Exactly a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, there was increasing discussion in Arab society about the virus. Was it really a pandemic, or perhaps a plot, they wondered, as the discourse on the social networks spilled over into frightening – and amusing – conspiracy theories.
It began with the claim that this is a plot to reduce the world population with a lab-produced virus, and continued with the conviction that Arabs are immune from the virus because they eat za’atar (hyssop), garlic and olive oil. In the end awareness increased, and most of the Arab public came back down to earth and realized that there’s a dangerous pandemic here that must be dealt with.
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At the same time, among the general public and within the Arab community in particular some people developed another positive and encouraging illusion, based on fact: The virus does not discriminate between Arabs and Jews, doesn’t stop at the separation barrier or the checkpoint. Nazareth and Nablus share the same fate as Tel Aviv. Arab doctors and experts excelled in their departments, Jewish and Arab medical and laboratory teams felt a solidarity that was sometimes blown out of proportion. It seemed as though in every report about handling the coronavirus there always had to be an Arab in the picture.
There was a different, refreshing and positive atmosphere in the country. Experts with an Arabic accent were invited to the TV studios, the public was exposed to new names of Arab department heads. There were rare sights in Arab communities, like soldiers bringing aid packages to the elderly. Arab conservatives were concerned: Would food packages succeed where rifles had failed, and would Arab society be taken in by the army’s bear hug?
The politicians had a field day. Yamina head Naftali Bennett toured Kafr Qasem and Taibeh and spoke about the need to mobilize and to cooperate in the battle against COVID-19. And of course the prime minister also recognized an opportunity here: Those who headed in droves to the polling staions in 2015 no longer scared him. On the contrary, he visited Umm al-Fahm, Nazareth, Tira and Arara in the Negev and even spoke in Arabic: “Go get vaccinated,” he declared.
In Arara he received a warm welcome from several residents – “Abu Yair, come and drink coffee,” they shouted to him. He liked the expression, and it caught on: Huge posters with the words “Abu Yair” (father of Yair) began to appear in the Arab communities, mainly on the eve of the most recent election.
A new player on the political turf also burst into Israeli awareness – the chairman of the United Arab List, MK Mansour Abbas. “I’m not in anyone’s pocket,” he said, and in the absence of a Jewish majority, the right saw him as a savior. The euphoria seized the media as well, and Abbas skipped from one TV studio to the other and addressed the Israeli public at prime time when the leaders of the Joint List and the Zionist left could only dream of such prestigious broadcasting minutes. “I have a dream,” Martin Luther King once said, and now the dream was coming true: In whose direction would Abbas direct his gaze and to whom would he give his party’s seats, and what kind of a government would there be under the aegis of the Arabs.
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And then, when everything was so close – boom. Four Palestinian families in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood managed, with the help of activist field workers and the social media, to send a message: While you’re dreaming about a strategic change in the political and social arena, we are actually fighting for our very survival in our homes.
Later, with the start of Ramadan, the young people of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) were prevented by barriers from sitting on the steps of Damascus Gate, and suddenly the steps turned into a strategic asset. The far right understood the potential – assembling there is a symbol of sovereignty, and by the time the police commissioner came to his senses and removed the barriers, it was already too late. There were stun grenades and smoke at the Al-Aqsa compound and policemen trampling in their boots on the carpets of the mosque. Even the Bedouin Arabs in the north lost their equanimity.
The attack against Gaza only increased the fury and the frustration. The mixed cities, which are considered the wimps of the Arab community, didn’t remain indifferent. Everything burned, the intensity of the anger was far greater than in October 2000. Many young people took to the streets and didn’t wait for any leader. They came out to say: Enough humiliation, enough aggressive behavior. We aren’t indifferent, we’re equal citizens; we’re not Israeli Arabs, we’re Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.
What a month ago was a rosy dream of partnership and influence evaporated in an instant. Jews and Arab clashed, the studios were filled with hatred, several pet Arabs were invited to speak in Hebrew because we have to maintain a balance, and found themselves explaining and defending themselves in the name of a sick symmetry. In Gaza they bombed; in Sderot they bombed. In Bat Yam they beat an Arab who was hospitalized in serious condition and shot another Arab in Lod; in Acre a Jew was attacked. Everything is symmetrical. Hamas’ primitive rockets against Israel’s precision F-16 missiles. That’s the balance and that’s how it should be. The main thing is that an Arab shouldn’t think in terms of genuine equality.
In effect, the Arabs were almost alone in the fray. Most of the left and center aligned themselves with the militarism and refused to stand up against belligerence and war. Civil society organizations, whose right to exist is coexistence, were a kind of nice decoration in the background, but were unable to challenge any political and media establishment. After many decades it turned out that there is still no Jewish-Arab social solidarity in Israel.
Now everyone is trying to talk about rehabilitation. But the truth is that only a solution to the real issue – namely an end to the occupation and the promotion of an agreement whose results would also filter down into Israel – could possibly bring about some profound change. Meanwhile we’ll live from one illusion to the next, until the reality explodes before our eyes once again.