“Remember, Arabs make up a fifth of Israel’s citizens,” the moderator of the discussion kept repeating. She wasn’t wrong of course, but I found it to be revealing that it had to keep being repeated. Everyone on the call was a Jewish American whose job included, at least in part, working on Israel issues.
From this conversation and many others, one clear realization has been occurring to me again and again: Palestinian citizens of Israel disappear so well from the Jewish public consciousness.
Over the past year, I have been living in Haifa, Israel and working for a grassroots-based, Palestinian non-profit, Kayan—Feminist Organization, which mobilizes a network of over 150 Palestinian women and youth leaders to stand against the multiple forms of discrimination that they face both as part of the Palestinian minority in Israel and as women in a patriarchal society. Everyday, I am grateful to be surrounded by amazing activists who are working inside the Palestinian community in Israeli (i.e. within its 1948 borders) to create a brighter future. But when I step outside of the office and encounter a fellow Jewish person, I am amazed to see that my colleagues’ efforts, their history, and even their community’s existence seems to fall away completely from public awareness.
This realization is consistent with the blank stares I get when I explain to either Israeli or American Jews that I work for a Palestinian feminist organization in Israel. Yes, in Israel. Yes, as in, not in the West Bank. Yes, as in, working with Palestinians who have citizenship in Israel. It is consistent with the struggle of my job as a fundraiser for the organization where finding funding for an organization “just” serving Palestinians. It is consistent with when I see people trying to prove the lack of Palestinian existence on Facebook, quoting, for example, some subset of Golda Meir’s famous words of erasure, “There were no such things as Palestinians…It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” Her words completely mischaracterize the historical colonial context where local identity (i.e. with one’s home village) was extremely important and use that lack of national identification to claim that the existence of Palestinians did not mattered.
When I’ve lived in the U.S. and the UK, minorities haven’t “disappeared” from public consciousness like I’ve seen here. Even though African Americans make up 12.3% percept of the U.S. population, a small percentage in comparison to the Arab citizen population in Israel, no one dismisses their presence and forgets their importance. No one in the UK forgets the South Asian community, which makes up just 4.9% of the total population.
Palestinians “disappear” from Jewish consciousness in part because their presence contradicts the dominant Israeli narrative of the Jewish state which has also been exported to the U.S. In my American Jewish community, I grew up hearing that Israel was Jewish and democratic. That made sense to me until I started to study government and started to be taught about how democracy and equality are deeply intertwined. If the core of democracy is equal citizenship, I started to ask myself, wouldn’t it be awfully inconvenient to have a class of citizens who are explicitly written out of the national narrative? Palestinians don’t fit into the “Jewish” state with its magen David (Jewish star) flag and menorah national symbol. They don’t fit in a state where non-profit organizations with the explicit goal of promoting Jewish identity, such as the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, are given so much state preference that they become semi-state agencies. The exclusion of Palestinians all was made all the more clearer when the Prime Minister said, Israel “is not a state of all its citizens” when talking about Arab citizens. What I have seen is, where democracy and Jewish identity come into conflict, the latter almost always wins.
This erasure is part of a contribution to Israel’s particular brand of racism and discrimination. Every day, I am disturbed by the results of this thinking. A few weeks ago, I was at an event where Kayan and another feminist organization were talking about what they do for Palestinian women citizens of Israel and other minorities. One woman raised her voice to shout out, “but what about our people?” The exclusion of Palestinians from being deserving recipients of basic human kindness and rights is broad and societal. In a survey of Jewish Israeli teenagers, nearly half said that Arab citizens of Israel should not have equal rights to those of Jewish citizens.
When Palestinian rights and narratives are excluded, people think that Palestinians don’t deserve services. This results in a situation where, for example, social services are often unavailable in Arabic, where hospitals are nearly twice as far from Arab localities as Jewish localities, and where government spends nearly six times as much on education per Jewish student than per Arab student.
As a left-wing, American Jew, raised on the Democratic party and stories of the American civil rights movement, I feel a responsibility to view Israel through a pro-democracy lens. When I look through that lens of equality and justice, all of a sudden, Arab citizens are no longer invisible in Israeli society or even peripheral to the question of Israel’s democratic claims. The status of Arab citizens becomes one of the central questions of having an equal state, a question which must be addressed.
If Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis stop forgetting and ignoring Palestinians’ experiences, the status quo will no longer be acceptable and transformative change could become possible.
Shayna Solomon currently lives in Haifa and is the Resource Development Coordinator at Kayan Feminist Organization. She is also a graduate of Dickinson College, Oxford University, and the Coro Fellowship program.