Here in America, it is often hard for us to understand the diversity that pervades the Middle East: The beliefs that all Arabs are Muslim and all Israelis are Jews unfortunately rest comfortably in the mind of the average American. The Arabic House tutor, Raneen Abou Khadra, is here to first and foremost clarify that the aforementioned statements are untrue, and secondly, to provide us with insight on what it is like to be an Arab in Israel.
Humzah: First, I would like to obtain some background on you. Where were you born?
Describe the nationalistic feelings you possess for Israel, or lack thereof.
Raneen: Well, I was born in Haifa, Israel. I don’t really have a sense of patriotism towards Israel as I am not represented by the flag or the anthem. The laws of the country go against the interests of my people. My family has been in the area since before Israel was even declared as a country. I cannot even consider myself Israeli as under our nationality on our identification cards we have stars: we’re not Israelis, not Palestinians, not Christians, not Muslims.
Humzah: As I mentioned before, not many people realize that there are quite a lot of Arabs in Israel. Would you like to discuss how this is truly the case and discuss the prevalence of Arabs in the country of Israel? What about Palestinians in particular?
Raneen: Palestinians actually constitute 20% of the Israeli population. Some claim there is such thing as Palestinian because Palestine never actually existed, but obviously there was and still is a Palestine. We have other Arabs that come to work but they are not permanent residents. A lot of Arabs in Israel have relatives in the neighboring countries and sometimes they can’t visit or contact them in any way. It is interesting that us Arabs cannot visit other Arab countries simply because we were born in Israel. Now that there is a Palestinian state, I wonder if we will have privileges there and if we can get a Palestinian passport… however I wonder if we do get one, whether or not that would force us to forgo our Israeli identity which would complicate our passages to Europe and America.
Humzah: How do you and other Arabs feel about the Israeli governments policies?
Raneen: The political system claims that it is a country of the Jews, which automatically dismisses me and other Israeli Arabs. I don’t believe Israel qualifies as a true democracy. Arabs who don’t serve in the Israeli army are restricted from a lot of the benefits of the country come from serving in the military. Discounts, scholarships, funding for housing and projects etc… come from having a military history. Arabs are required to serve, but they refuse because the Israeli army’s ambitions in Palestine go against what we feel and believe; as such are denied certain benefits.
Humzah: Israeli Arabs understandably abhor Israeli policies but it is hard to forget the fact that America constantly and fervently supports Israel. Therefore, I must ask, how do Israeli Arabs view America and its policies?
Raneen: Jewish Israelis, of course, love America. The US in general is very supportive of the Jews. Arabs hate America because it is so supportive of Israel. Anti-American sentiments are usually high during wars when Israel bombs Gaza or neighboring countries. We are put in a very awkward situation and we look up to America to bring justice, but most of the time we don’t receive it. It is as if Israel is perfect and makes no mistakes. We also know America provides a lot of weapons to Israel. Approximately 80% of Israeli taxes go to the Army, even if you’re an Arab. We do our duties like the Jews, we pay taxes and we are part of the economy yet we are still denied certain privileges because we don’t serve an army that attacks our own people. We take part in all this otherwise against our will because we have to. The Israeli government was forced upon us, its not something we chose. We vote and try to play our part but in the end we hardly ever attain what we want. Out of 120 members of our congress, only 9 Arabs partake in representing 20% of the nation. For example, there is a large part of the congress that openly and freely states that they would like to deport all the Arabs and they can gather a funding for this.
Humzah: Besides in politics, do Arab Israelis receive equal opportunities in other fields or do the unfair discrepancies demonstrate themselves in an omnipresent manner? Are the discriminatory tendencies in Israel conspicuous or under the table?
Raneen: Education is an area where you can see how unfair the system is towards Arabs. There is a test we take before applying to universities, called a psychometric exam, which is written in both Arabic and Hebrew. However, the Arabic is translated directly from the Hebrew so it is a little difficult for us to understand. Jews also receive 200 points automatically. Our schools don’t prepare us for this. There are many sophisticated programs, such as electronics and robotics that Arab schools don’t have. Even if an Arab attends a Jewish school, he or she will face a lot of discrimination. At airports the discrimination is heavily present: Arabs have diff color identifiers and they are usually randomly searched.
Humzah: What is the general Israeli attitude towards Arabs and Palestinians in particular? Do you find yourself facing quotidian discrimination or is it a rare setback you only deal with occasionally?
Raneen: I’ve been to many groups where Jews and Arabs discuss this. The Jews say they are treating Arabs perfectly fine. They say we don’t get the same benefits simply because we don’t serve in the army. They say if we lived in a Muslim-majority country, we wouldn’t enjoy the same freedom as we do in Israel. For example, they cite the fact that we’d have to wear hijabs so they’re actually doing us a favor by just letting us live in Israel. When people find out I’m Arab and educated, they’re often surprised that I’m allowed to be. It is disheartening that they have such a skewed view of Arabs even though we make up 20% of their country. When people get complaints from Jews, they take them seriously and try to appeal to the Jewish market of the country, but they don’t care about Arabs. Those with hijab suffer the most because they allegedly represent everything that they fear. “Christians are the good Arabs, Muslims are not” is the saying there. When they find out I’m from a Christian family they consider me a “good one”. We live and breath racism all day every day. When I came here, I had forgotten about it all but this interview has reminded me about all of it. It’s so common that we don’t even fight back anymore.
Humzah: I see that racism is a daily occurrence. How do Arab-Israelis feel after skirmishes erupt between Palestine and Israel? I assume the maltreatment must escalate in some manner?
Raneen: In universities during the war with Gaza, students were kicked out of classes for stating things against Israeli actions. If we miss class because we weren’t feeling well because this stuff traumatizes us and affects us, we’re not excused. In the colleges, we’re not allowed to take time off our holidays: Christmas Eve, Eid, Ramadan etc not even from work. For Jewish holidays, Jews get paid for being home, but for us we lose some of our salary to take the day off. Also, if you serve in the military, you get tax discounts; Arabs don’t because they don’t serve always putting Arabs at a disadvantage.
Humzah: Seeing as how Arab Israelis are put in a cyclic, perpetual disadvantage, what role are they able to play in the peace process, if any?
Raneen: We protest and we vote. However, protesters are dealt with in the following manner: they are interrupted with “mistaarib” which is someone pretending to be Arab and he will cause a scene which will then justify police action and arrests. Many of my friends were locked up; they were questioned randomly before exams in the middle of the night. As for voting, during the last election that just happened, the debate among Arabs was to decide whether or not to encourage the system by voting or not. I say we should vote even if it’s against us to make the statement that we are still here. It’s not going to change things a lot, we consider ourselves a “thorn in their throat” that we’re going to fight the system as much as we can.
Humzah: What is your opinion on the UN vote to give Palestine non-state membership? Do you feel as though this is a landmark decision that should have been done a while ago or do you personally feel more optimistic about the situation?
Raneen: In my opinion, it is something that should’ve been done ages ago and its recentness is saddening. Palestinians deserve worldwide recognition. It’s sad that Palestine suffered all that it has to get this. I can’t decide if it gives me hope or if it baffles me. Israel might declare that since Palestine now exists, we might all be forced to move to it meaning we’d have to give up our homes, our pasts and our lives. But for the Palestinians themselves I’m happy for them, this is a big change.
Humzah: Please tell me anything else you would like our readers to know about what it’s like to be an Arab, and specifically a Palestinian, living in Israel. Treat this as an open platform.
Raneen: I want say that despite all of our hardship and hard times, we are privileged and lead better lives than those that are in physically in Palestine. Our lives are less violent and less strict. Sometimes I feel bad complaining about our situation in Israel when we’re not denied simple needs such as food, water or medicine.
This does not mean we do not face daily injustice. For certain jobs, there is a new law that requires that 10% of each workplace needs to be diverse meaning they should have Arabs. Yet the requirement for such jobs, even if it’s a secretary job, is a Master’s degree and 5 years experience. This is to show the world that they are in fact all nice and giddy when they’re not. They’ll say “no one applied!” but the reality is no one applied because the qualifications are borderline ridiculous. Some Jews without entering college will have a job that an Arab now needs a Master’s degree for.