Recently, the BBC showed a documentary entitled My Week as a Muslim presenting the experience of a very white English woman that not only stayed with a Pakistani Muslim family in England but also dressed up as a Muslim woman. To add drama to the situation, albeit unplanned, a major terrorist incident involving a British Muslim man occurred that week in the UK, increasing local racial tensions. The film created a discussion in the UK. As a Jew living in the Galilee in Israel, where some 50% of the population is Arab, if not necessary Muslim, and interaction between the populations is daily, I drew different conclusions.
To summarize that woman’s experience, she had lived all her life in a very white, i.e., non-immigrant, community with very little interaction with other British (as the Irish would phrase it). She was offended by the comments she received from people as she walked the streets dressed as a Muslim, such as to home to where you came from, and gained an understanding of the impact on racism on the lives of its victims. More strikingly, she was completely unprepared for the cultural differences involved as living as a Muslim. From simple matters as not drinking to alcohol to more comprehensive ones as wearing “modest” clothing and the multiple daily prayers, she was clearly overwhelmed by the “adopted” culture. When combined with the fact that her hosts spoke perfect English with an English accent, were born in the UK and were socially active in local charities, she was forced to realize that their external wrapping, no matter how foreign to her, does not make them less English than her.
Watching the program, I tried to imagine the experience of a Jewish woman spending a week as a Muslim in one of the villages in the Galilee. Many differences came to mind. First, modest clothing, especially covering one’s head, is common and accepted in Israel among many religious groups and would not be nearly as alien. Second, not drinking alcohol is much of a less of a big deal in Israel, at least for those over 30. In general, it appears that Israeli Jews know more about Islam and Muslim culture than the average British even if large gaps of knowledge and misconceptions exist.
The issue of language was interesting. Among themselves but both within and outside the villages, Arabs speak Arabic, albeit with many Hebrew words. Most Arabs can speak Hebrew quite well, with the exception of older women from the village, but use Arabic as their daily language for communication with other Arab speakers. Unlike the situation in the UK, Muslims and Jews do not always speak the same language, but that difference is almost never a point of contention.
The stickier point is national identity. Some of the people in the film yelled “Go back to where you came from” in ignorance of the fact that many of the Pakistani have lived in the UK for more than three generations. Still, the Pakistani Arabs appearing in the documentary clearly identified themselves as British. By contrast, in the Galilee, nobody disputes the attachment of the Arabs to the area. The ambiguous and therefore tense area involves national identity. Israel Arabs are clearly officially identified as such since their religion and citizenship appears on ID cards. However, many, especially the younger ones, are highly ambivalent about their country of origin. Very few want to move the PA for both social and economic reasons. On the other hand, many are not completely at peace at being labeled “Israeli.” The whole issue of identity is rather complicated for Israeli Arabs, especially Muslims.
In comparing the situation in the UK and Galilee, it appears that it is much easier culturally to be a Muslim in Israel. Due to the similarities between Judaism and Islam as well as natural interaction and government policy regarding language and non-discrimination, Muslims do not have their cultural values challenged by non-Muslims, i.e., no body tries to convert them or turn them away from their religion or way of life. On a political level, UK Muslims, at least the long established ones, appear openly and unashamedly British, which has still not occurred in Israel regardless of their formal civil status.
It is clear that a similar documentary shot in Israel would also show that a major cause of racism is ignorance. At the same time, many of the reactions and experiences seen in the BBC documentary would look rather different in the Israeli version.