas."

"But after all that," Zubida says, "I believe that we can't keep living in fear, because it gives rise to hatred and withdrawal. You can't live a normal life that way. So I and some members of my family decided that we wouldn't wage a campaign of hatred or revenge against nations or people. It was a hard, painful family sacrifice, but it didn't sever me from who I am – neither my Arabness, nor my Judaism. I live in peace with both identities and I love them both. I can't forget what happened to my family, but I do forgive, to reach a better future for us all."

During the pandemic you said: "The Haredi public does what it wants and breaks the rules of the state. The Haredi public is among the most racist." What led you to say this?

"I said the Haredi public was breaking the rules, and I blamed their rabbis and leaders because that's the way it was. They refused to distribute government information to the community. The infection rate was very high in Haredi cities, and I told Haredi leaders that they were sickening their people, and that it was indeed their fault," Zubida says.

"In regard to the racism, I was referring specifically to the fact that they don't accept Sephardic girls at Haredi schools. In Immanuel, they started a class and the state required them to accept Sephardic girls. They built a plaster wall a meter and a half high to separate the Sephardic and Ashkenazi girls. I later apologized for the words I chose, but I still think this has no place in the State of Israel – putting up walls between children. The notion that they would be separated or rejected according to a quota based on their ethnicity is insane to my mind."

Still, people were hurt by your harsh words, whether they are Haredim or members of Torah nuclei.

"I don't like hurting people, and it's never my goal. When friends told me that the Haredim didn't understand me and were hurt, I felt bad. I went back and made myself clear. I take it to heart, though it may not always seem that way. I feel for people, and when people are hurt, it tears me up inside. I don't want to hurt Torah nuclei members. I have no issue with them as people, but there's an issue of the establishment here. I think I'm very sensitive.

"When I hear that someone was called a dirty Arab or a terrorist, it sucks the air out of my lungs. I want to stay that way. I don't want to be emotionally disconnected. I know I'll be criticized for the things I say, because I present facts and aspects of Israeli society that people don't want to hear about. You can shoot the messenger – I am the messenger."

Do you feel that you pay a price for your Arab identity?

"I'd rather be unpopular doing what I believe, than be loved and do things that I don't believe in. I could have changed my name – Danny instead of Hani, Ziv instead of Zubida. I could find an alternative identity, but I don't want to. I'm find with who I am. Someone once told me, 'You're always kicking at the elites, don't expect them to embrace you.'"

In both your writing and your new series, it seems like coexistence is unattainable. It's not just Arabs versus Jews, Israeli identity politics is complex.

"We're not educated to see each other as people who can coexist. This is the establishment, and it trickles to all levels of society. The Arabs are perceived as folklore, not an integral part of Israeli society. People say, 'I ate knafeh in Nazareth,' and think that's coexistence. Former MK Zuhair Bahalul says in the series that Arabs have been integrated in sports, but that it needs to happen on an institutional level. We're not bridging the gap, and it won't change until we create a framework that allows for it. We don't live together. People are afraid to. Tzachi [Halevy] and Lucy [Aharish] got married and people are terrified of that kind of relationship. But I love my country and believe we can live differently, in a way that benefits everyone here."

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