We have finished with the summer invasion of North American Jewish teenagers (and some adults) who visit our center for an encounter with local Israeli Arab youth. On the whole, it was, again this year, a successful program. Of the 1,500 or so teens we hosted, about half were from NFTY. One thing that always elicits amazement from our facilitators is the widespread lack of basic knowledge, on the part of both adult and teen visitors, about the Arabs in Israel. On the assumption that the information our guests are seeking might also be of interest to people exploring Israel through this diary, I will devote the next few entries to some background on the various communities of non-Jews in the Jewish state.
When the first Zionist settlers began to arrive at the end of the 19th century, they found, somewhat to their disappointment, that the land had not been lying empty and desolate, waiting for them. It was inhabited by Palestinian Arabs. From the beginning, the Jews were troubled by this reality, and divided over how to deal with it in the long run. Should we assimilate the Arabs? Expel them? Rule over them in a colonial model (at that point in time, the sun never set on the British empire )? Try to create some kind of shared sovereignty? No clear solution appeared, and in different times and places, different approaches were tried. Some insight into how the situation appeared already early in the century can be gained from a letter from Achad Haam, the Zionist leader and thinker, to a friend in Palestine in 1913, in response to a letter describing humiliation of Arabs by Jewish settlers:
If this report is true I dont know what to say. With the realization that our brothers are capable, in their moral qualities, of relating in this way to the members of another people and of crudely desecrating their holy places, I am forced to wonder, if the situation is like this now, what will be our relationship to others when we finally do achieve ruling power in the land of Israel. If this is the Messiah, then let him come but let me not see him.
Meanwhile, the Jewish population grew, the Arabs escalated their opposition to the creation of a Jewish majority, and the British gave up and walked away. The UN decided to partition the land into two states, one with a Jewish majority, one with a Palestinian Arab majority. The Jews reluctantly accepted this solution. The Arabs violently rejected it. In what we Jews call the War of Independence, most of the Arabs living in the areas that became Israel fled to surrounding countries around 700,000 fled; about 180,000 stayed. Those who stayed became, willingly or not, Israeli citizens. Today there are a million of them, 20% of the population of Israel, full citizens, carrying Israeli passports and paying Israeli income tax and sending their children to Israeli government schools (but a separate subsystem, with Arabic as the language of instruction). The main centers of Arab population are the Galilee, the area inland from the coast near Hadera, and the Negev.
Many of the Arabs who fled ended up in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Gaza (which was ruled by Egypt). When Israel conquered the West Bank and Sinai in 1967, it found itself ruling, in an increasingly permanent temporary military occupation, nearly four million Palestinian Arabs, many of them refugees from 1948 or their descendants. These, whom the world calls Palestinians today, are not and never have been Israeli citizens. Their relations with the Arabs who have been Israeli citizens since 1948 are complicated and fraught with ambivalence. Some day, it seems, they will have an independent state. How this will affect their relations with the Palestinian Arabs inside Israel is an interesting question.
In all discussions of Israels relations with the Palestinian Arabs, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between these two populations: the million who are Israelis, and the almost four million who are citizens of no state. They may share an ethnic identity, but their legal status and life experience are worlds apart.