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Traveling the world as a Palestinian on an Israeli passport

When I traveled to Morocco last year, I was escorted from the airport by security — for my protection, because of my Israeli passport — and greeted with ‘Shabbat Shalom.’ When I told the airport official ‘thank you, but I am not Jewish,’ he responded, ‘it does not matter.’

By Anwar Mhajne

'Everything becomes more difficult whenever I cross borders. The in-betweeness of my identity is lost. To immigration officers, government officials, and school administrators, only the nationality listed on my passport matters.' (Zilan2000/Shutterstock.com)

‘Everything becomes more difficult whenever I cross borders. The in-betweeness of my identity is lost. To immigration officers, government officials, and school administrators, only the nationality listed on my passport matters.’ (Zilan2000/Shutterstock.com)

At home, we speak Arabic intermixed with Hebrew. We deal with Israeli law, Israeli institutions, and can participate in the Israeli political system. But we are always conscious of our Palestinian heritage.

Everything becomes more difficult whenever I cross borders. The in-betweeness of my identity is lost. To immigration officers, government officials, and school administrators, only the nationality listed on my passport matters.

When I traveled to Morocco last year, I was escorted from the airport by security — for my protection, because of my Israeli passport — and greeted with “Shabbat Shalom.” When I told the airport official “thank you, but I am not Jewish,” he responded, “it does not matter.”

In 2013, I applied for a visa to conduct research in Egypt. The application has been pending ever since. I did not really know what happened until recently when my Egyptian friend, whose address I had used on the application, finally told me that Egyptian intelligence officers had come to her house and questioned her about her relationship with “this Israeli student,” even though I wrote my name in Arabic on the application. My Israeli passport trumped my Palestinian heritage.

I regularly find myself having to explain the history of how some Palestinians ended up with Israeli citizenship: in 1948, Israel granted citizenship to the Arab natives who survived the Nakba and remained within its newly established borders. Suddenly isolated from the rest of the Arab world, the Palestinian community inside Israel was subject to military rule until 1966, while the government expropriated large swaths of land belonging to them and to other Palestinian refugees.

Because our schools are controlled by Israel, our Palestinian identity is mostly passed down to us at home, where we learn about our history and culture. Our sense of otherness is further reinforced through racist rhetoric and discriminatory policies in Israeli society and government. Senior politicians regularly propose plans that would push Arab citizens and villages out of Israel in a resolution to the conflict. The Jewish Nation-State Law is another, more recent reminder of the fragility — and inferiority — of our civic identity.

'We have learned to cope with all of these challenges. We attend universities in mainly Jewish cities and work with, make friends with — and, yes, sometimes even marry — Jewish Israelis. This never seemed a contradiction to me.' (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

‘We have learned to cope with all of these challenges. We attend universities in mainly Jewish cities and work with, make friends with — and, yes, sometimes even marry — Jewish Israelis. This never seemed a contradiction to me.’ (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

We have learned to cope with all of these challenges. We attend universities in mainly Jewish cities and work with, make friends with — and, yes, sometimes even marry — Jewish Israelis. This never seemed a contradiction to me. I saw it as part of my reality and identity. We are proud of our Palestinian heritage, but that shouldn’t necessarily prevent us from interacting with the Israeli Jewish community.

When I first moved to the United States to study, I would tell people I am from Israel. It didn’t take long to figure out how complicated that answer is, and how polarizing it can be. Many Americans would assume that I am Jewish. Some would then feel comfortable expressing to me how much they “love Israel” and how “the best solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to kill all Arabs.” So I started introducing myself as a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

I find myself having to explain my identity not only to foreigners but also to Jewish Israelis and fellow Arabs. At a conference in the United States earlier this year, a Jewish Israeli participant was confused by how I could be both Palestinian and Israeli. Israel uses the term “Israeli Arabs” to define us, a term I avoid because it disregards our heritage and attempts to disconnect us from the Palestinian struggle.

At the same conference, a Jordanian participant confronted me for hanging out with an Israeli attendee from Tel Aviv University, and for criticizing Hamas. Last year, at an airport in Turkey, I met an Egyptian woman who, after finding out where I am from, told me, “I thought you guys did not speak Arabic.” While looking for a job, someone in Doha asked me, “how can you justify working for the Zionist state?”

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The more friends I make from around the Arab world, the more difficult I find it to explain why I sometimes use Hebrew words here and there, why I have Israeli citizenship, and why I cannot personally boycott Israel. I have found myself having to defend how I self-identify, and having to clarify my stance on the conflict. There is an expectation of me to support any group resisting Israel, regardless of their ideological and religious views. I am also expected to boycott Israel, even though it is where my home is, where my family lives, and where I can have a more significant and meaningful impact.

The forced projection of these identities, and the expectations and assumptions that come with it – whether from Jews, Arabs, or Westerners – strips us of our right to define ourselves. It compounds the marginalization we experience in our land by alienating us from ourselves, our history, and our lived experiences while we are abroad. It should be up to us, the people living the conflict, to interpret our own experiences and determine our own identity accordingly.

Dr. Anwar Mhajne is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. She is an Umm Al Fahem native, but moved to the United States in 2011 to pursue her M.A. and later her Ph.D. Anwar is currently a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Stonehill College, MA. Twitter: @mhajneam.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Lewis from Afula

      Amwar’s confusion is the direct result of her fictional “fakestinyan” heritage. Her mind has been brainwashed to accept a false conciousness of a long lost Arab nationality that somehow went missing in history.
      A pretend Nation
      A pretend King
      A pretend Royal Palace
      A Pretend Capital
      A pretend native currency
      A pretend army
      A pretend pottery
      etc etc etc
      The solution is for her to caste aside this decrepid nonsense. Indeed, the fake narrative was invented in the 1970s by an Egyptian Terrorist.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        I tend to agree with you. The dominant narrative makes life very difficult for anyone doesn’t fit the black and white picture.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          @Lewis: You seem awfully afraid of something that is “fake.” Do you take genuine fright at children trick or treating when you visit the US in October? And you sound awfully black and white. Sounds like you’re totally invested in the black/white, us/them mentality of extreme nationalism. Which to me is what is a false or fake view of history and current affairs. It couldn’t be you think like that because you covet non-fake land that non-fake people live on, could it?

          @Mark: I don’t understand in what way you agree with Lewis. He’s all about black/white, us/them, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine. Both +972 Magazine and Anwar Mhajne are about shades of grey and ambiguity, complexity, sharing, mutual understanding, and about changing dominant narratives to make life LESS difficult for anyone who doesn’t fit the black and white picture. So how is it that you tend to agree with Lewis again?

          Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      “Do Palestinians Really Exist?”

      https://www.thedailybeast.com/do-palestinians-really-exist

      Nowadays, few disagree there is a Palestinian people. After all, there are more than 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel alone. Of course, that didn’t stop Newt Gingrich from commenting during his failed 2012 run for president that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Here, I thought for years my father had been a cook, but apparently he was an inventor. If Gingrich—who was simply parroting his then-benefactor Sheldon Adelson’s views—had engaged in the most basic of research, he would have found that most historians mark the beginning of the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement as happening in 1824, when the Arabs there rebelled against Ottoman rule.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Margaret Katheryn

      Far easier to fit into a square peg with no complexity and no nuance to your make up. But I think those who learn early on to find a balance within that complexity are far better prepared to find a space that is viable than the brittleness of absoluteness.

      I wish there were more people who came from such a sophisticated batch as you,Dr. Mhajne. We all would be better off if more people could see farther and deeper.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Nardine

      Anwar thank you for putting into words exactly what happens to me when I travel as well. I have long struggled with my identity and come to the conclusion that whatever I say it will be misunderstood. I now say simply that I am Palestinian. Often this is seen as offensive be by Israelis but to me it means that I bring Alice an identity that Israel is trying to diminish. I don’t mean for it to negate the existence of Israelis. Palestinians in the holy land come in all shapes and sizes, and whether we have a passport or not, observe religions or not, and dress like westerners or not doesn’t change that we are the marginalised group, that is being discriminated against for being Palestinian. I think the discomfort Israelis feel with this identification is for them to own as their ‘White man’s burden’.
      Thanks for your article!

      Reply to Comment