Say jew and Arab in the same sentence, and the first word you’ll think of is “conflict”.
True enough, the history of Israel is filled with not so few conflicts with our Arab neighbors. In fact, not less than all the conflicts in modern Israel has to do with Arabs.
A colleague told me recently: “In England, they have bad weather, in Israel we have special neighbours”. Without becoming political, the conditions within the borders of Israel shows a completely different picture of the relationship between Jews and Arabs.
Here they live side by side, work side by side, do military service together and study together at the university. Can it really be true? Well… Yes!
Recently I had to cross a security post to enter Karmiel train station. Here, I am welcomed by three tall, strong men, dressed in police uniforms, with big automatic rifles across their shoulders. On the chest was Israel’s blue and white flag, proudly sewn. While I empty my pockets and go through the metal detector, I hear how they speak together in Arabic. Wait a minute… Arabic? There was no doubt, they were Arabs, probably from one of the neighbouring villages. For me, this was a totally common situation, but suddenly it stroke me; how many outside of Israel, knows how this topic actually unfolds inside Israel?
The proportions of Arabs in Israel is approx. 20% of the population, and until recently, the official language in Israel was both Hebrew and Arabic.
From these 1,7 million Israeli Arabs (approx. 250.000 in East Jerusalem and the West bank) approx. 80% are Muslims, 11% Christians and 9% Druze. They live inside the borders of Israel (and the west bank) and are Israeli citizens with full rights, including the right to vote for Knesset (the Israeli parliament), where several Arabic parties are represented. Many identify themselves as Israeli Arabs or Israeli Palestinians, and are bilingual, with modern Hebrew as their second language. Israeli law give most Israeli Arabs freedom not to serve in the military. However, if you do not serve, you are missing out of the economic and social benefits that are attached to military service. Many Druze and Christian Arabs choose to serve, and even a small amount of Muslims, including Beduins.
Israeli Arabs mostly live in separate villages and attend separate elementary schools, but the Arab culture is reflected everywhere in Israel, fx. in road signs, TV-channels, and the radio. The villages can often be identified by the pointy minarets, that project into the air, chaotic roads, semi-finished concrete houses and often trash on the street. There is a different atmosphere here, and if Jews can avoid it, they prefer not to drive through these villages. In the West Bank, the areas are divided into zones, whereas “Zone A” is fully controlled by the Palestinian National Authority. The areas here are in general hostile against Israel, and it is prohibited for Israeli citizens to enter.
Many Arabs work in Israeli companies, institutions or government agencies, and have a close and calm every day with jews. When Sela was born at Ziv Hospital in Safed, we actually met more Arabic nurses than Jewish, and you could sense, that they had a good relationship in between themselves. It turned out, that Sela’s midwife would be a sweet, Arabic woman from Sajur, who would later on invite us to her home. To mention another example, the bank manager in our bank is an Arab, just like about half the employees. The young Israeli Arabs often get jobs in cafés, McDonald’s, clothing chains or supermarkets. They speak fluently Hebrew, and sometimes it is difficult to determine whether they are actually Arabic or Jewish.
Ideas and prejudices
Jewish children do not have much interaction with Arab children, and this separation does, that one develops certain ideas and prejudices. I remember, how I, as a child in kindergarten and school, exchanged creepy stories about the Arabs. Everybody agreed, that one should never trust an Arab, and I remember, that I often felt unsafe among Arabs. Especially if I didn’t have my father by my side. It was an inner fear, that they could abduct me at any second, tie me up and torture me, or stab me in the back, when I didn’t watch. I’ll never forget an episode, where my sister and I were heading home from the bus stop in our village.
Suddenly a car appeared in high speed, coming down the road toward us, with the latest Arabic music hit at full volume, booming through the village.
It was stuffed with Arab craftsmen from the construction site further up the road, half of their bodies were outside the window openings and some were standing in the back of the pickup, while shouting and cheering like crazy people. I remember how the panic grabbed me, and how I, in fear for my life, shouted “ruuuun”! We ran all our tiny legs could carry and hid in the playground nearby until the car was gone and all was quiet again. While we imagined pictures of a bloody rebellion, it would show, that these young men just had a festive occasion.
A democracy in the Middle East
Despite childish fantasies, it’s a common part of everyday life, for Jews to associate with Arabs and the opposite. Although they usually don’t spend unnecessary time together, they respect each other and live side by side in peace. In our office, we often work together with Arabic contractors, engineers or suppliers, and have a good, friendly relationship with mutual respect. I have experienced several times, laughs and jokes during meetings and phone conversations with our Arabic collaborators, and after my humble assessment, there is not the slightest sign of hostility or conflict.
It’s as if both Jews and Arabs consciously put history and prejudices aside and focus on what really matters; to live life, build ones home, earn the daily bread and enjoy time you get with family and friends.
Israel often promotes itself, as the only democracy in the middle east, with equal rights for everyone, and as we experience it, it’s not just words. I cannot say, how the Arabs talk about the jews in the village and at home, but I can tell about what we see every day; Arab men, women, and families living good lives, free to do what they want, study what they want, work and not the least believe in what they want. It is said, that Arabs in Israel experience greater freedom and life quality than any other place in the middle east, and I believe if you ask around here, I would dare to say they would agree.