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The Jews’ Jews

Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel

by David Grossman, translated by Haim Watzman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 326 pp., $22.00

On a hot night in July 1991, the novelist David Grossman witnessed a debate at a summer camp in the Galilee. The participants were young Jewish Israelis and young Arab Israelis—i.e., Israeli citizens, not to be confused with Arabs in the Occupied Territories. The subjects under discussion that night were the Jewish state’s unfair treatment of its Arab citizens and the claims of Jewish Israelis that many Arab citizens are indifferent to Israel’s security needs and don’t appreciate the moral predicament of the Israelis in administering the Occupied Territories and in dealing with the intifada.

The discussion was heated and lasted inconclusively long into the night, as Arabs and Jews accused each other of discrimination, or heartlessness, or naiveté. As Grossman followed the familiar arguments, worn thin from repetition, it occurred to him that unlike twenty years earlier, when he had been a teen-ager at much the same sort of interethnic summer camp, he could no longer tell by sight who was Jewish and who Arab. Features, clothes, even body language were alike, although the Hebrew accents remained different. What had not changed, tragically, was the degree of contentiousness, the self-righteousness, and the deep need of each side—rarely requited—to make the other understand and even confirm its own feelings. The awkward intimacy had not changed either, the illusion of being close and yet far away. Implicit throughout the debate were two questions: “How can someone so close to me be so wrong about me?” and “How can someone so distant know me so well?” In the Arab-Israeli conflict you never forgive those you have hurt most; and “understanding” the other side has often made the conflict even more intractable.

Grossman is the author of two highly praised novels, See Under: LOVE, and The Book of Intimate Grammar, as well as The Smile of the Lamb, a novel set in the occupied West Bank, and The Yellow Wind, a remarkable inquiry into the daily life of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. He is perhaps the first major Israeli writer who dared cross the line, as a novelist and as a reporter, into Israel’s heart of darkness.

Other Israeli novelists concerned about treatment of the Arabs sign petitions or speak at Peace Now rallies. But in what they write, the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli military rule has by and large been ignored or suppressed, much as sex and sweat were in Victorian novels. Grossman speaks and reads Arabic, one of the few young Jewish Israeli writers who can do so (“Language,” he writes, “brings out certain nuances of consciousness. It has a temperament and libido of its own…. When things were said to me in Arabic, by Arabs, they always had a more definite, unambiguous, and sharper quality”). He visited the centers of Palestinian nationalism in the West Bank as a reporter and he described the unspeakable wretchedness of the refugee camps, where nothing changes and only the hopelessness and despair grow unremittingly and produce Islamic fanaticism and terror. He was not afraid to raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy of Israel’s policies, and he tried to answer them with impassioned honesty. The result was a rare work of cultural journalism, which became an immediate best seller in Israel and which to its readers was more shocking than the hundreds of television reports and articles in the daily newspapers.

When The Yellow Wind first came out in Israel, in 1987, the military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had just entered its twentyfirst year. Policing and administering these territories were not causing the military authorities any particular trouble, or so it seemed; the occupation was also producing a net profit both from tax revenues and from the Israeli goods purchased in the territories. For many who had become accustomed to the thought that the occupation could go on forever, Grossman’s book came as a revelation, for it showed how the occupation humiliates and corrupts both its Palestinian victims and their Israeli rulers. Written before the sudden outbreak of the intifada, The Yellow Wind warned of a coming explosion.

In Sleeping on a Wire, Grossman’s latest work of nonfiction, he warns of yet another time bomb: the growing political and Islamic radicalization among the Arab citizens of Israel itself, who now make up almost one fifth of the population of five million people. Arabs in Israel don’t live under arbitrary military rule as do their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and they are not stateless like those in Gaza; they carry Israeli passports and vote in the general elections to the Israeli parliament. But legally and practically they are second-class citizens. Nor is it any secret that Arab citizens are discriminated against in the state budget, whether in social security payments, or allocations of money for child support, or other social services. (Only those who have served in the Israeli army—and their close relatives—are entitled to full social security payments, child support, and cheap housing loans, a device intended to exclude Arabs, Arab Israelis, who are not drafted, and include ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse military service on grounds of principle.) In fact such discrimination was severely criticized last year in the state comptroller’s report to parliament, not that this criticism has so far had much effect.

Arabs pay taxes like everyone else but the range and quality of government services they receive is almost invariably inferior to those available to the Jewish population. Of the money appropriated for community development, Jewish municipalities and local councils receive five times more than Arab communities of similar size. Water resources in Israel are nationalized, but the average government subsidy to Jewish farmers for water is 14,000 shekels, while Arab farmers get only a subsidy of 1,500 shekels annually.

There are now over 14,000 Arab graduates of Israeli universities but of some 5,000 academic posts only twenty are held by Arabs. American, French, Russian, and other foreign students at Israeli universities are routinely offered courses in their native languages; none are available for the thousands of Arab students attending these universities. Of over 4,000 directors on the boards of 210 government-owned companies only one is an Arab. Nor are there any Arabs at the top levels of the civil service. The Department of Muslim Affairs in the Israeli Ministry of Religions is headed by a Jew. The Jewish religious organizations and the various Christian denominations are set up as independent bodies; but the funds of Muslim clergy, the waqf, are administered by the Israeli government.

Legally, the disadvantages of Arab Israelis derive from Israel’s official self-definition as a Jewish state, which seems to exclude, at least in theory, the 18 percent of its population officially classified as “non-Jewish.” In 1985 a very large majority in the Knesset rejected a proposal to declare Israel a “Jewish state and the country of all its citizens,” which would have given some satisfaction to the Arab minority. All but a few members of the Knesset took the view that Israel belonged to all Jews everywhere in the world even if they do not live there.

Among Jews and Arabs alike there is much confusion about the meaning of such terms as “people,” “nationality,” and “citizenship.” The French ID cards of Basques, Corsicans, or members of other minorities simply state “Nationality: French.” Most Israeli ID cards list one’s “Nationality” as either “Jewish,” “Druze,” or “Arab.” In the case of, say, converted Polish Jews or the offspring of an unconverted Polish mother, the card will say “Polish.” The most prominent Israeli authority on this subject, David Kretzmer,1 a professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes that on the basic level of identity and sense of belonging there is no confusion at all. There cannot, he claims, be absolute equality in Israel between Arab and Jewish citizens, because the state is the state of the Jews, both those living in Israel and those living outside. Even if Israeli Arabs were to enjoy equal rights in all other matters, Israel is not their state. Others have compared Israel to the late Austro-Hungarian Empire with its core of Staatsvolk and its serving class or so-called Bedientenvolker.

The tension inherent in Israel’s expressed desire to be a liberal democracy and at the same time a Jewish state has bedeviled Israeli politics since independence.2 Israel is not the only modern state that grants its citizens equal rights under the domination of one ethnic group. In one form or another, all the Western European democracies, with the possible exception of Belgium, are implicitly dominated by one ethnic group. But while some other countries grant their minorities rights as individuals, no other country—with the possible exception of West Germany before reunification—officially “belongs” to millions of people who don’t live in it. Even German nationalism was never identical with a religion. But in Israel, not only are the state and religion still not separated but nationalism and religion too are still inextricably tied to each other. Jews converted to another religion do not qualify under the secular Law of Return. Even though many—if not most—Israeli Jews are not religious, Judaism is the state religion.

One must pass harsh judgment on these inequities but one must not lose sight of how they came into being. They arose within the stifling atmosphere of the war that led to Israel’s creation in 1948, not four years after the Holocaust. The resulting tribalism on both sides and the resentments generated by subsequent Arab-Israeli wars and by recurrent threats to Israel of another annihilation had a large part in the growth of Jewish suspicion of Arab Israelis. As a character says in Arthur Miller’s play Incident at Vichy, “Each man has his Jew; it is the other. And the Jews have their Jews.”

The founding fathers of the Israeli state only barely reconciled themselves to the continued presence of Arabs in the Jewish state. According to one of his biographers, David Ben Gurion refused to accept his new Israeli ID card because it was printed also in Arabic—one of Israel’s two official languages. Ben Gurion believed that the Arabs should be judged according to what they might do, not according to what they have done. Throughout his long years as prime minister he never paid an official visit to an Arab city or village. Shmuel Dayan (the general’s father), a member of Knesset, told a Labor Party caucus in 1951 that Israel could not allow the Arab fifth column in its midst to become powerful. Golda Meir said at the same meeting that whenever she heard an Arab member of the Knesset swear allegiance to the state she felt “sick.”3 Forty years later many Israeli Jews have still not yet learned how to live with their Arab fellow citizens. It is characteristic of Israeli society that partners in mixed marriages usually live in Arab communities, because the Jewish community refuses to accept them. Colloquial Hebrew is filled with expressions reflecting the prevailing prejudice. “Arab” is synonymous with meanness, bad workmanship, and bad taste, as in “Don’t be an Arab,” “Arab work,” and “Arab taste.”

  1. 1

    David Kretzmer, The Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel (Westview Press, 1991), p. 31.

  2. 2

    The Israeli declaration of independence promised equality irrespective of “race, sex, and religion.” It stipulated not only freedom of religion but, at the insistence of the secularists, freedom of “conscience” too. This part of the declaration is not held as binding by the courts, only as reflecting the national credo and vision.

  3. 3

    Ben Gurion and Caucus protocol cited in Uzi Benziman and Attalah Mansour, Subtenants, Israeli Arabs, their Status and Government Policy toward Them, in Hebrew (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1992), pp. 51–57.

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