Tuesday, September 26, 2006
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
JERUSALEM—For two years, author Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli, has been writing a popular weekly newspaper column for one of Israel's largest Hebrew-language newspapers, Haaretz. The column often takes a lighthearted look at discrimination, racism and the challenges facing the Arab minority in this largely Jewish nation.
Arab-Israeli author and columnist Sayed Kashua plays with his 6-year-old daughter Nai at their home near Jerusalem. Kashua said other Israelis should not be surprised that he and the nation's Arab minority opposed the recent war in Lebanon. (Dion Nissenbaum/MCT)
But a few weeks ago, as Israel's summer war with Hezbollah in Lebanon wound down, Kashua made what was for his Jewish readers a startling confession. He confessed he'd been hoping Israel would lose.
"My hands tremble as I write, but in this war I was against Israel — make no mistake — my country," he wrote. "You can say it's treason, you can say what you want, but I am still unable to understand how I can be happy when I hear that another IDF (Israel Defense Forces) tank has been hit and, at the same time, be afraid that I have friends inside it."
The piece generated scores of angry e-mails, letters and phone calls. It also exposed the simmering anger that Israel's Arab citizens feel over how their country treats them and became one more provocation for an anti-Arab backlash that's still unfolding.
Conservative Israeli lawmaker Effi Eitam denounced Arab-Israelis as "a band of traitors of the first degree" and a dangerous "fifth column" that should be barred from participating in Israeli politics.
The Israeli parliament's ethics committee last week suspended two Arab-Israeli lawmakers, one for a day, the other for three days, after one called the defense minister a "child-murderer" and the other denounced opposition politician Benjamin Netanyahu as an "angel of death."
Israel's attorney general has launched an investigation into a group of Arab-Israeli lawmakers who took a postwar solidarity trip to Syria, a journey that may have violated the country's ban on visits to "enemy nations."
And in Haifa, a city that touts its long history of Arab-Jewish co-existence, the city council ousted its Arab-Israeli deputy mayor after he repeatedly went on television during the war to criticize Israel.
"Jews and Arabs did not come out of this war more united," said Elie Rekhess, director of the Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University. "Instead, the mistrust between Jews and Arabs has deepened."
Arab-Israelis suffered more than their share of casualties from Hezbollah rocket attacks during the war. Arabs make up about 1 in 5 of Israel's population. But more than 1 in 4 of those killed by Hezbollah rockets _ at least 14 of the 54 Israeli dead _ were Arabs.
Even so, relatives of the Arab-Israeli victims didn't blame Hezbollah for their losses; they blamed their government. Arab-Israeli politicians criticized Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for unleashing an overpowering military response after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in the July 12 cross-border ambush.
Many Jewish Israelis felt as though they'd been betrayed.
Kashua said they shouldn't have been surprised.
"You have to be a really, really very stupid Israeli to think that Arabs like you," Kashua said at his home outside Jerusalem. "I think the Israelis did all their best to make Arabs hate this country."
Although they are full citizens of Israel, Arab-Israelis face subtle and concrete discrimination in housing, jobs and society. Arab-Israeli towns within range of Hezbollah rockets were never equipped with the bomb shelters and well-run early warning systems that were commonplace in other communities.
The sense of estrangement became especially clear six years ago when violent confrontations between police and Israeli-Arabs left 13 people dead during the opening days of the Palestinian uprising.
A special committee set up to investigate the clashes sharply criticized Israel's treatment of its Arab minority as "primarily neglectful and discriminatory." The report urged the government to do more to ensure Arab-Israelis weren't treated as second-class citizens. But critics say the country has done virtually nothing to address the problems.
"The six years that passed from October 2000 until now could have been used in order to include them in a civic state hug, but the state of Israel did not manage to do this," said Shuli Dichter, co-director of Sikkuy, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes Arab-Jewish cooperation. "And now they have very little reason, if at all, to feel affiliated with the state of Israel."
Both Dichter and his co-director, Ali Haider, said the war had brought the years of neglect back to the surface, and they urged their country to take steps quickly to prevent a recurrence of the 2000 clashes.
"I see this as a rather painful turning point that can help us redefine the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel and put us on a more solid basis," Dichter said.
Kashua, for one, is skeptical that the war will do much to change things in a nation ever struggling to reconcile its often-competing identities as a Jewish and democratic country.
"For me, at least, there is nothing secure about being a citizen of Israel," Kashua said. "If it's not going to change as a Jewish country, I don't see how we can fit."
The father of two young children went through a very public soul-searching process during the war. At first, the author of two novels used his self-effacing style to make a plea for peace.
"I'd be the state's first defeatist chief of staff," he wrote two weeks into the 34-day conflict. "I'm one of those people who's ready to do anything so as not to see one mother cry."
Two weeks later, Kashua bemoaned his status as an Israeli-Arab during a war in which his fellow citizens were questioning his loyalty.
"When it comes to the Israeli media, the best thing an Arab can do in wartime is shut up," he wrote.
A week later, as the cease-fire took effect, Kashua wrote his contentious column opposing the war.
"I really am glad that Israel now looks a bit less frightening," he wrote. "I truly believe that the less monstrous Israel appears, the better the prospects of it being treated as human. I know very well that if Israel had won in a knockout the hatred for the country would have spiraled and the desire to arm and plan for the next attack on it would be far stronger."
Kashua has continued to write his column, with his editors' encouragement, and has tried to gently defuse the anger with humor.
In a recent column, he blamed his denunciation of Israel on a gang of "genuine Arabs" who'd taken his children hostage, compelling him to submit the offensive articles under his name.
"I swear to you, you can even ask my wife: I was totally in favor of the war — that is, for Israel in a war against the Axis of Evil," he wrote. "I admit: I made a mistake and should not have yielded to temptation and written about that accursed war."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.