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Are Israelis Middle Eastern?

How foreign to the Martian soil is the NASA vessel that just landed there? About as foreign as Israel considers itself to be from the Middle East at large. At least this is the sense one gets recently from observing our inner discourse over the events in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Most of the talk in Israel today is fearful talk. We discuss how the lion in whose den we’re trapped is bound to turn on us as soon as it completes its conversion to fundamentalist Islam. Seldom do we take the advice of the Talmudic sages and evaluate where we fit in the body of that lion. Are we its tail? Its head? We consider ourselves as having no part in it.

To the naked eye, we are indeed this foreign. Take me. Though born here to parents born here, I don’t fit into the regional cliché. There is a blond aspect to my hair color, my cultural background draws heavily on Eastern Europe and I can barely speak any Arabic. I accept that eating copious amounts of hummus doesn’t render me more of a Middle Easterner, since assuming so would be Orientalist at best, but if that’s so, would liking gefilte fish render me any less local?

What is this cliché, anyway? Are only people who smoke hookah pipes worthy of being considered “Middle Eastern?” Many different people inhabit this region. Some of them are endowed with African skin color, others are blue-eyed, some are mathematics proferssors, others are cave dwellers, some are Anglican and others members of secretive sects. Even Palestinian society alone is that diverse, to say nothing of the vast territory between, say, Istanbul and Muscat.

Furthermore, “Middle Eastern” should be a dynamic term, especially at a time when the region is showing signs of change. As the images brought to us from Tahrir Square surprise us and broaden our understanding of regional dynamics, stereotypes turn less and less meaningful. No I don’t fit the Middle Eastern cliché, and yet I’m a resident of the Middle East, and if I forever consider myself a foreigner, never will I feel responsible for the region’s fate.

There be dragons

Many years ago at a European hostel I met a group of young, white South Africans. Late night, after many a glass of cheap Italian wine, it occured to me to ask them whether they felt African, and they proudly, instantly said “yes.” These were the late 1990s, a time of change in their country. I was moved by their answer, knowing that they knew their fate and that of their neighbors to be shared fate.

Much like them, I consider myself Middle Eastern, despite the differences. All of us here, including newcomers, are a part of this landscape and share responsiblity for it, regardless of how welcome it makes us feel. When mainstream culture in Israel deters us from seeing ourselves as such, it corrupts us. It is much easier to occupy and dehumanize when feeling removed from the terrain, not to mention elevated from it.

Many comments on this blog allude to a future in which Israelis will “return to Europe.” While I would be the first to immigrate to that wonderful continent, such comments express enormous ignorance. About half of Israelis have no roots in Europe. Their origins are instead Middle Eastern per se – or more often North African. I will not go here into the very slim prospects of Jews voluntarily moving from this soil to every corner of the earth. I’d rather examine the integration of Israelis into the Middle East as a far more productive and feasible idea.

To achieve such integration, we must combat our own fear that this territory is inhabited by barbarians. Israelis are afraid of “becoming Middle Eastern” because we’ve come to see our region as a dark spot on the map, marked: “There be dragons.” Heaven forbid we allow ourselves to become “like them.” Heaven forbid we even consider ourselves, without changing a single habit, to be included under the same definition.

The comfort of our own room

This is a colonialist attitude, but Israel is colonialist by choice and by choice only. It did not start off as an offshoot of a conquering empire. Our forefathers were refugees who felt an authentic historical link to this soil and thus chose it as land of refuge.

The sovereign state they founded here assumed an empire, the American one, during the cold war. Then that cold war ended. During the Oslo-Accord 1990s, we were becoming more conscious of regional culture, met our neighbors, who were then much freer to travel into Israel proper from the West Bank and Jordan, paid them return visits and saw that we had surprisingly much in common. For a short instant, though things were greatly imperfect, we became closer to where we are.

Then a new war began, the “War on Terror,” as nicknamed by George W. Bush. Its threatening propaganda further stalled our integration into the landscape. No longer do we see groups such as the “Canaanites,” who sought during the 1950s and 1960s to integrate Jewish and Arab identities into one. The Bushist “us against them” is most of what we hear here, except among marginal proponents of a one state solution.

I’m not advocating the one state solution and certainly not some absurd involvement of Israelis in the outdated pan-Arab movement. This is purely a question of identity. We can continue to be Middle Eastern even in one of two states. We simply will be, because we are. This is the home we chose for ourselves and even in the comfort of our own room we had better remember that we are members of the family.

There are, of course, many others who don’t consider us to be Middle Eastern. Namely, the majority of Middle Easterners. They are led by politicians and imams to believe that we are some sort of space aliens who have no business around here, that our cities are mere hamlets that can easily be reduced to the ground, that our tragedies are tall tales, and that no resolution will ever be possible via cooperation, regardless of our government, since we can never be befriended. They are, in short, just as mistaken as we are.

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    1. Yaron Ben-Ami

      Since the term “orientalistic” is nothing more than a mirror image of colonialism – it is more indicative of politico-cultural assumptions than of any on-the-ground reality (Edward Said did not turn out to be a better analyst, historian or predictor of the Arab world than Bernard Lewis, and anyway spent much more time than Lewis discussing the West rather than the East), I beg leave to claim that eating copious amounts of Hummus may not – in and of itself – make one a Mideasterner, but that – taken in conjunction with other such cultural manifestations, it does indeed (eat does indeed?) serve as an indication towards such a conclusion.
      And such manifestations are quite numerous in Israeli society – from greetings (Ahalan) and swear words (kus emek) to musical scales, from the overwhelming interest in water (one not shared, as far as my limited experience can be used as evidence) by Scandinavians, to (sometimes) hot-headed approach to honoour, etc. etc.
      When I lived in San Francisco (where every leaf on every tree told me every morning: “you are not in your hemisphere”. The natural world we relate to is as much a part of our sense of place as our cultural roots), One of the few people I immediately found rapport with was the local deli/grocery store owner, a Palestinian from Jerusalem. How did this rapport some to be? Through black coffee and black humour, unshared by our surrounding Americans (i.e., Vietnamese, Thai, Europeans etc.), through a very particular perspective on the world, through an attitude towards the weather… All those things that add up to a sense of identity.
      Of course, at the time we had the advantage of sharing the best motivation for staunch friendship – a common enemy (namely, Americans). We were both from the same place, though from different (but somewhat overlapping) cultures. Which is why I think what the Mideast needs most is a common enemy. Now, Norway always wanted to play a part in bringing about Mideast peace. Why not have the entire Mideast declare war, as one, on Norway? Then, when they win, they will have to help in our reconstruction!
      One last word: whoever suggests that all Jews leave Israel, must be made to sign a statement indicating his or her awareness that, should this contingenct come to be, we are – all 5 million or so of us – coming to live in their neighborhood, with possibly about 20,000 of us in that person’s very appartment. For myself, I’ll take his wife’s side of the bed.

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    2. zvi

      I probably have only spent 1/3 of my life in Israel, but it has always been very clear to me how similar Israelis are to other Middle-Easterners. Particularly the Lebanese and Palestinians (whose dialects even sound like Hebrew!), but even Jordanians and those farther afield. My first impression of Amman was that it was like a ‘parallel’ universe with Jerusalem: very similar, yet slightly askew – for example, the people were polite and were actually very proud of their country and it’s leaders!

      I do not understand why so many Israelis look upon the Middle East with derision. For better or for worse, that is where Israel is, and that is where it will always be. We need accept that and make peace with it (and our neighbors).

      Some time ago I was in Abu Dhabi for work (yes I have a “clean” passport, and no I was not there for a certain other kind of work). I immediately struck up a friendship with a Lebanese guy who staying in my hotel, and we had breakfast together each morning. I never exactly admitted to him that I was Israeli, but it was sort of understood (I certainly did admit it to other people who I was working with directly – the first one being a Syrian guy who was so happy that someone appreciated the differences between Lebanese and Syrian cuisine). Anyway, he said something very wise about Israel’s place in the region: “If you live in a poor neighborhood, don’t build glass mansions. You are just encouraging people to throw rocks at them.”

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    3. Michael W.

      “members of the family”

      But are you willing to boycott your family?

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    4. But are you willing to boycott your family?

      If it will bring down the Apartheid regime, then yes.

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    5. Michael W.


      How can an apartheid regime exist if we just recently witnessed an Israeli court headed by an Arab, a Palestinian, an Israeli, whatever you want to call him, convict the former President of Israel of rape and other charges?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Michael,

      Easily. Ride some 40 minutes eastwards, and you’ll find places where settlers and Palestinians live next to each other, but they’re subject to different law systems. The settler is tried by the Israeli law system, in Israel, while the Palestinian is tried in a military court. The Palestinian is subject to numerous forms of injustice – for instance, secret evidence may be brought against him. The settler enjoys the full benefit of the Israeli system (dubious though they may be). A Palestinian is much, much more liable to administrative detention, i.e. being held indefinitely without trial.

      Take Jerusalem. Its Palestinian residents are ineligible for citizenship and voting rights, even though they are born and live within officially Israeli territory. If they live the city for extended periods – for studies, for work purposes – all too often they cannot return, as Israel decides their residency has been revoked.

      This isn’t an anomaly. This isn’t temporary. This has been going on for nearly 44 years. That is, more than six times the length of the occupation of Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan. Prior to the occupation, Israel existed only 19 years (and held its Arab citizens under martial law for 18 of them); its existence with the occupation more than twice longer. The occupation, with its attached apartheid regime, is a fact, and it’s not going anywhere.

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    7. zvi

      Yossi, surely you are familiar with the expression “there is nothing so permanent as a temporary structure”….

      It is problematic that most resident of the Middle-East (Israelis included) do not consider Israel to be part of the Middle East. Perhaps that is the most significant stumbling block on the path to regional normalization. It is very disturbing how all sides are making it more and more difficult to “look across the divide” and to see that our neighbors are “normal” people too, with the same basic wants and needs.

      I do not think that dragging modern-era war metaphors (the “war on terror”, “occupation of Nazi Germany” etc.) into this is helpful. Wars by definition are extremely violent ruptures away from normalcy. The Middle-East has been occupied by one force or another for almost it’s entire history, but there has not been a war going on for most of that time. I am not implying here that the occupation is in any way “normal”, only that we are not in a state of war.

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    8. Ben Israel

      I was under the impression that the Arabs of Jerusalem have been offered full citizenship in the past, at least. They do have permanent residency rights, which means they get all the benefits Israelis do, excepting the right to vote. I was wondering if those with permanent residency have the right to request full citizenship.

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    9. nyc lawyer

      I don’t understand this tendency to romanticize Arabs and describe “precolonial” society as idyllic. Sure, the Arabs have a few seemingly positive cultural traits such as hospitality and spirituality.
      But the tribalism, lack of abstract thinking, lack of sanctity for human life, oppression of women, violent disposition, intolerance…. far outweighs this.

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    10. They do have permanent residency rights, which means they get all the benefits Israelis do, excepting the right to vote.

      A minor issue, indeed. And by “all the benefits”, I assume you mean 43 years of discrimination against in all parts of life, from education to sewage?

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    11. Michael W.

      I thought E. Jerusalem Arabs can vote in municipality elections. Can anyone confirm?
      Also, can’t they get citizenship?

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    12. Mahdi

      There are many problematic aspects in your description of the “Middle East.” As much as I (As a Palestinian) appreciate your willingness to self-reflect on identity (alas such a rare act nowadays) maybe bigger questions need to be addressed first.
      1) The term “Middle East” needs to be re-interpreted / re-understood. A matter of fact is that most of us “Arabs” who live in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon would rather use the term “Levant” (Mashriq) out of principal. Is this region the “Middle East” of Europe? East of Istanbul?
      2) Eating as much Hummus as one possibly can does not make one more “Middle Eastern” or “Levantine.” New Yorkers eat more Hummus than Palestinians. I grew up in East Jerusalem and I hated Hummus.
      3) Learning to communicate in the Arabic language? Now that might get us somewhere! It is absolutely absurd that the vast majority of Israelis cannot communicate in Arabic, except for using the few words than were adopted into spoken Hebrew (and I am not counting Israelis who grew up in say Morocco and thus speak it as a native language). To not speak Arabic is to not have access to the predominant language of the Levant. To not speak Arabic is to not have access to the tremendous amount of literature, news and blogs that emanate from the Arabic speaking communities of the Levant. How would an average Israeli truly understand the “Arabs” if the only sources of information he/she has on the Arab World comes from Western and Israeli sources? Not to say that all Western and Israeli sources are identical but they definitely do not give a scope of exposure that is wide enough or accurate enough.
      4) Many Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian individuals do consider Israelis to be a part of the Middle East, but their voices would have never reached the average Israeli.

      If Israelis spoke Arabic (or at least understood it) then maybe the idea of a one-state solution would not seem so farfetched.

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    13. directrob

      A lawyer should know the dangers of ethnic prejudice. There are no races and no ethnic groups they only exist in the mind of people. All people are the same wherever they live whenever they lived.

      As for the differences:

      Had they been left alone with reason,
      they would not have accepted a spoken lie;
      but the whips were raised to strike them.
      Traditions were brought to them,
      and they were ordered to say,
      “We have been told the truth”;
      If they refused, the sword was drenched with their blood.
      They were terrified by scabbards of calamities,
      and tempted by great bowls of food,
      Offered in a lofty and condescending manner.


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    14. Ben Israel

      I couldn’t agree more about your comment that Israelis should be REQUIRED to learn Arabic…it is the language of this part of the world. The irony is that Israelis want to learn European languages and ape European culture (particularly the “progressives” or Left) yet the Europeans made it pretty clear in the last century that they don’t want us there.
      I am not convinced, though, that having Israelis know what Arabs really think of them is going to make Israelis want to live as a minority in an Arab super-state.

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    15. Michael,

      Confirmed. As for

      I wonder what you guys think of this:

      I dunno. Is prosecution the standard response for such behavior, or were they singled out?

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    16. Kibbutznik

      ” The irony is that Israelis want to learn European languages and ape European culture (particularly the “progressives” or Left) ”

      Really Ben Israel , then why is Arabic taught in kibbutz schools ?
      Perhaps you would care to read here :


      and here :
      and here :

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    17. Ben Israel

      All I can say is “Kol HaKavod” to the kibbutz movement for teaching Arabic. Do they teach written or spoken Arabic, or both?

      Altough I don’t speak or read Arabic, I know the word for “east” is “sharq”, so it sounds like “mashriq” also means “east” in some sense.
      “Levant” sounds to me like it is related to “Lebanon”. Is that correct? If I am correct in these two cases, then “Levant” is not an accurate translation of “mashriq”.

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    18. Sinjim

      Ben Israel, you’re right about sharq but not about Levant. Levant is from French and is etymologically related to levitate, in other words “rising” in reference to where the sun rises.

      Lebanon is ultimately from the Semitic root L-B-N, which has connotations of “white” but also “milk/yoghurt.” This is in reference to the snow white mountains of Lebanon, after which the country is named.


      Yuval, this is an interesting article, and much can be said in response. However, I’ll limit myself to one point. I think the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt and their effect on the rest of the Arab world prove that pan-Arabism is far from outdated.

      Like all political ideologies, there is a scale of rigid adherence to pan-Arabism. The most rigid manifestation (i.e., the idea of a single Arab state from Morocco to Oman) isn’t currently not popular by any means (although with the existence of the European Union, I don’t know how the idea can be termed outdated). However, no one can deny that Arabs continue to feel an important sense of camaraderie with other Arabs irrespective of borders, that what happens in other Arab states is extremely important and personal to them.

      That’s pan-Arabism. At its purest, I would argue.

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    19. Mahdi. I tend to agree with everything you say. My use of the term “Middle East”, rather than Levant, partially stems from precisely this linguistic question. The Middle East at large is multi lingual. Among the languages spoken in the region I may count Arabic, Turkish, Farsi and Hebrew. The fact that Israelis must put more into studying Arabic is undenyable, but I consider Hebrew as a legitimate language and we can speak it and still belong here, as long as we act like good neighbors. (and learning to communicate is of course a huge part of being good neighbors).
      Just a note: The first comment posted here is not by myself but by my similarly named (though much taller) cousin. I noticed yesterday that someone mistook us for one another in some other debate. Here is a rare and deligtful instant in which the two of us are like-minded.

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    20. zvi

      I can attest that the Arabic courses at Givat Haviva are excellent. In fact, there were even quite a few participants from military intelligence units in them as well.

      That being said, it would be nice if Arabic was the required second language in Israeli schools and more of an effort were made into recognizing that it is in fact one of the official languages of Israel.

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    21. Igor

      Levante in Italian means East.

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    22. MAHDI

      In response to BEN ISRAEL and to YUVAL BEN-AMI
      I am glad we’re having this conversation. Levant (from French, “se lever” – to get up) means Mashriq. Mashriq means sunrise, and is the opposite of Maghreb (sunset). The contemporary usage of the term “Levant” or Mashriq has clear pan-Arab connotations and in a way is a political statement. Maybe its meaning can be dissassociated from its origin (Islamic Empire) and used as a way to localize the term, geographically.

      I am advocating for mandatory Arabic in all Israeli schools not only because of paranoid demographic numbers and statistics but because it would serve as an access point for Israelis to understand their own history (and by extension the dire conditions of Israeli “democracy”).
      Hebrew is a legitimate language. 100% of Palestinians living inside Israel’s 1948-1967 speak it. More than 45-50% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza also speak it.

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    23. ImadK

      Very interesting article. I would like to put up this link from Ian Lustick, about efforts of the Isreali governments to distance itself from the Middle East via the Iron Wall doctrine put forth by Jabotinsky, which is pretty relevant to this topic.


      Even though i haven’t been to Israel, much less to the Levant region, I had the impression that most Israelis see themselves as being more Europeans, even those who have a Middle Eastern/North African background. So a post on an Israeli posturing over his Middle Easterness was a fascinating read for me.

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    24. nsttnocontentcomment

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