Sayed Kashua

Lighting an Independence Day Torch for Israel's Palestinian Citizens

For those who persevere despite the land expropriations, the education system, the rickety infrastructure and the attempts to make people forget and to bend them

Illustration: Sayed Kashua carries a torch, with an Israeli flag in the background.
Amos Biderman

In honor of Independence Day, I decided to give myself a small gift: to depart from my habitual portrayal of the world as hopeless, and to try to see the glass half-full. Perhaps it is the distance from the festivities – the obsession with flags, the Stars of David and the smell of burnt meat – that stirred a desire not to write about Israel’s independence through the Nakba prism. Instead, I will celebrate by listing the achievements, as is the custom in Independence Day ceremonies, when the victors set forth the tremendous accomplishments of our small, strong, smart country.

For the first time, I decided to hold something akin to the traditional Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, even though I would risk being singed by the flames of national pride, from which I generally try to flee as from fire.

So, I wish to light this torch in honor of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. I light the torch for the remnants of a people whom the 1948 war tore to pieces, dispossessed and subjugated as field hands and laborers. For the post-traumatized, whom the war left neither city nor newspaper, neither library, leadership or education. For those who were besieged for decades under a military government, which, if they behaved appropriately, allowed them to be menial workers. For the widows who couldn’t read or write, who ate dry bread and saved penny by penny to send their children to school and university. I want to light a torch for a generation of parents whose only consolation in being subordinated to building a country not their own lay in the aspiration to educate their children. (No, I’m sorry, not everyone worked hard in those years, despite the stories that are told; the hierarchy was clear from the outset, and working for oneself is different from being subjugated to the well-being of the master.)

I’ll light a torch in honor of the generation of parents, to whose distress I was a witness when I would heard the women of the neighborhood – most of whom themselves had only eight grades of schooling – calculate how much money they would need in order to get an education for their sons and daughters, and recommend to the young women to have children with breaks of three to four years, since that would make things easier when it came to tuition fees.

I will light a torch in honor of those who have managed, despite everything, to remain standing, even if on one leg. “Despite,” I say, and whoever claims it should be “thanks to,” is a shameless liar. To all those old women who gathered in the evening outside the neighborhood grocery store and told us stories about the war, stories they knew we would not be told in school. In honor of the teachers, even if they were few, who sometimes departed from what the official textbooks dictated and risked dismissal and loss of income for it.

In honor of the generation that went into the streets in spite of the Border Police, the arrests, the persecution and the silencing. Who were able to found a newspaper or to recruit volunteers to go door-to-door selling cultural magazines, music tapes and banned books.

“Despite,” I say, and whoever claims it was “thanks to,” is an incorrigible deceiver. Despite the land expropriations, despite the education system, despite the rickety infrastructure and despite the attempts to make people forget and to bend them. Despite the lack of libraries, theaters, cultural centers and music auditoriums – despite everything, they succeeded in writing, singing, acting, demonstrating, crying and implanting hope.

It’s true that Arab towns and villages in Israel are in such dreadful condition that, at times, it’s hard to maintain hope. Overcrowding, joblessness, internal rifts, violence, religious conservatism, lack of law enforcement, crime, murder of women – all these pose a greater threat to Arab society than ever before.

But on this Independence Day, I want to argue that these are minority phenomena, and remember that it is enough to have 100 armed criminals in a city of tens of thousands for the lives of the majority to be turned into hell. Despite the suffocation and inability to break free of restrictions that have been there from the outset, the vast majority of the country’s Palestinian citizens continue, miraculously, to invest in their children, in their education, and to imbue them with the hope that the next generation will be better off.

And I want to light this torch for the new generation, which, despite the state, is able to produce researchers, scientists, engineers and political activists. And which, despite persecution and restrictions, is creating the most interesting cinema in the country, writing the finest poetry, producing the scrappiest theater and making the most interesting music. Miraculously, the new generation is able to ignore the internal and external social dictates and generate a new, fresh, subversive voice that is prouder than ever.

I light this torch in honor of the representatives of the young generation – those creative artists whose work thrives even as the suppression increases. The artists who are succeeding in filling theaters they built with their own hands, in publishing books at their own expense, in holding evenings devoted to literature and poetry in every space that permits it, and to search for any way they can to make their voices heard. And, despite everything, to continue to implant hope and pass it on as a torch to the next generation, for whom the day will come when they know no more grief.

And to the glory of the egalitarian state in the making, in which all citizens will be free – regardless of class, religion, race, nationality and sexual choice.