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Arab Israelis, Undivided

In a new English translation of Second Person Singular, Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua gives voice to the Arab minority in the Jewish state

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Sharon Ya’ari, detail from Freeway, 2002, c-print, 124 x 156 cm. (Courtesy of the artist)

Two summers ago, I drove off of Route 6, the newish toll road that juts up against the West Bank near Tira, my destination, not far from the upscale Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Saba. I was meeting a dean and professor of women’s literature at a Galilee Islamic college, who told me that I would recognize Tira by the auto shops along the highway. Indeed, I already knew Tira from reading Sayed Kashua’s Haaretz columns, many of which reflect on his childhood upbringing there, in a voice that is at once both completely Israeli and also reflective of the minority voice in Israel. When I arrived at my destination—a modern villa-style suburban home—my host was reading Kashua’s new novel in Hebrew, just published in English under the title Second Person Singular. (None of Kashua’s work has been translated into Arabic.)

Raised in Tira by parents who were secular activists in the Israeli Communist Party, Kashua attended on scholarship the Israel Arts and Science Academy, a Jerusalem boarding school for gifted Israeli students. When I met him six years ago in his home in the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa, which sits on the Jerusalem municipal border (he has since moved to a mostly Jewish neighborhood in West Jerusalem), he talked about his formative literary experience in high school. “The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was the first book I read in Hebrew in high school,” he said. “I was crying because it was so difficult to read it in Hebrew because I had never read so much Hebrew. It was a big test for me that I should finish this novel. I had read one, two pages in Hebrew, and then came Salinger.”

Today, still in his early 30s, Kashua is an Israeli cultural phenomenon—with three novels, a weekly satiric column in Haaretz, and creator credit on Arab Labor, the first situation comedy in Israel to feature an Israeli Arab as the main character. The show, now entering its third season, is written by Kashua and loosely based on his Haaretz persona. No character, Jewish or Arab, is spared Kashua’s keen eye. In promoting the show he has said, “Extremist or right-wing people from both sides found it a little bit difficult, both Jews and Arabs, but I hope it makes people think.”

Kashua mined his childhood experiences for Dancing Arabs, a novel about a teenage boy from a Galilee village who goes to boarding school in Jerusalem, where he has his first substantive interactions with Jews. Scheming to return to the village, Kashua’s nameless first-person narrator plans to beg his parents on his first visit home to let him leave the school: “I’ll tell them how out of place I felt during the Rosh Hashanah meal, how I don’t know a single word of their songs.”

Kashua’s writing and insight serve to translate several different, and conflicting, realities at once: the Israeli Arab experience both in the Galilee villages and in the city, what it feels like to be an Arab student rising in elite status inside Israel, and, most important, how schizophrenic it feels to be an Arab citizen of Israel, never certain of who you are. When I asked him several years ago about what Tira’s residents thought of their portrayal—albeit fictional—in his first novel, Kashua told me: “All of Tira read Dancing Arabs, and all that they thought of it was that [the main character] lived with his wife before marriage. Not our families, but local newspapers wrote this—that he tarnished the name of the family.”

There is no starker illustration of the social and political insecurity that Israel’s Arab citizens face than the passages in Kashua’s second novel, Let It Be Morning, where he plays out a scenario put forward by Israel’s rightist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others to transfer swaths of land inside Israel and its inhabitants to the Palestinian government if they succeed in forming their own state. The trouble with this scenario is of course that the Arab-Israeli residents of the Galilee villages in dispute have absolutely no interest in being bargained and bartered over. As the Kashua-based narrator in the novel sees it, his Israeli Jewish colleagues on the fictional newspaper where he works never considered him one of them: “How I hate myself for trying to believe I was really one of them, for trailing after them on lunch breaks, for trying to kid around with them.” Yet, even as his village is surrounded by Israeli tanks, and phone service is cut off along with water and electricity as the land transfer is put into place under a veil of negotiating secrecy, the nameless narrator notes: “There are blockages all over the village and I wonder how it’s possible for people to know that the sewage is stopped up and the village has no water—and to continue behaving normally. Sometimes I can’t help feeling unspeakably sorry for them when I see how much they believe in their citizenship.”

And that is the rub, which makes Kashua such a good chronicler of his generation and his country. He writes about a significant portion of Israelis—20 percent of the population—who are citizens, trying to navigate their daily needs in the midst of an Israel that still needs to come to terms with what it means to live up to its own Declaration of Independence, which states: “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Kashua’s work captures the unique and often painful situation of Israel’s Arab citizens, while also opening a window for the non-Arab reader to better understand this dilemma. Indeed, a recent example drawn from Israel’s headlines could as easily come from one of Kashua’s novels when Israel’s first Arab permanent member to the Supreme Court, Salim Joubran, refused to sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, at a formal ceremony, choosing instead to stand silent. Since Hatikva is about Zionist yearning for return of the Jewish people to Israel, it offers no way in for the 20 percent of Israelis who do not share such yearnings.

The nameless narrator of Kashua’s newest novel is an Arab lawyer practicing in West Jerusalem (the Jewish side of the city), where he labors to fit in. Also hailing from a village in the Galilee, he came to Jerusalem to attend Hebrew University, met his wife (also a villager), and stayed to grow a family and establish his career. This novel takes us inside the lives of the Palestinian professionals who live mostly in East Jerusalem or in villages within the expanded greater Jerusalem borders like Beit Safafa and Beit Hanina and are a complex mix of Israeli citizens, West Bankers, and Jerusalemites, who don’t have citizenship status among either the Israelis or the Palestinian Authority. As anyone who reads this book will sense immediately, the notion that Jerusalem is a united city is ridiculous; spend any time, as Kashua’s characters do, as an Arab living in East Jerusalem and your daily reality—from the books you read, the music you listen to, the justice that is adjudicated, and how and where you educate your children—is completely different from that of your counterparts in West Jerusalem.

Fittingly, Kashua sends his two children to the bilingual school in Jerusalem. It’s the only place in that city where there is an effort to integrate Arab and Jewish students, with two teachers of each background in each class, yet all the kids develop a Jewish-Hebrew accent. As Kashua told me when we met: “I am protecting my kids. But now they don’t have an accent. My daughter has no Arabic accent because she was taught in the bilingual school, and it is much easier. I don’t know how one person who looks like an Arab can survive in this country,” he sighed. “But I am doing my best to look like an ‘Israeli,’ I think.”


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George says:

Yeah, it’s a tough life being an arab living in the only democracy in the Middle East where you have more rights and freedoms than your fellow arabs living in Arab countries.The reviewer, typical of most Liberal-Lefties is either very uninformed and/or clueless. The arabs of every social strata have no problem identifying who and what they are. They are first and foremost, arabs living under a Jewish government. Their sympathies and loyalties are not to anything associated with the Jewish state.

Carl says:

You left out one teenie detail about Lieberman’s plan. All the Arab representatives in the knessset openly state that they view themselves as Palestinians. If the Israeli Arabs view themselves as Palestinians what is wrong with re-drawing the border to include them in a Palestinian state without them losing their land or homes? It should make them happy to be free of the rule of the oppressive Jews.

Some day the Arab Israelis may have to choose if they want to live in a Jewish State or to live in a Palestinian one (other than Jordan). That will be very interesting.

Right now, many Arab Israelis have the luxury (and audacity?) to identify themselves as Palestinians and deny the Jewish State, while benefiting from living in the Jewish state.

Does this book have a translator (I imagine it does) – a publisher, a price? I’ve noticed that most of the comments are rightwing, but Kashua is a real Israeli – to be read, discussed, understood and admired, not to be feared. If Arabs could assimilate in Israel the way Jews have in the US, we in Israel would be in great shape. Probably too late now – maybe in a couple hudred years.

Carl says:

I’m not right wing, and I’ve read and enjoyed 2 of his books in Hebrew. However that doesn’t mean that the truth should be distorted by presenting only 1 side of the picture.

alan says:

Arab Israelis have a problem and are a problem. Other Arabs look upon them as Israelis and Israelis look upon them as Arabs. Quite often they are not loyal to Israel, (they elect anti-Israel MKs) but do not want to live in a country run by Arabs. After having spoken with some local Israeli Arab leaders, I noticed they all have the same or similar narrative. They love Israel, BUT, and ther is always a BUT, they want more benefits, money, equality with those who serve in the IDF and better job opportunities. They claim that the onus is on Israel to do more for them, but never say what they have to do for Israel. They also warn that if Israel does not do for them, there will be another intafada.

That sure shows their patriotism and loyalty. NOT!

Israeli-American says:

Kashua is a very “Ashkenazic” Arab, lol. Hopefully there are more modern Arabs like him in Israel.

Lili says:

The only good thing about Kashua literal writing is that he is an exotic attraction.
This book is a bad book. Not less and not more.
Let it be morning is his only reasonable novel.
And… it is going to be a reality once Israel and Palestine are smart enough to reach some kind of agreement:
Israel will take a piece of land full of Jews, and will give Palestine a piece of land full of Palestinians according to their announced identity.
(Is there any reason apart from exotic populism that this mediocre novel gets your attention, and the best novel written in Israel in years and was translated into English some months ago, Heatwave and Crazy Birds, is ignored? Or maybe your book-reporter is not intelligent enough to appreciate it?)

George says:

“Is there any reason apart from exotic populism that this mediocre novel gets your attention’

The reason is that the Liberal-leftists long ago certified the arabs of Israel as official ‘Victims’ with all the rights and privileges which come with that designation. Among which is the elevating of any inferior work of art which pushes the agenda of ‘victimization’. In America this same phenomenon is seen in the many books by blacks which are so second-rate in every aspect of the written word,yet because they address the lives of America’s favorite ‘victim’, its black population,they are received by the cultural ‘elites’ with undisguised shouts of joy.

Dubala says:

All children in Israel should be required to learn Hebrew and Arabic. This is only the beginning…a common curriculum is essential, in which the stories of both people are told.

arcaneone says:

It would have been a lot better if the reader had been told exactly HOW the Arab and Jewish experienceswere completely different.

Steve says:

who is Jo-Ann Mort ? who doesn’t know anythings about Israeli geodemographic situation? Since when the Palestinians towns in Vadi Ara are in the Galil?
Unfortunately, we cannot make a similar deal with the palestinians in the Galil.
Unfortunately we didn’t finish the job on 1948. Unfortunately Moshe Dayan did a stupid deal with King Abdalla from Jordan AFTER all talks had finished and asked him for the Vadi Ara so the ‘waist’ of Israel is a bit wider. Since than Vadi Ara turned into Vadi Chara with palestinians multiplying 20 x folds in 60 years. Like flys on Chara
One out of many problems with her one-sided bullshit.
SHE calls them Israeli-Arabs
THEY define themselves as palestinians

Poor Arabs living in Israel . Their children feel left out and do not feel comfortable because their Jewish counterparts celebrate Rosh Hashona and they do not understand it . I guess Jewish children should be uncomfotable in the Diaspora should feel uncomfortable when Christians or Muslims  celebrate their holidays . I guess we should eliminate religious Jewish  holidays in Israel so Muslims should be comfortable .


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Arab Israelis, Undivided

In a new English translation of Second Person Singular, Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua gives voice to the Arab minority in the Jewish state