I just got back from an amazing trip up north. The North is the most beautiful part of an already stunning country. It is also the area with the most non-Jews.
When some foreigners think of Israeli non-Jews, perhaps they picture an old Bedouin man with a kufiyyeh sitting in the desert. While that certainly exists, that hardly scratches the surface of non-Jewish diversity here in Israel. For my previous post about Jewish diversity here, click here.
In one trip spanning less than a week, I personally met and spoke in Arabic with non-nomadic Bedouins, Greek Catholics, Maronites, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Copts (ok, they were tourists from Georgia, but still!), and Sunni Muslims. I’ve even met self-identified “secular Druze” and “secular (Greek) Orthodox”. The latter sounds hilarious in Hebrew because “Ortodoksi Hiloni” sounds like an Orthodox Jew who is secular. I’m sure someone out there identifies that way, but man it sounds funny in Hebrew 🙂
In Yafo, for instance, on a brief walk around town, I even noticed the Church of Scotland (presumably Presbyterians). In Jerusalem, I sat and talked with Armenians in a mixture of Hebrew and, believe it or not, Armenian-accented Arabic. And both men were not big fans of their own church!
I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Haifa, where there is the Bahai world headquarters as well as the center of Ahmadi Muslims, a small sect persecuted in many predominantly Muslim countries. This sect has the unique distinction of having translated the Quran into Yiddish in 1987. I’m sheppin naches that these people like the mamaloshn!
And we haven’t even begun to talk about lifestyles, language, or politics. In Haifa, there’s an entire young Arab hipster culture. There are also three different Arab parties in the Knesset (now under one umbrella): one Jewish-Arab communist party, one Arab nationalist party, and one Islamist party. Just to be clear, if these parties were running against each other in any other Middle Eastern country, they’d be considered intense political and ideological rivals. Regardless of your views on the parties, the fact that they now comprise a single unit in Israel is quite unique and shouldn’t mislead you into thinking there’s uniform thinking in this sector. Oh also, 24% of Arab Muslims vote for explicitly Zionist parties.
Sometimes in the West people are tempted to view Middle Easterners, Jewish or Arab, as “stuck in the past”. That if we’re keeping age-old traditions, we must be divorced from the modern world. Rather, I’d like to posit that we live in a world where the beautiful heritage that brought us to this day is kept alive precisely by integrating it with the tools of the modern world. That’s why the pictures below, all of which were taken in centuries-old (sometimes millenia-old) Arab communities, shouldn’t surprise you. Because you can hold onto tradition and adapt. My Arab friends aren’t caricatures. If you really want to embrace all Israelis, including non-Jews, let go of the exoticism and realize that this is also the face of Arab Israel:
In the end, the best thing you can take from visiting non-Jewish communities here (not all non-Jews are Arabic speakers, but we’ll save that for another blog) is that if you try to speak about them as a whole, you’ve already missed the point. These are extremely diverse communities- religiously, ideologically, and even linguistically (every village and even religious community can have its own dialect).
My best advice? Pick up an Arabic textbook, find a good teacher (yes I do tutor 😛 ), and get to know your neighbors. Move beyond the transactional nature of your favorite Arab hummus joint or falafel stand. If your only source of information about Arab-Israelis is the newspaper, you’ve got a lot to learn. And so do I, which is why I intend to continue visiting these communities and making friends.
In the end, the only way to really experience another culture is with your own two eyes, your feet planted firmly on the ground, and your mind open as wide as the sky above the Galilee.