Opinion |

How an Israeli Arab Marks Independence Day

What does the 20 percent do when the rest of the country celebrates the founding of the Jewish state? This one looks for signs of hope

Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat
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An Israeli gets into the celebratory mood ahead of Independence Day, April 28, 2017. What are Israeli Arabs meant to be celebrating on this day?
An Israeli gets into the celebratory mood ahead of Independence Day, April 28, 2017. What are Israeli Arabs meant to be celebrating on this day?Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat

As a loyal citizen of Israel, I should be in mourning on Monday, which is Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, even though in some of these wars Israeli soldiers killed thousands of Palestinians – then called infiltrators – as they tried to return to their homes.

On Tuesday, on the other hand, Independence Day, I am supposed to take joy in the memory of the expulsion of my family from Kafr Ma’alul, and the expulsion of about 800,000 of my people. And for the greater glory of Independence Day, I am supposed to dance with the national flag – that same flag which flew above the ruins of Kafr Ma’alul after its surrender. And if I have any energy left, I’m supposed to sing the national anthem, “Hatikva,” which was probably sung by the fighters as they finished purifying yet another village of its Arab inhabitants.

And if I decide, despite everything, to set aside the past and rejoice, I am supposed to do it by holding a barbecue, in the hope that reports of the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails doesn’t ruin the appetite of our Jewish brothers.

This is how a wall is built, not a nation. A society that wants to connect all its various parts should stress the common denominators that link these groups. These are the basic rules of any normal country. In Israel, the ostensibly shared common denominator bypasses some 20 percent of the population, tramples on their tragedy and asks that they keep their memories to themselves, lest they disturb the joy of the victors outside. Isn’t it bizarre that in a country dotted with Jewish memorial sites, there is not a single memorial site for any of the roughly 500 Arab villages wiped out in 1948?

Some months after the expulsion from Ma’alul, the women gathered the courage to mourn. Secretly, they sat on a hill overlooking the village and cried; they tore their hair and poured ashes on themselves. Meanwhile, in the schools, youngsters were required to celebrate Independence Day, the children singing songs in praise of “our young country.”

It isn’t the Arabs – who were in shock after the Nakba, during which four of every five people were expelled from their homes – who should be ashamed by these nauseating songs. The ones who should be ashamed are the victors, who forced these shocked people to rejoice on the day of their disaster. To bury their dead and sing songs to the victors.

But even as these dark thoughts brew, the antithesis to the existing situation raises its head – living, kicking and flourishing. It is the only road to the future.

About a month ago, I was invited to an event marking the culmination of a project called Halas (a Hebrew acronym for “Living Together without Conflict or Violence”), initiated by the Ein Dor Archaeological Museum in northern Israel. Jewish and Arab junior high school students met for two years, learning how to live and create together, connected by both languages, Hebrew and Arabic.

And so, without anyone noticing, a Jewish-Arab flower is growing in our parched garden; a fresh flower, beautiful. “You can’t tell who’s Arab and who’s Jewish here,” says Eyal Betzer, head of the Jezreel Valley regional council. Yes, when people are equal, they look alike. When they feel that they belong, they can create wonderful things.

This flower did not grow from nothing. Before the children met, it was their parents who met and agreed to place their dearest ones in this joint garden. The ones who sent their children to the Halas garden were determined to turn a new leaf in the story of our riven society, and hope and pray that the delicate flower will grow into a mighty tree, beneath whose merciful shadow generations can gather.

So today, the choice is clear: either a joint society or a divided one. The demand that the minority be loyal to the state based on the existing model is a demand to accept inferior status, in both resources and symbols. But just as the girls and boys at Ein Dor managed to enjoy a joint life – while giving due respect to language and creativity, based on equality and reciprocity – this is also how the state should behave.

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