Jawdat lives with his wife and two children in Nazareth, Israel. He has a Masters in Social Work, is a doctoral student in Education, lectures at the university, and is a published writer. But he’s had enough. Even though the chances of working in his field in Canada are minimal, he has begun looking for job opportunities abroad. Why? As a Christian Arab he is caught between the Muslims “who say we are the best nation under God” and the Jews “who say we are the chosen people.” I interviewed Jawdat in August during the bombardment of Gaza and this is what he told me. Also, Jawdat is my cousin.
What is the mood in Israel right now? What is it like to be an Israeli Arab in Israel during this time?
There is a lot of tension. Most Israeli Arabs are of course against the war. There is anger both against the Israeli forces and the Hamas leadership. Even more than before, Arabs are strangers among Jews because they are seen as “on the Gaza side” and not the Israeli one. Especially after the Arab demonstrations inside Israel. There is no trust. We still have friends and connections with the Jews, life is mostly normal on the personal level. But in the larger picture, especially on the institutional levels, it is not good. There is more fear, less trust, and no security.
The message we get in Canada is that the Israeli Arabs are the “best treated” Arabs in the world and that Israel is a benevolent democracy. Is this your experience?
Compared to much of the Arab world (though not to Western countries), our basic human rights are protected, yes. And on the surface we might appear to have equal rights because we have work, houses, cars, income, lifestyle freedom, and so on. But there are many limitations. We cannot live everywhere. Some Jewish towns do not accept Arabs, for example. When you get a job you have to be more qualified and work harder than a Jew. Institutional treatment of Arab citizens is not equal. There is no effort to support Arab economic development like there is in the Jewish sectors. On top of that there are restrictions and conditions that specifically target Arabs, such as age limitations for university, government benefits to Jews and not Arabs, Jewish villages benefiting from facilities and support that are not offered to Arab villages, and so on.
Do you identify as an Israeli? Do you ever think of yourself as Palestinian?
I used to identify as a Palestinian who lives in Israel, but more recently I just say “Israeli Arab” to minimize confusion. I don’t feel a connection anymore to the Arab or Palestinian nation. Nobody wants us Christians, especially that there is no longer a pan-Arab nationality. My father was saying recently that our dream of post-colonial nationalism died long time ago. In its place now is Islam. Radical Islam is even in Nazareth. Radical Muslims believe that their religion is the best and that they must kill everyone who does not convert. In Israel, with all the restrictions and limitation, it is a better life for me than in the Muslim world. I want to emigrate because there are few opportunities for me in Israel, but there is also a diminishing place for me among my Muslim neighbours.
Can you speak Arabic wherever you go or is it better to speak Hebrew in public?
You can speak Arabic but be prepared to be treated differently: no trust, tension, fear. I wrote a short story about this called The Fog of Tel Aviv. So sometimes you end up not speaking, or speaking less, or even speaking in another language such as English. It’s funny because Jews speak other languages too, including Arabic. Sometimes there will be negative reactions, sometimes not. It is hard to predict. Sometimes the way you look also makes a difference. I’m light skinned so people don’t recognize my ethnicity. But that too breaks down into another difference: some Jews might think I’m Ashkenazi therefore accept me; others won’t because they are Sefaradim and they don’t like the Ashkenazi. Muslims might think you are Jewish, and accept you or not. But if you speak Arabic they might assume you are Christian, and still maybe not accept you.
Can an Israeli Arab have the same opportunities as an Israeli Jew?
Sure, if he’s willing to work much harder. You will see some Arabs with good positions, but there are not many, it’s not easy to get there. While you can be treated well on a personal level, the institutions are not in your favour. For example, I worked as a social worker for years in a hospital in Haifa. I was team leader and my workers were both Arabs and Jews. I had a good position in the department and was treated well both professionally and personally. But when I applied to lecture at the University they demanded that I have three post-graduate degrees, in spite of the fact that the entire Jewish faculty has only one or two post-graduate degrees. So I enrolled in a PhD program.
Meanwhile, in the Arab sector it can also be difficult to fit in. There are problems rooted in ignorance, rigidity, patriarchal customs, dictatorial leadership, lack of education, religious fundamentalism, the neglect of the Israeli government, fewer work opportunities, fewer resources, and so on. Then there is discrimination between Muslims and Christians, and also within each community. Living here is complicated and conflicts rooted in religion are very strong. No matter how you break it down there is always a place where you feel a stranger, an alien.
Is it easier for an Arab in Israel if you are Christian?
Not exactly. Although, in some cases you might find that Jews prefer to deal Christians because the assumption is they are more open, western and less radical and not violent. Not always true, but that’s the assumption. However, Israeli institutions can prefer to deal with Muslims, giving them preferential treatment because of their demographic weight. You can find very good relations between Muslims and Jews, especially those who are more involved with the Israeli society.
What are relations like between Israeli Christian Arabs and Israeli Muslim Arabs?
It has always been excellent, but there is a recent growth of radical factions that do not accept us. There have been some confrontations. I have both Muslim friends and Jewish friends, which is typical for most people from all groups. But the general tendency right now is towards radicalism as defined by religion. The religious agenda is overpowering the national identity on all sides.
The ancient Arab town of Nazareth is surrounded by a richer town on a hill, Nazrat Elit, that was built by the Israelis. Do the two towns ever mix?
Well, 25% of Nazareth Elit residents are Arab. They go there because of the better services and quality of living. For citizens of Nazareth who have moved there, it is a step up. But there is tension. Some Jews do not want Arabs living among them. The municipality started putting up Jewish symbols everywhere because they fear that Jews won’t come to live in Nazareth Elit if there are Arabs. They are afraid that Arabs will demand their own institutions or will want to have representation in the municipal council. So, Arab minorities are tolerated but with limitations. But why would the Arabs in Nazrat Elit scare away the Jews? Jews come from all over Israel to the Arab Nazareth to visit, eat in the restaurants, shop in the market. They are important to the local economy. We don’t try to keep them away from Nazareth.
That said, there are also instances where Muslim villages won’t allow Jews or even Christians to live among them. If they succeed in living there, the villagers will make life hard for them. Why is it acceptable that Arabs be allowed to live in Jewish towns when some Arabs do not let Jews live in their towns?
What do you think is the future for Gaza and the West Bank? Do you believe in a one state or two state solution?
I think there will be recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. It could even include some Israeli Arab villages (which the government is very worried about). A two states solution will be the best for all. Sadly, many Muslim countries do not recognize minority rights. Even in Israel, as bad as it is, Arabs are recognized as minorities and there is a place for us. Muslim countries may be “pro-Palestinian” in theory – but in practice would there really be a place for me in a Muslim country? Israeli Arabs might face a dilemma and be forced to choose which part they want to live in, it will be a test of their loyalty from both directions. I do not look forward to having to make that decision.
Excerpt from Dissonance, by Jawdat Eid.
This is me…
At times white, at times yellowish
Wearing a gown in the intense heat
A bowler in the rain,
Spending time within my senses
Dreaming of a village
Of the moonlight
This is me…
An existential being
I have thousands of names
With all the additions
With all the abbreviations
I have thousands of identities
Yet I don’t have an identity
For my identity card…unclear symbols
In a surrealistic picture
I am unique and special
I am dissonance!
Leila Marshy is editor of The Rover. Until the end of October she is also Madame PainPain.