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What it means to be a Palestinian immersed in Israeli society

Towibah Mjdoob is researching how some Palestinians live within entirely Jewish surroundings, how the conflict between the two nations comes into play in their day-to-day lives. But very quickly, Mjdoob realizes that she has become the subject of her own research.

By Towibah Mjdoob

A Palestinian woman stands among right-wing Israeli protesters at Tel Aviv University. (Illustrative photo by: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

A nearby voice says to me: “Good morning Hagit.” I had just locked the door to my apartment and was heading out for a long day at the university. I turn around to see who, aside from myself, was in the garden. I didn’t see anybody. It was just me and the landlord’s mother standing there. She looks at me and repeats, “Hagit, do you want some Arabic coffee?”

I oblige and correct her, “my name is Towibah, not Hagit.” The landlord’s mother pours a cup of coffee into a special mug, hands it to me and ignores my name. “This mango tree, we should have trimmed it in the beginning of the spring. It needs a special spray. I need to ask one of the Arab gardeners who come to the neighbors and ask about that spray.” I am reminded of my father and his mango tree. The words “one of the Arabs” prevent me from giving advice regarding the landlord’s mother’s tree.

I lived 15 minutes away from Bar-Ilan University, but I was always the last to arrive in class. Something within me caused me to be late, and when I arrived, I would always sit at the end of the last row. My chronic tardiness and choice to sit on the side were not my regular behavioral patterns. But even in my favorite class, which dealt with stereotypes and prejudices, I would arrive late. This time, however, there was no room left on the side or in the last row, so I was forced to take one of the two empty seats in the middle of the class.

How are stereotypes formed? How can we get rid of them? How do we prevent ourselves from thinking in a stereotypical manner? The lecturer divided the board into columns: Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Druze, Russians, Arabs, Bedouin and a few others. Some of the columns were divided into subgroups: Yemenites, Iraqis, etc. The class was asked to list all the stereotypes of each group. I didn’t agree with the division between Druze, Arabs and Bedouin, but I decided not to bring it up during class.

The students, who were getting their master’s degree in social psychology, began listing all the stereotypes. Most of the ones they named weren’t negative, except when it came to Arabs. “Murderers,” “terrorists,” “sexually deviant,” “oppress women,” “they all wear veils,” “not intelligent.” At times you could even hear people laughing. No one even dared to think that a Palestinian student was sitting in the middle of the class. Only the lecturer knew. With every stereotype that was shouted out she looked at me apologetically, which didn’t make me feel any better. “We need to deal with the subject of Arab stereotypes in Israeli society, since it is related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said. I could not continue to take part in this lesson. I went outside. I was the only Palestinian in the entire department that year.

***

In the apartment, the landlord’s mother is sitting on the balcony, smoking a cigarette and listening to the music of Nazem El Ghazali, one of my and the landlord’s mother’s favorite Iraqi singers. During my three years of studies, I heard him, through her, in the morning and early evening hours. For three years, the landlord’s mother refused to believe that I was Arab, and chose to treat me as if I were a Jew named Hagit. “Hagit, you should join us for Passover… it’s too bad that you didn’t go back to your family for the holiday!” “Hagit, may you be written in the book of life!” (a common Jewish saying during the High Holidays), “happy Independence Day to you and the people of Israel!” “Hagit, where did you learn Arabic?”

“This is the hundredth time I’ve explained to her that I am not Hagit!” I tell her son. “She doesn’t know that I’m Palestinian? Why doesn’t she want to believe that I am an Arab?!” The son smiles. “I never actually told her. In my eyes, it doesn’t matter which group you belong to. The only thing that matters is that you are a human being. I wish all the Jews and Arabs could be like you!”

***

For my master’s thesis, I decided to research how Palestinians live within entirely Jewish surroundings. How do the cultural and national differences, as well as the conflict between the two nations come into play in these individuals’ day-to-day lives? What happens to their identity vis-a-vis the Jewish majority? How do they present themselves? Do they emphasize their Arabness or do they play it down? How do they identify? Which aspects of their identity do they choose to emphasize? How do they respond to discrimination? To stereotypes? Do they allow themselves to relate to our history as Palestinians in Israel, or do they ignore it completely in order to be part of Israeli society?

Most of these questions are taken for granted by the Arab minority while the Jewish majority is not even conscious of them. One interviewee, a 26-year-old who works for a Zionist research institute, told me: “I am totally unsure when it comes to definitions. The only thing I know for sure is that I am Arab and nothing more. I am not Jewish, not Israeli and not Palestinian.

“I am Israeli and there is no escaping it. But do I feel like I belong? Not at all!” said a Palestinian hi-tech worker. “Today, even the ability to hold onto this illusion no longer exists.”

I interviewed Palestinian professionals (men and women, Muslims and Christians, of different ages) who work in Jewish organizations and live in either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. I learned that the choice – if it is indeed a choice – to work for a Jewish organization comes at a price for the Arab professional. This is expressed by silence and silencing, a perpetual refrain from sharing political positions or open criticism, lack of legitimacy to express protest, self-censorship and experiencing frustration and hopelessness of lack of control and an ability to change the present situation.

The situations and responses varied: female Palestinian professionals tended to respond to racism, whether immediately or some time after a specific incident. They believed that with attention and a proper explanation, they could change their surroundings. The men, however, receded in the face of racism, either through denial or by ignoring the racism.

Furthermore, the women emphasized their Palestinian and gender identity. “First of all, I am a woman,” was a common response. Some of them were under pressure from family members to return from the Jewish city to their home in the periphery, where they grew up. These women’s struggle is two-fold: with the men in their families (fathers, brothers), and with the Jewish surroundings in which they work.

Each of the women I interviewed, without exception, has been told “wow, you don’t look like an Arab,” a phrase which carries with it a world of prejudice and stereotypes. “I don’t understand what they expect, that I come to work with a tent and a camel?” asked one of the interviewees, who is the sole Arab woman in a Jewish organization. Many interviewees either asked me to turn off the tape recorder or not include the specific racist incidents they experienced while working for the organizations.

Arab service workers, be they hospital nurses, speech therapists or lawyers, reported many cases in which those receiving their services cast doubt on the workers’ professionalism or refused to be served by them. The specific cases in which they were able to change the minds of Jews filled the workers with pride, although the recurring experience of rejection wore them out and even caused them to want to quit their jobs. “Sometimes, the university brings us donors from outside Israel and invites me to sit and speak with them about the situation of Arabs in Israel,” said one of the male interviewees who lectures at a large university. “I feel like I am the property of the university.”

Despite it all, many Arab professionals choose to work in Jewish organizations for economic reasons, and for lack of alternatives. Their professional lives are accompanied by a personal, continuous reflex. In conversations they have among themselves, they examine their identities and feelings: ambivalence, reduction of visibility, frustration and distancing themselves from other Palestinian colleagues. And here is an interesting finding: Palestinians working in NGOs for social change experienced more discrimination and growing frustration than those who worked in the private sector.

***

When I waited for my family to arrive from the North for my graduation ceremony, the interviewees that I had met suddenly became mixed up with my own three years at Bar-Ilan, leaving me to wonder how I survived. I spoke with one of the students that sat next to me – whose name happened to be Hagit – happy and excited to be finishing my studies. At the end of the ceremony, the national anthem was played. “A Jewish soul still yearns,” Hagit sang, while my brother and I remained silent, unable to sing words that weren’t written about us.

Towibah Mjdoob is a Community Organizer at Kayan, a feminist organization for the advancement of Palestinian Women in Israel. She has recently submitted her thesis at Bar-Ilan University.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. ayla

      this is beautiful. thank you.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      I see hope in it, not the common condemnation of stereotypes.

      That is in the question of what makes change in attitudes.

      Real life examples.

      If you become an example of those that hold contempt for Israelis, then you will fit their stereotype of one who is angry.

      If you are stronger and demonstrate your combination of dignity and unwillingness to judge another, that will be what your neighbors understand of what an Arab is like.

      We are the ones that change the world, our stand in it, kindness and courage at the same time.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Henry Weinstein

      I agree with Ayla and Richard, but I regret that the visual chosen by +972 is a stereotype.

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        It isn’t a stereotype. That’s the way it was for the respectful commemoration of Nakba Day at Tel Aviv University. Be pleased it’s a still rather than a clip and you’ve been spared hearing what’s shouted by those demonstrators.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron Gross

      I think a lot of this – not all – falls under plain Israeli rudeness more than ethnic prejudice (not denying that the latter exists, of course).

      “You don’t look ______” is a classic rude thing to say. I’ve heard it myself. It’s annoying to hear, and it would be nice if people didn’t say it. On the other hand, I keep it in perspective.

      Similarly with the friendly Jewish woman calling the author “Hagit” even after being corrected. Israelis are not very good at listening, no matter who’s talking to them.

      Of course Israelis are prejudiced and sometimes bigoted, no one could deny that. But they’re also very rude, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the two.

      By the way, my comment contains stereotypes about Israeli Jews, but those stereotypes happen to be true. Besides, no one has ever complained here when I’ve made unflattering generalizations about Israeli Jews.

      Reply to Comment
      • Oriol2

        The stereotype about the “rude Israelis” is so entrenched that in my fist stay in Israel I was actually surprised about how nice most of people were (actually much nicer than the average European).

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          You can be rude and nice at the same time. The woman who kept calling the author “Hagit” was being very kind. Actually, none of the Israeli behavior described here was unkind.

          Reply to Comment
      • If you are a Palestinian in Israel, very aware of the stereotypes that the author described from her sociology class, then ‘But you don’t look…’ doesn’t sound so innocuous any more. Towibah did put it into perspective; it’s just that this minority perspective may not always align with an Israeli Jewish one. There is a rather direct style of communication here that can feel like rudeness until you get used to it, but this is a completely different issue, unconnected to the stereotyping and pigeon-holing that she describes.

        And as for Israelis being bad listeners, I can’t say I’ve found them to be any worse than people elsewhere. When I read the article I assumed that the landlord’s mother was elderly and perhaps a little confused in her mind, but this doesn’t affect Towibah’s overall point.

        Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      This, like so many of the articles containing grievances of the Arab community in Israel is written within a vacuum. Of course, as Aaron wrote, many Israelis are rude, but attitudes towards the Arabs community are INEVITABLY going to be colored by history and by what is going on around us. The celebrations around the horrific suicide bombings plus the honoring of these terrorists by the official Palestinian Authority, the fratricidal slaughter seen in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Algeria and now starting in Egypt and incendiary, Judeophobic TV series like the one currently being shown for Ramadan “entertainment” about Khaybar (sp?) showing how perfidious Jews supposedly are, and the earlier series porporting to show that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are going to have a major effect on the Jewish population and their attitudes towards the Arab population. Until the Arab community starts recognizing the racism in their own community, it is difficult to relate to finger pointing coming from that direction.

      Reply to Comment
      • This Palestinian Israeli citizen is hardly responsible for what the PA does. She’s a citizen of your country; she’s one of you.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Do Israeli Arabs make it clear they oppose honoring suicide bombers? Do their official representatives in the Knesset, whom much of the Arab population votes for show any support for Israel? One of the contributors here mentioned that on “Nakba Day” there was a rally of Israeli Arabs and fights almost broke out between supports of Assad and supporters of his opponents in Syria. Thus, rank-and-file members of the Arab community, instead condemning the violence on both sides apparently support the violence one way or the other. Now, this is violence against fellow, brother Arabs and Muslims. So how am I supposed to think about they view Jews, with whom they have a problem?

          Reply to Comment
          • Once again, XYZ, THIS woman is an Israeli citizen. That she is Arab does not mean that your collective labels apply to her. She can think for herself. By labeling her as you do you silence what SHE has to say.

            And are your ready to have/make all Israeli Jews appologize or condemn those cases of violence or death caused by the IDF known not to be necessary in the Bank? Or have all Israeli Jews apologize for the blindfolding and cuffing of a father in front of his 5 year old without cause? Or for the property and physical violence which settlers in which settlers have indulged?

            What really disquiets here is individual commitment outside of group label. No telling where that could go….

            Reply to Comment
    6. Dissent is the Highest form of Patriotism

      This is a ridiculous article.

      Let’s actually review “Palestinian” policy for a moment, shall we?

      The “Palestinians” merged with the Nazis during the 1930s. Hajj Amin al-Husseini spent the war years in Berlin where he engineered the Holocaust. The “Palestinian” people and their allies are directly responsible for every Nazi crime. Has Towibah ever apologized to the victims of Nazism?

      The “Palestinians” merged with the Communists during the Cold War. Towibah’s pope, Yasir Arafat, spent most of the war in Moscow where he engineered the genocidally antisemitic policies of the politburo. The “Palestinian” people are directly responsible for every Communist crime. Has Towibah ever apologized to the victims of Communism?

      The “Palestinians” allied with Ba’athism. Towibah’s pope, Yasir Arafat, directly instigated the Ba’athist wars which have killed millions. The “Palestinian” people are directly responsible for every Ba’athist crime. Has Towibah ever apologized to the victims of Ba’athism?

      After 9/11, the “Palestinians” chose to side with the Jihad. The Quranic celebrations that we saw in “Palestine” on 9/11 is only matched in its cruelty and wickedness by the more than 20,000 Shari’ah-compliant pro-”Palestinian” Jihadi attacks since that fateful day. The “Palestinian” people are directly responsible for every Jihadi crime. Has Towibah ever apologized to the victims of Shari’ah?

      Rather than complain about her Jewish enemy, why doesn’t Towibah change the policies of the Ummah? Why doesn’t she apologize for the choices that “Palestine” made and the cruel behavior of its allies?

      Until Towibah works to change the cruelty and wickedness of “Palestinian” policy – which we see no evidence of in this article – she’s gotta expect dissent. And dissent from “Palestinian” policy is not racism.

      Reply to Comment
    7. That was a great read, thanks Towibah.
      Any chance we can read the conclusions of that thesis?

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mahmoud masri

      Thank u Twibahh for this good article which shows the daily life, dilemma, experiences and feelings of the Arab Palestinian how are live in Israel when they come in contact with the Jewish Israelis society.
      I think when we are able to listen, understand and contain the other side, especially in his daily life story and feelings without judging and comparing, at this level of awareness and compassion peace can reborn

      Reply to Comment
    9. Dear Towibah, Thank you for your very interesting and tragic article. I am embarrassed by the reality you describe as well by most of the above pathetic comments you’ve received, which only prove your point, of course. It is my hope that the EU sanctions will cause the Jewish people in Israel to WAKE UP. If they dont, only God/dess knows what will happen here….I refer you to my article in filmmaker magazine: http://filmmakermagazine.com/73891-love-thy-neighbor-as-thyself-not-powerful-new-work-at-the-jerusalem-international-film-festival/
      Thanks again, NM

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        I am awake and I find the entire idea of getting our moral instructions from Europe to be laughable. Sanctions or lectures from that corner of the world only remind me once again that the Europeans have throughout history expelled, massacred and sanctioned us and always with the justification that we just don’t believe the right things and as such it is our fault. Now they demand that in order to cooperate with them we must explicitly state that the Western Wall does not belong to us. Not terribly different from the past 2000 years during which they have been demanding that we forget Jerusalem.

        Reply to Comment
    10. rykart

      Helen Thomas was right.

      Naturally, Arabs would benefit from Israelis returning to Europe. But the greatest beneficiaries would be Jews.

      ALL of our culture, from the Yiddish theater to the music of Schoenberg, from the great poet Paul Celan to Einstein’s general relativity are part of a creative flowering with roots in Europe.

      Music, literature, philosophy, science, art—we RAN the show before moving to that brain-blackening desert hell hole to take up our new occupations as gangsters, con men, land thieves, brutes, organ-harvesting psychotics, rapists, necrophiliacs, ethnic cleansers, filth.

      Israel has nothing to do with us. Our presence there has caused terrible strife and harmed the image of Jews worldwide.

      It’s time for us to come home.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        We are home. Feel free to move back to Europe and speak Yiddish to your heart’s content. I’ll see you back here when they are done with you.. or not.

        Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      It makes no real sense for Israelis not to understand the feelings you describe, Towiba. Considering that most Jews who were not born in Israel came here from either Africa or Europe where they suffered comparable identity issues, the apparent lack of understanding for the quandaries you face always surprises me.

      Thanks very much for sharing your perspective here.

      Reply to Comment
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