Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: To be an Arab, and an Israeli

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

SAKHNIN, Israel, Mar 26 2009 (IPS) - The cluster of blue-and-white Stars of David – Israel’s national flag – had seen better days. In the wake of unseasonably heavy rain, they looked limp, anything but proud – in direct contrast to the mark their bearers hoped to make.

With High Court authorisation, the farthest right of Israel’s Right finally staged on Tuesday this week what they’ve long been threatening – a march “to fly the national colours” in the face of Arab Israeli citizens. A massive police contingent prevented the marchers from entering the heart of the large Galilee town of Umm el-Fahm, a stronghold of pro-Palestinian sentiment and of the Israeli Islamic movement.

After marching barely a few hundred metres on the town’s outskirts, the hundred odd demonstrators were escorted away by the police who then turned to deal with stone-throwing counter-protestors from the Arab town.

The limpness of the ultra-nationalist march belies the seriousness of their purpose – to transfer Arab citizens beyond their country’s borders.

“It was a sad scene,” says Ghazal Abu Raya, spokesman for the town of Sakhnin, which lies 80 kilometres north of Umm el-Fahm. “Arabs welcome all visitors into our towns, but these were not guests. This was blatant provocation to undermine our purpose – to find a way of living together in this country.”

Back at the beginning of the 19th century, U.S. political philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that a democratic society is best judged by how it relates to the minorities within its midst. On that standard, Israel has a mixed record – at best.

The ultra-nationalist Jewish marchers had two immediate purposes: to commemorate 20 years since their late leader Rabbi Meir Kahane raised a flag on the same spot (a year later Kahane was shot and killed in New York by an Islamic activist), and to demonstrate support for practical policies espoused by his heirs. One of them has just been elected to the Knesset on the ticket of the National Union, which won four seats and was even considered by Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu for inclusion in his coalition.

They belong to the fascist branch of the Israeli Right but today their ideas are mainstream right and have gained an aura of respectability among Jewish Israelis. This is reflected in the strength of the third strongest political party, Yisrael Beiteinu (literally, “Israel is our Home”) whose leader Avigdor Liberman will next week become Israel’s foreign minister. Liberman’s electoral campaign crystallised around the slogan “No loyalty, no citizenship” – a blunt two-pronged challenge, broadly to Israeli democracy, and more pointedly, to the Arab minority who make up 20 percent of the country of about six million.

There is a growing divide between Israel’s Jewish Majority and the Arab Minority. The Majority is convinced that a majority of the Minority are extremists, an irredentist force out to undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. On the other hand, the Minority is convinced that a majority of the Majority are extremists and that the Liberman approach has swept Jewish Israel. Both Majority and Minority believe that their own extremists are just a small minority.

The more than one million Arab Israelis are Palestinian families who remained after the 1948 war that resulted in Israel’s creation. They are citizens of Israel but face discrimination in terms of equality – of opportunity and of rights and in attitudes towards them. Their country and their people at war, they are split between a desire to be fully integrated citizens of their state, Israel, and a desire to be wholly linked to their people, the Palestinians.

Islamists and nationalists for Palestine argue that their way out of this ideological and identity dilemmas is to try to alter the character of Israel – to change it into “a state for all its citizens”, a state without a Jewish character, a state to which Jews and Arabs would belong on equal terms. This approach has failed to convince the Jewish Majority.

Sakhnin, a town of 26,000, is somewhat smaller than Um el-Fahm. But it has ample credit as a focus of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. In October 2000, three Sakhnin youths were shot and killed by Israeli police during demonstrations in support of the Palestinian Intifadah uprising. The town has also long been at the forefront of demands for equality and against the persistent appropriation of their land. The annual Land Day march that recalls lost land is always in Sakhnin.

Sakhnin does not turn its back on these credentials. But, it also sees itself as a model for a new reality that can be created between Jews and Arabs within Israel. What it proffers is a different challenge to the Jewish majority, the challenge of acceptance, cast in the straightforward message of Ghazal abu- Raya: “We want to be part of the State of Israel, a fully integrated part of the nation with equal rights and equal duties, in the centre of the national pitch, not relegated beyond the sidelines, as we always have been.”

The football imagery is no accident. The town entered Jewish Israeli consciousness most dramatically as a result of the success of its club, Bnei Sakhnin (literally “Sons of Sakhnin”). Five years ago, against all odds, the tiny club was crowned State Cup champions. Winning on the football field allowed Sakhnin to pose the challenge whether the cardinal issues of discrimination, equality, identity and co-existence could be squared into the one round ball.

What Bnei Sakhnin reflects, according to rights activist Ibrahim Bushnak, “is a way to bridge the gulf between denial and coexistence, the kind of coexistence suggested by the club symbol of an Arab stallion trapping a soccer ball – not that between horse and rider where one rides and the other is ridden. You can only have genuine coexistence if there is two-way recognition of existence.”

Unlike the Umm el-Fahm approach which has been hamstrung by its own strident political demands, the Sakhnin view accepts the reality of a Jewish majority. Acceptance, however, in no way requires them to turn their backs on their own heritage or their own history, or to bury their predicament of having been transformed, 60 years ago, from a majority with rights to the land to today’s minority with only partial rights in the land.

At football stadiums, unlike fans in many countries, Bnei Sakhnin supporters almost never fly flags – neither the Israeli colours nor the Palestinian colours. It’s as if football success allows them to be Israelis without having to raise the Israeli flag, just as it allows them to be Palestinians without sporting the Palestinian flag. Only when they are victorious and defeat nationalist Jewish clubs on the pitch do they raise the Israeli flag.

It’s a powerful challenge because acceptance of Israel as is makes it difficult for Jewish Israelis to deny them.

But, with two searing wars in the last three years, in Lebanon and in Gaza, even the most fervent advocate of the Sakhnin approach admits that denied they have been.

Still, even though that last war was against their own people, Sakhnin has not abandoned its model. This pursuit of real coexistence and the elimination of discrimination and of prejudice comes not as cap-in-hand complaints, nor by levelling ultimatums. Rather, it is rooted in self-reliance and in self-belief.

Beyond the hostile surge of the far right, the widespread indifference among the majority of Jewish Israelis and the passivity of the state to their needs, a positive dimension persists: Don’t wait for your legitimate rights to be granted you by your state – seek excellence and self-empowerment. From that, as on the football field, there will eventually be respect and legitimacy for the minority’s existence. “To convince Jewish Israelis that we want to be part of this country is a Sisyphean task,” admits Mundar Haleleih, an official of the Bnei Sakhnin club, “but we will win this match.”

It is a powerful message that minorities and majorities everywhere might well heed.

Mazen Ghanaim, who as chairman of the football club took his town to glory, was elected last November Sakhnin mayor. “When a minority doesn’t get the rights due it, your first obligation is to preserve what you have,” he says. “Our soccer team is in Israel’s top division. We have to keep it there, so as to be in a position to tell everyone what’s still lacking, what still hurts – and, to be heard. A dream came true when we won the Cup. But we never lose sight of what still needs to be achieved, and how great yet is the pain.”

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