Needed: An Arab Martin Luther King, Jr.

If until now the Arab citizen of Israel was able to repress confronting the painful search for meaning, now the task of dealing with self-definition and the search for meaning are an obligation that can no longer be avoided.

The security and social anarchy that has overtaken Palestinian society in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, in the wake of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, has engendered a sense of deep frustration among the Arab citizenry within Israel. They and their leaders have been left stunned and dismayed by scenes of vandalism and the destruction of national symbols. Now, a month later, I find myself dealing with the sources of this dismay, which has served to bring into focus the ambivalent feelings experienced by Israel's Arabs, living as we do in a twilight zone between belonging and separatism.

The search of the Arab citizen for meaning, belonging and self-definition is not something new, nor has it ever existed in a way that is detached from the larger socio-political reality of the Arab world and the Middle East. The conflagration in Iraq, the collapse of values and ideology in extensive parts of the Arab world, the Second Lebanon War and the chaos in Gaza have combined to contribute to a despair-inducing collapse of the Palestinian dream.

The search process has also been influenced by the failure of the process of Israelization among the Arab public. The main reason for that failure is the fact that there is no real difference between Israeliness and Jewishness, and so the Israeli Arab is left with no possibility for truly belonging. And, if until now the Arab citizen was able to repress confronting the painful search for meaning, the Hamas takeover of Gaza has come along and made the task of dealing with self-definition and the search for meaning an obligation that can no longer be avoided.

The process of self-definition and the concern with identity constitute a mission created by the Arab citizen for himself, but also a process that has been forced upon him, since that citizen is part of a collective and subordinate to the society within which he lives. In the existing reality, the Arab citizen finds himself with a split identity, much like an unwanted child. The failure of the attempt to belong to the Arab world in general and to the Palestinian people in particular, on the one hand, and the desire to belong and to be equal to an Israeli, on the other, only aggravate his existential situation and transform it into a fragile reality.

The process of self-definition can lead to two alternative, and problematic, scenarios for Israel's Arabs. The first is the emergence of a crisis of values, which is liable to lead to the privatization of the collective identity and the rise of a new sort of individualism that will operate out of personal considerations and interests that are not directed toward the general good. The second scenario is a reconstruction and nurturing of a sub-national identity, such as the strengthening of tribalism and clannishness. In some places this process may well give prominence to ethnic-religious identity.

These scenarios can exist in parallel and even nourish one another. Neither of them would be positive developments, not for Arab society in particular and not for Israeli society in general, and their implications, both short- and long-term, for Arab society and Israeli society alike are harsh.

The current reality requires new local leadership that will be able to lead the Arab-Palestinian public in Israel to full integration into Israeli society while giving a place of honor to the differences between the Jewish and Arab publics. A struggle of this sort entails complexities and difficult decisions. The state, after all, has not opened its arms to the Arab citizen but rather has chosen a policy that has systematically eroded his identity and discriminated against him.

Our struggle today as Arab citizens is for citizenship that is equal in practice as well as in theory; therefore a leader comparable to Martin Luther King, Jr., is needed. Otherwise, the road from Hamas-stan to Sector-stan will be short indeed.

The author is a doctoral student at the Hebrew University and a lecturer at the Achva Academic College and the David Yellin College of Education.