The Battle for a Democratic Israel Isn’t Over at All

If my colleague Sayed Kashua has lost his faith in coexistence, I fear my friends and I will have a hard time carrying on the fight.

Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram
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Protesters march toward Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, May 12, 2012.
Protesters march toward Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, May 12, 2012.Credit: Moti Milrod
Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram

We don’t really know each other, my dear colleague, Sayed Kashua. I read you regularly in Haaretz, and we met once when you were a candidate for the Sapir Prize for Literature, as my son was. But now you believe that “it’s over,” as you put it in your column over the weekend. You came from Israeli Arab town Tira and settled in Jerusalem with your family, and your sense of humor in describing your travails is renowned.

I just wanted to tell you that if it’s over for you, it’s nearly over for me. I have always been close to Israel’s Arab community. In every public position I’ve held, I have tried to focus on Jewish-Arab relations. I have close friends in Nazareth, Baka al-Garbiyeh and Umm al-Fahm, and coexistence for me isn’t a meaningless slogan. It’s a firm belief that Israeliness will overcome the regional tensions between Judaism and Islam.

You tried. You came with an open mind and pure intentions, and now even you can’t cope with the rush of rising racism. Suddenly you see that your father was right when he told you, “Remember that for them you will always, but always, be an Arab.”

I know that right now the Arabs who live among us are especially vulnerable. That’s why I understand why you’ve concluded that it’s over, that you have to go back to Tira, where you’ll stay before you leave the country for a long spell.

I think you’re missing something. Maybe you haven’t met too many Jews (yes, even Zionists) who feel closer to you and what you represent than to the impassioned semi-fascists who terrorize the public. Recently I spoke to acquaintances and politicians about starting a coexistence movement, one that wouldn’t suffice with lip service but would forge a network, for example, to help Arab restaurants liable to suffer from the spirit of the times.

If you’ve given up – because your endurance and faith in coexistence have run out – I fear that my friends and I will have a hard time continuing to believe in the thing you say is impossible. Yes, you are sensing pure, incendiary hatred, and you no longer want your family to have to deal with it.

If for you it’s over, then for most Israeli Arabs it has been over for quite a while. You are a symbol of moderation and a proud Arab. You are not a Muslim preacher in a mosque who has concluded that you can preach more freely (and venomously) abroad. You are part of us. You are the embodiment of coexistence.

Our struggle is not to keep you here, it’s for the character of the state. It’s a struggle against the baseness that raises its head in the name of Judaism, with the help of rabbis who call for revenge and the expulsion of Arabs. You won’t be here anymore, but we will continue to fight for the soul and character of the state.

All is not lost, Sayed. Maybe it looks that way to you, and your position has an emotional effect on me. But I haven’t forgotten the many Israelis who vote for leftist and centrist parties, and Arab ones. A political alliance among them must be forged. It’s a necessary alliance of Israeliness against the Jewish extremists. It’s an alliance of moderation, responsibility and faith that we can build and defend our country in a different way.

I know that all the numbers are against us, but we can’t predict the future. So many of us won’t let our country turn semi-fascist. I believe, Sayed, that when you come back to visit Tira you’ll see that the struggle isn’t over. As you can see, your statement that “it’s over” has stung me and my friends. We’re determined to prove that it isn’t over at all.

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