Building Palestinian Civil Society within Challenging Realities with Mossawa
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Edited Transcript of Remarks by Dr. Mary Totry and Dr. Khaled Furani from Mossawa
Transcript No. 313 (12 May 2009)
Today, there are 1.4 million Palestinian citizens in Israel. However, since the establishment of the Jewish state 61 years ago, this minority continues to struggle for their civil rights and equal rights as citizens of the self-declared "only democracy in the Middle East." A delegation from The Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, explained the challenges and the triumphs of the Palestinian citizens in Israel.
To view the video of this briefing online go tohttp://www.thejerusalemfund.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/5676/pid/3584.
The Palestine Center
23 April 2009
Dr. Mary Totry:
Good afternoon to everyone. Yesterday, we were invited to a Jewish community center to give a talk. I was not aware that I used the word Arabs in Israel and my two colleagues used the word Palestinians in Israel. One of the audience members, one person asked me, “Why [do] you have a different terminology?” And then, I told her that I teach a course in Oranim College called, and I decided on the title, “The Palestinian Minority in Israel: A Challenge for Democracy.” And somehow in the computer it showed this as “The Arab Minority in Israel: A Challenge for Democracy.” It went on and forth until only once they accepted the title of “The Arab-Palestinian Minority in Israel: A Challenge for Democracy.” For me, it is much easier to say, when I teach the course, the Arabs in Israel in order for people to understand that we are talking about the Palestinians in Israel rather than the Palestinians.
I would like to talk about this issue of collective identity and just explain the different trends that have been taught over the years and the relationship between Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinian people in general and also with the State. And I would like to start with the first period. Up until 1968, no scholar in the Israeli academia took it really seriously to examine how Palestinians in Israel define themselves. Nobody thought that it was an important thing. Up until 1966, the Palestinian minority was under military administration, and up until 1967, we were separated from the outer world. We were disconnected from the Palestinian people and the Arab world. The result of the first research was that the vast majority of respondents defined themselves as Israeli Arabs. And one would say, “Israeli Arabs being under military administration--how come they define themselves so?” One reason I think [is] that when the researchers gave different categories, they did not put Palestinian identity as one of the categories.
My second explanation is that, at that time, pan-Arabism was very, very important; it was very, very strong. As such, most of the Palestinians did not define themselves as Palestinians, but they saw themselves as part of the Arab world. That’s why they defined themselves as Israeli Arabs. And also, because they’d been segregated from the other entire Arab world; so they were controlled by Israel. The funny thing is that even when they called or defined themselves as Israeli Arabs, the Palestinian and Arab world saw them as collaborators or being Judaized. For the State, the State looked at us as the fifth column. So, there is a saying in Arabic: La ma’ sitti bekhair wala ma’ cidi bekhair. Grandmother and grandfather do not see us in a good shape.
Most of the researchers say that the trend began after 1973--the October war and [late Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat’s visit to the United Nations that people started to see themselves as more Palestinian than Israeli Arabs. In the 80s, two-thirds of the people of the respondents defined themselves as Palestinians in Israel. But, I think that what happen in the 90s, during the Oslo process, this was a big clash in that sense that up until then the Israeli government, although it did not see us as full right citizens, they always told us that when the time comes you’re going to be the bridge with the Palestinian people and the bridge with the Arab world. And somehow, when the first accords were signed between the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and Israel, nobody thought about us. We were ignored totally. So during the Oslo period, the Palestinians felt that they were in double periphery. I mean, they are not Palestinians or Israelis. Now, you see that there is a category of people who define themselves in religious identity rather than national identity because it’s much easier to call yourself or to identify yourself as a Christian Arab or a Muslim Arab rather than in national terms. Nowadays, we really have a strong crisis of identity. Most of the people rather define themselves in religious components.
What I would like to say [is] today we are not even third rate citizens of Israel. Once they said that we are second rate citizens, but after the Ethiopian immigration came to Israel, we became third. Nowadays, with the new government, we wish to remain third rate citizens. Today, with the new government, we, the Arab minority or the Palestinian minority, is in danger of being transferred. We really face a threat of that. I’ll stop here, and if you have any questions, I’ll answer them. Thank you.
Dr. Khaled Furani:
I’m very pleased to be with you here this afternoon. I’m just recovering from a headache, and I’m trying to make sure you don’t regret coming to hear me. I was really debating what would be the best and most effective to talk to you about in this shift having spent the last four days talking to people on Capitol Hill. I thought of addressing two questions and giving you, let’s say slices of our daily life as a Palestinian minority in the Jewish state. And hopefully, this will raise some questions for you; make you think about certain questions. Then afterwards, I and my friends here will be happy to answer.
First, in the spirit of the title of this talk, the realities of civic work and NGO work within Israel and, specifically, I’ll address my comments to working as a Palestinian NGO. There seems to me a double edged sword in being a Palestinian NGO. Again, it’s a very long and complicated history that I can’t really begin to explain here. One, because I don’t fully understand it, but it struck me, having returned from the United States in 2005, how many Palestinian NGOs there are in Palestine. Jafar really has all the numbers and the statistics; I don’t. I simply joined Mossawa in 2000 because I share with Jafar a premium on equality and civil rights. But I ask myself why is it that Palestine or the Palestinian society that I left inside Israel when I left Israel in 1994 has changed dramatically?
We had in the 90s so many NGOs about so many subjects. Some of the answers that I come up with sometimes have signs of encouragement; sometimes not. It’s an ongoing debate. I try to bring it to discussions with board members so we could develop a more critical look at who we are and what we do in the framework of NGOs. It strikes me that it comes after a grassroots politics. It strikes me as something that comes after party politics. It signals viscerally, really for me, as though something has been broken; something that changed fundamentally that leads us to working in professional ways on causes of our daily lives. Again, I’m not an expert or scholar on NGOs, but that’s the sense I get. Whatever we face in our villages and our towns and cities, we are more prone these days to establish an NGO to deal with it. Why is that so? Again, I don’t fully understand. But I don’t think the reasons are always occasions to be encouraged by.
However, on the other hand, I am encouraged in the sense that it gives us a way to reach out to the world. Please bear in mind that for 18 years, since 1948 until 1966 as Mary has pointed out, we lived under military rule. I don’t think it’s lost on anyone. I doubt that it’s lost on anyone in this hall that for people outside Israel, certainly in the United States, some people find novelty to think of Palestinians inside Israel. Because not here, but certainly in the wider American consciousness, the sense is that Israel is the Jewish state, not only the consciousness but also the legal structure of the state. So, we come as sort of a shock almost to some people. What? The Palestinians also exist inside Israel? Isn’t there enough also in the West Bank and Gaza and the diaspora? So, NGOs what they do, because they work a lot with foundations and institutions outside the country, they’ve allowed us certain visibility. They’ve allowed us certain means of contacting and reaching out to bodies outside the State. And that I find encouraging. This is why we are here on this tour--to let the people of the United States know that we do exist and we face severe civil rights violations. We’re very encouraged, as you can imagine, by what just happened in the United States. But also, we are deeply disturbed by the change of events in Israel itself. And I’m specifically thinking of the way in which incitement, hate, racial bigotry has been sanctioned and become accepted and normalized. Again, I don’t want to impress upon you that it’s new, but it’s coming closer and closer to the center of language.
Where do I face that in my daily life? First, in the language, in our daily lives as Palestinian citizens of Israel. It’s very hard for the State itself, for the Jewish majority, for the rest of the world to see us as Palestinians. You see, there’s something threatening and unsettling to admit our “Palestinianism,” so to speak, because it’s much easier to call us Arabs. Once you admit that we’re Arabs, as far as the majority is concerned, then we could be from anywhere. The word Palestinian implies a certain non-rootedness that doesn’t sit well with the Zionist ideology. I think this is one source to understand the difficulty.
Another way is the space, not just language. In Haifa itself, a lot had to be obliterated for there to be a Jewish Haifa; I mean homes, streets and public buildings. Wadi El-Saleeb is only one example of such an act of architectural, spatial obliteration, which makes it for the younger generation of Israelis easier to think, to imagine that this country was inhabited only a few decades ago. It’s very shocking for my Jewish residents in the city sometimes to know that there was a society here before 1948. It had its own institutions, its own buildings and so forth.
Education--as a father of three kids, two of them going to school now, to elementary school--is yet another challenge. My two daughters, age ten and seven, Maysoun and Soukaina, go to a school called Hewar. Hewar in Arabic means dialogue. This school remains now maybe five years later unrecognized by the ministry of education in the only democracy in the Middle East. And this, I must emphasize, is a school that calls itself the school for alternative Arab democratic education. It’s not right to think that a school promoting democracy in Israel should face such legal challenges. It remains unrecognized for all sorts of reasons, but one stands out. We would like the parents to have a say in that school. We would like the parents to be involved in the establishment of the curriculum. And when parents get involved--I’m talking [about] other parents who are also highly educated and so forth--they want their children to know where they come from, the villages and towns that their grandparents used to live in. They want them to know that they, as a people, went through a tragedy. Yes, we do learn in public schools about the Jewish tragedy, the Nazi genocide. But we do not learn, as Palestinians, about whom we were, who we are. Actually, we don’t learn how to call ourselves Palestinians. We go, for instance, at Hewar to unrecognized villages as a way of commemorating the Nakba. This is the democracy that we’re trying to pursue there--that we, as parents, have a say in what our children learn. We would like to be part of choosing the textbooks as well. We would like there to be a dialogue between teachers and parents; and teachers and students; and teachers and the government. We would like to have a say, an agency in our children’s education the way here--there is a board of education, which is an elected body. There, it’s not an elected body. It’s a body that is alas, quite unfortunately in a democracy, mostly managed by the security services.
Finally, the last aspect I’d like to discuss and maybe still most acutely felt is, of course, what just happened in Gaza--the trauma, the shock, the horror that Gaza presented to me and undoubtedly many, many, many others. You know, I teach at Tel Aviv University. I’m a junior faculty there, and in this way, I happened to belong to 1.6 or 2 percent, whatever it is, of Palestinian faculty in Israeli universities. I had Jewish students in my class plead with me that they want to run away from their country; they are about to lose their sanity given the normalization of killing in that society. My one research assistant, for example, lost any practical contact with his parents because he could not condone, as they have done, the killing of children as they have done. And because of that, he’s facing serious financial struggles because he no longer gets their support. I guess what felt especially dark about the Gaza episode, of course, is that [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman made sure that we don’t forget the impunity with which the killing of Arab citizens or non-citizens can occur and the inequality of human life. Our purpose really in Mossawa in many ways is basically to ensure that we all have equal rights to live. And when we live, we live it equally well. Clean water to all. Clean land to all. Simply, equal access to land and to clean air.
I’d like to stop here. I think I’ve given you many, many signs of where we stand, but we’d be happy to address more specific questions and to elaborate further. Thank you very much.
Dr. Mary Totry is chair of the Civic Studies Department at Oranim College, Northern Israel.
Dr. Khaled Furani is a professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University.
This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speakers' views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.