What It's Really Like Being Arab in the 'Liberal' City of Tel Aviv

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An Arab woman sitting next to a book fair in Tel Aviv.
An Arab woman sitting next to a book fair in Tel Aviv.Credit: David Bachar

The following are phenomena that every Arab person living in Tel Aviv will encounter on a regular basis: new acquaintances surprised by his fashionable wardrobe; the neighbor startled by the exotic-sounding name; the clerk who can’t manage to write his name on the delivery order; and the lady with the all-time classics: “You don’t look like an Arab” and, of course, “You don’t have an accent.”

But lately, beyond all the unpleasantness and everyday embarrassments, the evil spirit of violence has filled the air.

Even the skies of “liberal and enlightened” Tel Aviv – the city whose streets young Jaffans like your correspondent once dreamed of walking in search of innovation, freedom, security and the opportunity to connect with the modern, civilized world – are becoming increasingly dark.

Maysam Abu Alqian, the 19-year-old Bedouin man who was beaten by off-duty Border Police officers on Sunday in front of the supermarket where he works in Tel Aviv, is not just another victim of a failing police force. He’s more than that.

The case of Abu Alqian is a clear sign of the increased racism toward the disadvantaged in the city – whether that’s Ethiopians, Arabs, the LGBT community or simply “brown-skinned people,” those who don’t meet the standards of the white and golden Tel Avivian look.

Regardless of the origin of the young man whose dignity was trampled in front of passersby (and, believe me, the honor of a young Bedouin who was brutally beaten, even though he did nothing wrong, is a matter of life and death for him), the police violence in the streets of Tel Aviv – which champions freedom and equal opportunity for all – attests to weakness rather than strength.

Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod

The weakness demonstrated by those two officers – whether by beating the young man or their contemptuous attitude toward passersby – is a sign of systemic stress. This daily incitement originates from higher up the food chain.

I’ve already heard offensive counterarguments by those trying to defend the indefensible (“Why didn’t he identify himself to the police?”). I will not use this space to list the police failures, which are clear from the statements of eyewitnesses. Instead, I’ll tell you a story: At 14, I used to walk along Shlomo Lahat Promenade in Tel Aviv. That was the favorite pastime for my friends and me.

It was a bad time in Tel Aviv, the period of suicide attacks on buses. One evening, two special patrol unit policemen – the scourge of all young Jaffans – screeched their vehicle to a halt in front of my friend and me.

Maysam Abu Alqian, on Monday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

I can still picture the scene to this day: Both of us pushed against the hot metal of the police van, shouts and curses in the background (“Take out your ID cards!”).

I remember myself shouting, “I’m a minor, I don’t have an ID card yet!” And my friend trying to calm me, “Don’t shout at them, they’ll hit us.” After a short interrogation – in front of every passerby on the promenade – the feeling of filth remained etched in my soul and refused to leave me, even 21 years on.

You can’t avoid the fact: Abu Alqian was attacked because he’s Arab – in other words, an obvious suspect. Try to imagine what he was feeling: the lost dignity; the physical pain; and the sense that there’s no chance against the hollow accusations of the officers (“He attacked first; he bit; he threatened; he didn’t identify himself”).

These feelings are intensifying our daily struggle – that of my friends and acquaintances, and my family and me: the difficulty of renting an apartment, the fear of speaking Arabic publicly in case they’ll think I’m a terrorist roaming freely around Tel Aviv and, at the same time, concern that the next knife assailant will stab you because you look Israeli; the fear of not making it past the bouncers at the entrance to a nightclub; the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach just before entering Ben-Gurion International Airport, on the way to an invasive security check prior to the vacation of your dreams; and the knowledge that because you’re Arab, you earn about 30 percent less than the average in Israel (just take a look at recent Adva Center reports on social equality).

To be Arab in Tel Aviv is not easy. Sunday’s incident only illustrates the degree to which the lives of Arabs in Israel have in recent years become split, haunted and, on days like this, even somewhat hopeless.

The writer is the chief producer of Al Masdar, an Israeli news site in Arabic. He used to be a social activist and led youth and Arab-Jewish coexistence groups.

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