From Arab to Palestinian Israeli

By | Oct 27, 2011

Shams recalls bursting into tears. “It felt like a knife,” says Shams, who has many Jewish friends and frequents the bars in Tel Aviv. “I felt so rejected. It made me feel like I did not belong here. Until that point, I felt very much Israeli. I had not yet started defining myself as Palestinian as well. But after this, I did not feel I was ‘Revital’ any more.”

Shams is quick to add that she sees no contradiction between her Israeli citizenship and the assertion of her Palestinian peoplehood. “I want to make the future. I want to fight for it. I am not waiting for it. If you want your rights you have to demand them,” she says, her slightly raspy voice rising. And she sees American Jews as a model: “They want to be American and have a Jewish identity, which is also a national identity related to Israel. Well, that is also what I want. I want to remain Israeli and have the same equal opportunities but stay here while identifying with a Palestinian state.”

She reflects a new dynamic among young members of Israel’s 1.3 million Arab minority in which there is a simultaneous process of two seemingly opposite trends, what are referred to as “Israelization” and “Palestinization.” Members of Shams’ generation are well-versed in the ways of Israeli society and more deeply integrated than most of their parents and grandparents.

“We studied in Israeli universities and, despite discrimination, proved ourselves, and we’re more confident. We’ve been released from the fear of previous generations,” says Ali Khaider, co-executive director of Sikkuy—“chance” or “opportunity” in Hebrew—a nongovernmental organization that promotes equality between Arab and Jewish citizens on issues such as government budgets, hiring policy and land usage. “It is very clear this generation has high expectations of the state and takes its citizenship seriously,” he says.

Especially since the outbreak of the second intifada, young Arabs in Israel have become more outspoken about their feelings of kinship with their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza, and increasingly alienated from a state that defines itself as Jewish—a definition they claim is incompatible with a democracy responsible for delivering equal treatment for all of its citizens.
Shams’ views of herself and her relationship with the state of Israel are relatively new for the country’s Arab citizens. She is at once more Israeli and more Palestinian than her mother, Mariam Edris, 53, and her grandmother, Zeinab Edris, 85. The three generations of women in the family symbolize the changes in identity of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Zeinab Edris lives on the first floor of what was once the home of a wealthy Jaffa family. It still has a grand air, with high ceilings, geometrically patterned tile floors and a wrought-iron gate with “1933,” the year it was built, intertwined in its design. She is sitting in one of the house’s sun-drenched bedrooms, light pouring through narrow high windows, her traditional galabia gathered around her and hair tucked neatly under a white headscarf. A Muslim, she is devoutly religious, unlike most of her children, rising at dawn every morning to pray. Widowed 20 years ago, she now basks in her role as the family matriarch overseeing a close brood of 10 children, 37 grandchildren and over 80 great-grandchildren, several of whose photos are tucked into a small glass display case.

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