From Arab to Palestinian Israeli

By | Oct 27, 2011


One Family’s Changing Identity

In our introductory story, Moment correspondent Dina Kraft, who has reported from Israel since 1997, talks to three Israeli Arab women—a grandmother, mother and daughter—about what it means to be both Arab and Israeli. Through the lenses of three generations, her story traces the evolution of identity from Arab to Israeli Arab to Palestinian Israeli. Read the introduction to this special series on Israel’s Arab citizens.

It’s been almost three years since Shams Kalboni renamed herself. She grew up with the modern Hebrew name Revital, which means “quenched thirst.” It was given to her by her Arab parents in the hope it would pave her way to an easier life in Israeli society.

And as Shams walks past blossoming purple bougainvillea plants, up the stairs and onto the veranda of her grandmother’s house in Jaffa, calls of “Revital” and “Revi” still greet her as she is embraced by aunts and cousins.

But to the outside world she is Shams, Arabic for “sun.” Her new name is her way of announcing to the world, and particularly Jewish Israelis, that she is not one of them. Instead she is, as she says, a “Palestinian Israeli.”

“When we define ourselves and say we are Palestinian Israelis they [Jewish Israelis] get freaked out,” says the 35-year-old Shams, pushing back her long reddish brown curls as she nestles into one of the white plastic chairs.

“Arab Israeli is a definition I refuse to accept because an Arab can be Egyptian or Iraqi, also; it’s not part of a nation. The nation I am part of is Palestine,” says Shams. She is a member of a young generation, fluent in Hebrew, steeped in Israeli culture and bold about demanding its fair place in a country many feel has relegated them to a status of second-class citizens.

Olive skinned with a pair of expressive large dark eyes, she wears snugly fitting dark shorts and a turquoise T-shirt, the same color as her long, dangling earrings. In her neighborhood in Tel Aviv, where she lives in a one-bedroom apartment just a block from the beach, her dress is not considered modern or provocative. In more conservative Arab Jaffa, it sometimes is.

With a name like Revital, the looks of a young sabra and accent-less Hebrew, everyone always assumed she was Jewish. So one encounter with discrimination came as a shock. In 2006, she found a nice flat on a shady, central Tel Aviv street in a building owned by a progressive lawyer. When Shams faxed a copy of the lease to the landlady, she was asked if she had any additional income. Shams, still going by Revital, proudly replied that she had started working at an Arab-Jewish dialogue group. “I am the Arab facilitator,” she added. The phone line went silent. When the lawyer spoke again she told Shams she could not rent the apartment to her because other residents would complain that she had rented to an Arab. The words, she used were, “They will be upset that you are from another culture.”

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