The Perils of Being an Israeli-Arab Writer

The longer I stay abroad, the more I feel this column isn't fulfilling its primary purpose: Testing the limits of a Palestinian Israeli's freedom of expression. So I've decided to take a break

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Illustration: Sayed Kashua towers over a smaller Sayed Kashua who is sitting at a computer.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

“We don’t know yet, sweetie,” became the sentence most uttered by my wife and me. “We’ll know in another month or two.” Because we don’t know, we don’t have a clue, maybe we’ll go back to Israel at the beginning of the summer and maybe we’ll stay in the U.S.  another year, maybe two years. We don’t know, we don’t know, and we’re waiting. And when we don’t know, we don’t enroll the children for the next school year, and we explain to the people in charge that we just don’t know, and that we hope that when we do it won’t be too late and they’ll keep a place for our children at school. And when we don’t know, we don’t renew the lease on the house, and we ask the owner to please give us another month or two, because by then, the picture will definitely be clear and we’ll have an answer.

In the past few months, all the not knowing and uncertainty have become an important part of our daily routine. Sometimes it hits hard, and then my wife or I, mainly I, will declare suddenly that enough is enough: It’s impossible to go on like this any longer, not at this age, it’s certainly not healthy for the children, and let’s get the next flight and go back to Jerusalem, because there the depression is at least familiar.

And sometimes, when we remember what’s going on in back in Israel, after watching the news and speaking with friends, we announce that maybe it’s better to wait, we’ll wait to see if my work contract will maybe be renewed. Or maybe I’ll find something totally different – and, hey, my wife will soon be finished with her doctorate, for her it’ll certainly be easier to find work in the United States. Because for sure, what the American economy isn’t thirsting for is Palestinian writers who can tell jokes about themselves in Hebrew.

But the uncertainly is really scary when it comes to writing, and especially when it comes to this column, which over the years has become an integral part of my identity. Did people like a column? Hate it? That last one sounded lame, I haven’t written anything good for a long time, it’s time to be funny, it’s time to stoke the flames, there’s no place for humor this week, this month, this year. And in addition to specific concerns, there were always the more serious questions about the function this column fulfills for me and for readers, whether Jews or Arabs. Questions about my ability to write the way Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Rogel Alpher and others write. And no, I’m not talking about editorial censorship, or about the freedom of writing that’s reserved for Jewish authors.

What I mean is the internal censorship that’s been implanted deep within me for years; censorship whose arms pursue me even across the ocean. I don’t delude myself, heaven forbid, that the life of Jewish writers who use explicit terms like “fascism,” “apartheid” and “colonialism” is necessarily easy. Maybe the opposite is true. But even if they are considered traitors, they are still legitimate traitors, if only because of the faith of their opponents that one day they will see the light. Because, when all is said and done, they write out of an internal concern – perhaps wrongheaded, people will say, but still within the framework of an internal family dialogue.

A person with an Arab name can write an impressive piece condemning the occupation, the apartheid and the racism that are built into Israeli society, but he will always be read as an Arab. His ostensibly fierce remarks are liable only to confirm the anxieties lurking in readers’ hearts about the Arab: Here’s another Arab who’s proving, in black and white, that all the fears we have inculcated about them from infancy are justified. And if it’s a moderate Arab – a leftist with liberal notions – the Jewish readers will think that it’s thanks to them, a consequence of the light they instilled in them. They will also think that this illumination is certainly temporary, the result of years of taming and restraint, a type of enlightenment that can’t be trusted if the whip constantly held above the back of the enlightened Arab is set aside for a moment.

Over the years, I’ve wondered about the best way to address the Israeli public, and whether freedom of expression is conceivable for an Arab. Is equality of freedom of expression, according to the liberal-democratic definition, possible when essential components of equality are lacking? Is freedom of expression possible in the face of the knowledge that your boss, whatever his worldview may be, is a Jew? Is freedom of expression possible in the absence of economic equality, in the absence of a fair allocation of status and key positions in the system?

I am really sorry for making a crude distinction between Jews and Arabs, a distinction I don’t believe in – but I wasn’t the one who invented the game of distributing privileges according to one’s origin. It’s a distinction whose laws, separating ruler from ruled, are powerful even when they’re not conscious. It’s a division of power that’s clear to a Palestinian, who from preschool imbibes the superiority of the Jewish state and, by comparison, his inferiority.

This column was and still is most precious to me, if only because with its help I tried to grapple with these issues, sometimes to stretch the boundary line and examine the limits of self-restraint and the limits of power. It’s important to me even if I sometimes was scornful of the function that I undoubtedly fulfill for the reader, and also when I cringed when hearing compliments like, “Your column gives us hope.”

I am taking a break, not because of these questions, which from my perspective have been an essential element of this column, but because of the uncertainty and the physical and mental distance I feel. This column is written in Hebrew by a Palestinian Arab citizen of the State of Israel who hoped (perhaps under the influence of the whip? – even though I swear it’s my most honest feeling), and still hopes, that Israel/Palestine will one become an egalitarian place regardless of race, religion, nationality and sexual definition.

So, shalom for now.

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