M., who has been working for the past year as the counselor for our teen leadership program in Sha'ab, the Moslem village across the valley, is on maternity leave, so I have been meeting with the kids. Tuesday I made the 7 minute drive along the dirt road through the olive groves of the Hilazon valley, from Shorashim to Sha'ab, arriving just in time for the 3:00 session of the ninth grade group. Two girls were waiting for me. We made small talk until another five showed up around 3:20; the remaining five never made it. School had ended a few days before routines have gotten hard to keep up Sessions are in English to help them with their English, and to prepare them to meet with visiting groups of American Jewish teens and to provide a neutral meeting language for encounters with Israeli Jews as well.
At the previous session I had asked them to talk about positive and negative feelings about Israel from their point of view. They had all agreed that Israel is "racist" and that there is discrimination against Arabs here. OK, I said, give me some examples. Not a single kid could come up with a single example. I pointed out that that made their claim (which I happen to accept) not particularly convincing, and suggested that as a homework assignment, everyone would talk to family members, teachers, friends, and see if they could come up with examples to support their argument. Two remembered to do the assignment, and came back with similar stories: of being in a hospital emergency room and being bumped from line by a less seriously ill Jewish patient who came in after they did. Certainly believable, though also possibly representing a misunderstanding of emergency room priorities. Not the level of injustice on which to build a political party.
Later, in a conversation with a college student from the village, I described my experience, and she agreed with my concern that the kids seem just to mouth slogans they have heard, without any consciousness of the realities behind them. So I asked her to give me an example of racism, and after thinking for a moment, she spoke of an episode from the day's news, of a Jewish teenage hitchhiker who had been raped by an Arab driver. It was a major item in the tabloids, and took up about a third of the morning's radio newscast. (The media here have no problem publishing the ethnic identities of suspects and victims). You can be sure, she said, that if it had been an Arab girl who was raped, it would never have made the news. She was almost certainly right. Once again, though, I felt that somehow the focus was on the "small stuff" and not on the "heavy" issues of economic discrimination and political manipulation that are so obvious. But then it occurred to me that what you feel is what you feel, and for these young people in the village, the big picture is something you take for granted; it is structural. What hurts is the day-to-day humiliation, the jeers at soccer games, the nasty receptionist, the inquisition at the airport, the shame of the sensationalistic news item about your community. And so, while the diplomats negotiate, and the human-rights organizations demonstrate, and the politicians jockey for power and publicity, down at the grass roots it's business as usual, and the reservoirs of hurt and humiliation are kept well-filled, waiting for an incident that will crack the dam and unleash another flood of anger.
I look at these kids, bright and optimistic, with their plans to study at the Technion or the university, to be lawyers and doctors and teachers, and I wonder what will become of them. The old Zionist song goes: "We came to the land, to build and to be built in it." It seems to me that these Palestinian Israelis have the potential to build this land, and to be built in it. But if we deny them the opportunity to be built here, then no one, in the long run, will succeed in building anything.