In But Not of Israel

Five days into Israel's war with Hezbollah, I visited the Umm El-Fahm Gallery in the town whose name it bore. Umm El-Fahm, the largest Muslim community in Israel, with a population of 43,000, anchors the largely Arab Triangle area on the coastal plain just south of Haifa. Outside the gallery, Israeli planes were bombing Lebanon and Hezbollah rockets were detonating nearby. Inside the gallery, Yehudit Bar-Shalom, a ceramicist from nearby Kibbutz Magal, was speaking.

"I felt I was in a dream due to the hospitality of the gallery," she told me. "In all this chaos we are living in, you can do it differently," she told Said Abu-Shakra, a respected artist and the gallery's co-founder. Bar-Shalom reached across the table to Abu-Shakra. "I love you," she said.

Abu-Shakra runs the gallery with the assistance of town leaders and Arab and Jewish arts professionals from across Israel. About one-third of its funding comes from outside the town, including grants from the Israeli and British governments and American Jewish philanthropists. The gallery is known across Israel for exhibiting the work of Jewish and Arab artists -- and Yoko Ono. Abu-Shakra also directs a program of arts instruction for 5,000 children -- both Arab and Jewish -- annually.

Recently, the Northern Islamic Movement, headquartered in Umm El-Fahm, gave the gallery about six acres so it could expand into a museum. "Before the gallery," says Abu-Shakra, who is the cousin of Umm El-Fahm's previous mayor, Sheihk Raed Salah -- leader of the Northern Islamic Movement and recently imprisoned by Israel -- "religious life was the prominent activity. It still is, but the gallery brings a different thought. It is connected to everything in Umm El-Fahm."

Which is a lot to be connected to. Though the town was run by Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party, until the late 1980s, since then it has been a stronghold of Raed Salah's Northern Islamic Movement. Before Israel built its separation fence, suicide bombers came from neighboring Jenin (under control of the Palestinian Authority) through Umm El-Fahm regularly, killing Jews and Arabs alike. In 2000, the town was at the heart of civil unrest that led to the deaths of 13 Arab Israelis by Israeli policemen. This past summer, Sheik Raed led the annual get-together of his Northern Islamic Movement there, proclaiming before 50,000 people that, "The Israeli occupation will leave Jerusalem soon and Jerusalem will be the capital of the Islamic caliphate."

A small community that is home both to calls for the caliphate and exhibits of Yoko Ono's art, Um El-Fahm embodies the complexities of existence for the Arab citizens of Israel. Just under 20 percent of Israelis are Arab -- or Palestinian citizens of Israel, as most prefer to be called. They comprise about 1 million people, coming largely from families that remained inside Israel after the state was founded in 1948.

With its terraced terrain and more than 20 freshwater springs, Umm El-Fahm could be an oasis. But it's not. Its unofficial poverty rate is nearly 30 percent, and the Israeli government has long favored the neighboring, though smaller, Jewish towns over Um El-Fahm when providing municipal services.

Today, even the town's right to remain part of Israel is under assault. In the 2006 national election, ultra-right-winger Avigdor Lieberman of the Russian émigré Israel Beiteinu Party called for the transfer of Umm El-Fahm and adjacent territory, complete with its Arab population, to the future Palestine. Now Lieberman has joined Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. He's supposed to keep hands off of domestic issues, but he was in government no more than a week when he gave interviews reiterating his support for transfer of Arabs outside of Israel, arguing for "exchanges of populations and territory, in order to create the most homogenously Jewish state."

You might think Umm El-Fahm would be happy to be gerrymandered into the new Palestine. But nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the deepest of Umm El-Fahm's complexities is this: It wants to remain part of Israel. Indeed, the townspeople -- most especially, young college graduates, many from Israel's top universities -- want to be a more equal part of Israel.

This summer's war laid bare the great gaps between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and the Arabs' antipathy to the cultural, social and political aims of Zionism. But a visit to Umm El-Fahm also underscored the economic disparities and unequal opportunities that characterize the two Israels -- and the determination of Arabs in Israel to establish a place for themselves. As many of them recognize, moreover, their demand for equality poses a fundamental challenge to Israel's status as a Jewish state.


Umm El-Fahm is part of Israel and wants to stay part of Israel," Sheikh Hashem Mahajne of the Northern Islamic Movement, mayor of Umm El-Fahm for the past two years, told me when we met during last summer's war.

"I want Umm El-Fahm to become an active participant in all aspects of Israeli life," he said. He lit a cigarette for himself, offering one to me and to my translator, who took it while I declined. "Americans are crazy about smoking," he laughed. "It's not true that the Islamic Movement wants to set up a separate identity," he insisted, throwing up his hands in exasperation at the question. Asked about his predecessor, Sheikh Raed, and his pronouncements, the mayor put it down to politics: "There is a democratic game, and [the Islamic Movement] is allowed to play the democratic game."

In fact, it doesn't play it all the way. One thing that differentiates the Northern Islamic Movement from the more moderate Southern Islamic Movement in Israel is that the Southern movement runs candidates in Knesset elections, while the Northern does not. "It's not because they don't acknowledge the state of Israel," said the mayor. "Right now, their actions outside of the Knesset are more productive."

If the Northern Islamists vie for seats in the Knesset, they will do well, according to Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha, who estimated that "one-third of Israeli Arabs support the Islamic Movement. The Northern Movement's agenda is to build a separate Muslim society in Israel. That's what they are doing. The vacuum was created [by Israel's failure to treat its Arab citizens equally] and the Islamists moved in. They understand that they cannot take over the state. They will continue to act but moderate their activities."

Umm El-Fahm's mayor appeared focused on municipal needs. "The Islamic Movement doesn't belong to the municipality and the municipality doesn't belong to the Islamic Movement," he said. "This is a state of law." He was justifiably proud of his governance, though frustrated by ongoing inequities in the system. "Municipal workers here always get paid because there is tax collection." Still, "we are one of the poorest cities in Israel," but "the situation is improving. Business is better. More Jews are coming to the town to shop."

He interrupted our interview for a call. Speaking in Hebrew, he inquired about the safety of the caller's children, afterwards explaining that he would be meeting with neighboring Jewish regional councils -- including the caller's -- to discuss security. As the war made clear, Umm El-Fahm -- along with most of the Arab sector -- doesn't have bomb shelters or adequate warning systems.

Tensions between Jews and Arabs inside Israel increased sharply, of course, during last summer's war, which highlighted the differing realities of Jewish and Arab life there. One-third of the 43 Israeli citizens killed by Hezbollah rockets were Israeli Arabs. Yet, while polls showed that 18 percent of Israeli Arabs supported Hezbollah, the perception among Jews in Israel was that support was much higher. Right-wing Israeli politicians branded the nation's Arab citizens "fifth columnists."

This "mini-storm in Arab-Jewish relations," said Tel Aviv University historian Eli Rekhess, widened the gap between Jews and Arabs. "On the one hand you have this joint fate: The katushya doesn't distinguish between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, so you'd expect internal cohesion of Israeli society would be strengthened. But you see the opposite: there's no clear-cut condemnation of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah [by Arab citizens of Israel, but] growing rage at the killing [by Israeli soldiers] of civilians in Lebanon. This situation encapsulates the essence of the dilemma: My country is at war with my people."

Helena Agbaria, a 36-year-old social worker in Umm El-Fahm, shared these mixed emotions as Hezbollah rockets hit Haifa. "Nasrallah makes me proud because he is an Arab man with power," she told me. "But on the other hand, Haifa is not so far. I shop there and learn there." Agbaria has lived in Washington, D.C., while her husband got an advanced degree. She's also traveled abroad as part of an Israeli Jewish-Arab women's peace delegation.

"I hate war," Agbaria said. She was dressed modestly, with her head covered. "It's not very easy to understand all these feelings. We have to get to an equal situation, because we feel discriminated against all the time. Sometimes I feel Israeli, but first of all I am Palestinian. I really feel it is a state only for Jews, although my kids study in a bilingual [Jewish-Arab] school. I believe and hope we can have a different life. I want my kids to be educated to another feeling."

It's the impulse for distinct definition and for greater civic and economic equity that defines the Umm El-Fahm sensibility. When I visited the city's first private mall one day during the war, I met the owner, Hamed Abdel Latif, whose furniture factory showroom anchors the mall.

Latif insisted on taking me for a late-day meal at his mall's Café Nana (no alcohol served). "Under this roof," he boasted, "there is coexistence, Jewish and Arab businesses." Though the war was raging, Jewish businessmen from the surrounding area shared the room with townspeople. The exuberant Latif is one of the wealthiest men in the town -- and a major supporter of the Islamic movement. Still, he said, "We are part of the Israeli state, live by Israeli law, pay taxes. We are not separate at all." Latif recalled that Olmert had committed the government to aiding in economic development. Indeed, permits recently had been issued for the first industrial zone in the region to benefit Umm El-Fahm and neighboring Kibbutz Megiddo.

"It took 15 years to get the approval here," the mayor, Sheikh Hashem, told me. "Afula [the nearby Jewish city], which has two industrial zones, has 80 percent of its taxes from commerce and industry; in Umm El-Fahm 80 percent of taxes are from households. This is upside down."

Much of life for Arabs in Israel can seem upside down. "Statistics show you what is happening to the Arab population in Israel," said Dr. Sarah Husari-Mahamid, who was the first female doctor in Umm El-Fahm. "The percentage of deaths from chronic diseases is like a third world country, although they live in Israel. Now the state is putting in more resources to help the situation."

A family physician, Husari-Mahamid was schooled in St. Petersburg, which she still called Leningrad. "Before the 1960s, there were hardly any opportunities for Arabs to study," she said. "Hadash sent some to socialist and communist countries." Today, she works in the health clinic in the town and teaches interns in a hospital in Kfar Sava, an upscale Jewish town.

A nonrevolutionary party that was tied to the Soviet Union, the Communist Party once was central to secular Arab life in Israel and served as a meeting place for intellectual and professional secular Jews and Arabs. As the god of communism failed, though, Arab nationalism, and then the god of Islam, rose in its place.

Hadash used to run Umm El-Fahm. The Northern Islamic Movement was voted in and the Communist coalition voted out in the late 1980s partly because "people were very disappointed regarding the lack of basic services," said Yousef Jabareen, a Georgetown Universitytrained lawyer and Umm El-Fahm native son who teaches human-rights law at several Israeli universities. The Islamists, he said, had offered "not a religious agenda but a social agenda. People saw it as a well-organized and wealthy group that could advance the services and infrastructure."

Jabareen, who backs the Communists, does not support the Islamists but said nonetheless, "If the [Israeli] government doesn't like what the Islamic Movement is doing, it can only blame itself. We are older and bigger than the two surrounding Jewish towns. However, we still depend on them for health, courts, and social services. It's not a marginal issue. People here suffer. A hospital is an urgent need. However, I can assure you that once the Islamic Movement establishes a hospital [the Islamists already provide medical services inside the main mosque], there will be reports in the media saying that they don't want to deal with the Israeli authorities."

Whether Islamists or Israel steps forward to provide services to Israeli Arabs will surely affect Israel's future. Governmental policies that diminish the divide between Jews and Arabs in Israel could create not only a less polarized nation, but also, in time, a diminished antipathy toward the Jewish state from a broader Arab public. "Israel has an opportunity to say, 'Yes this was neglect, but this is what we are planning to do,'" Rekhess observed. "If Israel will not do so, the Islamic movement will do it. They fill gaps." The Islamic Movement in Israel "is not monolithic," Rekhess continued. "It is a confused, screwed-up reality. It is a fluctuating situation. It changes every day and every month according to the upheavals in Israel and in the Israeli-Arab arena."

Much of the time, Arabs in Israel appear to inhabit a mishmash world where Islam meets globalization and a modern Jewish state. Take Fatachia Salim Agarabia. A social worker trained at Bar Ilan and Haifa universities, she was one of 17 children. Her father agreed to send her to university if it was religious, so he suggested Bar Ilan (which emphasizes Jewish Orthodoxy, not Islam). We met in her home, sitting barefoot before an open Koran. The first woman to drive a car in town, Agarabia identifies with what she termed "Islamic feminism. My husband knows Islam like my father did, and in Islam a woman should work and study," she said. Until visiting Mecca in 1992, she didn't dress modestly. "The first time I met Sheikh Raed I was wearing tight jeans and makeup, but he didn't try to influence me." In 1993, she agreed to head up social services for the town, where she teaches family planning and sex education.

"There's been a total revolution in the past 10 years," Agarabia continued, with "women going to study, to work, also globalization, television, and the Internet. There's no control over arranged marriages anymore with cell phones." She estimated that over 70 percent of the population is between 13 and 40 years old, then ran through the list of social and economic problems in the town -- lack of housing, lack of jobs, young people not finishing school. When I asked about her running for office, she replied, "Although they adore me, Umm El-Fahm will not let it happen. It's the Arab [male] mentality.

"I feel schizophrenic," she sighed. "Morning with the Jews, afternoon with Christians and evening with Muslims. In the end what helps me get through is my belief in God."


In the wake of last summer's war, the Israeli government pledged more funds to the Arab sector, and more Jewish philanthropic dollars are going there as well. Even the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency pledged funds to Israeli Arabs in the North, for first time ever. Israeli government policies have made a difference before, and a peace settlement between Israel and a future Palestine would make the most difference of all.

"Israeli Arabs were devoted supporters of [the] Oslo [accords], even euphoric," says sociologist Smooha. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak "Rabin gave them respect, consulted with them and made changes in discriminatory aspects of government allowances. When Rabin was assassinated, Arabs in Israel wept."

But now, there is much disappointment. There had been considerable hope in the Arab sector when Amir Peretz, a social democratic trade union leader of Moroccan Jewish origin, took over the Labor Party and entered the coalition government, but that hope eroded first with the handling of last summer's war and then with the government's embrace of Lieberman.

Yet if Arabs are ever to feel truly included inside Israel, change will have to reach not only beyond a repudiation of Lieberman but beyond economics and even a peace agreement between Israel and a future Palestine. Change may require some accommodation of minority rights by the Jewish state. As Jabareen drove me around Umm El-Fahm, I saw flags from Brazil and Italy, celebrating their World Cup soccer teams. But I didn't see an Israeli flag. "That's part of the real problem that Arab citizens of Israel have with the symbols of the state: the flag, the national symbol [a Jewish star], the anthem [which includes words of Jewish longing for Zion]," Jabareen said. "It excludes them. Arabs in Israel can't identify with them. This is one of the crucial failures of Israeli institutions, the failure to adapt civil symbols that Arabs could identify with," he continued.

Haifa University's Smooha concurred: "Civic equality is not enough; you have to give them national minority rights. To be a Palestinian doesn't mean you are disloyal to the state, as 80 percent of Jews feel. The Arabs see being Palestinian as a legitimate identity but for Israeli Jews it is delegitimate. You have to recognize their right to struggle for Palestinian causes, against occupation, you have to recognize their political leadership."

"Listen," he stressed, "there is a fundamental contradiction between a Jewish and a democratic state and Israel needs to say we want two contradictory things so let's see what we can do to reduce the contradictions. The Arabs have a real stake in the system. How else can you explain that in Umm El-Fahm the Arabs don't want to be part of Palestine? Because they have a stake in Israeli democracy and the welfare state."

Smooha's assessment was echoed by one Umm El-Fahm resident, Mohammed Rabah-Aghbarieh, who, with degrees from the Hebrew University and the Technion, directs the Environmental Quality Unit for the Northern Triangle. "All the people here feel themselves as part of a modern lifestyle with daily possibilities and abilities that they want to realize," he said. "To a person, everyone wants to make things better in Israel -- and stay here."

Jo-Ann Mort writes frequently about Israel for The American Prospect, The Jewish Daily Forward and other publications. She is the co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today's Israel?

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