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The Other in Israeli Society

Posted on 07/27/2010 @ 07:10 PM

PDI Israel

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By Ian Kandel, Northern Region East/DC Council Program Director

As the BBYO PDI Seminar continues to roll through northern Israel, we spent Tuesday exploring Israel’s significant and diverse Arab minority. Representing approximately 20% of the Israeli population, the Arab community enriches Israel’s citizenry mosaic in tremendous ways. Israel’s Arabs can be categorized in many ways: Christian, Muslim, Druze, and beyond. Yet, they share a vast number of cultural, geo-political, and identity-oriented commonalities, especially as they collectively navigate the historical and present day contexts of living in the world’s only Jewish state.

Following an early morning Hebrew class focused on the word of ‘אחרה’, which means ‘other’, we explored the origins and current dilemmas of Israel’s other significantly sized constituencies. Israel’s northern region, the ‘Galil’ or Galilee, is nearly 80% Arab (of varying religions and cultures). While the Jewish demography is growing in this region, the Arab community of Israel is an important component of modern day Israel’s identity, democracy, and future. It is through these lenses that we tried to understand their past, existing roles and dreams as they continue to travel unique pathways of integration, isolation, and identity preservation.

Our first visit of the day brought us to face-to-face with a young man not unlike us. A college graduate, well-spoken, in his late-20’s/early-30’s, and a passionate community youth advocate, Lafez Assadi, the Director of Youth Services for the Muslim village of Dir Al-Assad gave us a detailed and enthusiastic overview of what he and his team of volunteers are doing to cultivate proud, responsible and positive identities for thousands of local Arab children and youth. His role in the village is parallel to that of a BBYO regional or city director.

As a liaison between the community institutions and the parents of thousands of local youth, he facilitates afterschool programs, leadership experiences, and summer camp get-a-ways for a growing number of energetic Israeli Arabs. With limited resources, few colleagues, and endless demand, Assadi is moving mountains in a community that up until recently saw a repetitive cycle of lackluster, uninspiring youth engagement. What made Assadi even more unique – and further admirable – was that he is a proud alum and current community leader for one of Israel’s largest Zionist youth movements ‘Dror Israel (with a much longer name in Hebrew!)’. Yes, you read that accurately. While Lafez explained that his end goal is to ensure that the Arab youth he is working with grow to be complete humans with respect for everyone and interest in building their own community, there is no other choice – and one that yields advantages and progress – than to interact and integrate with the Jewish majority. What ultimate results these efforts will yield for Israel years from now are unknown, but Assadi’s are definitely steps taken that are so desperately needed.

Assadi explained that the Jewish Agency is supporting his efforts and how challenging that is for his community to accept (some peers even see him as traitorous for accepting ‘Jewish funds’ to strengthen the Arab community), but Assadi is relentless. He sees the growth and maturity of the youth he works with and the rapid expansion of his program, and he knows what he is doing is both right and important. This was our second encounter with peer youth professionals in the ‘Dror Israel’ youth movement, and we’re excited to see if our paths will cross with Lafez Assadi again in the future as we expand BBYO’s relationship with the Israeli youth (Jew and Arab) community.

After our time at the Arab Youth Center, we made our way to the Druze village of Sajur for a traditional, festive Druze meal. The (delicious) break allowed for the PDI cohort to assess and internalize what we had learned from Lafez Assadi earlier that day. While we had a qualitative exchange of questions and answers with him, we could see both successes and obstacles in his – and the broader Arab community’s exchanges – with Israel’s, well, bureaucracy. Israel’s public service systems aren’t easy to navigate, especially for Arabs. With the day filled with further dialogue, we were guaranteed to hear more perspectives on this important issue.

Our next stop took us to the Center for Social Change in the Druze village of Yirka where we met with the center’s director, Walid. Walid’s time with us was much less about his Druze identity and the Druze faith and much more about his personal perspectives on where Israel’s Arab community is headed given the current dynamics.

(The Druze community is a fascinating and important Arab minority within Israel that is nationalistically supportive, serves in the army, considerably integrated, protected and visibly championed within the State. It’s a community that most of our teen Passport to Israel trips meet during their tours, and that most of us as PDI students had had past experiences with on previous visits to Israel. For more information on the Israeli Druze, HYPERLINK "http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2002/12/Focus on Israel- The Druze in Israel" you can learn more here.)

While we have always understood the Druze community to be on positive terms with Israel, Walid did express underlying challenges that the Druze community faces as a part of the broader Arab population. There are inconsistencies and inequalities when it comes to community funding, educational opportunities, democratic representation and access to government leaders. While the Arab community acknowledges they own some of the responsibility for not being mobilized enough, engaged enough, and articulate enough, these are significant areas of focus that the government of Israel – at both the municipal and national level – needs to devote attention to. If for no other reason than to ensure that this community (and the Druze specifically) don’t slide further apart as the country continues to move forward.

Walid, and his organization, are working hard to build bridges with Israel’s Jewish influentials and change-makers, and it was interesting to hear about what an Arab veteran of the Israeli army saw for his community’s future. While present day challenges have certainly tapered his idealism, Walid remains optimistic. There’s no question that through more of these exchanges, both with Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jewish communities, and further education about ‘the other’ of both sides, we can ensure that the Druze community remains an exemplary (relatively) Arab constituency within Israel’s non-Jewish tapestry.

After a long day of information and self-reflection, we began our journey across the Galil valley toward our last stop, with a brief detour at one of northern Israel’s largest malls. While it offered a brief break to reach for Naot sandals at factory outlet prices, heavily-discounted World Cup attire and a coffee afuk for those that wanted, it also gave us an opportunity to see a thriving Jewish and Arab community in the ‘real world’, alongside one another in a commercial and communal setting. It was interesting for us to be made so aware of the divide all day long, and then see the ‘effortless’ co-existence with such a common backdrop. As it turns out, the break was valuable for far more than just a souvenir stop.

Our evening concluded with a powerful story. We gathered for dinner at the home of Kamla Mussa, an incredibly talented Israeli Arab chef and caterer for an incredible dinner. One of our best meals in Israel yet, we were instantaneously won over by her talent and attention to us. Once full, Kamla shared her story with us over traditional Arab desserts.

In brief, she found herself in a traditional Arab lifestyle with a determined marriage years ago, and she wanted more. Her conservative Muslim framework defined her gender role as one with little freedom. Yet, she pushed and found her way to employment as a hotel chambermaid and then onto the kitchen staff of a nearby kibbutz where she discovered an inherent gift of cooking. After a while, and significant convincing of her husband and his family, it became clear that Mussa could establish a successful restaurant and catering business, which she went on to do. Then, tragedy struck her family. A brother-in-law murdered a member of a rival clan, and due to Arab tradition, this threatened the lives of Mussa and her family (revenge with reciprocal consequence is permissible in the Israeli Arab community, and Israel’s Jewish authorities are limited in what they can do). Mussa’s family was forced to flee their home and relocated to the Arab city of Sachnin where she and her husband, sister, and her children have been living for three years in exile. Thus, all the work that she had put into establishing herself professionally entered a period of distress due to her unusual, temporary living arrangement. Then, as the meal ended, we gratefully learned that an agreement had been reached that same day with the rival Arab clan and that in September, Mussa will finally be able to return to her home and re-open her business. It’s been a long, exhaustive and painful period in all of their lives. That said, you’d never know by her product or service; we unanimously agreed that Mussa undoubtedly has a guaranteed future in both Israeli Arab culinary ventures and social change.

The day in the Israeli Arab community wasn’t our first exploring Israel’s non-Jewish communities or democratic complexities, but it was certainly an eye-opening and thought provoking itinerary. With lots of questions about equality, justice, coexistence, education and modernizing Zionism we have entirely new lists of topics to explore with our educators and the Jewish leaders we’re to meet with throughout the rest of our journey. Further, this context is important as we work hard to build appreciations for Israel’s complexities amidst the thousands of Jewish Diaspora teens that we work with year round. The stories of Israel’s Arabs need to be told and the challenges ahead shared, but it’s clear that there is an opportunity for our generation (and for those that are to follow us) to make positive impact on a stronger, more just, and more united State of Israel.

We’re just getting started …

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