Working for a shared society in Israel

31.10.2016 - Berlin, Germany - Johanna Heuveling

This post is also available in: German, Greek

Working for a shared society in Israel

Mohammed Darawshe, an Arab Israeli, talks about the schizophrenia of living as an Arab citizen in a Jewish state. He is the head of the Shared Society Program at Givat Haviva, a Jewish-Arab Peace center in Israel, and he is in Berlin for six months as a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert-Bosch-Foundation. We met him at an event organised by Friedel Grützmacher, head of the German Association of the Friends of Givat Haviva, where he talked about his personal life and his commitment as a political scientist trying to develop peaceful solutions for all members of the Israeli society.

Far from seeming depressed, Mohammad Darawshe narrates the discrepancies that constitute his life in a very vivid, sometimes even humorous way. His family has lived in Iksal, a small town in Northern Israel, for 28 generations, for 800 years. “Homeland as defined by my grandfather is, where you know your olive grove and your graveyard,” Darawshe says.

The state of Israel was founded as a state of the Jews, expressed also in the national symbols, the anthem that speaks about the “Jewish soul” and the flag showing the Star of David. What does this mean for the Arab population living in Israel? “In a bureaucratic sense we were citizens of Israel. But in a political sense we were orphans,” says Darawshe. Until 1966 the Arab population within the Israel territory lived under a military administration. “Another word for occupation.” They were regarded as potential security threats and a problem. Nevertheless 99% stayed because the option of becoming a refugee in a neighbouring country, Darawshe repeatedly emphasizes, was never a very attractive possibility. He explains that nowadays it turned out that this was a wise decision considering the miserable conditions under which Palestinian refugees are still living in Arab countries. “Arab countries offered no real alternative for us. They could not manage the situation, they can hardly manage their own situation.” As a result however, he says, the Israeli Arabs were regarded as traitors by the Palestinians outside of Israel.

Democracy is all about equality

In 1966, the military administration ended and it started a “fantastic period”, as Darawshe calls it: “The state of Israel adopted the orphans, and this went along with a welcome package.” This package included modernization programs which facilitated the prospering of Arab communities and the rise of the educational level. An educated elite evolved that no longer compared its situation to the Palestinians in the Westbank but they started comparing their situation to that of the Jewish people in Israel. It was a period of “Israelization”.

Mohammad Darawshe studied Political Sciences, also: “We learned that democracy – and Israel has declared itself to be a democratic state – is all about equality. But we were no equal citizens. That’s why we started to claim political equality.” In 1976, Arab activists organized a protest – the Land Day demonstration. “90% of our land had been confiscated by Israel. A population of 21% possesses only 2.5% of the land.” The Land Day protest asked for equal distribution of the land. Land, Darawshe explains, was vital for the Arab population, most of them living on agriculture. But land also meant dignity and development. “Because of the restrictions, our communities could not develop. They developed inwards, not to the outside. Today, the same infrastructure, that used to serve 1000 people, has to serve 3000 people”. The outcome of the protest marked the end of the fantastic period: six protesters were killed, hundreds injured and jailed. “They made it very clear to us that there are certain issues that we may not talk about. They made us understand that as long as we behave well and accept the Jewish hegemony, they will give us socio-economic development, but no political equality.”

The period of “Israelization” of the Arab community stopped and a regeneration of Palestinian identity started after Land Day. The social relations with the Westbank deepened, many having family there. In 1992, the Oslo negotiations completely neglected the issue of the status of the Arab Israelies. Nobody dared to talk about it. “Today we live triple or quadruple identities.” Young people go to Jewish Universities but live in Arab communities, or many work in Jewish towns where they do not live. So Arabs commute every day between home and work and school – between Jewish identity and Arab identity. In most public services, the Arab population is underrepresented. Being 21% of the total population, only 1,7% of the civil servants and 1% of the police force are Arabs. In many ways, the Arab population is discriminated and remains in poor conditions. “It is not incidental poverty, but institutional poverty.”

Hummus coexistence

Darawshe met his first Jew at the age of 19. It was a life changing experience for him and ever since he wishes, that everyone should have this kind of experience in Israel. The separated society is a reality today, Arab and Jews living in separate towns and going to separate schools.

Since Givat Haviva strives towards a shared society they began to organize encounters between young Arabs and Jews: doing things together, like music, sports etc. in order to “humanize each other”. “When you don’t know the other and think of the other as an enemy, you think of him as something not human, with horns, and a tail.” A good way to overcome dehumanization is what Darawshe calls “Hummus coexistence”: you get to know each other, you do activities together, “you eat your hummus from one plate”, you find out about the same interests and habits and you might become friends. “For 99% of the kids in the program it is the first time that they meet someone from the other side.”

The big drawback came quickly: In October 2000 the second Intifada started, 13 Arabs were killed by Israeli security forces and the number of participants in the programs of the Peace Center in Givat Haviv, Jewish or Arab, melted away. “We were just doing crisis management. We tried to keep the candle lit.” The lesson Darawshe drew out of this experience: “The effectiveness of the Hummus coexistence concept is very limited.” When former participants in the programs were asked, they often answered: “Yes, I met one nice Arab/Jew, but all the others…!”

Who was under the knife of Abraham?

Another concept is the narrative debate concept. The idea is to bring together Jewish and Arab High School students and discuss the different narratives of their shared history. The debate usually starts with “Who did what to whom” and goes on by trying to find out, who was first to do what to whom. This way it ends at the question of “who was under the knife of Abraham, Ismail or Isaac?” Darawshe jokes. This blame game is like a competition of who is the biggest victim. “And do you know who was sacrificed by Abraham?” Darawshe asks. “It was the goat!”

Darawshe tells us, that more and more he tended to favor pragmatic approaches rather than idealistic ones. A more practical concept is to look for “superordinate goals”. “Even if we cannot agree on a narrative, we might be able to define some superordinate goals that make our lives easier.” The foundation of joint Jewish-Arab schools was one attempt to overcome the segregation between Jews and Arabs. However, the “comfort zone of segregation”, as Darawshe calls it, is very strong. After the foundation of six shared schools (out of 6000 in Israel) it looks as if they reached saturation. There seems to be no more interest for another shared school.

The next attempt was rather unspectacular, but turned out to be very effective. They started a program in which Arab teachers go to Jewish schools to teach Arabic culture, religion and lifestyle. “It turned out to be like a pill against racism”, Darawshe says. Studies monitoring the tolerance of Arabs by Jewish children before and after the program showed a drop from 63% to 10% in the “Racism Index”. The Racism Index is developed by Professor Ephraim Ya’ar of Tel Aviv University. In this poll children are asked questions like: would you live in a house with an Arab/Jewish family? Meanwhile the program involves 360 schools and the vice versa program has started last year (Jewish teachers in Arab schools) and is equally successful.

A roadmap towards a shared society

Talking with leading politicians, proposing to draft policies supporting a shared society, Darawshe repeatedly got the message: “I can help you below the table in many ways to support your precious programs, but once I openly support you, I will have to go.” Nevertheless, finding solutions with leading personalities in politics or educational institutions often brought astonishing results. One example was to get a higher inscription rate of Arab students into the Technion, the famous Israeli University for Technology and Sciences. The rate was 3% and it was claimed that “there is not enough intellectual capacity in Arab communities”. However, analysing the situation of Arab students led to a program that quickly raised the rate up to 22%: The Technion offered one year of pre-University education and a mentoring program was installed in which Jewish students mentor new Arab students helping them in issues like housing, getting to know the place or with Hebrew or just taking them to a party.

Inspired by the Good Friday Agreements of Northern Ireland, a big effort is now underway to define practical recommendations for a roadmap towards a shared society. For this purpose, 70 distinguished people from all fields of the Jewish and Arab society in Israel will draft a document with recommendations. The most important aspect is that these proposals will be presented in town hall meetings in 40 different towns across Israel and 30,000 people will take part in a vote on how realistic and feasible these goals are.

Here in Germany, with the help of the Robert-Bosch-Foundation, Mohammad Darawshe studies conflict resolution in other ambits, especially how minorities reach agreements with the state they are living in, guaranteeing them equality.

Categories: Diversity, Human Rights, International, Middle East, Nonviolence, Peace and Disarmament
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