Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Dir el Asad - The North, Tuesday December 19

"We're going to Moshav Shorashim to learn about Israeli Arabs."

That's all we were told. OK, fine, sounds interesting, Ran. Whatever. See, there's a lot I didn't know about Israel. Like, 20% of the population is made up of Arab citizens. Not Palestinians living in the territories. Arab citizens. 1 out of every 5 people in Israel is a Muslim or Christian Arab with full Israeli citizenship.

There's a lot I didn't know about Israel.

At Moshav Shorashim we met Marc Rosenstein. He had a time line on an easel that looked like some old 4th grade project that my dad would have made me redo. Bad visual aid aside, this guy knew his stuff. He had a complex understanding of the relationship between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

The oversimplified history goes something like this: At the time of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, Arabs living within the borders of the new state had a number of choices. One choice was to leave Israel for Lebanon or Syria or Egypt, etc. etc. And some did this. But others remained in Israel, where they were soon granted full citizenship and found they were allowed to practice their religion and live by their own religious laws while taking advantage of the superior education and public services offered by the new Israeli government. Ask an Israeli Arab today if he'd rather be living in Gaza, and most will say no.

Most will say no. But the truth is, there's no one solid position that the Israeli Arab community takes on anything. "The best way to get a feel for what it's like to be an Israeli Arab is to meet them and talk to them," Marc says. And that's exactly what we did.

SURPRISE! A 15 minute ride took us from Moshav Shorashim to the Arab Muslim village of Dir el Asad (Arabic for "Lion's Den") and to a school where a group of Arab Israeli teenage girls were waiting to meet a pack of American Jews.

We broke into small groups and were given a few guidelines for our conversations. "Try not to jump right into political stuff." was one suggestion. But, given limited time, it's hard not to ask the tougher political questions.

Still, with the first panel, my group kept it light. The language barrier was significant, but there was just enough Hebrew and English to go around. We talked about American movies, and asked simple questions like "where is your family from?" Mostly Syria. For us, mostly eastern Europe. "If you're Jewish," they asked, "why don't you live in Israel?" Nobody's ever asked me that before.

Then Jeff asked the girls "what are your dreams?" I think it's possible that nobody's ever asked them that before. Jeff clarified, "what do you want to do with your life?" One girl said, "to get married and have a family." Another wanted to study psychology before returning to her village to start a family. In America our dreams are much bigger, more daring.

When it came time for the second group to sit with us, we were more comfortable, and so were they. And this group had more English, so the conversation was easier. That is, until Marc walked in to check on our progress and asked "what about the war? Tell them about the war this past summer" and then walked away. So much for "try not to jump right into political stuff." I saw one of the girls squirm a little, then with some encouragement she said "my friend was killed by Ketyusha. Two of my friends."

Dead silence.

I mean, what do you say? We never heard this part of the story from (dare I say it) CNN, or anyone else over the summer. But Hezbollah was lobbing rockets over the Lebanese border into northern Israel and killing...Arabs! Arabs with family in Lebanon and Syria, who aren't required to fight in the Israeli army because it's wrong to force someone to shoot at their own relatives, are being blown up by rockets coming from Lebanon paid for by Syria.

The war over the summer was terrible for everyone involved, and sitting in that classroom in this Arab-Israeli village I could sense the frustration from a group of people that might have the most cause to be frustrated. Somehow, the stunned silence was the right reaction, and from that point on, no subject was off limits.

"Do you have family in Syria?" we asked.


"Do you ever get to see them?"

---"We can go to the border and shout to them, but we don't really do that."

"You can't go to Syria?"

---"No." (Imagine you have family in Ontario, and the only way you can ever see them again is if you stand on opposite ends of Niagara Falls...)

These girls feel caught in the middle. In Israel, they have better educational opportunities than they would have in any Arab country, and they have the right to vote, drive, work, etc as full citizens. But Israeli Jews are naturally skeptical of their presence in Israel (the same way Americans felt about Japanese Americans during World War II, with one important difference - no internment). And Arabs in other countries are, at best, jealous of them, and at worst think they are traitors for living among and supporting the enemy. So, are they proud to be Israeli? some of them are. Some of them aren't sure. The questions continued.

"Do you want the Palestinians to have their own country?"

One girl says yes. The others don't know.

"Would you live in Palestine?"


"What do you think of America?"

---"We Love America."

That answer made me wonder what kind of answers we would get from Arab boys of the same age. The role of women in the Arab world is a controversial and well-documented subject in the west. But Arab Israeli girls are different. These girls, are not only allowed to go to University, they're encouraged to go. They still seem to stick to tradition by marrying early and having large families, but before that they can experience living and working and learning in cities like Haifa or Tel Aviv, while the men enter the construction trades or other industries, like their fathers before them.

Later, when we returned to Moshav Shorashim to debrief with Marc, one of us opined that the entire program was a waste of time since we didn't talk to the boys. "If you want to invoke change," he said, "you have to involve the men, because they're the decision makers in Arab culture." There was loud disagreement. Marc rebutted, "If more women were involved in decision making in the Arab world, we might not have as many problems. I'm all for empowering the women." Absolutely.

We had one more question. "Do you think there can be peace between Israel and Syria? with Lebanon? The Palestinians?"

---"I think there's a 20% chance."

Then all three together

---"We hope."

There's a lot I didn't know about Israel.

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