Saturday, December 20, 2014

Coexistence in the Galilee

Reality in the Middle East is either much simpler or complex than it appears.  Seemingly clear reality often becomes quite blurred when you start focusing on the details.  For example, the Galilee is divided more or less equally between Jews and Arabs and is an undisputed part of Israel.  Consequently, relations between the sectors are regular and peaceful. In other words, while there may not be integration, the Galilee is a place to show what coexistence can be. 

The problems begin with the definitions.  What are Arabs, just mentioning the main groups?  There are Moslems, Christian, Druze, Circassian and even Bedouin communities.  While all may speak Arabic, they share a long history of conflict and identify with different external communities.  Some serve in the army while others view the army as the enemy.  In fact, just recently, there was a large ethnic tussle in a village in the North between Druze and Muslims that resulted in many injuries.   On the other side, Jewish attitudes towards the local Arabs vary significantly depending on age (teenagers tend to be quite racist), life experience, ethnic origin (Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic), and political opinion. Moreover, many locals do not distinguish between the various communities. The level of trust (or distrust) as well as interaction can vary widely.

While it is clear that the Palestinians from the Judea and Samaria view all of Israel as Palestine, the attitude of the local Arabs is more complex.  According to studies and realities, they are proud of their Arab identity, speaking Arabic and not wanting to give up their community connection even if they do intermix with the Jewish population.  For example, at the college where I teach, the various Arabs speak Arabic openly and exhibit no “oppressed” behavior.  At the same time, I have never seen any refusal of students of different ethnics to work or talk with each other.  By contrast, there are certain limits.  Flirting with girls of the other religion is not looked on fondly by anyone.  Mothers of all kinds want their children to marry “one of ours”.  Recently, two local teenagers that reached the finals of a regional Arabic singing contest stated that they were from Palestine and expressed anti-Israeli opinions. From the other side, many Galilee residents do not view them as Israelis. It is clear that it is currently quite hard to maintain an “Israeli-Arab” identity.

The current coexistence is also far from uniform.  The dominant reality is that there is a strong economic necessity to live in peace.  Karmiel, the intended and actual capital of the Galilee, is surrounded by Arab villages.  Today, without Arab customers, most retail business in Karmiel would go bankrupt.  The same can be said for the businesses in the villages in terms of Jewish customers.  Even more, due to Shabbat labor laws and a better approach to service work, Arab workers provide an important source of employees, which helps the high standard of living in the villages.  Where economic interests apply, coexistence is the rule.  Yet, the police are very careful when entering the villages and arresting Arab thieves (one of the growth industries in the area).  Fights often break out on Friday night when Arab boys come to Karmiel and catcall Jewish girls.  Most seriously, every ten years or so, there are riots and rock throwing incidents, generally by younger people, “confirming” the distrust between the community. Still, according to a recent survey, almost 80% of Israeli Arabs would not move to a Palestinian state.  Apparently, life as an Israeli-Arab may be complex but has many positive points.

So, in fact the Galilee is an island of coexistence between Jews and Arabs, just as it seems.  In addition, it is also a spectrum of internal and external conflict between communities involving identity and interest that defies generalization.  In terms of future hopes, I can only quote the quaint Polish blessing, “May it not get any worse.”

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