A Hidden Harmony: The Arab-Israeli Duet
Two years ago, my grandfather was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. He and my grandmother had been married for about sixty years, living in Hadera, Israel for the most recent ten. An unrelenting warrior, thick-skinned as could be, and impatient by nature, my Sabba (Hebrew for grandpa) refused proper medical treatment. This was especially risky, given that the severity of his illness required frequent dialysis. He felt that he could battle through it himself–a tenet of his character that never ceased to fade–by swimming in the chilly waters of the Meditteranean on winter mornings followed by days of unabated activity. As his condition worsened, however, he was left with no choice but to surrender himself to the medical staff at his local hospital. Although I wasn’t personally there to witness the harmonious duet between the Arab and Israeli caregivers treating my Sabba, my parents were amazed at the paradoxical dynamic that made my grandfather’s journey to heaven not only a peaceful one, but an eye-opening experience for us all.
It’s not easy to imagine a world where Arabs and Israelis peacefully coexist. It is far harder to imagine them gaining mutual respect, and almost impossible to imagine a tie of friendship between them. These beliefs are however, highly amplified by the media. But the small cosmos where this melodic coexistence plays out can, in fact, come to orchestrate an ensemble founded on ethics, support, and a common interest to thrive. The story I shared about my grandfather is just one example of hope and what is possible in the tumultuous Middle East. So often ignored by the mainstream are the communities in which Arabs and Israelis positively contribute to each other’s lives economically, socially, and even politically. And yes, it is a reality, albeit small; unfortunately though, these pockets of cooperation aren’t interesting enough to make headlines.
Israeli cities like Hadera, Jaffa, and Haifa are home to high concentrations of Arab-Israelis who live and work alongside their Jewish counterparts. Arab-Israelis serve in Israel’s defense forces and government. Today, fourteen members of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, are Arab; an Arab judge sits on Israel’s Supreme Court. While politics hold the most gravity in this situation, Arabs attend Israeli universities and their businesses are ubiquitous in Israel’s streets: Ironically, the leader of the anti-Israel, Boycott, Divestment, & Sanction movement (BDS) Omar Barghoutti, graduated with a degree from Tel Aviv University! (Canary Mission).
Although Palestinean citizens of Israel face some degree of discrimination, like Blacks in America, they enjoy unparalleled privileges and opportunities that they are otherwise unlikely to see in surrounding nations: Arab-Israelis are treated as equal under the law but much work remains to be done economically and socially. The worst of political and social evils is obviously the latter–rights and freedoms precede social acceptance. According to face-to-face surveys conducted by the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, 40% of Arabs in Palestinean territories have said that they would “definitely move” to Israel and restart their life in a democracy founded on justice, rights, and innovation. The Institute also reports that over half of east Jerusalem Arabs are “concerned” about losing their freedoms of expression and press if they “became citizens of a Palestinian state rather than remaining under Israeli control.”
Tragically, despotic governments harm the lives of the governed to the detriment of their populace. While Israel is a model of human rights, liberty, and growth in the region, its neighbors–Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan–are ruled by corrupt, authoritarian despots who strip their people of basic freedoms. On Israel’s northern border, Lebanon, is controlled by Hezbollah, a terror organization backed by Iran. Syria, on the upper-east, has been ravaged by the leadership of Bashar Hafez al-Assad, a tyrant responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of its country’s citizens. People in these countries are barred from basic liberties and freedoms of expression, with consequences such as censorship, threats, and even death (RefWorld). Arab-Israelis, especially women, enjoy abundant freedoms: They can attend school with men, work alongside them with comparable pay, dress as they please, express themselves freely, and are treated equally under the law. This contrasts with the rights of Arab women in neighboring countries, where religion justifies everything and has thus, normalized domestic abuse (EuroMed Monitor). In many of these Arab nations women cannot leave their homes unless unaccompanied by a man (Reuters).
The militant group Hamas controlling the Gaza strip on Israel’s southwest coast, has subjected its two million inhabitants to a perpetual state of insecurity and misery. Substantial portions of international aid provided to improve Gaza’s population’s living conditions are instead utilized to procure weapons to be used against Israel. Their tyrannical leadership is widely known for the hundreds of miles of underground tunnels built directly under densely populated cities, serving as storage silos for armament and rockets that they then deploy onto Israeli territory. Most recently, some four thousand rockets were launched on Israel over a period of ten days. In an effort to combat Hamas’ aggression, Israel has been forced to destroy these tunnels, inevitably resulting in the collapse of homes and buildings directly above. The media then accuses Israel of using disproportionate force and outright murder all the while ignoring its duty for self-defense.
The Israeli government has long recognized the challenges involved with its internal Arab population, slowly venturing toward opening opportunities for its minority citizens. More recently, the Israeli government has allocated nearly three billion dollars over five years to programs that strive toward integrating Arab-Israelis (My Jewish Learning). Some examples include scholarships for Arab-Israelis to receive a college education and nonprofits to help them find employment in Jewish companies straight out of university (CS Monitor). In the eyes of Israel, integrating the millions of Arabs seeking work brings opportunities for accelerated innovation and reduced unemployment while lessening the threats of terror. Providing people who lack purpose with one is usually a win-win situation.
The Druze communities are one other example of a symbiotic relationship between culturally and religiously divergent people in Israel. The Druze are a sub-Arab group who are ethnically Muslim but don’t identify with Islam; they do however, maintain co-religious ties in Lebanon and Syria–their nations of origin. Most villages rest in northern Israel while others remain in their home countries. The Druze people are staunchly loyal to Israel through their agricultural, economic, and military efforts. Many Druze work in copper, soap, and petrochemical factories among other industrial jobs, which is said to have improved their regard toward Israel over the years (Jewish Virtual Library). Today, some 83% of Druze serve in Israel’s armed forces which enables them to enjoy economic and status benefits in combat positions and elite ranks as well as in the air force (Defense News). Druze simultaneously serve as connectors between Israeli and Arab speaking populations, one example being their vital role as translators in military courts.
Although progress has been gradual, discrimination persists, and tensions have risen, we can no longer afford to pin labels of oppressor, aggressor, and victim on either side. Neither side stands completely innocent; there are extremes on both ends of the spectrum who are anti-compromise, as demonstrated in the most recent flare-up. But there will always be. The way to address the issues at hand is to ensure that governments and radical groups understand the collective benefits of peaceful coexistence. How to achieve this? A first step is to remove the perception that Arab and Israeli people are perpetually pitted against each other and acknowledge the social, economic, and political harmonies that reside within many Arab-Israeli communities. These harmonies–stemming from common goals and interests–sing for progress over politics, purpose over pride, and peace over power.
My grandfather’s experience is a prime example of how Arabs and Israelis can bond and collaborate in a shared passion to save a human life. Examples like these are not often discussed, but stretch across communities in Israel, one being in Druze villages. This past week, an unexpected cast of actors united and unveiled a curtain of hope on the political stage that has, of course, been featured in the media. Imagine if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump came together and formed a partnership. In this case, Israeli-Arab Raam Party leader, Mansour Abbas, and Israeli ultra-right-wing politician, Naftali Bennet, formed the first-ever seen Arab party in the Israeli government. This national unity coalition, although fragile and unpredictable, symbolizes a flicker of light in a seemingly pitch black world.