It was in university that she took the first steps of her journey. “Everything was new to me,” she says. She joined the small Arab student association on campus. It also became increasingly clear that her degree would not lead where she had hoped. She realized that most people who graduate in Middle Eastern studies join either the Mossad or the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. She was contacted four times by Israel’s defense ministry, which hoped to hire her.
For the newly politicized Shams, working covertly for the state would be akin to being recruited as a “collaborator.” The term, laced with connotations of betrayal of one’s own people, is perhaps the darkest in the Palestinian lexicon.
“Being approached like this only caused me to feel separated from what until then was a very Israeli identity,” she says. “I felt like I was being told that the only way you can work in your field and be a welcome citizen is to collaborate. I had felt so proud of myself with my degree and was anxious to see what my worth would be in the market. Then the bubble burst in my face and I did not know what to do,” says Shams. Deflated, she decided to return to the world
The worst job interview experience of her life began well enough, with smiles and handshakes: She impressed the managers of a firm in Tel Aviv’s diamond district, known as the “Bursa.” But when one of her interviewers ran into her at a beauty salon and learned that Shams was not a Jew but an Arab, the woman’s face instantly dropped. “She looked shocked,” says Shams.
She returned for a previously scheduled second interview only to be informed the job was not a suitable fit. When she inquired as to whether she had been turned down because she was an Arab, she was curtly told that the results of her handwriting analysis—an arcane practice that has survived in Israel as a common tool of potential employers to screen job candidates—had come back. “‘The analysis said that you are sensitive and if there was a suicide bombing or attack, people might talk about Arabs in a harsh way and you could get hurt,”’ the woman executive, a Russian-speaking immigrant, told her. “I was devastated,” Shams says.
She gave up on the jewelry business and drifted through several waitressing jobs at Tel Aviv restaurants and bars, ultimately landing a position as an assistant at a left-wing law firm where the partners were aware that she was Arab and welcomed her. Difficulty finding a job that matched her qualifications was not unique to Shams: According to 2008 Central Bureau of Statistics figures, 12.5 percent of Arab college graduates are unemployed, compared to 3.5 percent of Jewish graduates.
As the Jewish world turned its back on Shams, she began to look in a new direction. “I started pulling away from my Jewish circle of friends,” she recalls. “I wanted distance. I wanted to get to know Palestinian friends and with them, I found out I was not alone in undergoing an identity crisis.” She began to hang out in Jaffa, where she met Palestinian students from all over Israel. “I felt empowered,” she says. “But after a while I felt less connected to them as well.”