From Arab to Palestinian Israeli

By | Oct 27, 2011

“The late 1940s and early 1950s were a period of tremendous uncertainty for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis alike,” writes Robinson in her study of Israel’s military rule in the Negev Desert, the Galilee and the “Triangle” area in central Israel on the border with the West Bank. “The establishment of the state had been announced, but what that state would look like, how it would function, and the meanings people would make of it, and in it, were still open questions.”

Jaffa was only briefly under military rule, but Zeinab, like most other Arabs, had little time for politics. She was focused on making a living and creating a stable environment for her growing family. “We have had a good life,” she says. “The economy did well, there was peace at first, people started to work but then the wars began,” she said, referring to the Six-Day War in 1967. “The Jews wanted to expand, and war destroys everything.”

Still, Zeinab bears no grudge, saying she feels blessed with her 10 children and the fact that Israel’s monthly social security payments ensure that she is provided for. She remembers the Jewish militias telling Haifa’s Arabs that if they did not rise up and fight, the war would pass peacefully for them. “We were not angry about the Jews. My grandfather used to say this state will be like America. We will benefit from it. He thought it sounded as if it would become a good, modern place,” she says. “Overall I believe my grandfather was right.”

The smell of strong, cardamom-roasted coffee wafts through Zeinab’s living room. With its stuffed maroon velveteen couches and walls hung with Koranic verses, the room is a favorite gathering place for her children and grandchildren. I join Shams on the veranda, where she tells me more about her life.

She grew up in Jaffa, amid its run-down streets, gangs of drug dealers and overcrowded schools, and felt privileged to attend a private Christian school run by French nuns. Most of the students, like her, were Muslim, but there were also Christians and even a few Jews. An avid reader, nicknamed “the professor,” Shams excelled in school and wanted to go on to higher education. But she came from a family where almost no one had been to university before and felt compelled to support her family financially, so she took a job at a local jewelry factory. In her five years there she earned a nice living and advanced to the position of manager. But she felt something was missing and applied to study at Tel Aviv University for a degree in Middle Eastern studies and Islam.

She started classes in 1999, a year before the second intifada erupted. “There was still hope after Oslo,” she says, referring to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. “We were in a state of euphoria. I thought I would study to become a bridge between Palestinians and Israelis.”

As the only Arab citizen in the department, she attracted a lot of attention. “There was not a moment that I ever sat alone in the cafeteria. I was a curiosity. I helped others with their Arabic translation assignments and because I had started to become politically active on campus, I could give them a different perspective from what we were reading in our books.”

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