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An Arab Maverick in Israel

Bucking convention in his village, Yousef Juhja sent three sons to the IDF—and one paid the ultimate price

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Yousef Juhja (Oren Kessler)

Yousef Juhja’s cell phone number ends, coincidentally, with the digits 1948. It’s the year of his birth and that of the Jewish state—and for most of Juhja’s fellow Israeli Arabs, the year of the Nakba, the catastrophe of national dispossession and the dispersion of their Palestinian kin.

But Juhja is an outlier in Arara, his hilltop village in the politically volatile Wadi Ara valley, and among the broader Israeli Arab community. That’s because he sent three sons to the Israel Defense Forces—a rare and deeply unpopular choice made by just a few dozen Arab youth every year.

“I sent three of my boys to military service with full conviction,” Juhja tells me over muddy coffee and cigarettes in his home. “For an Arab, sending one’s sons into the army is a brave decision. I’m a trailblazer.”

In 2004 one of those sons, 19-year-old Staff Sgt. Sa’id Juhja, paid the ultimate price for the Jewish state when he was killed in a bomb attack in Gaza. Shortly after, the bereaved father built a memorial to his son and seven other Arab soldiers killed in uniform over the years. The site—built on Juhja’s own initiative, property, and dime—is the only one of its kind in Israel.

The memorial is housed in a modest red-roofed edifice adjacent to Juhja’s home. Two large Israeli flags fly at its entrance, and inside an even bigger one stretches along the back wall facing a vista of stony, undulating terrain. On the side wall are marble memorial plaques—in Hebrew and Arabic—for eight soldiers, Muslim and Christian, killed between 1989 and the present. Juhja says he plans to add additional plaques if, “God forbid,” he hastens to add, the list of fallen Arab soldiers grows.

After years of bureaucratic wrangling, the plaques were finally paid for in 2010 by the Defense Ministry. The ministry also agreed to recognize the site as an official monument and to reimburse Juhja for 50 percent of the cost of its construction. Still, Juhja fears he may not be long for this world—life expectancy for Israeli Arab men is 75, but the 64-year-old is a chain smoker—and he doesn’t expect his five surviving sons or the Arara local authorities to keep the memorial running. He wants the ministry to take full control of daily operation and is contemplating extreme measures to make that happen.

“I and the other bereaved Arab fathers whose sons are commemorated here are considering waging a hunger strike outside the Defense Ministry,” Juhja says. “The ministry has gone AWOL.”

Arara is a village of 16,500, perched five kilometers from the Green Line separating Israel proper from the West Bank. Juhja says he welcomes around 50 visitors to the site weekly, but at present the path leading to it is too narrow for a bus. To allow bus access, he says, an electrical pole would have to be relocated at a cost of 26,000 shekels, or $6,700.

“For three years the ministry was making promises and calling committee after committee,” Juhja says. “Finally, this summer they told me there have been budget cuts, and they don’t know where they’d be able to get the money. In the meantime, I’m paying for everything: electricity, water, cleaning, even the chair you’re sitting in.”

The ministry, for its part, believes it’s done more than enough for Juhja, who built the memorial of his own volition and without having consulted the relevant authorities. “The Defense Ministry is tasked solely with maintaining national and brigade-level memorial sites. There are 24 such sites, such as [Jerusalem’s] Ammunition Hill and the Golani Brigade memorial,” a ministry spokesperson wrote me. “Still, the ministry deemed it appropriate to assist Mr. Juhja—ex gratia and on an unprecedented scale—in establishing a site to commemorate his son and additional fallen soldiers from the Arab community.”

Arabs, like most ultra-Orthodox Jews, are legally exempted from Israel’s mandatory conscription, though almost all male Druze (an Arabic-speaking community following an offshoot of Shia Islam) enlist, and 5 to 10 percent of Bedouin males volunteer, many as scouts and trackers. A memorial exists for fallen Bedouin servicemen and two for the Druze, but until Juhja’s initiative, no similar site existed for other Arab soldiers killed in uniform.

For decades, these wholesale community-based exemptions from military service have rankled mainstream Jewish Israelis. That arrangement, generally known as the Tal Law, expired this summer, and raucous national political debate ensued over whether ultra-Orthodox should be forced to complete IDF or nonmilitary national service. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu have gone further, pushing proposals to include Arabs in mandatory military or civilian service as well.

That prospect is unlikely. Arab citizens of Israel have an equivocal, some would say almost schizophrenic relationship with the state, its symbols, and the majority Jewish population. Israel’s Arabs, some of whom identify as “Palestinians living in Israel” or even “1948 Arabs,” pepper their speech with Hebrew and balk at the prospect of marrying their West Bank brethren. But polls show 40 percent share the view—pervasive in the Arab world—that Holocaust history is fabricated.

A still greater proportion of Israeli Arabs see Zionism as imperialism, or worse, as a latter-day Crusade. Last year, an authoritative annual poll conducted by the University of Haifa’s Sammy Smooha found six in 10 Israeli Arabs said Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, and a similar proportion said Jews are a foreign imprint on the Middle East, destined to be replaced by Palestinians.

This year’s poll painted a slightly less grim picture: Six in 10 Israeli Arabs accept the country as a Jewish and democratic state, but an equivalent number described that situation as unfair. And while seven in 10 said the government treats them as second-class citizens, a similar proportion said they prefer to live in Israel over any other country.

While in the immediate aftermath of Sgt. Juhja’s death, scores of soldiers, ministry officials, and even Israel’s then-president Moshe Katsav paid calls to the house, few of Arara’s residents attended the funeral, and some shop owners refused to give the grieving father service. A number of Knesset members have since visited the memorial—but none have been Arab.

When I ask Juhja how he has the strength to stand his ground in the face of his community’s near-universal hostility, he waves away the question: “I have my own philosophy,” he says. “As for religion, I’m devout in my own way. I thank God he gave me a brain to think, and eyes to see you with. That’s religion to me. Does God want us all to kill each other? I don’t think so.”

But Juhja’s biography is exceptional and may help explain his determination to integrate into Israel’s Jewish mainstream. At 14, after finishing his schooling—Arara had no high school at the time—he left the village to work with his father, a poor farmer, to clear the shrub land near Tel Aviv where Ramat Gan’s Diamond Exchange now sits. Within a few years he had found employment in gardening and maintenance at the home of Ramat Gan’s longtime mayor Avraham Krinitzi, living with the family and being treated, he recalls, as one of its own. When, at 22, Juhja chose to get married, dozens of families from Ramat Gan traveled to Arara for the celebration.

Juhja’s cousin, a man in his 40s who asked to remain nameless, is, like most Arara residents, opposed to Arab enlistment. Unlike them, however, he has not shunned his bereaved relative, and even holds out the possibility of one day fitting out his own sons in green.

“It’s true, Yousef broke new ground. He went against the ‘street’ of Wadi Ara and the whole area. That’s rare courage,” his cousin tells me. “I’m proud that I’m an Israeli citizen and that I live in the state of Israel, but I feel constant discrimination. There are huge gaps between the Jewish and Arab communities on every level.”

“I go to Tel Aviv and hear ‘Death to the Arabs.’ Then I go into the [Palestinian] territories, and I’m treated as if I’m half a Jew,” he says. “If peace comes in another 10 or 15 years, and if I’m given my rights and made to feel like I belong, I’ll be the first to send my sons to enlist.”

Juhja, undeterred, dresses down his younger relative.

“You are a minority. Every minority in the world suffers to a certain extent—some more, others less. But you have to express your frustration in an organized, democratic way,” he says. “For the past year and a half, young people in Tel Aviv have protested over the lack of housing. If you want to protest discrimination, do so within the framework of the law.”

Lighting another smoke, Juhja turns to me and cuts to the heart of the matter. “I’m not a citizen of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, or even the Palestinian Authority,” he says. “I’m a Muslim-Arab Israeli. I received Israeli citizenship the moment I was born.”


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julis123 says:

Arabs slaughter other Arabs all over the middle east. They only refuse to serve in the army of the only country in the area that provides them with freedom of press and religion, democracy and a higher standard of living than any other neighboring country. Their children can start working or studying at age 18 while Jewish children get paid a small stipend while serving in the army. Despite all this they complain. What is the Arabic word for Hutzpah?

    Just because somewhere people behave worse, it is not a good enough reason not to keep improving the way things are run in our own country; and certainly, the patronizing “we give them all this wonderful charity” tone is not helping to build friendly and mutually understanding relationships, not to mention, it’s a pretty flat and poor understanding of the complex situation at hand. It’s people like you who are most like all those “other Arabs” you are so scornful of. Worse yet, you sound like “benevolent anti-Semites” of the European sort, echoing thoughts of “we tolerate all these Jews in our cities, and how dare they complain…” That makes me truly sad, and ashamed, for you.

    This man is going against the grain in so many ways, one of the few examples of people truly practicing the dictum “be the change you want to see in the world.” He is going against his relatives, his village, and even against people like you, who only see what they want to see. He should be an inspiration to us all.

      julis123 says:

      I wasn’t criticizing him. I was criticizing the Arabs citizens who don’t enlist. Your attitude towards the arabs in Israel is extremely patronizing and condescending. You don’t expect them to contribute to society like everyone else? Why? They would have a much stronger case for (justifiably) demanding their equal rights if they would support the state who has given them so much (but admittedly not as much as the Jews, for a variety of reasons).

        Perhaps you would want to make your comments more clear, next time. From what you have written, you were indeed criticizing the subject of the article and perhaps his remarks, as well as his cousins, that they are being treated as second-class citizens. For the record, I expect all Israeli citizens to contribute equally to society and serve in the army – Arabs, the Orthodox, whatever. But I also understand why the Arabs would have a “schizophrenic relationship with the state”, as the article puts it, not to mentions with Israelis themselves, who often fuel the fire with outright expressions of hatred. I grew up in a pretty conflicted neighbourhood, with an orthodox enclave on one hand and an Arab area on the other, and mostly, I saw a lot of bigotry and provincialism on all sides. Ironically enough, as the daughter of Russian immigrants, I was equally unloved by all of them. Unless we get over our internal issues of small-mindedness and racism, sadly, I don’t see this all going very well.

Great article Oren! I liked Juhja’s comment,
“As for religion, I’m devout in my own way. I
thank God he gave me a brain to think, and eyes to see you with. That’s
religion to me. Does God want us all to kill each other? I don’t think

Hey, how about a photo of the monument?

Why not move the monument to somewhere more accessible and easier to maintain?

Simply amazing. It should be a sign to both sides that people – thinking people – who shun mob mentality and engage in active and positive discourse are alive and well and examples to both faiths. The Government of Israel should accept this shrine as a gift of goodness and solidarity and show the entire work where it wants to be in this ugly and endless war.

Great article,we all are praying for peace between Arabs and Jews i am an arab muslim living in Israel,and i have to say that Israel is not what you see in the news,it’s true, Israel is not perfect,but for Arabs living here,it’s really paradise,i love Jews and that how i’ve been raisedand taught,and this is the Islam i know, Arabs thing that Jews are their enemy,but THAT’S WRONG, Jews are our brothers!!indeed.

    This may just be my observations as an American, but I think that Israeli Jews and Israeli/Palestinian Arabs have more in common than Israeli Jews and anyone else. I see Israelis using more and more Palestinian Arabic (achla, sababa, yalla, etc), and Palestinians are using more and more Hebrew (b’seder, etc). After 70 years together, the groups are moving together, and I think that a one-state solution would end more like Lebanon than it would Saudi Arabia.

    FinnyMac says:

    How do you feel about the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948? As an Arab, how do you manage to love Israel, when you consider how Israel’s national myth would be happy to ignore this episode of ethnic cleansing of an Arab people?

      I knew two people of mostly American Indian heritage (one was Sioux, one was Cherokee) who joined the army. I grew up in Minnesota, one of the locations of the Indian Wars and a state with one of the worst Jim Crow laws when it came to Indians, and I can tell you that what we did to their people was way worse than what the Israelis did to the Palestinians, but you do not necessarily need to like a country for their history, only their principles. You love a country because you love the ideals of democracy, equality, justice, and freedom. It’s why Indians can love the US and why Arabs can love Israel.

      Your an idiot. After all what does he know about Israel. He only LIVES there.

    Fed_Up18 says:

    You are the hope of the future – get your mother to hug & kiss you for me.

    Fed_Up18 says:

    You are the hope of the future – get your mother to hug & kiss you for me.

I won’t criticize Arabs who serve in the Israeli army ~ that’s their business, but to report on it as something extraordinary only shows fawning sycophancy for the IDF. Tsarist Russia was racist against Jews, but Jews were disproportionately conscripted into that army. Serving in the Israeli army isn’t going to win you any favors, because there’s a glass ceiling, or really a glass cellar, for gentiles.

    Anyone can become a Jew.

      Take that to the logical extension, convert all the Palestinian refugees to Judaism and eureka, they can return to Palestine through the Israeli Law of Return. Will the Zionist state permit that? Probably not. Anyone can become a Jew, but not everyone can become an Israeli Jew.

        Why not? A lot of them are secret Jews anyway. Besides, if they want to return to Palestine, I’m sure Hamas will set up a law of return for fellow Palestinian Arabs.

          Is this what you’re referring to? (The Hidden Palestinian Jews)

          Early on, European Zionism was very reluctant to acknowledge Middle Eastern and African Jews as fellow Zionists, even when they openly identified as Jewish. Before the Holocaust, the emerging Zionist colonies (Moshavim) had little use for Oriental Jews and the collective farms (Kibbutzim) had no use for them at all.

          Ideally, Israel was supposed to be created by young, fit Ashkenazim while the Palestinians sold their land or had it sold for them and moved somewhere else. Instead, the Zionist colony had to remove them by military force and accept Holocaust survivors and those same Oriental Jews they were disdaining a few years back, and not without some grumbling.

          So it’s not bloody likely the discovery that a few Hebronites secretly wrap tefilin is going to matter. If anything, the mutual hostility will probably increase if many Palestinians start identifying as Jewish, because this is a native-settler conflict, and everyone on the ground is going to know who’s who regardless.

          Yes, that is the video. Of course it’s not going to be the solution to the problem, it’s just an interesting fact.

          Of those early Zionists (not all European, by the way), most are dead and certainly the supposed mindset regarding the ME Jews has changed. I have worked on one Moshav and several Kibbutzim with mixed communities of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi. As each day goes by, more and more of them intermarry and create more native Israeli Jews. That’s besides the Jews who’ve lived there continuously since the Second Temple period at least.

          The “Zionist colony” did not have to remove anyone by military force, you have that the wrong way round. The Jews purchased their land and had to defend themselves from Arabs who were trying to remove *them* by military force. There was no Arab refugee problem prior to 1948, was there? And the problem that did occur only came about because the Arabs failed in creating a Jewish refugee problem. In Israel at least. They succeeded everywhere else. Although Israel – despite its, how shall we put it, disdain for ME Jews? – took them in, gave them citizenship and they are fundamental to the country today. Meanwhile the Arab refugees – or their descendants, rather – have been left to rot by their Arab brethren – even in areas of Mandate Palestine under full PA or Hamas control. What does that tell you about “Palestinian nationalism”?

          This isn’t a settler/native conflict, it’s a post-WWII population transfer in which one side got a bum deal but has made something of it while the other sits, begs and whines, unfortunately. If you’re looking for someone to blame, choose the effendi class, particularly the Husseini faction, who
          a) sold land to Jews (bad if you’re a Jew-hating Arab),
          b) stirred up Jew hatred,
          c) fooled young hot-heads into waging a war and
          d) are now holding people in camps as a means of extorting money from the international community – the same way they used to hold the fallehin as wage slaves. In their defence, if you have a nice little earner such as that, albeit the horse you are flogging is dying, then some upstart Jews with emancipatory ideas are not who you want as neighbours.

          “There was no Arab refugee problem prior to 1948, was there? And the
          problem that did occur only came about because the Arabs failed in
          creating a Jewish refugee problem.”

          And Palestine was not a Jewish state called Israel prior to 1948, but the same year a Jewish state was announced in Tel Aviv most non-Jews were removed from Palestine by force. Coincidence? Blaming the Palestinian refugee crisis on Arab attacks seems disingenuous when it resulted in the Yishuv getting exactly what it wanted, a nearly Arab-free Palestine that could be repopulated with Jews. It’s a simple matter of asking cui bono.

          No Arab attacks, no war, no Arab refugees, no Jewish refugees. The Arabs took a risk and lost. More fool them.

          You left out no Jewish state. Of course, Deir Yassin wasn’t exactly attacking anyone, either.

          Fed_Up18 says:

          Actually, it was. They just didn’t defend themselves all that well once they started.

          You’re full of crap. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem’ (Morris) on how Deir Yassin went to great lengths not to join the fighting. (p. 91, 97)

          “In the early months of the war, the desire for calm in certain areas
          took a number of forms. Several villages concluded formal peace
          agreements with neighbouring settlements or urban neighbourhoods. The notables of Deir Yassin on 20 January 1948 met with leaders of Jerusalem’s Jewish Giv‘at Shaul neighbourhood and agreed to mutual non-belligerency. Deir Yassin took upon itself to keep out bands of irregulars and if, nonetheless, some appeared, to inform Giv‘at Shaul of their presence ‘in daytime by hanging out laundry . . . (two white pieces with a black piece in the middle)’ and ‘at night Deir Yassin’s people will signal three dots with a flashlight . . . and place three . . . [lanterns?]’. Similarly, patrols from Giv‘at Shaul near Deir Yassin were to be armed with a mutually agreed password. Giv‘at Shaul was responsible for the safety of Deir Yassin’s vehicles passing through the neighbourhood.134
          The founder of the Arab Workers’ Department, Aharon Haim Cohen, was instrumental in concluding this agreement as well as similar agreements that month and in February with the villages of al Qastal, Sur Bahir and al Maliha.135
          In the Jerusalem District, there was widespread and persistent
          opposition by many villages to taking part in the hostilities; immediate self-interest won out over nationalism. Roving bands of Arab irregulars, sometimes led by ‘Abd al Qadir al Husseini, were fairly regularly turned away, the villagers often refusing to put them up or give them supplies, let alone join in attacks. Al Maliha’s mukhtar, Sheikh ‘Abd al Fatah, had ordered the village militia to fire on any stranger who approached, ‘Jew, Arab, or Englishman’.176 In early January 1948, the inhabitants of Qaluniya chased away an armed band and prevented it from ‘doing anything’.177 Deir Yassin’s inhabitants had a firefight with a roving band of irregulars who wanted to use their village as a base to attack west Jerusalem. One villager was killed and the village ‘women burst into cries and screams’.178 Just before 28 January, ‘Abd al Qadir, at the head of a band of 400 armed men, encamped near Deir Yassin.
          Apparently they tried to recruit villagers. The village elders ‘were
          opposed’, and the band moved off to Beit Jala.179 Deir Yassin’s mukhtar was summoned by AHC representatives in Jerusalem to be questioned about the village’s relations with the Jews. The mukhtar said that ‘the village and the Jews lived in peace’.180 A fortnight later, on 13 February, an armed band entered Deir Yassin bent on attacking nearby Giv‘at Shaul. ‘The villagers opposed this and the gang’s reaction was to slaughter all the village’s sheep . . .’181 A month later, on 16 March, an AHC delegation composed of two men and (unusually) a woman visited the village and asked that it host a group of Iraqi and Syrian irregulars ‘to guard the site’. The villagers refused and the delegation left empty handed.182 Deir Yassin’s notables registered a similar refusal on 4 April.183″

          Fed_Up18 says:

          Actually, it was. They just didn’t defend themselves all that well once they started.

        [deleted repetition]

        Fed_Up18 says:

        How convenient of you to forget that they refuse to recognize the State of Israel & therefore never even TRY to go through the motions of converting (which is the other stumbling block: conversions have to be GENUINE for EVERYONE).

        Stop projecting your bigotry onto everyone else.

      [deleted my repetition]

    Fed_Up18 says:

    Because, of course, VOLUNTEERING and CONSCRIPTING are EXACTLY ALIKE, right? (Your other lies I will just ignore, because you’ve made too big a jackass of yourself for your post to need further debunking)

    Quit grasping at straws, & just quit while you’re behind.

      The point is military service does not save Arabs from the racist treatment they receive from the state and regular Israelis. By the way, Druze males are conscripted (In contrast to most Arab Israeli citizens) and that was no help for at least one soldier.,7340,L-4003502,00.html

      And one Bedouin soldier who was kia had his house marked for demolition (Although I never found out if the house was in fact demolished).

      And the fact that Tablet didn’t report something like this is what I mean by fawning sycophancy:

      “The Druze are ethnic Arabs, who emerged 1,000 years ago as a sect of Islam with a distinct identity. Sprinkled across the Middle East, their elders in Israel agreed to conscription for their men in 1956, hoping it would improve their lot in life.
      More than 50 years later, and despite often illustrious careers, a growing number of Druze openly question the benefits.
      Amal Asa’ad retired from the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 2000 as a
      brigadier general – the second-highest rank achieved by a non-Jewish
      officer. Tall, with a neat moustache and impeccably dressed, Asa’ad says
      the Druze suffer neglect by comparison with the Jews, despite sharing
      security duties. “In the IDF, the Druze feel exactly the same as the Jews. You get the same rights, you feel part of a team. But that ends when you leave the army. You return to your village and it is like getting a slap in the face,” he said. “It kills you.”
      Asa’ad complains that whereas Israel has authorized countless gleaming new towns to welcome in hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants since the founding of the state in 1948, they have failed to build a single new village for the Druze.”

…So that would explain why you took out the Holocaust on the Palestinians, why exactly?

Spin it how you might… going in with guns and fighter planes to take land that did not at the time belong to you, no matter what the supposed historical claim, makes you look less than honest when you call for peace now.

Maybe when you figure out that *nobody* is supposed to like that sort of behavior, nor take it lying down, you and the Arabs might find a little peace.

    Ann Cohen says:

    Wow Dana – don’t let fact get in the way!

    Maybe you should learn some Middle East history. Certainly Jews were living in the land under the Ottoman Rule and British mandate.
    By your reasoning you should certainly not be living in the US, and the current US Government should certainly not be ruling as it is absolutely clear that the American Indians own and have historical claim to the land you live on!

    What does Israel took the Holocaust out on Palestinians mean? I hope you do some research and get some facts – or are you just an anti-semetic and happy to sprout your *spin*. Oh and by the way check out Israel’s fighter planes in 1948!!

    You must be kidding. Do we get to make anything up that we want to? Your lack of knowledge of history is quite disturbing. Perhaps you are getting your information from the Islamist propaganda machine, but you can rest assured that the truth is stronger than your fantasy. Does the British Mandate mean anything to you? The Arab Israeli Wars of 1948, ’56, 73, etc? Look it up before embarrassing yourself.

I heard when I was in Israel that the owner of ‘Humus Said’, a small chain of amazing humus restaurants, and an Israeli Muslim, sent his children into the Army, also. When I was there in Acco, it was full of soldiers, and when I asked why they ate there (they generally do not eat in Muslim-owned restaurants), I was told that this was why.

In any case, only through cooperation and trust will any peace be found. This is a great example of such action.

    It’s not true that soldiers or Israelis don’t eat in Muslim owned restaurants. In fact, some of the oldest restaurants in Israel are Muslim owned both in Tel Aviv and in Jeruslam.

Rosalie H. Kaye says:

Great article- his philosophy is so refreshing! The Israeli government should do a great deal more to support his efforts! I wish there were more people like him both Jews and Arabs in Israel- there would certainly be less bloodshed!


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An Arab Maverick in Israel

Bucking convention in his village, Yousef Juhja sent three sons to the IDF—and one paid the ultimate price