I like the fact that Haifa’s population is so mixed. Arabs and Jews live relatively peacefully. However having spent most of my time in the West Bank, the concept of wealthy Arabs, living in Israel with little travel restrictions, was pretty foreign to me. While dining in Haifa I came in more and more contact with the upscale Arab world. I met a Catholic Arab from a very wealthy northern village who clearly othered Muslims living in the West Bank. In general when Arabs in Israel talk about those in the West Bank, except for those working in advocacy, they talk as if they are this far away people with very little relation to their own cause and struggles. Most Arabs I met in Haifa knew very little about the West Bank and didn’t seen themselves visiting anytime soon. The first thing they’d always ask me when I mentioned I had been, was “they’re really poor over there aren’t they?”
According to Khalil, a translator and former BBC produer that I worked with in Haifa, this is Israel’s biggest success: creating a social dynamic that divides the Arab population by developing an Arab elite and an internal concept of “other” amongst Arab groups. This prevents Arabs from the ability to unite as one Arab people against Israel. He says Israel does this by favoring and giving benefits to certain Arab populations over others. This allows for a natural division to arise organically.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning about Arab identity and culture while shooting this film. As much as many Arabs living in Israel seem to be disconnected from those in the occupied territories, they aren’t entirely separate. For example, after a suicide bombing, Jews stop shopping in Arab towns until things settle back down. This reaps financial hardships on those have absolutely no relation to the terrorism that often occurred on the other side of the country.
Reem, a woman I worked with on the film, began to explain the relationship between Israel and its Arab populations. We discussed the involvement of Arab soldiers in the Israeli army. Palestinian Arabs are not required to go to the army because of a conflict of interest. Although it is illegal to deny someone a job because he is Arab, most employers circumvent this law by requiring military service before hire. However, Druze and many Bedouins have remained loyal to Israel and serve in the army because of an agreement made by their ancestors. The Bedouins’ inherent nomadic sense is highly utilized by the Israeli military. Yet according to Reem, if all hell breaks loose, there will still be a division under the surface. Israel will still see Arabs as Arabs despite their allegiance to the Israeli nation.
Furthermore, Israel continues to strangle Bedouin and Druze villages by purposely building communities that surround the Arab villages limiting their expansion as populations continue to grow. Even in northern Israel, Arab’s feel that any or all of their land could be taken away at any time. Though they legally own it, somehow they have no rights to keep hold of it. This creates a lingering feeling of impermance, fear and discomfort in ones own home.
I met two Arab guys from the Golan who began to explain their own identity confusion. As Syrians living in Israel, they are banned from returning to Syria, though are denied citizenship by Israel. They have no passports, no citizenship, and therefore are not recognized internationally. They don’t necessarily identify with Palestinians, and though they speak Hebrew and grew up in its northern tip, as minorities, they also don’t identify as Israelis. Their parents fought hard to prevent them from mandatory military service and though live amongst land mines and dangerous reminants of war that the Israeli government takes little responsibility for when problems arise.
As one comes to realize, especially in the north, the division between Arab and Jew is oversimplified. There are different groups of Arabs with varying viewpoints and experiences toward the Israeli state. In fact, the same goes for Jews. Jews of Arab decsent, despite the beliefs of many Ashkenazi’s, are often treated somewhat lower on the totem pole. This was confirmed by the Syrian on the plane and by my 21 year-old Yemen Jewish Couchsurfer during my first 2011 trip to Israel. Many non-Sephardic Jews don’t ackowledge the discrimination, possibly because they don’t experience it firsthand.