Jewish Israelis Have No Monopoly on Victimhood and Pain

We must be as passionate for reconciliation between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens as those within both our societies who seek to widen the divide between us.

Alaa Hamdan
Alaa Hamdan
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A protester holds a portrait of Mohammed Abu Khder, a 16-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem who was kidnapped and killed in a suspected revenge attack, July 7, 2014.
A protester holds a portrait of Mohammed Abu Khder, a 16-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem who was kidnapped and killed in a suspected revenge attack, July 7, 2014. Credit: AFP
Alaa Hamdan
Alaa Hamdan

One can't ignore the 18-day search for the three abducted Jewish teenagers studying in Gush Etzion settlements: Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel. In addition to the sadness and agony accompanying the families of the victims, we also can’t ignore that we witnessed an accompanying well-oiled media campaign, orchestrated by the Israeli government and its head Benjamin Netanyahu, in which the prime minister and his ministers accused the Palestinians as a group of being responsible for the kidnapping. After the discovery of the boys' bodies he declared that the Jewish morals are different from Palestinian morals, and that Israel will find and punish the perpetrators.

It did not take long for Jewish youth to go into the streets attacking Arabs in many locations: marches whose participants called for "Death to Arabs," attacks on Arabs on the Jerusalem light trail and in the streets, attacks inside malls on Arab workers and many hate crime incidents the country has never seen in such magnitude before.

Eventually, we ended up with another tragedy in the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel condemn the kidnapping of the Jewish teenagers publicly in order to prove their loyalty to the Jewish state. He also demanded that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemn the kidnapping, but when Abbas asked him to condemn the killing of innocent Palestinians killed by the Israeli army, Netanyahu's reply was that Israel does not kill Palestinians deliberately rather only when Israelis were "defending ourselves."

It appears Netanyahu wants to claim that the Jewish people have exclusivity on victimhood and pain. This seems to be echoed in mainstream Jewish Israeli discourse. Contrast the non-stop media coverage of the Israeli teens and their families, the number of times they were mentioned by name, to the extent that almost every Israeli can recite their names and details by heart, with the Palestinian victims. They aren’t mentioned by name or with an accompanying visual image; even during the events following the killing of Abu Khdeir from Shoafat, he was referred to as “the Palestinian boy.”

The abduction and burning alive of Mohammed has shaken many people around the world, including Arabs and Jews, just as the killing of the three Jewish boys did. Contrary to what Netanyahu perceives as Jewish exclusivity on victimhood and pain, we have witnessed the deep sympathy of many people - and yes, also Jewish people - with the specific tragic case of Mohammed.

Although many people might consider this murder to be just another incident in another spiral of violence, tragic as it is, this isn’t sufficient or correct: What we really need is to see it as an opening to discuss our shared pain, both and to advance a solution. After two decades of failed peace negotiations, we have no other choice than to work hard to advance reconciliation on the tough issues that perpetuate the conflict. We need to act boldly and ally with every faction in our two societies in order to push for reconciliation - and in order to do that we need a bold visionary leaders on both sides.

While we’re waiting for those leaders to emerge, while we’re dreaming for a just and lasting peace between Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, we have work to do right now, to bring Arabs and Jews together and try our best to mitigate the conflict between the two peoples. This might sound clichéd but it is still true: Events in the last two decades have shown that those, within both our societies, who seek to widen the divide between the two peoples haven’t been hesitant to act with boldness and great effort. On the other side are also many people with good will, who want reconciliation. These people are the connectors: They are here, and we need to nourish them so that their voices will also be heard loudly and clearly. Through my work in a shared organization of Jewish and Arab citizens I meet many of these individuals, working hard for reconciliation in spite of our differences.

One important element that must be addressed, and one that is dear to me personally, is that of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. Since Israel’s foundation, the Palestinian Arabs who remained within the new borders of Israel have been accused by almost every Israeli government of disloyalty. The current government and Knesset continues to promote anti-Arab laws with the excuse of protecting the Jewish majority and its hegemony. The demonstrations in the last days in many Arab towns - Wadi Ara, Nazareth, in the Galilee and the Negev - cannot be explained just as a reaction to Abu Khdeir’s murder, or, as presented by the Israeli government, as another example of the alleged disloyalty of Arabs in Israel. The continuous discrimination and dehumanizing incitement against Arabs, followed with attacks on them and the lack of recognition of their identity, their narrative, their right to live as equal citizens on their homeland and their humanity, has led to the cumulative deterioration that broke open in the last week, and for which Mohammed's death was the straw breaking the camel's back.

The alienation, humiliation and disappointment of the Arab community, the feeling that Arab youth lack the hope to advance and prosper while their Jewish counterparts’ progress is supported by their government, is great. At my work in Sikkuy, we have been monitoring the 2003 Or Commission's recommendations to the government concerning the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel. The commission mentioned discrimination as a depth factor for the breakout of the events of October 2000, in which 13 Palestinian Arabs were killed in clashes with the police. Until today, most of the commission’s recommendations have not been implemented, and the quality of life for the Arab public and the development level of its towns rank in the lower levels on every possible parameter: Poverty, unemployment, lower education, bad infrastructure, a huge housing shortage, lack of land and so on. They are also excluded from decision-making levels.

Tangible resources are very important and must be addressed by the state, and to further that aim we keep working with government ministries and Arab localities. But there are equally pressing, non-tangible issues: The recognition of our Identity as Palestinian Arabs, and our interconnectedness with the Palestinian and the Arab world around us. This should not negate our civic status as citizens of Israel no more than I would ask an American Jew or any Jew living outside of Israel to disconnect from Israel and its Jewish identity.

Action is needed. Where I work and in other fora Jews and Arabs work together to promote equality and shared society between all the citizens of Israel. We believe that joint Jewish-Arab work is critical and effective in the struggle for equality.

This aspiration is being put into action, for instance in the project that I work on with my Jewish co-director to developing a shared tourism framework for neighboring Arab and Jewish communities around Israel. These shared endeavors provide the opportunity for Jews and Arabs to meet, hear personal stories and national narratives, develop relationships and business ties and above all recognize each other as the sons and daughters of this land that we both love.

Alaa Hamdan is a graduate of the Conflict Transformation MA program at Eastern Mennonite University, Virginia, USA and co-director of the Shared Regional Tourism project of Sikkuy, an Arab Jewish organization working to promote equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

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