From Arab to Palestinian Israeli

By | Oct 27, 2011

“It was the first alarm bell marking a new era for the Israeli establishment and society,” says historian Elie Rekhess, the head of Tel Aviv University’s Adenauer Program on Jewish-Arab Cooperation and the Crown Visiting Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University. “It was a sign of national awakening and of the changes that would mark the transition from the 1950s-1960s to the 1970s-1980s.”

Headline-grabbing protests were not the only ways in which this new political consciousness was manifested. Civic organizations all over Israel have formed over the last 30 years to raise concerns from economic equality to Palestinian statehood. Nabila Espanioli, 54, is founder of one such group, Women in Black, a feminist peace group and director of the Al-Tufulah Center for Childhood and Women’s Empowerment. “We have learned,” she says. “We are more sophisticated. We know now if you want to really change democratic systems, you have to use all the means available to you.”

While her mother and grandmother prefer to keep their views to themselves, Shams is part of this evolving political shift. In addition to her job, she established a committee two years ago to prevent further house demolitions in Jaffa. She created it as a local voice of protest against gentrification efforts that are displacing some Arab families in the city.

We walk to a nearby plot of land that has been sold to a group of religious Jews who want to build an apartment building. Shams fears they want to “settle” Jaffa as their peers have settled the West Bank and other mixed cities within Israel like Lod, Ramle and Acco. Their ideological motives are unclear, but Shams believes their goal is to displace local Arabs, and she is defiant: “The first stone that is put here will be removed.”

There’s yet another project that she is pursuing with zeal. Shams is researching the vanished village of Bassa, where her grandmother was born, gathering information to piece together what it looked like and who lived there. She is arranging a trip to bring her grandmother and her large extended clan—dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins—to the Jewish town, Shlomi. While there, she plans to shoot a video of her grandmother in front of the rest of the family and interview her about her childhood. “I feel like our family’s children know nothing about our history,” Shams says.

Zeinab would like to make the trip; she is curious to see if anything of her childhood remains. But she’d prefer that her granddaughter spend her time finding a lucrative job more worthy of her university degree. Shams brushes off her suggestion. It hasn’t been easy, but she finally feels secure in who she is and that she has found her calling.

Like the majority of Arab citizens in Israel, the woman once known as Revital would choose to remain in the country of her birth if a Palestinian state were ever established. Israel is where her roots are, where her life is. Meanwhile she’s going to fight for her democratic rights. If she ever meets Benjamin Netanyahu, she knows just what she will say to her prime minister: “I’ll ask him to commit himself to protect our equality and rights as citizens. All this is good for Israel.”

Dina Kraft is the Israel correspondent for the
Jewish Telegraphic Agency and contributes to The New York Times and the Daily Telegraph. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Slate and the Village Voice, among other publications. A former Associated Press correspondent in Jerusalem and Johannesburg, she has reported from Africa, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Tunisia and Russia.

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