The Arab citizens of Israel constitute twenty percent of Israeli society – a population that has equal rights, but does not share the Zionist dream. But just as there are differences of opinion among Jewish Israelis, Arab-Israeli attitudes towards the Jewish sector, the state of Israel and its institutions not only differ, but often are even polar opposites.
And just there is no cohesive “Jewish sector,” there is also no such thing in Israel as one cohesive “Arab sector” (though I will use the terms for sake of simplicity). Instead, there are several Middle Eastern populations, some of which are not Arab, and they differ from each other in religion, culture, ethnic origin and historical background.
Within the Arab sector of Israel there are a number of ethnic groups who differ from each other in language, history and culture: Arabs, Africans, Armenians, Circassians and Bosnians. These groups usually do not mingle with each other, and live in separate villages or in separate neighborhoods where a particular family predominates. For example, the Circassians in Israel are the descendants of people who came from the Caucasus to serve as officers in the Ottoman army. They live in two villages in the Galilee, Kfar Kama and Reyhaniya, and despite their being Muslim, the young people do not usually marry Arabs.
The Africans are mainly from Sudan. Some of them live as a large group in Jisr al-Zarqa and some live in family groups within Bedouin settlements in the south. They are called “Abid” from the Arabic word for “slaves.” The Bosnians live in family groups in Arab villages, for example, the Bushnak family in Kfar Manda.
The Armenians came mainly to escape the persecution that they suffered in Turkey in the days of the First World War, which culminated in the Armenian genocide of 1915.
The Arab sector can generally be divided into three main cultural groups: urban, rural and Bedouin. Each one has its own cultural characteristics: lifestyle, status of a given clan, education, occupation, level of income, number of children and matters connected to women, for example polygamy (multiple wives), age of marriage, matchmaking or dating customs and dress. The residents of cities – and to a great extent the villagers – see the Bedouins as primitive, while the Bedouins see themselves as the only genuine Arabs, and in their opinion, the villagers and city folk are phony Arabs, who have lost their Arab character.
The Arabic language expresses this matter well: the meaning of the word “Arabi” is “Bedouin,” and some of the Bedouin tribes are called “Arab,” for example “Arab al-Heib” and “Arab al-Shibli” in the North.
The Bedouins of the Negev classify themselves according to the color of their skin into “hamar” (red) and “sud” (black), and Bedouins would never marry their daughters to a man who is darker than she is, because he does not want his grandchildren to be dark-skinned. Racist? Perhaps. Another division that exists in the Negev is between tribes that have a Bedouin origin, and tribes whose livelihood is agriculture (Fellahin), who have low status. A large tribe has a higher standing than a small tribe.
Religions and Sects
The Arab sector in Israel also breaks down by religion, into Muslims, Christians, Druze and ‘Alawites. The Christians are subdivided into several Sects: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, and among the Muslims, there is a distinct sect of Sufis, which has a significant presence in Baqa al-Gharbiya. There is also an interesting Salafi movement in Israel, which we will relate to later. The Islamist movement is organized along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The religion of the Druze is different from Islam, and Muslims consider the Druze to be heretics. Because of this, the Druze keep their religion secret, even from each other and therefore most are “juhal” (ignorant – of religious matters) and only a small number of the elder men are “aukal” (knowledgeable in matters of religion). In the modern age, however, there have been a number of books published about the Druze religion.
The Alawites in Israel live in Kfar Ghajar, in the foothills of the Hermon and some live over the border in Lebanon. They are also considered heretics in Islam, and their religion is a blend of Shi’ite Islam, Eastern Christianity and ancient religions that existed in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Their principle concentration is in the mountains of al-Ansariya in northwest Syria, although some are in Lebanon and some migrated southward and settled in Ghajar. The meaning of the word Ghajar in Arabic is “Gypsy”, meaning foreign nomads with a different religion. In Syria the Alawites – led by the Assad family – have ruled since 1966. That Alawites are considered heretics is the reason for the Muslim objection to Alawite rule in Syria since according to Islam, not only do they not have the right to rule, being a minority, but there is significant doubt as to whether they even have the right to live, being idol worshipers.
Migration to Israel
Some parts of the Arab sector are communities that have lived in the land now called the State of Israel for hundreds of years, but a significant part is the offspring of immigrants who migrated to the country mainly in the first half of the twentieth century, especially after 1882, when Petach Tikva was established. Many people from neighboring lands migrated to the country at that time in order to work in the Jewish farming communities. Many migrated from Egypt even before that, in order to escape forced labor as the Suez canal was being dug. This is how the al-Masri, Masarwa and Fiumi families as well as many others came to the country, with names that testify to their Egyptian source. Other families have Jordanian names (Zarkawi and Karaki, for example), from Syria (al-Hourani, Halabi) from Lebanon (Surani, Sidawi, Trabulsi) and from Iraq (al-Iraqi).
The Arabic dialect spoken by most of the Bedouins in the Negev is a Saudi-Jordanian dialect, and because of their familial ties to tribes living in Jordan, when the Bedouins become involved in matters of blood-vengeance, they escape to family members who live in Jordan. The connection between Arab families in Israel with groups in neighboring countries should not be surprising, because until 1948 the borders of Israel were not hermetically sealed, and many Arabs of “Sham” (Greater Syria) wandered into the country almost totally unimpeded, following their flocks and the expanding employment opportunities .
Traditional v. Modern
The division between traditional and modern outlooks exists in each of the other groups, meaning that in each group indicated above there is a subdivision: those who are more connected to the tradition of the group and those who are less connected. Among the young, one sees more openness and less adherence to tradition and it can be assumed that the young of the next generation will adhere even less to traditions. This is obvious among the Bedouin groups, because among the young there are more than a few who challenge the socially accepted ways of the Bedouin.
Education also plays an important role in the changing attitude toward tradition, because Arab academics are usually less linked to social tradition and the framework of the clan and live more within the framework of nuclear families (father, mother and children). They also tend to move to more open areas such as mixed cities (Acre, Ramla and Lod) and even to Jewish cities, such as Be’er Sheva, Karmiel, and Upper Nazareth) and adopt a modern life-style.
The shift to the city is also connected to a change in the source of livelihood – there are more in the independent professions and less in agriculture – a change that was due partly to the confiscation of absentee property after the War of Independence.
As in every other society in the world, there is tension between men and women among the various Arab Israeli groups, regarding issues such as the rights of women to learn, to work, to choose a mate, their freedom of behavior, marital age and expected number of children. The Bedouins and the Arabs in the villages and cities relate differently to these issues due to the different levels of exposure to the Jewish sector and due to differences in education and methods of earning a livelihood that exist between the various segments of the Arab sector.
Attitude Towards the State
A primary difference between the Israel’s Jewish and Arab sectors is in their general approach to the state. For most Jews, the State of Israel fulfills two roles: one is the political and governmental embodiment of the aspirations of the Jews to return to themselves and regain the independence and sovereignty over the Land of their fathers that was stolen from them after the destruction of the Second Temple. This is exemplified by the fact that the symbols of the state are Jewish, the national anthem includes the words “the Jewish soul yearns,” the flag represents the Jewish prayer shawl and includes the Shield of David, there is the seven-branched menorah, the Hebrew language is the official language of the state, the governmental institutions are closed on the Jewish holidays. The state has Jewish genes.
The second role of the state is functional: to provide its citizens with security, employment, livelihood, health, education, roads, bridges and social services.
For the Arab sector, the first role does not exist; the State of Israel is not the embodiment of their diplomatic and political dreams. The national anthem is not their hymn, the symbols of the state are not their symbols, and our Independence Day is their “Nakba” (disaster). The second role as well, the functional, is only partially fulfilled by the state in matters of education, planning, roads and infrastructure. One may argue about the causes and reasons, but the facts are clear: How many Arab Members of the boards of directors of government companies are there? How may Arab judges are there in the High Court? What is the proportion of Arabs in the academic staff of universities?
But on the other hand, there is also the phenomenon of “reverse discrimination” either: laws of planning and building, that are observed almost fully within the Jewish sector, are very loosely observed within the Arab sector, especially in the Bedouin sector in the Negev. How many thousands of buildings have been built in the Negev without building permits on land that does not belong to Bedouins? How is it that there are no sidewalks in Um al-Fahm and the distance between the buildings is about the width of the cars?
Another example of reverse discrimination exists in the area of marriage: if a Jew marries a woman before he has completed the process of divorce from his present wife he will find himself behind bars, like the singer Mati Kaspi. But if an Arab marries a second, third or fourth wife, the state pays a monthly children’s allowance for each wife separately and without asking many questions.
In housing, 90 percent of Jews reside in apartments and about 10 percent live in private houses; in the Arab sector it is the opposite: more than 90 percent live in private homes, and less than a tenth live in apartments.
Whipped Cream Arabs
Yet with all of these problems, the fact that these Arabs live in Israel is not only what unites the Arab sector, but is also what makes them unique in the Arab world. There is almost no Arab community in the world that lives in its homeland for decades in a truly democratic state. They mostly live in one of two situations: in dictatorships in their homeland or in dictatorships in the diaspora.
The Arab citizens of Israel are the only Arab group that lives in its own country (setting aside the fact that many originated from elsewhere) in a democratic regime that honors human rights and political freedoms. This is the reason that Arabs outside of Israel envy Arab citizens of Israel, labeling them “Arab al-Zibda,” or “whipped cream Arabs.”
Originally published at Middle East and Terrorism, under the title “The Arabs of Israel – Part I.” Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav.
About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.
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