Chapter 9.  This is not Israel — Part I



In adolescence I had a phobia, that as an adult
I might wake up one morning and find myself speaking Yiddish

Amos Oz
The Moment of Truth


By digesting the past, rather than pretending to lose it,
one can transform it.

Aviva Zornberg,
The Particulars of Rapture. Reflections on Exodus

So we beat on, boats against the current,
borne back ceaselessly into the past

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby



Kindness and Pink Floyd in Geulah and Mea Shearim

I spent Sabbath with a wonderful ultra-orthodox Sephardic family in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geulah. We went to services at the Belzer schul among ultra-orthodox Ashkenazis. It was a beautiful experience, full of spirit and energy. Boys were adorable with their peyot and their black-and-white suits and the girls with their long dresses with bows. I had not felt so happy since I had arrived in Israel as then. It was wonderful to see that the world of European Judaism not only survives but thrives, despite the holocaust and Israel’s sometimes brash secular Zionism. My host family for Shabbat was the brother of my landlord, his wife and their family, including four beautiful and very special boys. The whole family is a paragon of hospitality, kindness and gentleness. Characteristically, they had hung on the wall of their kitchen a sign saying “In this home, we speak softly,” a custom they abide by. I had an urge to make a million photocopies and distribute them throughout the country.  I have noticed how the ultra-orthodox are more polite, tend to speak less loudly and even have difficulty getting onto buses because they cannot push as well as the rest of Israeli society.

After having Shabbat dinner, we walked through the streets of Geulah and Mea Shearim. They were vibrant with people strolling in the late hours, enjoying the breeze of a summer Sabbath’s night. We finally arrived at the home of Yocheved, who is my hostess’s boss and a woman who had been described to me as a “tzaddika,” a saint. She opened the door with a broad smile and warmly welcomed us. She was dressed in the full style of Mea Shearim, including the head covering in the Eastern European way. She bid us to sit down as her children tried to beat each other in the mitzvah of bringing us food and drinks. Two other guests were sitting at the table including a homeless woman who –I was to learn later—has an open invitation to come to Yocheved’s for the Sabbath and has been doing so intermittently for the past sixteen years. The home and its owner have a very special energy of depth, generosity and spirituality.

Yocheved asked me how long I had been in Israel and what I was doing there. As I told her I was a professor at an Israeli university, she said “I do not have much of a formal education myself, you know. When I was young I felt like,” she stopped and reflected for a moment, “I felt like in Pink Floyd’s The Wall—I wanted to break the wall!” She probably noticed my look of surprise at her familiarity with Pink Floyd. She looked around us at the other people at the table. “They don’t know about Pink Floyd,” she said to me with a look of complicity, “but I was not always so religious.” This is a fascinating country, I thought. I would never have believed that in one Shabbat and one neighborhood I would pray with Azhkenazi ultra-orthodox, hear a world of Yiddish around me, dine with a Sephardic family and hear a metaphor about someone’s life using Pink Floyd. The common denominator was an amazing spirit. The spirit of eternal Judaism, which despite external and internal threats and opposition, thank G-d, lives on.

Haredim and Arabs

It was sukkot and I was enjoying a meal at the home of a lovely haredi family in Jerusalem including father, mother, and nine children. The children were all adorably and matchingly dressed and were sitting at the table behaving almost like complete adults, serious and polite, trying to the best of their ability to follow and take part in our conversation. I was asked about my teaching that semester and I explained how I had wanted to teach a course on economic development for both Israeli and Palestinian students jointly with a Palestinian university (which, unfortunately, did not work out). I went on to explain that I felt some of my secular colleagues found it strange that someone would be both religious and interested in working with Arabs. The father of the family shook his head sadly, “they don’t understand, huh?” His wife chimed in: “people sometimes do not understand that we are all exactly the same; we just dress differently” she said.  In retrospect, I think this was just as much a comment on Arabs and on themselves, the Haredim. It seems to me the Haredim feel that people look at them differently just because they dress differently. The conversation went on and my hostess explained that the haredim had, from the beginning, wanted “peace with the Arabs.” “We even sent a rabbi to talk to them, but the Zionists killed him,” she said as she shook her head in disapproval. The rest is history, she seemed to imply.

What do you do with four rooms?

I was spending the afternoon with some ultra-orthodox friends in their neighborhood in West Jerusalem. Their eight-year old daughter, Leah, is a particularly sharp and outspoken girl, albeit within the framework of politeness and gentleness that pervades their environment. One of the values I admire in their (haredi) culture is the absence of materialism. Material things are just not important. They are basic things to be had so one can live, but they have no intrinsic value beyond fulfilling their function and one should not own more than necessary. Leah has driven that message home to me a couple of times. One winter afternoon, as she realized I was wearing yet another coat she had not seen before she asked me, “How many coats do you have?” I was a bit embarrassed and I did not even know the answer to her question. “I think I have eight” I told her. “I have two,” she said “A short one and a long one. The long one is for when it rains.”

Another time, we were speaking about the apartment where I live, which they rent to me, and which the men of the family built themselves with the help of professional construction workers. The last day before it was all ready, they brought mattresses in and the whole family slept there, they told me. “It has many rooms,” Leah said, probably comparing it to the cramped 2-bedroom apartment where the 12 of them live. She continued and asked me: “What do you do with four bedrooms?” I turned the question back to her and asked her, “What do you think I do?” “I think you sleep in a different room every night” she replied without skipping a beat. I realized how strange my way of life must seem to them. One single person in a four bedroom apartment compared to their 12 people in a two-bedroom apartment. The question was pertinent, “what was I doing with four bedrooms?”

Next Purim, I want to dress up as an Ashkenazi!

It was the Jewish holiday of Purim, during which children dress up in costumes. The costumes are varied, ranging from historical Jewish characters to contemporary celebrities, depending on the religious and social environment of each Jewish group. In the self-enclosed world of the haredim, the range of costume choices is not very large and some characters and choices tend to repeat themselves. I had gone to visit the family of my landlord in Geulah, an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, to chat with the family and bring holiday candy packages to the children. They were all dressed up in their costumes and evidently enjoying the experience. The two-and-a-half year-old girl came over and told me excitedly, “Next Purim, I want to dress up as an Ashkenazi!” It took me a couple of seconds to realize what she was saying. In her world, there are two kinds of people, Sephardic Haredim (themselves) and Ashkenazi Haredim  (the other group living in their neighborhood). Sephardic Haredim dress in relatively simple outfits –black suits and white shirts with a black hat. Ashkenazim, on the other hand, have a greater range of more elaborate outfits –with different kinds of hats, including some with fur all around them, long peot or sidelocks, sometimes long white stockings, striped suits etc… I tried to put myself in the position of a 2-year old Sephardic Haredi girl and I could see how, when thinking what would be a really cool outfit for Purim, it would be an Ashkenazi outfit. I also wondered if she thought that all Ashkenazi dressed like that and whether she realized that some in Tel Aviv were hardly wearing anything at all…

I am a doctor

It was the Jewish holiday of Purim and I was visiting an ultra-orthodox family in Jerusalem. Leah, one of the daughters of the family, a smart and sassy eight-year old girl, was dressed up in what looked like a nurse’s outfit. I asked her what she was dressed up as. “I am a doctor” she said in great seriousness. Her mother, who was standing by, questioned her, “I thought you were a nurse?” “No,” she insisted with firmness, “I am a doctor.” There was a look of determination and almost defiance in her eyes as she looked at her mother. “OK,” her mother said, “You are a doctor. Rosa is a doctor too.” I wondered what would happen if Leah really did decide to become a doctor. In the Haredi community in Israel, being a doctor is a very uncommon choice and, for women, I am afraid it is almost unheard of. The existence of women doctors who could tend only to women –or even to Haredi women, knowing their life-style and needs, seemed to me like an excellent future development for Haredi society. I hoped that the social environment and educational opportunities for Haredim in Israel would change in such a way that Leah could become one of those doctors.

Looking for someone to destroy Israel

It was the day before Passover and a picture on Haaretz newspaper was showing an ultra-orthodox man burning hametz (leavened bread) before the holiday dressed in full ultra-orthodox garb and donning a keffya-patterned scarf with a Palestinian flag on each end. I –probably like most readers– had to take a second look. “Did I really see that?” I looked again. Yes, it was right. An ultra-orthodox man was wearing a keffya with Palestinian flags. I found that vision not only incongruous, but disturbing though I could not immediately say why. As I reflected, though, I understood my reaction. Concern about the wellbeing of groups outside the Jewish community has never been the strong point of the ultra-orthodox world. Therefore, I could not believe that this ultra-orthodox gentleman was concerned about the fate of the Palestinian people. I thought back to the scandalous decision of the Naturei Karta –an extremist ultra-orthodox sect—to attend a conference in Iran at which there was holocaust-denying and pledges to destroy the State of Israel. So, I decided to do something I had wanted to do for some time. I checked out the website of the Naturei Karta movement. In it, they explained their agreement with the Government of Iran in “the peaceful dismantlement of the State of Israel” (sic). I felt a wave of nausea come upon me. Not recognizing the state is one thing (though it does seem hypocritical to take its money, but not any responsibilities). However, wishing for and allying with those planning for its destruction was just beyond the pale. I did not know whether to believe these pious Jews truly thought that the “dismantlement” of the State of Israel by Iran would be “peaceful” (in which case, what were all those nuclear rumblings for?) or whether, more insidiously, they just did not care. I realized for the first time that some ultra-orthodox Jews (a very small percentage, mainly encompassing the Naturei Karta movement) are just looking for someone –anyone– to destroy Israel. Iran? Palestinians? Please, be our guests! It also confirmed my fear of apocalyptic movements. These Jews believe that the coming of the Messiah is actually impeded by the sheer existence of the State of Israel and, hence, it needs to be destroyed. The fact that the life of seven million people is at stake seems of no consequence to them. This movement, which poses as the defender of “true Judaism,” is actually the least respectful of human lives, the highest value in traditional Judaism.

A special needs case

I was visiting some friends in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem and Rachel, the mother of the family, suggested that I meet a friend of hers. “Her name is Chava. She is originally from America. She is a very special lady! A real tzadikka” Rachel said. I was not sure why I was supposed to meet her, but I thought it would be interesting and I assented. Rachel walked me over to an apartment building just a five-minute away from hers. We went up the stairs and were warmly received by Chava. Rachel excused herself and told me to meet her back at her house when I finished my visit. I was a bit surprised –as I thought we would visit there together–, but I, again, agreed. One could immediately feel that Chava was indeed a woman of great humanity and deep religious feeling. She was also warm. Her apartment could have been that of an ultra-orthodox family anywhere in the world. It was austerely decorated with religious Jewish symbols and pictures of famous rebbes were hanging on the walls. She offered me a drink and I accepted a cold glass of water. After a quick chit-chat in Hebrew, Chava took out a notebook and started asking me questions (first in Hebrew and later in English).

I quickly realized she was a shadchen or matchmaker. Interesting indeed, I thought. I had no problem answering her questions, though I thought she would be surprised by my answers. She asked me where I was from and I told her I was from Catalonia, in Spain. Unsurprisingly, she had never heard of Catalonia. I told her where it was. She realized the place was important to me and told me that, from now on, whenever she prayed for the welfare of the world, she would remember Catalonia. That was enough to put Chava among my favorite group of people in the world. I told her I had converted to Judaism, twice, once through the reconstructionist movement (which I had to explain since she was, again unsurprisingly, not familiar with that movement of Judaism) and once orthodox. She then asked me what I was doing in Israel. I told her I was working at the University of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Without missing a heartbeat she wrote it down in her notebook. She asked me what I had studied and how many languages I spoke. She was surprised by my answer (more, at least outwardly, than by my unusual work of choice for an orthodox Jew). She studiously wrote it down and then asked me if I would mind marrying an ultra-orthodox man, or one who had a beard. I answered that would be no problem.

This went on for about a half hour. When she finished, she turned to me with a look of interest and compassion and said: “You are a special needs case… because you are special!” It was clear that she had no potential matches for me in sight, but she was sweet about it. What! I thought laughing to myself, don’t tell me I am the first twice-converted multi-lingual Catalan orthodox Jew with a PhD who is interested in the haredi world and working at a Palestinian university that has crossed your path! I forget exactly what I told Chava, but I basically thanked her for her time and told her that it was a pleasure meeting her. She took my phone number. Again, unsurprisingly, I never heard back from her.

Gas masks for Purim

I was sitting down with some friends at an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem and we were discussing the difficulties of life in Israel. “The days of the Iraq war were tough” my friend reminisced. “We had to hurry to the shelters at every sounded alarm and put gas masks on.” “It was hard with the children.” She added. I imagined so (she has ten of them now). Picturing the families of that neighborhood, with so many children, toddlers and babies in train, rushing to bomb shelters carrying gas masks was a troubling thought and conjured up images of the holocaust for me. It had clearly been a troubling experience for them. In a twist of irony, though, the end of the story was funny. “After the war was over,” my friend said, “we no longer had use for the masks and we just used them for Purim.” What a historical irony, I thought, that a mask used to try to save the Jews during one of the latest onslaughts on us by an enemy (Iraq), would be worn during a holiday that celebrated the saving of Jews from a neighbor just next door to that enemy thousands of years earlier (Iran).


It was the Jewish holiday of Channukah and I was visiting some ultra-orthodox friends in Jerusalem. I spent some time with the mother of the family, chatting as we usually did. I listened to the children explain what they had learned about Channukah in school (which was a lot). They were reading books about the holiday and their mother fed us some wonderful home-made food. About an hour later, her husband arrived after the end of his day of Talmud study. We all went out to their terrace to light the Channukah candles. We gathered around the menorah. It was already night time and the lights shone in the dark. I looked at the couple and their nine children (the tenth and oldest is in Yeshiva). They were all caught up in the moment, looking at the lights. It was a magical moment for me. Their apartment is very modest (they all live in a two-bedroom apartment) and it is not a beautiful place by any usual standards. But, as I looked at them by the menorah I felt, like I never had before, that that was beauty.

Haredi women

Rachel is the best woman friend I made during my two years’ stay in Israel. She is a Sephardic Haredi. She was the mother of nine children when I first met her and of eleven when I left. She is one of the most impressive people I have ever met. Her children are extremely well-brought up. Over two years, I have hardly ever heard any of them cry, let alone raise their voices and I have never seen them disobey their mother or father. The older ones work to help the younger ones, keep the house and do errands. They are all studious, serious, very knowledgeable about Judaism and extremely dedicated.  I simply do not know how she does it. In addition, it all looks easy when you are around her. Rachel runs a kindergarten for a few toddlers in her apartment when the older kids are in school during the day. In addition to this, she manages to cook and take care of all. The whole family lives in a two-bedroom apartment and makes do with her earnings from the kindergarten, her husband’s meager income from studying in Yeshiva and part of the rent of the apartment where I live (the rest of which is shared among the extended family). I do not think I have ever heard her complain about anything.

The other siblings of the family are also impressive. One day, however, her sister Sarah confessed to me that it was not always easy. Sarah is a young mother of four boys, ranging in ages from five to a few months. When she called me that evening, she said that she was very tired, that she could hardly get any sleep, that all her boys were so young that none of them could help yet and that it was lonely in the house. When, on top of everything, she got sick –as she was at the time–, she wondered how she would cope. She, of course, quickly followed this acknowledgment by saying that things would be alright, that G-d would help. I tried to provide some comfort, though I was not sure what to say since her experience was so far removed from my own. I offered to visit, which she was happy to accept. When I went to visit her a few days later, she seemed to be doing much better and was back to her usual self. That evening, however, I caught a rare glimpse of the difficulties even the bravest Haredi women face. I admire them.

The Holy Land

The term “Holy Land” has been thoroughly misunderstood throughout history and continues to be misunderstood today. The exchanges between the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and some letter-writers sending him queries beautifully illustrate this misunderstanding. Some of these letters came from individuals who were asking for permission to do unethical or ritually non-permissible things with the justification that they related to the Holy Land. For example, one man asked the Rebbe if he could travel on the Sabbath in order to get to the Holy Land while another enquired whether he could force his wife and children to move to Israel despite his wife’s disagreement out of concern for disrupting the education of her children. The Rebbe’s answer was straightforward: the fact that Israel is Holy Land means you have a greater obligation to observe Jewish Law not less. Hence, travelling on the Sabbath to get there misses the whole point. Similarly, the Rebbe’s answer to the gentleman who was so keen to move to Israel that he was willing to jeopardize his family’s wellbeing to do so was basically that he got his priorities in exactly the wrong order and that what he should worry about was making his wife happy and ensuring his children got a proper Jewish education. Moving to Israel could wait. To a third man, the Rebbe wrote a letter telling him that he always received letters from him about how he was “redeeming the land” while what he was interested in was whether he was keeping the commandments. The Rebbe was a wise man; some would even say a holy man. Perhaps that is why he had such a deep and touching perspective of what “Holy Land” truly means–always a greater responsibility to act ethically and in accordance with the commandments and never less.

So as not to scare the chilonim

It was barely one week before the municipal elections and I was walking in Jerusalem with Leah, a Haredi girlfriend, in her neighborhood. At one point, she pointed out to me how, right across the street from us, was the home of the haredi mayoral candidate Rabbi Meir Porush. The walls around the area of his home were plastered with posters in his support. “Have you noticed that in the poster instead of his real picture there is a drawing of him?” Leah asked me. Yes, I told her. I had noticed. “It is so as not to scare the chilonim (seculars)” she said giving me a knowing look and lowering her voice, though there were no chilonim around us. She went on to explain how the Rabbi’s clearly haredi appearance may “scare away” the chilonim –the long beard, the white hair…I told her that I had heard that theory about the poster from the non-haredi public, but was not sure whether it was true. “It is true” she assured me. I told Leah that what really scared the chilonim was what Rabbi Porush had said in a Yiddish-speaking audience, probably thinking that it would not become known outside that audience. He had said that, in twenty years, there would be no non-Haredi mayors left in Israel, with the exception of some small villages. The message had been translated into Hebrew, broadcast through mainstream Haredi radio and picked up from there by everyone else, including the chilonim. The chilonim were indeed scared and, the day before the election, they printed flyers with that message and distributed them through non-Haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It may also have contributed to the electoral defeat of Rabbi Porush.

The Maccabbees

It was a week before the holiday of Channukah and I was visiting some Haredi friends in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. Channukah commemorates the victory of the Jewish Maccabean nationalists against the Greek Syrian Seleucids which had ruled Israel, tried to assimilate Jews into Hellenistic culture and trampled into and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The traditionalist sector of the Jewish population –the majority—won a victory over the foreign rulers and their Jewish assimilationist allies. As I sat in their living-room, my friend Rachel told me about the latest in the ongoing battle between the haredi community and the State of Israel. This time it concerned education in ultra-orthodox schools. “They want us to change the education we provide our children, change the way it has been taught for centuries and which sticks to Judaism as it is supposed to. The Zionists want us to introduce all sorts of alien subjects which we do not want and would be a disaster for our system. But we will prevail. Even if they cut government subsidies to our schools as they threaten to.” I believe she expected me to agree with her, as on a number of issues I do. But not on this one. I looked at her in silence and just wanted to hear her conclusion on the subject. She provided it just a few seconds later: “It is just like the battle of the Maccabees of Channukah.” Her likeness did not surprise me. In her view (and probably in the view of most of the haredi community), the assimilationist Jews in contemporary Israel are the Zionists and everything they offer from an educational, cultural and religious point of view, is to be resisted by the true believers if the purity of eternal Judaism is to be preserved. Though I understand their skepticism, I believe a stronger secular education for the ultra-orthodox public would be an asset for their community as well as for the country as a whole. Given the enmity and distrust which exists between the Zionist and the Haredi publics, however, this dialogue is unlikely to bear fruit and the education of Haredi children will suffer for it .

Perhaps I have not been taught history properly

I have found Haredim to be much more open to dialogue on Arab issues than other Israelis. I had two conversations with ultra-orthodox teenage girls that especially brought this point home to me. In one case, one family was showing me pictures of trips they had taken. One included an “abandoned” Arab town. I told them the town was not just “abandoned” and explained that during the 1948 war Palestinians were either forcibly expelled or scared away by massacres and expulsions in nearby towns. I also told them that it had now been proved that it was the Hagganah’s goal to force as many Palestinians out from their lands as possible during the war. They listened. When I finished, the teenage daughter of the family said: “Next time the subject comes up, I will know what to tell people happened.” On another occasion, another teenage haredi girl told me how she learned in school that most Palestinians were actually not from Palestine, but had moved here from Jordan. I told her that was simply not true and that, despite the fact that the Middle East was quite an open space for a long time and that people did move around, most Palestinians had been in their lands for centuries. She listened and told me: “Perhaps I have not been taught history right.” I believe the willingness of haredim to listen to alternative versions of Israel’s history is due to the fact that their self-identify does not depend on it: their core is Jewish, not Israeli. For other Israelis, however, the “original sins” of the state –and its ongoing ones—do go to their core identity, which makes it hard for them to accept them.

Haredi children

I was thoroughly impressed with Haredi children. It is my view that new generations of children, especially in the West, are being brought up in an over-indulgent manner. Kids are allowed to run wild, yell, treat adults with disrespect, eat whatever they wish and act irresponsibly. Often, the result is adults who never develop a healthy sense of responsibility or respect for others. This “western” disease is as evident in Israel as it is in Europe or the United States. Sadly, though some Palestinians retain the traditional politeness, respect and self-control of previous generations, others are educating their children in the same over-indulgent manner of the West.

By far the best brought up children I saw in my two years in Israel-Palestine, were Haredi children. They are truly exemplary: respectful, polite, serious, diligent and studious. I simply cannot remember a single Haredi child yelling. Their parents bring them up with a wonderful sense of respect, duty and obligation. This does not prevent them from enjoying their childhood. They seemed as joyful –if not more so—than any other children. And one can feel they are being brought up with a healthy sense of purpose. As a result, haredi children grow up to be dutiful responsible adults who, among other things, seem to make the best students in Israel. I read an article in Haaretz –which, as a secular newspaper cannot be accused of bias toward the Haredim–, that the programs of secular college-level technical education for Haredim are the most requested by Israeli teachers. This is so, teachers argued, because Haredi students made the fastest progress in learning of any other students. Although they arrive at the program with a weak background in secular subjects, they catch up extremely quickly because of their dedication, their discipline and their capacity to learn –emphasized since childhood. I was delighted to read that, even Israel’s secular teachers, despite the country’s bias against the ultra-orthodox, recognizes some of the virtues of this often-maligned group. It all starts in their childhood. As my haredi friend Chava once remarked, “our children’s education is something other Israelis could learn something from.” I could not agree more.


During my time in Israel, I realized that ultra-orthodox men tend to be particularly close to their children. Interestingly, in some ways, ultra-orthodox families are ultra-modern families. The women work and the men spend a lot of time at home getting to know and helping bring up their children. I observed this while spending Shabbat at the home of an ultra-orthodox rabbi and his family. Their youngest child (a toddler barely two years of age) would constantly call out: “Abba!” (Daddy!) looking around for his dad. He did so much more often than he called out to his mother. I realized that had been the case with other ultra-orthodox families I had spent time with during my two years in Jerusalem. The fathers were all very close to their children and the toddlers were extremely attached to them in a way I have rarely seen toddlers be to their fathers. In my view, this is yet another lesson ultra-orthodox families hold for the rest of us.


Chapter 10.  This is not Israel Part II (Arab Israelis)


You shall not oppress a stranger,
for you know the heart of the stranger,

having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt

Exodus, 23:9

What distances us from the Arabs
is our national arrogance

Martin Buber, A Land of Two Peoples


When I am outside the university, I am nobody

I was meeting with a Professor at the University of Haifa. This Professor is a leading authority in his field and an activist for the rights of Israeli Arabs. We were discussing his research and his involvement in social activism and we started to delve into the situation of Israeli Arabs. “We feel like foreigners in our own land,” he explained. “We are not considered part of the society. When Israelis say they met Israelis abroad, they always mean Jews, not Arabs. The sense of not belonging,” he added, “is ever present. If you speak Arabic, people look at you suspiciously. If you stand in line at a falafel shop, even if you did not arrive last, people make you feel you should be last. There is a way of conveying that, you know?, with body language, Israelis are aggressive.” “Here at the university, he concluded, people know me and I am OK, but outside, he said matter-of-factly, I am nobody.”

They pulled me over because I am an Arab

My family was arriving from Spain into Israel that afternoon and I was going to pick them up from the airport with Mahmoud, the brother-in-law of my friend Mufid’s. I had been to the airport several times by then, always without incidents. This time around, though, the security agent at the entrance of the airport enquired where we were coming from and asked for the driver’s ID. I answered we were coming from Jerusalem and Mahmoud handed him his ID. After taking Mahmoud’s ID, we were asked to pull over to the side. As we waited for someone to come and check on us further, I asked Mahmdoud: “Did they pull us over because we come from Jerusalem?” “No,” he answered calmly. “They pulled us over because I am an Arab.” I understand security considerations. However, the thought that someone whose ancestors have been living on this land for centuries is constantly questioned, delayed and humiliated just because of who he is makes my blood boil. I remembered the traumatic experience of the Arab Israeli writer, Sayed Kashua, as recounted in his novel “Dancing Arabs.” He was leaving his town for Jerusalem to attend a fancy Jewish prep school. As he was on his way to the School from the Galilee, he was pulled out of the bus that he was riding to be checked, simply because he was an Arab. His sense of honor and dignity were so hurt, he has not forgotten it. It was a defining experience for him and, sadly, it probably is for many other Israeli Arabs. This seemingly trivial yet traumatizing experience is the daily bread of Palestinians in Israel.

When I am in Jordan, I feel free. In Israel, I do not feel free

It was a Sunday morning and my friend Ahmed and I were discussing the situation of Arab Israelis. Ahmed had told me on a number of occasions that he feels he needs to disguise himself to fit in. At first appearance, his fair looks and western dress make him appear to be a Jew to Jews (and an Azhkenazi at that). However, he is always concerned about how people will react when they find out he is in fact an Arab. This time around, he recounted that his car had broken down in the old city of Jerusalem the week before and how a couple of religious Jews walking by had kindly offered their help. Ahmed politely thanked them and declined. He was convinced that, if they knew he was an Arab, they would not want to help him. He did not put their offer to the test and hence did not find out whether he was correct in his assessment. However, the sheer feeling that one needs to be incognito in one’s one land and that one’s fellow citizens would not wish to help if they knew one’s true identity is deeply disturbing. Ahmed concluded, “When I am in Jordan, I feel free. Here, I do not feel free.” The feelings of Arab Israelis are so strikingly similar to those of European Jews as to be uncanny. Once again, I felt dejected as I thought that, in Israel, we have replicated the expectation of homogeneity, the brotherhood only within a homogeneous community, the feeling of “otherness” and fear of discovery of true identity which Jews have suffered for centuries in Europe.

I came here to help fight the Arabs

Michael retired and made alyah from the US a few years before I met him. He came with an objective –he wanted to help fight the Arabs–, he told me. However, he chose an unlikely base for that, a kibbutz in the North of Israel. From there, he volunteered to fight in Israel’s army a few times, including during the second Lebanon war, but was turned down due to his age. To this day, he acknowledged, the only Arab he has met works in the dining room of his kibbutz and has told him that he thinks that Arabs and Jews are brothers. Michael recounted his story to me as if he himself could not believe the irony of the contrast between his expectations and his experience. Myth and reality, the Diaspora’s views of Israel and of Arabs and life on the ground in Israel and Palestine can be a constant surprise to those willing to discover it.

It is their country

I was visiting Caroline and her family in Nazareth for a couple of days. They are a wonderful, warm and hospitable Arab Christian family I had met during my first visit to the town. They had invited me to go back and stay with them and I had eagerly agreed. Caroline and I were speaking about her life and about relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel. She sighed as she said, “I don’t like to speak about this, but things are not easy for us. It is their country.” I told her that it was also her country and that of all Israeli Arabs and that it was a shame for Israel that she felt it was not. She did not seem to wish to continue the conversation and we switched topics. We spent a simple and pleasant day talking, eating, relaxing and even singing some of her favorite songs together with her sister “karaoke-style” as we downloaded them from the computer.

In the evening, we were having dinner vaguely watching a soccer match between Sachnin (a team from the Galilee) and Beitar Jerusalem on television. Caroline’s younger brother Joseph was supporting Sachnin. I thought I should support the team from Jerusalem since this is where I live. However, having by that time realized nothing in Israel is what one would expect in “a normal country,” I diplomatically enquired whether the Jerusalem team was associated with any specific part of the city. Caroline’s father said it was not. Joseph, though, either understanding the unspoken question I had posed or wishing me to know, said he did not like Beitar because of “discrimination.” I asked him what he meant and he explained that they had never had an Arab player and that they did not wish to have any. I would like to say that I could not believe it, but at that point of my stay in Israel, it would not be true. Sadly, I could believe it. I had even dreaded it as I posed my question. Sachnin, on the other hand, although it is a team from an Arab town, does have Jewish players, Joseph explained to me. Like in a normal country, I thought. I told them the obvious, which sometimes still needs to be said. I told them that I thought it was a disgrace that any team, let alone a team from a mixed city like Jerusalem did not have both Jewish and Arab players. In addition, the team did have non-Jewish players, just no Arabs. I felt again what I feel in the many circumstances of racism and discrimination one encounters in life, enormous shame, sadness, and indignation. And, of all places, that this racism should be taking place in Jerusalem, a city holy to all of us, is yet another sad proof of the absolute and utter misunderstanding of religion.

I prefer bad weather to bad relations between people

I met Eddy at an Egged bus stop in Tel Aviv where we were both waiting to take a bus to Nazareth. Eddy is a strikingly handsome Arab Christian from a town near Nazareth. I had not caught that he was Arab when we had started speaking before boarding the bus. Later on, when we continued our conversation on the bus, I realized I had missed it because, when he had said he was Arab, he had lowered his voice so much in saying it. This reminded me exactly of what Jews regularly do in Europe. They will often lower their voice and look around before saying they are Jewish or before starting a conversation about things Jewish. They simply do not feel comfortable doing so openly, for sad and real reasons. It is just as sad that Eddy feels that way in Israel. He is gorgeous and does not look identifiably Arab (which would rule out discrimination based on looks). He dresses as what my Palestinian friend Mufid would say “western,” speaks Hebrew perfectly –as far as I could tell– and, hence, falls within the category of Arabs that can “pass” in Israeli society. That is, until people find out they are Arab.

Since I had not heard his telling me he was Arab the first time around, we continued our conversation without that information. He was telling me that he had recently graduated from university and was working as a graphic designer in Tel Aviv. He was not happy, though, and he wanted to go live abroad. He explained that he just did not feel at ease in Israel, that he felt he could not be himself, that people were uncomfortable with him when they found out he was an Arab. “They just do not want us around,” he said sadly. He went on to explain that his dream was to live in Canada. “Canada! It’s freezing there!” I blurted out. “I prefer bad weather to bad atmosphere between people (weather and atmosphere are practically the same word in Hebrew),” Eddy said with conviction.

As an economist, I thought to myself, “What a waste of human capital!” As a political scientist, I thought that a society cannot be built on the exclusion of an increasingly alienated twenty percent of its population. As a human being and a Jew, I was deeply distressed that Israeli society was so betraying the time-honored Jewish principle and most often-quoted commandment in the Torah to protect and love the “ger” (the minority amongst us). I felt that Eddy proved this was precisely Israel’s deepest flaw –its utter failure to respect and treat justly its Arab population. If you were intelligent, educated, handsome, “Israeli-looking,” well-dressed, Christian and spoke perfect Hebrew and yet you did not feel comfortable in Israel, which other Arab Israeli possibly could?

You should think this through and through

I was watching a soap opera whose script is written by the Israeli Arab novelist Sayed Kashua. It is a fantastic comedy which sheds light on the quandaries of daily life for Arab Israelis. One of its episodes is based on a real story that occurred to the novelist. He and his wife were looking for a school for their daughter and were exploring the various possibilities in Jerusalem. One of the schools they visited was a “liberal” religious Jewish school. They were sitting with a representative of the school who initially was very welcoming to them. She asked them if they were part of a certain Kashua family which is Jewish. They answered that they were not and that they in fact were Arab. The facial expression and attitude of the school representative suddenly changed. She became defensive and started to explain why this would not be a good school for their daughter. She argued something along the lines of: “This is a Jewish school, you know?” Sayed Kashua and his wife said they were well aware of this fact and that it would be a good learning experience for their daughter. The school representative was undaunted and continued to explain how the instruction was in Hebrew and the Sabbath and Jewish holidays were celebrated. The Kashuas said it would be great for their daughter to speak and write perfect Hebrew and to be familiar with Jewish customs.

The school representative finally seemed to lose her patience and told them: “You should think this through and through.” Sayed Kashua’s wife brilliantly replied: “You (plural) should think this through and through.” She is absolutely right. Israel should have at least a track of schools that is bilingual and bicultural, in which Jews and Arabs are educated together. As long as this does not exist in the public school system, they should at least welcome the Arabs who are so keen on having their kids integrate into mainstream Jewish Israel that they would like to take their kids to Jewish schools in Hebrew. The sad answer to why this is not happening is that a great majority of Israeli Jews do not want Arabs to be integrated into Israeli Jewish society, even on their terms. Rather, they would like them to remain tightly enclosed in Arab villages and see them as little as possible. This, in addition to unethical and undemocratic, is simply a recipe for social disaster.

We too were afraid

Arij is a Palestinian Israeli from Nazareth. I was visiting her and her family and we were seating in the area outside their home and talking. I do not recall how, but we turned to the topic of the intifada. She told me: “Those days were terrible. When we went to Haifa, we were so afraid to go on the buses. We are afraid too, you know?” Other Palestinian Israelis have told me similar things. On the one hand, what they say is obvious: they are just as afraid of bombings as any Israeli. On the other hand, it was clear that it was important for them to convey this message. What they were really saying was: We know you identify us with the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza and even with terrorists, but as regards terrorism, we are going through the same as you are. We too are afraid. We are not on the other side. We are with you. We are on the same boat, literally. Some time later, I read an article by Sayed Kashua about a suicide bombing in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem which had caused deadly victims. Sayed Kashua commented with sad irony: “You see, we also suffer, we also die from terrorist attacks. Perhaps now you will consider us one of you.”

Arabic coffee

I love Arabic coffee. I love its wonderful smell of spices, its lightness and fantastic and complex taste. I also love the whole culture that goes with preparing and drinking coffee and how every Palestinian home seems to smell of it. Coffee is not just coffee. It is a ritual and an art. There are different blends and different ways to prepare it and every Palestinian has his or her own special way of making it. I love the little cups it is served in and the culture around enjoying it. It was one of the first things I asked a Palestinian friend to teach me how to make. He and I went together to Bethlehem to buy the coffee, the coffee pot and coffee cups. When another Palestinian friend came over to visit me, I made him coffee and served it in those cups. He told me those were cups from the countryside and, on my next visit to his home in Jerusalem, his mother gave me as a present a beautiful, golden set of cups which I now use and treasure. I learned the different Arabic words for the three degrees of sugaring the coffee (since sugar is incorporated in the coffee making and boiling) and used them when ordering it in Arabic coffee houses.

One day, I was with my friend Ahmad –whose mother had bought me the beautiful golden coffee cups—at the YMCA in West Jerusalem. We sat down at the café and, when the waitress came to take our order, I ordered Arabic coffee “wassat” (an Arabic word for “medium,” i.e., neither sweet nor bitter). The waitress, a Jewish girl in her late 20s, looked at me in puzzlement and asked in Hebrew, “What?” I realized she did not understand the word and told her in Hebrew. I was once again taken aback by the deep cultural gap between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and, in particular, by the lack of knowledge which the large majority of Jews demonstrate of Arab culture. This girl was living in Jerusalem and working at the YMCA, one of the few locales in which Jews and Arabs interact. And even she, despite working at the café, seemed to know nothing of the world of Arabic coffee, not even the words her clients would use in their language to order it. All I could think was: how sad, what a waste and what a missed opportunity to discover this beautiful world and the people who make it.

The silent minaret

During a visit to Beer Sheva’s Bedouin population, my  hostess was showing me some pictures of the town pre-1948. Back then, seemingly a life and a world away, Beer Sheva looked like a picturesque, sleepy little Arab town in the desert –beautiful white buildings, the Arab population peacefully strolling down its streets, doing their shopping in the open-air market, living that long-gone normal life of an undisturbed people in its land. I noticed the mosque. “It is beautiful” I told my friend. “Is it still there?” I asked her: “Yes, it is” she told me with sadness in her eyes “but we are not allowed to have the muezzin call from the minaret any more” “Why?” I asked her in disbelief. “Because the Jews say it is noisy” she answered. Ben Gurion really accomplished his objective, I thought, the  premier Arab town in the Negev had been turned into a thoroughly Israeli city. Beer Sheva today has nowhere near the charm of that old Arab town and its Arab inhabitants cannot even call to prayer from their mosque.

Culture and Folklore

When I was growing up in Franco’s Spain, we were not allowed to study any culture except for what was defined by the regime as Spanish culture. Worse than that, other cultures were ignored, simply defined out of existence. There was one partial exception to that non-existence: folklore. The only aspect of Catalan, Basque or any other cultures in Spain that was, to some extent, looked upon as acceptable and non-threatening was folklore. I remember vividly the only appearance of my culture in our textbooks. It was in the department of “regional outfits.” There were colorful pictures of girls and boys from all parts of Spain dressed in their “regional outfits.” Among those was a girl dressed in our folkloric outfit and below it was written: “Catalan regional outfit.” That appearance in my textbook was strange for me though I could not quite explain why.  In one way, I felt it was a proof that, even in that strange and distorted textbook, we did exist.  Just seeing the word “Catalan” written there was a small source of comfort to me. We had not been completely blotted out from existence. On the other hand, we hardly wear those outfits any more except at folkloric gatherings, so it does not have much resonance with our daily lives. It seemed strange that we did not learn anything about our history, our language or our literature, but we did make that one anecdotal, almost silly, appearance in our “regional outfit.”

I was reminded of this during my ulpan in Jerusalem. Our textbooks, which aim to introduce us to Israel as well as to Hebrew, literally define Palestinians out of existence. Although they constitute about 18 percent of the population of Israel, they simply do not appear in our textbooks. It is as if they were not there. I discussed this with an Italian and a Palestinian classmate separately. They both agreed, but pointed out two small exceptions to me. My Italian classmate reminded me that Palestinians were mentioned in a couple of exercises regarding suicide bombings. My Palestinian classmate pointed out that the only Arab we saw in the whole class was a picture of an old Bedouin woman, smoking and making coffee. He was clearly not pleased with the one portrayal of Palestinians in the course. It was a kitschy stereotype, a partial folkloric vignette of what is a rich and vibrant people and culture. I thought that he felt the same way as I did when faced with the “Catalan regional outfit.” We both felt that our one anecdotal appearance was more belittling than recognizing and that both Israel and Spain were all the poorer for our absence.

Israel’s Central Bank

I was having a Shabbat meal with some friends in Washington before moving to Israel. Among the guests was Shimon, an Israeli economist who is originally from the Former Soviet Union. We were discussing various aspects of the country when he told me: “You know, Rosa, the smartest student in our PhD class at Hebrew University was Arab and he had no chance of getting a job at Israel’s Central Bank.” At that point, I was still very ignorant about Israel’s deep discrimination of its Arab citizens and this statement –from someone I respect and trust—surprised me. I would not have been surprised to learn it would be hard for an Israeli Arab to get to certain positions in Israel’s army or security system. But, the Central Bank? What was up with that? Shimon explained that Arabs in Israel suffered from great discrimination in the work place, including in state institutions, and that they did not feel comfortable in the society. “I understand them” he said, “because I felt exactly the same way in the Former Soviet Union.” That honest acknowledgment moved me. Shimon was able to do what I found very few Jews could muster–projecting their own history of discrimination so they could understand Palestinians. At the end of my stay in Israel, and despite the country’s Central Bank being under the leadership of such an otherwise broad-minded man as Stanley Fischer, Israel’s Central Bank still did not have any Arabs working in it. I read about it in the press.

This is the electricity company

I had taken a day to go visit a Bedouin NGO in the Negev. My hosts were taking me to visit an “unrecognized village.” Before going there, I did not know of the existence of these villages. When Israel took over the Negev desert during the 1948 war, it tried to concentrate its Bedouin population into as small an area as possible and did so by authorizing only seven “recognized villages.” Such a concept was completely alien to Bedouins, who come from a nomadic shepherding society. Therefore, not all of them followed the new Government’s instruction and continued to live in other parts of the land they had occupied for millennia. Even as the Bedouins became more settled, they did not only concentrate in the “recognized villages,” but rather in other parts of the Negev as well. Thus were born the “unrecognized villages.” Unrecognized villages are large population centers that resemble vast shanty towns. They have thousands of people living in them, but because they are not recognized by the Israeli Government, they do not receive basic public services such as water, sewerage systems or electricity.

It seemed amazing to me that the Government of Israel had taken over this land 60 years ago, but that its people, citizens of the State of Israel throughout the period, still did not receive public services. This is also a population that, by and large, has defied the hostility of other Palestinian Israelis by serving in the Israeli army and often excelled in it. Despite that, they cannot even get water or electricity. As we were walking into the village, my hosts pointed to a large industrial plant right next to the unrecognized village we were visiting, “This,” they said, “is the electricity company.” It turned out that a huge electricity generation plant was right next to the village, its high-tension cables looming menacingly over the shanty town as they extended over it to supply other parts of Israel with electricity, just not the Bedouin inhabitants of the “unrecognized village.”

The Wall

Unrecognized villages in the Negev receive absolutely minimum services and only in certain areas. The unrecognized village I was visiting did have a primary school. The population of the town, however, had been growing rapidly and the inspecting authorities from Israel’s Ministry of Education realized that the number of pupils for the one school the town had exceeded the Ministry’s norms. So they devised a creative, low-cost solution: they built a wall across the school. The one school was now two schools. No more classrooms were built, no more teachers engaged, but a low wall was now crisscrossing the dingy-looking school in the middle of the shanty town in the desert. The school children had made colorful paintings on the wall to make it look less ugly. The solution seemed so Orwellian and surreal that, if I had not seen it with my own eyes, I am not sure I would believe it possible.

This is how they treat us

It was noon on a hot July day and Rafiq, a Bedouin staff member of an NGO I had just visited, was driving me back to the bus station in Beer Sheva so I could go back to Jerusalem. We had to stop at a traffic light on our way. As we sat in the car waiting for the light to change, Rafiq looked to one side and said: “The police is checking some people.” I looked as well. There were two boys on the ground. They could not have been over 14 or 15 years old. They were lying flat, their faces down on the boiling-hot summer pavement. Their hands were handcuffed at their backs. They had no weapons, nothing in sight that looked threatening and justifying such treatment. I gasped: “What are they doing to these children? Why are they doing this to them?” Rafiq answered: “These kids are either Bedouins who have been suspected of some minor offence or West Bank children without a valid work permit crossing over to work in Israel.” Whichever of the two options it was, the way those children were being treated was completely out of proportion with their offense. Moreover, they presented no physical danger to anyone whatsoever. Treating them as the police was doing could only have been devised to hurt and humiliate them. I heard myself saying to myself as much as to Rafiq: “They would never do this to Jews.” “No,” he agreed, “this is how they treat us.”

Bedouins and hospitals

I was speaking to Jon, an American Jew from Washington D.C. On American politics, Jon is a liberal who is actively engaged in a number of social causes, including the rights of immigrants in the United States.  However, I had noticed that, like many American Jews, Jon seemed unaware of the fact that the policies of the Israeli government are sorely in contradiction with the values he espouses in the US. Whenever I tried to brush the subject, I would run into a wall. One day, I mentioned to Jon the great discrimination that the Bedouins in the Negev endure. Though I did expect him to minimize the extent of the discrimination, his response took me by surprise: “It is not so bad” Jon said: “I heard they let them use their hospitals in Beer Sheva” he told me.

“Where do I begin?” I thought to myself. This is a people who have lived in the Negev since Biblical times, if not earlier. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, they have been hounded, pushed into as small a number of “recognized villages” as possible. Those settlements outside the “recognized villages” are qualified as “unrecognized villages” and do not receive the standard services of the Israeli state. They are makeshift camps, with no electricity, water, sanitation or any proper public services. One would think oneself in a slum in a developing country. In addition, the Bedouins are discriminated against despite their participation in the army. Jon, however, felt that was not such a big deal and that it was truly generous of Israeli Jews to “let them” use “their” hospitals.

I know I am a minority

Ron is an Israeli man in his thirties and the CEO of a high-tech company in Tel Aviv. In political terms, he is what would be termed a left-wing Zionist. One day, we were discussing the treatment of Israeli Palestinians and he told me the following story. That week he had interviewed a young Israeli Palestinian man who had applied for a job in his company. The young man was highly qualified, qualified enough in fact to apply for a research and development position. Instead, he had applied for a mid-level marketing position. Ron asked him why he had only applied for a marketing position rather than for a research one. The young man told him, “Listen, I will be happy with whatever job you can give me. I know I am a minority.” (Another way of saying, I know I am an Arab and my chances of getting any job in a high-tech firm are meager). Ron asked him what he really wanted, what his dream job was. The young man told him his dream job was a research position. Ron recommended him for it and the decision was in the hands of the human resources department when we spoke. “He was such a nice-looking guy too” Ron said. “Really?” I asked “Was he dark?” (I think dark is very nice-looking) “No!” Ron said, “He is very nice-looking” he repeated (as if I had missed his point the first time around) “he looks Israeli.” His statement surprised me at three levels. First, nice-looking seemed to preclude dark skin. Second, the young man was Israeli. He did not just look it. And third, Israelis look all sorts of ways, from blond to black. I concluded that, when Ron said the young man looked nice and Israeli, he meant that he looked like an Ashkenazi Jew.


Arab Israelis are constantly berated by Israeli Jews for not being loyal enough to Israel. I find this accusation a very odd one coming from Jews. Throughout millennia, Jews have suffered from exactly the same accusation of not being loyal enough to their host societies. As Jews, we know that these accusations are often unfounded or wildly exaggerated. Sometimes, the accusations are based on the rejection of Jews by some members of the host society itself which is projected onto an imagined rejection of itself by Jews. Other times, it is simply based on ignorance. Because of the separation of Jews from mainstream society in pre-emancipation Europe, gentile Europeans simply had very little idea about what Jews felt or did not feel and their worst fears were self-enforcing and even self-fulfilling. Finally, we know that, sometimes, these accusations are correct. When they are correct, we also know why. Jews –like any other group in such circumstances—have not felt very loyal to states which utterly rejected them, did not include them in the definition of the country, did not provide them with equal access to education, land, or professional opportunities. In short, states in which Jews could not be imagined to hold certain political positions just because they were Jews.

We also know very well what it takes to build loyalty among minorities and that the first step needs to be taken by the state and the majority in the society. In countries –like the Arab Al-Andalus of the middle ages or in contemporary democracies—which have treated Jews equitably for the standards of the time and in which Jews have been able to live comfortably, Jews have been –and are—deeply loyal to the states in which they are citizens. Is it so hard to understand that Palestinian Israelis feel exactly the same way we have felt for millennia? Is it so difficult to admit that, if Palestinian Israelis do not feel the degree of loyalty to Israel that one would hope for, it is because of the way the state of Israel and Israeli society have treated them from the origins of the country to today? Is it possible for Israeli Jews to realize that, if they want to make Palestinians feel they belong in Israel, it is they that need to make them feel that way?

The Shabbak guy at the falafel shop

During one of the visits of President Bush to Israel/Palestine, I was talking to a Palestinian friend in an Arab neighborhood on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I told her that, on the way to her home, I had seen much more security than usual, including the army. “Yes,” she told me, “they have really stepped up security because Bush wants to visit Bethlehem. It is not only the army, though. There is also more Shabak (secret police) than usual.” “Really?,” I asked her, “can you tell who is Shabak?” “Oh, yes,” she answered, “we all know about the Shabak guy at the falafel shop, for instance, but there is another guy running around these days.” “The Shabak guy at the falafel shop?” I repeated enquiringly. “Yes, we all know about him. He comes to our falafel shop to hang out, observe and ask questions. He speaks Arabic, but we know he is Jewish and he works for the Shabak. Now there is a new guy, though. He is going around and asking questions too.” She shrugged her shoulders as if saying, “This is an Arab neighborhood in Israel. These things happen.”

Arabs sell their daughters

I was taking a guided tour of the Galilee with a visiting friend from the World Bank. I had especially tried to go through an agency that I was told was run by Arab Christians since my friend is a believing Christian herself. As it turned out, though, our guide was a Sephardic Jew. When we were driving through a heavily Arab area in the Galilee, he started a speech about Israeli Arabs that shocked me coming from an official Israeli tour guide. I was not expecting objectivity and had noticed the strong Jewish and Zionist bias of Israeli tour guides. I was also not surprised by the views themselves, which were not uncommon among Israeli Jews. However, I would have thought that, even in Israel, it would not be considered acceptable to speak in such an openly prejudiced way in an official position and in front of foreign tourists.

His speech about Arabs included a plethora of stereotypes such as how they multiplied so fast and how they sold their daughters. When I heard this last point, I could no longer hold myself back and I stopped him. I told him that I had been in Israel for a year and had many Israeli Arab friends and that the picture he was portraying was very far from the truth. He was incensed at my challenging his authority in public. “I have lived my whole life among Arabs!” he yelled across the bus. I had noticed that Jews from Arab countries spoke as if their experience entitled them to unquestionable views about the “nature and behavior” of Arabs.  “Are you saying I am lying?” he continued, “I am saying that what you are presenting is a very biased generalization which may have applied at some point in time, but definitely does not apply to Palestinians today.” He mumbled something and continued with a different topic.

The reaction of my friend visiting from the US was interesting. She is a very calm and gentle person, originally from a Pacific Island. She told me not to bother with such a person and that the way the guide portrayed Arabs spoke volumes about the mentality of Israeli Jews. She also said that she was sure other tourists would see through this as well. I hoped she was right, but was not sure about it. She is an outsider and, as an Asian, she is familiar with western stereotyping. I, on the other hand, am unfortunately familiar with the plethora of western prejudices about “Arabs” and fear that many tourists coming to Israel may have their prejudices confirmed and amplified by Israeli tour guides.


When I first joined the World Bank, it was the heyday of President Wolfensohn’s presidency. Moreover, I worked with a director who took the new directions of the Bank toward openness, transparency, inclusiveness and reaching out to our clients quite seriously. After having worked at the more formal and top-down International Monetary Fund, I relished the World Bank’s new direction. I remember that the key directive at the World Bank Institute was “participation” and the “demand-driven” nature of our training programs. I instinctively knew those directions were exactly right and my experience was to prove so. One should not design programs in Washington D.C. in isolation and then “teach” them to our clients. On the contrary, we worked in countries in which we were invited, we taught in the areas for which there was a specific request, and we elaborated our courses jointly with a local think tank or university and with the input of the people who were going to participate in the course. We also made sure to include parts of the program that were general principles and lessons from international experience as well as a second part that was specifically tailored for the country at stake and generally led by a local institution. The difference in success between such a program and traditional top-down programs was obvious. In U.S. academia at large, the principle of inclusiveness has long been recognized as well. Research projects about specific ethnic or religious groups always have much more credibility if led by a scholar from that group.

In Israel, this wise principle of inclusiveness did not seem to hold. I remember an angry review from an Israeli Arab academic about a book that had recently been published. The book, ironically, was about Haifa as a city home to two peoples. The title –which I forget—even reflected this focus. Nevertheless, every single one of the numerous academics involved in the book project was Jewish. I thought that was just astounding and “only in Israel.” “The chutzpah” I thought: “They really don’t get it, do they?” After mentioning this unforgivable oversight, the Israeli Arab academic went on to point out a –long—list of inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Arab Haifa that clearly would not have been in the book to start with if the Jewish academics had bothered to invite an Israeli Arab academic (from Haifa perhaps?). That spoke volumes about the Israeli view of a city of two peoples…

The issue presented itself in a different guise in numerous occasions. Another time, I decided against attending an otherwise interesting academic panel about Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Bible Lands Museum of Jerusalem because whereas Judaism was represented by a Jew and Christianity by a Christian…yes, you guessed it, Islam was represented by a Jew. “It’s not like there is a shortage of Muslims or Muslim academics in Jerusalem that they need to even have something as sensitive as their religion represented by a Jew” I thought. Sadly, there seemed to be an agenda behind the choice of speakers. A Palestinian friend of mine who attended the conference told me that the Jewish speaker put forth such a gross and hostile misrepresentation of Islam that the Jewish speaker representing Judaism interrupted him to object. I read about a third episode in the same vein in Haaretz. It concerned the committee for naming streets in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa. The article highlighted that the committee, in a city that was half Arab, only included Jews.


It was a few days after Yom Kippur. During the holiday, Arab riots had broken out in Akko –a mixed Arab-Jewish city in the Galilee. The incidents started after an Arab was attacked by Jews for playing music during the Jewish holiday. This is something Jewish law has no problem with, as Jewish prohibitions apply only to Jews and not to non-Jews. This terrible incident was yet another sign of how incredibly far Israeli Jews had gone in turning 180 degrees away from Jewish history. In no other country would Jews dream of attacking non-Jews –probably for any reason—let alone for such an unjustifiable one as someone playing music on a Jewish holiday. It seemed that Jewish history had simply been turned on its head –now Jews used an excuse to attack Arabs, burn their cars and their homes with the implicit support of the authorities. The left-wing Israeli press made no bones about it and called the incident what it was –a Jewish pogrom against Arabs.

I decided it was high time to visit Akko. So, a couple of days after the riots, I hopped on a train in Jerusalem and rode toward Akko. In my view, Akko is the most beautiful city in Israel. Jerusalem does not count –it is a heavenly city as much as an earthly city. Of Israel’s earthly cities, Akko is the most beautiful. I had read about it and seen it in documentaries and had longed to visit it for years. Nothing, however, had prepared me for the impact it would make on me. As we approached it with the train and we turned the last bend in the road, the city appeared in front of us. The Mediterranean was shimmering blue across an extended bay at the end of which was a white city of turrets and minarets. It was so beautiful it seemed like a vision. Five minutes later, we stopped at Akko’s central station.

I took a taxi directly to the old city. Once I got there, I walked. It was a fascinating world apart from Jewish Israel. The old city and its market could have been anywhere in Palestine or elsewhere in the Middle East. It had the bright textiles, the spices, the perfumes, the Arab breads. The merchants were calling out to clients. Some even welcomed me in Hebrew and seemed eager for Jewish —or any— tourists to come back to their city. There were coffee shops where men sat sipping slowly their wonderful Arab coffee and smoking their narguilas. The narrow winding streets ended at the sea, with the medieval walls and the striking harbor which the crusaders had built, with mosques, churches and synagogues nestled around it. I had never seen so much beauty. As the attacks and the Jewish anger against the city’s Arab inhabitants came back to my mind, all I could think was: how can anyone want this incredibly beautiful world to disappear?

Akko Boys

I was spending a Sunday in Akko, strolling around its beautiful old streets and its lovely harbor. It was there that I met Rushdie. Rushdie owned a boat and his job was to take tourists around the harbor. As I walked by, he called out to me: “Do you want a ride in my boat? Business is slow since the riots. I will take you on a tour for fifty shekels (ten dollars).” I agreed. We took a tour of the harbor in what turned out to be one of the most picturesque moments of my stay in Israel/Palestine. Afterwards, Rushdie invited me for tea at his sister’s house. She lived near the harbor, in the old city. Rushdie’s sister was warm and welcoming. She made us tea and offered us traditional Palestinian sweets. Her home also seemed to be a place of gathering for some of the neighborhood’s youth. In addition to us, some teenage neighbors were sitting in her living room, enjoying her tea and talking to each other and with her. I asked them what they did for a living. They said that not much and everything they could, basically odd jobs here and there. They told me there were just no job opportunities for them. They seemed somewhat dejected and looked as if they did not expect much else from life. As I had felt other times in Arab areas of Israel, it seemed as if their world was crumbling around them and there was nothing they could do about it. I looked at Rushdie. He looked back at me as he said: “This is Akko boys. Lots of jobs, but no future.”

I have thought back to “Akko’s boys” many times as I read about the lot of Arabs in Israel’s mixed cities. The crime rate in those cities is much higher than elsewhere in the country. The new generations of Israel’s Arabs are educated and expect the democracy, equality and opportunity which Israel rhetorically promises to all its citizens. However, the traditional structures of Palestinian society are breaking down while the Israeli-Jewish economy and society are not welcoming them in and reserve only precarious lower-rung jobs for what is an increasingly educated, but marginalized and frustrated Arab youth. I also remembered “Akko’s boys” when I heard Israeli Jews at a presentation in Washington DC propose an economic plan for the country that would have Israeli Arabs take back the (low-skill, low-pay) jobs which foreign workers are now holding. This is neither what most Israeli Arab youth want nor what they are skilled for. Israeli Jewish society had better realize it and welcome Israel’s Arabs as full equals in its economy, polity and society before it is too late and Akko’s riots spread across the country. They should realize too that this full equality is also what is required to win the “loyalty” they so emphasize they want from Israel’s Arab citizens.

Summer houses for rich people

I was speaking to Ahmed, a young Arab professional from Akko. His family had lived in the city for centuries –like most of the city’s Arab residents. They were, however, feeling increasingly squeezed out. A phenomenon which I was familiar with in Jerusalem seemed to also hold sway in Akko –the difficulty of obtaining building permits for Arabs. I told Ahmed that I did not realize this was also a problem in Akko. “It is,” he explained as he sighed, “my family and I have for years tried to obtain permits to renovate our house, but they are consistently denied. We will keep on insisting. We do not want to leave.” I asked him why he thought the municipality was making things so hard for them. “They want us to leave” he repeated “they probably want us to all leave so they can build summer houses for rich people.” My thoughts went back to the old port city of Jaffa near Tel Aviv, which has been made into a picturesque –but almost fake-looking—museum town, with art galleries and restaurants, but empty of its original Arab inhabitants, who are now refugees scattered across the world. I hoped with all my strength that things would turn out differently in Akko. If relations between Jews and Arabs in that usually peaceful city in the Galilee could be worked out, I mused, perhaps there was a chance for the rest of Israel as well.


Continue reading Chapters 11-12.

Return to Table of Contents