The Arabs are Jewish Israel’s ‘others.’ This was not what the early Zionists envisaged. They tended to ignore this part of the population, relegating them to a colorful but insignificant place in the background of the Israeli landscape in which extraordinary events were taking place. Those who, like Herzl, did think about the Arabs in the early days of the movement were convinced that the advantages of civilization that Zionism would offer this ‘backward’ region – as many Jews already perceived them to be – would be embraced gratefully by the local inhabitants. The Arabs would then happily march forwards, hand-in-hand with the Jews, into a Zionist sunset. Some certainly had a different vision. Ahad Ha‘am recognized the difficulties ahead and criticized the optimism of his opponents in the Zionist world, but he could be dismissed as a permanent pessimist. In a later generation, Ze’ev Jabotinsky refused to bow to the prevailing vision of a happy ending; he too was dismissed by many because of his militaristic opinions – so out of touch with the majority opinion – and his admiration for certain aspects of Italian fascism. Zionists continued to think optimistically, confident that – in time – they would overcome opposition and peace would unite the struggling sides.

There is an interesting scene in the 1960 film There Were Ten that is relevant to this discussion. Tracing the fortunes of a group of Halutzim in the late 19th century, the film dwells on the problems that the new settlers experience with the local Arabs. In buying the land, they have also acquired the legal right to use the water of a local well that is situated in an Arab village nearby. The Arabs do not want the settlers there and make it impossible for them to obtain the water. The Jews have to resort to drawing it by night. Finally, after a confrontation with local shepherds who are driving their flocks deliberately over the settlers’ newly-ploughed land, an argument breaks out among the Jews regarding the correct policy to pursue. Some believe in appeasement and are content, for the meantime, to continue to draw their water at night. Others argue that the only response is to use force against the Arabs. The argument they use is: “They only understand force.” The dispute leads to a discussion of the need to create a new sort of Jew in Eretz Yisrael: one who is not afraid of his own shadow and who is prepared to fight back, not because he likes fighting but because he is not afraid to stand up for his rights.

This is a very telling scene because it raises, in a microcosm, the argument that had already existed for decades before the film was made. Today, more than forty years after its release, the scene is a fascinating entry point into an argument that has become perhaps the main issue in contemporary Israeli society: what to do about the Arabs. Israel today is a far less optimistic place than when the film was made; it also is incomparably less naive than the period in which its plot was set. Viewing the film today is an extraordinary experience because it brings into the focus the interaction between these three different periods, each with their own view of the issue, and each less optimistic than the one before.

Far from fading into the background, the Arabs are an ever-present reality in modern Israel. It is important to stress that, despite this discussion about Israel as a Zionist State, some 20% of the country’s population are Israeli Arabs. (This does not include the Palestinians in the territories captured in the 1967 war).

The Arabs are Israel’s ‘others’ not only in demographic terms; they are also a significant factor in that they have become the country’s ever-present obsession, a source of simultaneous fear and fascination. One of the first to notice this and explore it in his work was the young Amos Oz . Arabs took a central place in the fantasies of his Israeli protagonists, in his first book of stories published in Israel in the 1960s (and later translated as When the Jackals Howl). The story Nomad and Viper, for example, portrays the Arab imagined as dangerous, threatening and yet seductively attractive. His early novel My Michael explores the same theme: here the heroine, trapped in a mediocre marriage, longs for depth and excitement that only the Arabs of her fantasies can provide. A more recent story, the wonderful, much anthologized Room on the Roof by Savyon Liebrecht, delivers a similar message in a language alert to the slightest nuances of the problematic interaction between Jew and Arab in Israel.

The early writers who wrote about the Arabs tended to romanticize them. They perceived them, and the Bedouin in particular, as exotic models for the new Jew to which Zionism aspired. Writers such as Moshe Smilansky and Yitzhak Shemi wrote modern fantasies about the Arab inhabitants of the region that were influenced by The Arabian Nights. They often portrayed them as people of honor, at home in nature, with none of the faults with which city life corrupts its dwellers. These stories in Hebrew sometimes contain not a single Jewish character; nonetheless, but it is not difficult to discern beneath the surface the Jews about whom they were so concerned.

In order to understand this, one only has to look at pictures of the early guards of the Shomer movement, the first Zionist self-defense organization in the country. Sitting on horseback, or standing, the really interesting element in these pictures is the clothes they have chosen: a mixture of the Cossack and the Bedouin. They look so proud and, in retrospect, so naive. The exoticism of the Arab, at home on the land and at one with nature – a person who has never been spoiled by ‘civilization’ – was a deeply attractive image for those who supported the idea of the new Jew. This was a central image in the writings of Zionist writers in the early 20th century.

Time and conflict would soon overlay that image with different significance, however. The image of the Arab as a cruel, unscrupulous enemy developed in the late 1920s and 30s as the Yishuv came into contact with Arab terrorism for the first time. The image of the Arab as a victim to be pitied was developed in the ground-breaking work of S.Yizhar, e.g. in the 1949 story, The Prisoner, mentioned above, but only really became accepted by a wider public in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The image of the Arab as a harsh, ruthless potential murderer is more recent. The brilliance of Savyon Liebricht’s story, Room on the Roof, is that she manages to combine all of these layers in a subtle parable of the extremely complex relationship between Jew and Arab.

The theme of the Arab as victim has dominated Israeli cinema since the 1980s, as presented by the mainly left-leaning film industry. Hamsin (1982) shows the tension that develops between Galilean Arabs and Jews when the army decides to requisition Arab land. Nadia (1986) portrays the struggle of a young Arab girl from a village in the Galilee, who attends a Jewish boarding school in an attempt to obtain a better education. Several of the Israeli figures in the film are depicted as callous; even the better ones are insensitive and unaware of the plight of Arabs in Israel. Behind the Walls (1986) is a prize-winning political film that portrays Israelis and Palestinian Arabs as victims of a manipulative establishment that prefers to perpetuate the difficult situation through a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Smile of the Lamb (1986), an adaptation of David Grossman’s novel, evinces great sympathy for the native Palestinian position and calls into question the whole idea of enlightened Israeli rule in the territories captured in 1967.

Fictitious Marriage (1988) is a rather implausible film about an Israeli business-man who decides to step away from his life and, through a series of coincidences, adopts a new identity as a deaf-and-dumb Palestinian construction worker. In its heavy-handed way, it portrays the Arab as a victim of Israeli suspicions and stereotypes, on the one hand, and the Jew as a victim of an impossible situation, on the other. Another interesting, prize winning film, Avanti Popolo (1986) uses these images very cleverly. When Shylock’s famous speech “ I am a Jew: Hath not a Jew eyes…” is put into the mouth of an Egyptian soldier who is a Shakespearean actor in his native Cairo, the film becomes a parable: the Arab has now replaced the Jew as victim.

In recent years, as a result of the confusion wrought by the murderous terrorism unleashed by Palestinian fundamentalism and the legacy of the two Intifadas, Israeli cinema has tended to step away from Arab-Jewish tensions and politics in general.

A further element that must not be overlooked is the significant input of Arab artists in creative expression in Israel. This essentially occurs in three spheres. A number of Israeli Arabs have contributed individually within Israeli Jewish frameworks in the context of the wider cultural scene. This is particularly evident with regard to actors in both theater and film. For example, Salim Dau, Muhammed Bakri, Salma Nakara and Makram Khouri are serious actors who are well known to the wider Israeli public. Interestingly, they are not confined to Arab roles. This works in both directions: Israeli Jewish actors have effectively played roles as Israeli Arabs. For example, Khouri portrays an Israeli military governor in the film Smile of the Lamb, while Hannah Azoulai-Hasfari played the title role in Nadia.

Arab actors have a difficult time within Israeli cinema and – most particularly – in the theater. An Arab theater actor who must appear nightly before Israeli – predominantly Jewish – audiences can sometimes feel contradictions, given the problematic relations between the Arab community and the larger unit of the Zionist State. Dau recently confessed that, in the middle of the second Intifada it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to do his job; Bakri has intimated the same.

Many Arab artists have also participated in some form of cultural dialogue and common expression with Israeli Jewish artists. One example is the recent adornment of the Wadi Nisnas area of Haifa. Paintings and murals of Mediterranean scenes and sculptures of stone and iron were prepared through the co-operation of some 100 Jewish and Arab artists.

Some Israeli Arabs have introduced the Arab perspective into their work, working as individuals within Israeli culture to express their points of view. Particularly important in this connection are the writers Anton Shammas and the late Emil Habibi. Their works in Hebrew express the experience of the Arabs of Israel yet have been widely read by the Israeli Jewish public. Such writers have created their own artistic expression while using the tools of Israeli culture. Their contribution thus differs from the Arab actors mentioned earlier who are involved in cultural projects created by Jews. There are exceptional cases, however, in which Arab actors have created their own one-person shows in order to express their individual viewpoint.

An interesting phenomenon has developed in recent decades in Israeli music. With internal ethnic realignments between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews (see Section 10), local musicians have stopped relying almost exclusively on Western models. As a result, Middle Eastern (i.e. Arabic) motifs are increasingly heard in the local popular music. These musical influences first penetrated the Israeli music scene through the filter of the early Mizrahi singers. Wishing to be accepted by the Israeli mainstream, they sang in Hebrew and included some Western and Mediterranean popular styles.

In the early to mid-1990s, however, some musicians began to shift into Arabic musical styles as the Arabic language became increasingly acceptable. Some Israeli musicians began to work within the classical Arab tradition itself, a key example being Zehava Ben. After considerable success with her Turkish-influenced Hebrew-language popular music, she proceeded to present a series of critically-acclaimed concerts in Arabic, singing the work of the great Egyptian singer Um Kulthoum. Interestingly enough, this was very well received by the Arab population of the region. In a parallel trend, a number of popular Mizrahi singers released disks of dance music in Arabic.

A totally different manifestation of this trend in music began to develop in the mid-1990s. Buoyed by the new optimistic atmosphere of co-existence in the years immediately following the Oslo agreements, a number of groups formed that included both Jewish and Israeli-Arab musicians. They started to play a completely new kind of Israeli music, a fusion of Western and Arabic musical influences. When the atmosphere of optimism began to fade, most of the groups fell apart. However one group survived that has garnered considerable critical acclaim – both in Israel and in Europe. Bustan Avraham (Abraham’s Garden) has produced some intriguing instrumental music, introducing sectors of the Israeli public to the potential in Arabic music.

Jewish Israel’s problematic relationship with the Arabs in general – and with the Arab Israeli population in particular – will continue in the future. Whether the subject of the Arabs appears at the forefront of Israeli creative culture will depend, among other things, on the degrees of optimism and/or pessimism that it arouses in Israeli society. The directions that creative expression takes will largely depend on the directions that the general relationship takes.



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16 Apr 2015 / 27 Nisan 5775 0