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A response to an article by Maram Masarwi in Ha’Aretz

NSWAS resident Maram Masarwi wrote an op-ed for Haaretz, Needed: An Arab Martin Luther King, Jr., in which she speaks of the influence of the Hamas takeover in Gaza upon Arab society in Israel. She says that this brings into focus the ambivalence Arab citizens feel towards Israel, and describes the continuing painful process of self-definition that has been forced on Arab citizens as they search for a cohesive group identity. The failure of this process, as described by Maram, would be the twin processes of a privatized identity and development of clanish and religious identities.

We can trust Maram to be in touch with the reality of Palestinian Arab society in Israel, and be sure that the processes she is describing are real. As someone who does not belong to her national group, what struck me was the loneliness of this reality. Even the Palestinian - Israeli conflict looks like a simple thing when compared with the kind of double-existence faced everyday by "Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel". Due to our conditioning, the name itself seems to stick in the throat. But the truth is, no one, from the State of Israel, to the Arab states or the Palestinians under occupation and in diaspora, is making it any easier for them to come to terms with their identity. Even the option of a "privatized identity" does not truly resolve the identity issues that a Palestinian Arab citizen has to face on a day to day basis in Israel.

Maram is writing as if to other Palestinians, but by placing the article in Haaretz she is addressing a Jewish public. This is curious since she is making no demands or appeals upon them. A Jewish reader might say, "well I am very sorry to hear that the Arabs feel so bad, but that has nothing to do with me." However, as she hints in the article, the solutions to which Arab citizens are likely to resort in order to resolve their dilemma are dangerous for Jewish Israeli society too. If Maram ends her article with the longing for a kind of Arab Martin Luther King to arise, who will unify Arab citizens while not alienating them from Israeli society, Jewish Israeli society should be working to integrate its Arab citizens {now}. This necessitates a broadening of the concept of what it means to be an Israeli, so that it can properly include citizens who are not Jewish. Especially, it means to include the almost 20% of the population who are Arabs. If a person like Maram, who has in so many ways manifested in her life a peaceful and conciliatory approach to her Jewish neighbours, still cannot feel at home in this country, then there is something that needs to be fixed.

Israel could go a long way towards creating the conditions for a more peaceful Middle East by showing that it is able to properly integrate its Palestinian population. This will involve work on many levels, from allocation of state funding to educational reform. But perhaps before any of this is likely to happen, there has to be a more fundamental change, in the hearts and souls of both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis.

The change that needs to come is really very simple: they need to embrace the reality that they are joint partners in a modern nation state, which like most others in the 21st century, has a heterogeneous population. Almost every modern state is making a painful transition from a confining self-definition to one that is more broad, and must face complex problems in this regard. Recently it was reported that Tony Blair may have been putting off an intended conversion to catholicism due to his state responsibilities in the appointment of officials in the Anglican church. Britain has never once had a Catholic prime minister, not to speak of a non-Christian one.

An even greater challenge with which every modern state must deal is the fact that some of its citizens share identities or affiliations with countries or groups with which the state is currently in conflict. In the 21st century, it is no longer practical to round up all citizens suspected of split loyalties and place them in internment camps, as did the US to Japanese Americans in the second world war.

If Palestinians, as an indigenous minority in a nation that is engaged in a struggle against their own people, need to maintain their group identity against all odds, Israel needs to demonstrate that it is able to fully embrace its Palestinian population as equal citizens, rather than to regard them as "the enemy". It needs to sustain and afford protection to these citizens in the same way as to Jews, and to broaden its self-definition to reflect the actual diversity of its population. Israel will not cease to be a "Jewish state" any more than France will cease to be a Catholic state. It will be a Jewish state simply because it is a land of Jews. But as a nation, it has the responsibility to expand its self-definition if it does not wish to irrevocably alienate a very large section of its population and eventually precipitate an extension of the external conflict to within its own borders.