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.”

Grossman’s new book explores the inner world of the Arab minority, a world filled with bitterness and frustration. No other Israeli writer so far has approached this touchy subject with such compassion, or looked at it with, so to speak, bifocal eyes, Israeli and Palestinian. The book is a record of conversations Grossman had with Israeli Arabs. They tell him that they want to go on being Israelis, in Israel, but that for the sake of justice and of peace there should be a Palestinian state alongside Israel. They are, on the whole, voices that sound believable, and they win the reader’s sympathy. Grossman in retelling their stories gives them a novelist’s life. He avoids common pitfalls. Right-wingers in Israel often claim they are victims even when they are oppressors; and left-wingers tend to be condescending and to invoke their own moral superiority over Arabs even as they oppose injustice to Arabs. Grossman does neither. He very directly recounts the dreams and dilemmas of real people, and the tragic impasse in which they find themselves.

Israeli Arabs by and large have stayed out of the intifada, but the intifada has clearly brought to a head the longstanding crisis among them. Their sympathies are clearly with their brethren across the former Green Line who throw stones and petrol bombs. Grossman visits the village of Barta’a north of Tel Aviv where about half the Palestinian population is Israeli and the other half Jordanian citizens, and most are members of the same families. This is so because when the armistice was signed in 1949 in the Hotel des Roses on the island of Rhodes, the line dividing Israel from the territory occupied by Jordan was drawn on a map (scale 1:100,000) with a blunt pencil and as a result Barta’s was cut in two for nineteen years by barbed-wire fences and land mines. After the Six-Day War half the village remained Israeli. The other, formerly Jordanian half became Israeli Occupied Territory. The barbed wire and land mines were removed. Relatives were able to meet again. According to the mukhtar, or village head, on the Israeli side at first they saw how far they had grown apart, “We were more modern, more emancipated and open.” A slow process of adaptation followed.

Since the intifada, violent clashes have taken place with the army in the former Jordanian part of the village; the other half remains agitated in mood but peaceful, and it is as though a border, this time invisible, once again cuts Barta’a in two. A dozen or so residents on the former Jordanian side are in prison under Emergency Regulations that enable the military to detain suspects without trial. People in the other half of Barta’a have done no more than write letters to the press or to their Knesset representative protesting mistreatment by the Israeli police and army. But change is on the way and an Arab Israeli in Barta’a tells Grossman: “And there were days when the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] went in there and imposed a curfew, and the soldiers walked the streets, and we here were all on our roofs, watching. You see the soldiers going into your aunt’s house—my two sisters live here there—breaking lamps, closets….Before the intifadah I was hesitant about saying out loud that I’m Palestinian. Now I say it openly.”

Grossman writes of an Arab farmer whose expropriated land was given to Jewish immigrants, who now lease it back to their former owners at a profit; and of two graduates in biology and computer science who—because they are Arabs—can’t find work using their skills and must hire themselves out as construction workers. Another young man, in order to be able to study science, had to take a state examination in Jewish history, which he failed, and so ended up as an unskilled laborer. Grossman tries to look at Israel through the eyes of these people and he fears what may become of them. He writes of an old mukhtar who is under pressure by his grandson to be more radical:

I put myself in his place, as a young man standing between the defeat of his nation and the new Israelis, and afterward, as mukhtar, between his villagers and the [Israeli] governor; and now faced with the intifadah, faced with extremists, faced with the piercing eyes of his grandson, facing the old age that weighs on his shoulders. All the while between the two lines of the gauntlet.

In a haunting chapter Grossman introduces the so-called “present absentees,” a legal and existential category for people whose land and homes were seized during the 1948 war as “enemy” property because they were deemed by the bureaucracy of the new state to have fled to one of the Arab countries at war with Israel even though they were actually hiding in nearby villages. The law was stringent. Anybody who was not actually at home on May 15, 1948, the day the war broke out, was labeled an enemy alien. If he and his family reappeared a few weeks or months later they were allowed to stay as “present absentees”; but the confiscations of their property were not annulled. “Every time I write that pair of words,” present absentees, Grossman writes,

I can’t help imagining the shiver of delight that must have run through the entrails of the bureaucratic octopus when the term was first ejaculated in clerical ink.

The title of Grossman’s book in the original Hebrew was Present Absentees and the author used the words as a metaphor for Israel’s Arab community as a whole. Danny Rubinstein, the author of The People of Nowhere,4 another informative recent book on the historical, political, and human aspects of the Palestinian refugee problem, says that some 20 percent of the Arabs who later became Israeli citizens were “refugees at home,” and they and their descendants remain so today. They had been displaced from their homes in one way or another and were also classified as “absentees who are present.” No one knows how many of them there are. It is likely they now make up nearly a tenth (roughly 90,000) of the present Arab population of Israel.

Along with his talks with Israeli Arabs, Grossman describes some discussions between Israeli Arabs and Jews that begin in seeming agreement but end in disaster. He introduces an Arab lawyer named Kiwan and a Jewish human rights activist named Abutbul who recoil from each other at the moment when they seem about to agree. Abutbul says he wants to deport Kiwan from Israel and Kiwan that he wants to send Abutbul back to Morocco whence he came. Grossman also describes the amiable but deadly serious skirmish between the Israeli Arab writer Anton Shammas and A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s best-known Hebrew novelists. Shammas wrote his widely praised novel Arabesques in Hebrew, his “stepmother tongue…. Sometimes I feel this was an act of cultural trespass.”5 (It is yet to be published in Arabic.)

Shammas has been arguing for years that Israel’s insistence, as a matter of law, on retaining the “Jewish” character of the state was not only excluding him from full citizenship but was preventing the emergence of an Israeli nationality common to all those living within her borders. Yehoshua’s response to this has been that if Shammas wanted to live in a country that had an independent Palestinian character all he had to do was move a few hundred yards from West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem, where the future Palestinian state—Yehoshua is in favor of one—would enable him to live and work in a non-Jewish milieu. But Shammas is talking of a common nationality, not of an entire country with a Palestinian character; the idea that Israeli Arabs could contribute something of cultural and political value to the entire state still remains unacceptable to most Jewish Israelis. Shammas spends most of his time now in the US, where cultural pluralism is presumably a less controversial idea. Even so, at a conference a few years ago at Berkeley a well-known American Jewish novelist accused him of trying to steal the Hebrew language from the Jewish people.

There were 160,000 Arabs in Israel when Israel was founded in 1948, mostly rural Arabs living in remote mountain areas (approximately 600,000 others fled into the neighboring Arab countries or were expelled during or after the fighting). They have since multiplied and now number close to one million, a minority within Israel and yet at the same time acutely aware that they are part of the vast Arab majority in the region. This further complicates the vexed, perhaps intractable, problem between the two communities. The minority of Arabs in Israel feel they are part of a majority and the (Jewish) majority is convinced it is a threatened minority; both feel they are victims and both happen to be right. (“Do you know what your problem is, Anton?” Yehoshua said to Shammas at one point of their discussion. “That the Arabs were never a minority! You’re actually shouting your non-minorityness at us. Where in the world were the Arabs ever a minority?”) Outsiders have occasionally remarked on the seemingly identical strident tone—often unnerving—employed so often by both Israelis and Palestinians. Grossman cites an Egyptian intellectual who told him:

You and they are just the same—short-tempered, worked up, insecure. One minute you feel like big heroes, and the next like the most miserable wretches in the world. You’re always sure someone is trying to cheat you.

Abandoned, and cheated, in 1948 by an upper class of feudal landowners and corrupt politicians who, even while they were thundering against the Jews, were secretly selling land to them, the Arab minority in Israel has only in recent years started to produce militant young leaders, intellectuals trained at Israeli and European universities, and a versatile middle class.

Public opinion polls show that even if there were a Palestinian state alongside israel 75 percent would want to continue living in Israel, as Israelis. But a new militancy is much in evidence among them. Local Arab newspapers—the irony is that they are owned by Jewish Israeli commercial interests—have in recent years been full of PLO rhetoric. Azmy Bishara, a philosopher at Bir Zeit University and the Jerusalem Van Leer Institute, recently wrote, “The height of the crisis [can be seen] when nationalist Palestinian rhetoric becomes the grist of the Israeli advertising industry mill.” It is, he said, “a postmodern situation in a premodern society.” Arab members of the Israeli parliament now claim that the plo represents them too and they have become one of the unofficial channels of communication between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. The Labor Party’s narrow parliamentary majority depends on these Arab members, and this gives Israeli Arabs, for the first time since the founding of the state, real political power. They have been using it in recent months to improve the proportion of the national budget allotted to Arab colleges and activities.

In Parliament and in public debate they have been trying to redefine the controversy over the status of the Israeli Arabs as one of civil rights and not just a matter of security. They are assisted by volunteer—largely Jewish—civic groups which are centered around the New Israel Fund, and include the Civil Rights Association, or sikkuy, a recently organized group that calls for a “new shared civility” between Jewish and Arab Israelis. sikkuy is lobbying for the appointment of an Equal Opportunities Commissioner. In his inaugural address to the Knesset Prime Minister Rabin acknowledged that

forty-five years after the establishment of the State independence there are substantial gaps between the Jewish and Arab communities…we shall do everything possible to close those gaps. We shall try to make the great leap that will enhance the welfare of the minorities that have tied their fate to our own.

Whether all this will have any serious effect remains to be seen. Rabin has been talking mainly of improving economic conditions, but economic measures alone will not result in a new shared civility. Emil Habibi, the Arab Israeli novelist, says his loyalty remains torn between his “country” and his “people.” Danny Rubinstein quotes a similar remark by Abdullah Zuabi of Nazareth, a former Israeli deputy minister: “My people are at war with my country.”6

Israeli Arabs are in an immensely difficult position and there is no sign that it will change. For almost two generations their identity as citizens of Israel was flawed in their own eyes and in the eyes of their fellow Arabs. Until 1967 Arabs outside Israel accused them of collaboration with the Zionist enemy, while Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, saw them as potential fifth columnists. As possible security risks, the Arabs were not required to serve in the Israeli army. If they demanded nothing from the Israeli authorities they were accused of being separatists; if they were outspoken in demanding their rights, as would be customary in Israel’s high-pressure politics, they risked charges of “extreme nationalism,” a term synonymous with being plo militants or terrorists. For years the Arab minority lived in a state of suspended animation, Grossman says. Like acrobats who “know the secret of walking a tightrope over an abyss,” they have learned something even more difficult, to stand still “on a wire in midstep, one foot in the air, never set down.”

Grossman is impressed by their self-restraint and power of forbearance, but believes these cannot last. “It is not necessary to be a political or psychological genius,” he writes, “to know that the continually constricting helplessness of the Palestinians in Israel will take its toll.” He dreams of a new constitution, in which there will be a separation of religion and state, and of an Arab as president (“why not, after all”) or minister of justice. He would like to see an Arab editor of Haaretz. He wants to make a place for Arabs within Israel, “the place imposed on all of us forty-four years ago and which has remained since then hard and twisted, like scar tissue on a bone that was broken and badly set.” If I read him correctly he dreams of a “secular, democratic, pluralistic state”—and “why not, after all?” Long before the plo coined that term, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, had a similar dream and so after him did Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president. Even Jabotinsky, the fierce founding father of Israel’s right-wing Likud, wrote in favor of such a state. If it does not come into existence, Grossman warns, Israel is liable to “doom its Arab citizen to fulfill its fear of them…. It is creating for itself the enemy it will run up against after its other enemies have made their peace with it.”

This Issue

June 10, 1993