Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Arab Minority within Israel Field notes

Although Israel is officially referred to as a “State for the Jewish People”, about 20% of the population is made up of Christian, Muslim and Druze Arabs, henceforth referred to as Palestinians living in Israel. There is a mutual rejection of israeli identity for this population, both on the part of the official israeli government and the Palestinian people themselves. The Palestinians living within israel came to live within israel's borders by default-- they did not flee the land during the 1948 war. While technically they are inhabitants of Israel, the issue of citizenship appears to be widely disputed. Palestinians living within israel can vote, but are restricted in ways that other Israelis are not Though many of these restrictions are explicit, the majority of them are implicit-- they are discriminatory practices held in place by fear and prejudice against the arab population. Palestinians living within israel cannot officially own whatever land they choose, nor are they able to move freely about the region. Their land can be arbitrarily taken away from them, as seen in many towns throughout the region-- most notably and recently  in East Jerusalem. They hold special identification cards, and attend separate schools from Israeli Jews. There have been implicit reports of systemic discrimination on the part of official israeli actors, including creating preventative measures to impede the palestinian population from acquiring permits to buy/maintain land and build water tanks, as well as a general refusal to accept the validity of the different culture as a part of the region.

In fairness, I should mention that all Israeli's are held to the law of acquiring permits before building, buying or maitaining land. A state cannot simply allow anyone to do whatever they want-- they must keep order somehow. The discrimination is not inherent in these laws themselves, but rather the implimentation of these laws. In plain english-- it is much easier for an Israeli Jew to acquire these permits than a member of the Palestinian minority. Though there are many examples of this happening, the one I can think of right now is in the Golan Heights-- since acess to water in the golan heights is quite expensive (as they must go through the israeli government), the townspeople decided to build water tanks in order to collect rain water. There was quite a contraversy over the building of these tanks, and many proposals in more recent years have been rejected by the government, and the use of the tanks for a long time was taxed. Just recently, the Israelis have finally overturned the law that requires the inhabitants of the Golan Heights to pay a tax on the rainwater that is collected through these tanks.

The idea of nation building is quite difficult. Although the nation of Jewish people has existed in the world, the transformation of this nation into an official state has been more difficult in practice than in theory. The Zionist dream of a democratic state for the Jewish people has proven problematic in practice. By definition Israel is a democratic state-- all of the population, including Palestinians living within israel, have an opportunity to vote in Knesset elections. The contradiction, however, occurs in the official naming of Israel as a state for the Jewish people. This problem in title reflects the prejudice that I have detailed in the previous paragraph. Since Israel is viewed as a state for the Jewish people, it does not, by definiition, include the 20% arab minority. So the question arises: is it possible to have a democracy that refuses to officially include 20% of it's population in its national identity?

I'd like to take a moment and talk a bit about national identity, and how the problem of an ethno-national identity can impact the psychology of the discriminated minority. We've seen this problem in the United States (although slightly different because we do not officially define ourselves as a nation of Anglos despite the fact that our policies seem to demonstrate this belief).  As odd (and horrible) as it sounds, it is only through studying this conflict that I have come to begin understanding this problem.

Walking around the Golan Heights (which I will detail in my field notes for that visit, since there is much to say), we met up with a community organizer who created a  community center for the townspeople. The community center is Arab only, and it includes a medical center (with some really impressive technology that puts some US institutions to shame, I might add), a community theater and performance troupe, fine art studios and supplies, and music lessons/practice rooms. When I heard this community center was for Arabs only, I felt a bit of satisfaction. My instinctive thought was “Good, they need a positive community space.”After years and years of exposure to a national identity narrative that is both destructive to the Arab ethnic identity, and exclusive to only the Jewish ethnic identity, Palestinians living in Israel and Syrians in Occupied Golan (I will explain the distinction in the next note section, since it's a little complex) could use a dose of positive self-esteem and community. Here is where I see the paralell between the minority population in Israel and the minority populations in the United States.

With the formation of any identity, but particularly a national identity relating to a nation in conflict, there is an inherent necessity to exclude others. This exclusion provides a sense of security for the ingroup-- by knowing who is not part of us, we know who we are. The more intense the requirements for the ingroup (ie religious and ethnic requirements), the thicker this psychological security barrier becomes. The mentality is something along the lines of “since we are of the same religion and ethnicity, we see things the same way. We can trace our connections back via bloodlines, and therefore we are genetically an ingroup as well as psychologically.” When in reality, as we've seen with scientific studies of both race and ethnicity: there are more similarities between groups than within groups. Yet, this myth of kinship is perpetauted during the creation of a group identity, and can (and often does, as with the Israel/Palestine conflict) cause violence during the creation of a state-based national identity.

The physical presence of the arab outgroup within the boundaries of the state of israel gives a sense of insecurity. Many people within Israel wish the Arab minority would assimilate their identity into the Israeli majority, because the presence of a different ethnicity provides a weak point within the Jewish State. Here lies the fundamental problem of the definition of Israel as a Jewish state-- the theory does not line up with the reality.

Furthermore, the sense of exclusion does not motivate the Palestinians living within Israel to assimilate their identity. The presence of this psychological barrier between the ethnic groups provides them with a default sense of unified identity-- since they are not part of the ingroup majority, they must be part of an outgroup minority.  The occurance of violence, prejudice and implicit discrimination only bolster these boundaries and categories.

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