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Palestinians in Israel: The End of Shadows, Beginning of Sunlight
The Palestinians in Israel are a
minority of approximately 1.25 million people, forming approximately 18% of the
total population of the state of Israel.
They are the original inhabitants of the land, who had been living within their historical Palestinian space before the establishment of the Israeli state and the imposition of Jewish rule, following the Partition Resolution of 1947.
The members of this community are Israeli citizens with political and civil rights, but are deprived of most of the collective cultural rights; however, they have the right to receive an Arabic language education, and the Jewish state occasionally funds certain cultural activities, such as dramatic performances and Arabic-language publications. Arabic is an official language of Israel in name only, but it is absent from the Israeli public sphere, and only used to a certain extent in official paperwork involving Palestinian citizens.
. . . .
The June 1967 war was a turning point in the lives and culture of the Palestinians in Israel. All of a sudden, reconnecting with the Palestinian diaspora occurred in circumstances of a historical juncture – the Israeli occupation of Arab and Palestinian lands. Through this muffled reconnection came a limited encounter with an Arab world that was defeated by the consequences of the war, by the defeat of Nasserism and Pan-Arabism on which grand hopes had been placed, including the hope of regaining that lost paradise, the hope that those who had been expelled would return, that familis would be reunited, that an incomplete existence would be made whole again. Suddenly, in the face of Arab oppression “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf,” the voice of the Palestinians in Israel arose as the first voice to overcome the defeat and its disappointments. These voices produced the “poetry of resistance”, which embodied the discourse of admitting defeat, and transforming it into a “building crisis,” and was perhaps influenced by a belief in a historical determinism much grander than Israel’s victory and euphoria – in other words, the inevitability of Socialism defeating Capitalism.
Quickly, it became clear that the resistance discourse of Palestinians in Israel was nothing more than the projection of hopes onto an oppressed minority and its cultural production. Because they were a group living in the heart of Israel and raising their voice from the heart of Israel, they received the sorts of accolades and praise that they did, as reality was pulling them into the darkness once again. In reality, though, they were a society cut off from the tree, the object of tugs and shoves from four centres of power in whose shadows they remained, and that’s where their culture ended. After the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a central player in the struggle, Palestinians inside Israel were gingerly attracted to it, which provoked the Israeli centre to increase its pressure on them.
The 1990s saw a flurry of activity in the lives of Palestinians inside Israel. In the final count, they acknowledged they were Palestinians, and a part of the Palestinian people who had achieved a miracle with their first, peaceful Intifada, which had left an indelible mark, and which had launched the negotiations process at the Madrid conference. The Palestinians in Israel felt what it was like to be proud Palestinians, and walked with their heads held high. The Oslo Accords normalizd their relationship to themselves as Palestinians. Even Communist Party publications began to claim they had always defended Palestinian identity and attainments. The Accords which included an Israeli admission of the existence of the Palestinian people and their rights, helped Palestinians within Israel connect with their national identities, and gave these connections political and legal legitimacy. This was clear in a series of writings that reflected a sort of self-satisfaction, and revealed that the previously fraught relationship with the Other had reached a certain breakthrough. A culture on the verge of historical “reconciliation” related to its past with a sense of pride, and claimed a credit for itself in contributing to the breakthrough and the “reconciliation”. However, this notion that matters had reached some kind of breakthrough took a turn for the worse quickly due to the political coup detát in Israel following the assassination of Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin and the failure of the negotiation process.
The dream crashed into the violent reality of renewed Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the siege of the Palestinian symbols in Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. In short, the euphoria of Palestinian cultural identity was abruptly terminated, just as the project of Palestinian civil society had been terminated in the nakba.
At the beginning of 2000, the Israeli state launched into a campaign to assassinate Palestinian citizenship with measures that included attacking protest demonstrations with firearms and deadly weapons, killing 13 protestors, wounding hundreds and detaining thousands. The Palestinians in Israel stood before a looming wall of oppression. They were even boycotted by private Israeli civilian companies, their partnerships and contracts dissolved. Jews stopped buying services and goods from Palestinians, and withdrew from partnerships, even on the level of civil society organizations. A new division arose between the two populations, this time occurring within Israel. New generations of middle class, intellectuals, merchants and nationalistically shrewd businessmen, fully aware of their identities, failed to do anything using their knowledge and skills. For the first time in their history, the Israeli oppressors became fearful of a Palestinian group within Israel. There was no external threat. They seemed to be demonstrating their power and dead serious in their desire to oppress this group or delegitimize its claims to having a national identity. This Israeli push resulted in a Palestinian withdrawal on all fronts. The fear of systematic oppression produced a paralysis that pushed cultural activity back into a state of deep self-examination and brought forward the non-ideologized, individual voice. In this period perhaps the most significant achievement of the Pessoptimist’s grandchildren was the attempt to produce a new point of leverage, represented by four documents, visionary as well as pragmatic, which tried to redefine “the world” and “the existence” of the Palestinians in Israel, and to articulate a new imaginary and plans for future actions. Significantly, the major activists behind those four initiatives came from civil society organizations, not from within the traditional political parties and movements.
This phase revealed the dire state of the cultural scene as promoted by traditional parties and political groups, with their political thought and their ideologies and national/nationalist discourses. Islamist forces seemed unwilling to undertake any action, as they awaited the return of the caliphate, or the spread of Islam, just as Communists had waited earlier for the Red Army, and Arab nationalists had waited for Gamal Abdel Nasser to materialize from the south.
The decades since the turn of the millennium have been the decades of civil society among the Palestinians. In Israel, specialized professional organizations are led by academics, professionals, activists and intellectuals, women and men, who have soared over all the low ceilings: Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, and self-imposed, as they have established a rights-based discourse which evokes human rights, group rights, language, cultural, national and native peoples’ rights, relying on the latest theories from the worlds of political and legal science, and international treaties and conventions. A generation of the Pessoptimist’s grandchildren has discovered the secret of international language, and has mastered it in speech and writing through a network of legal, intellectual and service-based civil organizations. The work, discourse and leanings of these organizations have been a way out of the seemingly dead-end situation. These organizations have eased the collective out of the stranglehold of its particularities and identities and have joined it to international civil society movements, playing a political game before embassies, parliaments, the European Union, the American administration and the United Nations.
With unprecedented energy these organizations enter into collaborative cultural effort. It is as if decades of cultural stagnation have been brought to an end, in favour of a quantum leap in laudable cultural activities in all creative fields and humanitarian work. In politics, political discourse has become more sophisticated, interwoven with discourse and theory of minority rights and nativistic rights; a theoretical and academic discourse has been strengthened by its connections with academic cultural production in Europe, the US and Africa.
In literature, a young generation has produced poetry, short fiction, journalism, and novels, published in several languages, resisting stereotyping and cultural typecasting in favor of its own particularities. In theatre, several international and local plays have been produced at the government-funded official theatre, as well as in some avant-garde, private theatres. In fine arts, several exhibitions and mobile creative workshops have been held across the country featuring artists who have been able to transcend the local and make their mark on Israeli and international art scenes. In music, bands and artists have toured locally and internationally, their voices and melodies drawing their individual and group portraits with captivating beauty. Tere are now new groups of artists producing new culture in almost every creative field, having been liberated from everything save the political and material conditions. In each field of creative expression there are dozens of artists who have also left their mark on Israeli culture. Brilliant playwrights and academics, those in the field of literature, in fine arts, in music and song – they have all set off from their past into their future with no obstacles before them save the policies of the Israeli centre that sometimes attempts – sometimes succeeding – to pigeonhole them and force them into identity politics, stereotyping their work and using it in the service of its cultural propaganda.
I foresee this generation suffering at the hands of Israeli exclusionism which would like to monopolize culture and cultural activity, as well as at the hands of an intransigent Arab world, which will once again boycott Palestinians in Israel under the pretext of avoiding normalization with the Israeli state, whose passports these Palestinians hold. As if by looking for a sense of belonging and for a space for maneuver, away from our political condition, Israeli in essence, we are becoming the “object” of normalization in the eyes of an Arab culture that has only just emerged from the clutches of either military rule or arrogant Arabism, and is falling, or about to, into the clutches of Islamic fundamentalism.
Traditional Palestinian culture inside Israel emerges from a cultural history whose significant characteristics are imbued with humanitarian hope, and the loftiest aims, freedoms, content and patterns. There is a discernable impetus involved, whose future is hard to tell, because the possibilities of danger continue to lurk. Within the Palestinian collective there vast sections that see themselves as echo chambers of the region or of Israeli politics. These are sections that don’t hesitate to attack cultural activities that are free of all ties and restrictions, by claiming they are chaotic and do not represent the collective spirit. I fear that we will once more find ourselves in a situation in which history repeats itself this time even more abjectly, and where a new generation of Palestinian creative talent in Israel will only be able to find a refuge in Hebrew culture.
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