As an Israeli Arab in the U.S., I Have to Choose Between Two Countries That Hate Me

We left Israel because we wanted to raise our children in a liberal society that accepts them. How sad it is that our old fears are returning in the country of asylum, upon Trump's rise.

An illustration showing Sayed Kashua balancing an hourglass on his head.
Amos Biderman

My middle child cried on election night. It was early evening, long before the final result was known. He saw on television that Trump was ahead and started to cry, because he already knew that Trump hates Muslims and he learned in his American school that he is a Muslim. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” I comforted him.

At first I wanted to tell him that the American vote-counting system is different, and that even if Trump was ahead now, that said nothing about the eventual outcome. But for some reason – in light of the experience of the last election in Israel, and an awareness of the power that fascism exercises on the masses – I told him only that it wouldn’t change a thing. That it’s not really important who’s elected, the system will be the same system and we won’t feel the difference at all. I lied to my son in an attempt to lie to myself, pointing out that our neighbors will be the same neighbors and that if we were welcomed warmly in town, those relationships won’t change because of this or that president: “Your friends will still be your friends, and your teachers will still be your teachers.”

The real results continued to come in. We waited for Florida – it’s always Florida. A friend sent a message that she was going to watch the election results at the university’s student union building, where they have a huge screen, and it would be a thrilling experience. I suggested to my daughter that she come with me and we drove to campus, where we joined a table of friends that included a Jewish woman, an Egyptian woman, and men from South America, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

We followed the results, consoling one another by observing that in the end there’s no difference between the candidates. Still, we hoped that results showing a Clinton lead would start to appear on the screen, and meanwhile we joked about the possibility that we would be deported to our countries of origin.

“Thank God I have an Israeli passport,” I said. “I’ve missed Bibi.”

The Jewish woman was the only American at the table; she knew the names of the analysts who appeared on the Fox News broadcast on the huge screen in the student union, and she cursed them one by one for being dangerous, right-wing racists. But no consolation came – other than the fact that voters in our county, who were also asked on the ballot for their opinion about the legalization of marijuana, came out in favor of the proposal. It grew late and we went home. The radio said that it was still too soon to know, and that final results were still pending in the battleground states.

“I know what you want to ask, Dad,” my daughter said, when I looked in her direction. “No. I would rather be here.”

“But ”

“Here at least I feel that I don’t have to hide – in Jerusalem, I didn’t even tell people who I was.”

My wife woke me up at 2 A.M. “Trump,” she said. “It’s scary.”

When do you know that it’s time to get up and leave? Aren’t Trump’s statements during his campaign enough to understand that there is already a clear and present danger to foreigners, especially Muslims? Or are we to write off those unequivocal and violent declarations, understanding them as a legitimate part of an election campaign in which a candidate says things he doesn’t necessarily believe, in order to muster votes and fulfill his personal ambitions? Are they empty political assertions whose expiry date arrives at the moment of victory? When will I know that this is how it is and not otherwise, and how will I understand that I have to get my children out in order to protect them from being hurt?

After all, what we were looking for here was quiet, and the possibility of raising the children in an enlightened, open, liberal milieu that would accept them, just as they accept it and its laws. How pathetic it is that the same old fears are returning, threateningly, in the country of asylum. Our being here, even if it’s fraught with agonies of longing and a feeling of guilt, is purely for political reasons. One of our declared intentions was that we no longer wanted to feel that we belong, that we were looking for a place where we would not be emotionally invested; we’d already suffered our fill of disappointment, accusations of treason, feelings of betrayal. The idea was to live in a place where by design we would be foreigners – at least we parents, who gave up home, friends, family, work and a higher income – in the hope of finding an alternative home where the children’s foreignness would be more tolerated. We were ready to dilute ourselves to the point of forgoing national, cultural and religious identity, with the aim of integrating the children into a culture that we hoped, in vain, would be ready to accepting them, at least as individuals.

When do you know that it’s time to get up and leave? And how can a foreigner who doesn’t fully know how to interpret the culture of hate get out before it’s too late? Do we now need to be vigilant, as we are on guard for clear signs of the oncoming flood? Should we wait for what the new president has to say when he takes office? How does the mechanism of repression work? And when will we know that the time has come no longer to rely on humaneness?

We’ll wait and see, that’s become our philosophy of life, as I’ve said before. “We’ll see.” We’ll wait a week, two weeks, and try to take note of changes in people’s behavior. We’ll wait two or three months, until after Trump has entered the White House, and then we’ll see. Or maybe we’ll wait until wackos begin to attack minorities, kill Muslims or burn mosques, and then we’ll see. Or maybe we’ll wait until it comes to our town, because the United States is such a big place, and what happens in Orlando says nothing about what’s happening in Illinois. We’ll wait until the next terror attack by Muslims – it’s only a matter of time, because the extremists on both sides of the world feed off each other and need each other. So we’ll wait for the attack and see how the new regime reacts.

“So maybe we’ll just go?” I said to my wife at 2 A.M.

“Where to?”

“Home,” I told her. “If we’re going to be afraid, it’s preferable at home.”

“We’ll wait until the end of the year and then see?”

“Alright,” I nodded, and decided that in the morning, I would have a talk with the children, and that maybe for the time being, temporarily, it would be worth implementing the art of identity concealment that I taught them. To be on the safe side, until the bad times pass. Then we’ll see.