What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?

No, there’s no racist punchline 😉

This is a question I get a lot.  Sometimes “well meaning” American progressives come here and start calling every Arab they meet a “Palestinian”.  Perhaps out of a desire to validate their identity, but without considering that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

For starters, there are Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  There are also Palestinians in other countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere.  Those in the West Bank are largely governed by the Palestinian Authority and those in Gaza by Hamas.  Israel exerts partial military control within the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and at border crossings.  Gaza is entirely independently governed by Hamas and entry to Israel or Egypt is strictly controlled by the respective governments.  All of those people are pretty clearly Palestinian.  Maybe a few Samaritans in Hebron would identify otherwise- not entirely sure.  But almost to a T, regardless of religion (almost all Palestinians there are Muslim, there is a small Christian minority), these people are Palestinian.

Now, moving westward from the West Bank, there is East Jerusalem.  East Jerusalem came under Israeli control after the Six Day War in 1967.  Because of the sacredness of this city for Jews, Israel treats it differently for legal purposes.  While West Jerusalem was already part of Israel in 1948, East Jerusalem, which was primarily Arab, became officially annexed to the city in 1967.  Meaning, its Arab population has Israeli residency cards.  This allows them greater job opportunities, freedom of travel both within Israel and abroad, and more contact with Jewish Israelis.  There is still discrimination and it’s not on a level that you can compare with the West Bank, for example.  The vast majority of East Jerusalem Arabs would probably identify as Palestinian.  I’ve noticed this anecdotally through my travels there and I believe polls would back this up.  That being said, since East Jerusalem Arabs are eligible to work in Israel, some actually end up working for the government and even volunteering for national service.  Or the Israeli military.  So I think the layers of identity for them would be a bit less straightforward than someone in Ramallah.

Now, on to pre-1967 Israel.  There are several groups of Arabic-speakers in Israel.  First, there are Jews.  Jews have lived in predominantly Arab countries for two millennia.  They lived there, by and large, before the Arabs even arrived.  They then mixed their Hebrew and Aramaic with Arabic to create their own unique Judeo-Arabic languages.  From Morocco to Iraq to Yemen.  Often written in the Hebrew alphabet, like Yiddish.  Sometimes intelligible to their Muslim and Christian neighbors- and sometimes not.  In recent decades, the number of Judeo-Arabic speakers has declined.  And there still are many Jews in Israel who speak Arabic.  Not just those who learn it at school.  But also those, like my Syrian and Iraqi neighbors, who grew up with the language.  The vast, vast, vast majority of these Jews do not identify as Arab.  While some of that is tied to the stigma of being Arab, discrimination against Mizrachim, and the conflict with the Palestinians, there are other factors at work too.  First, there is the fact that Arabs committed massacres against their indigenous Jewish communities in the 1950s and 1960s, which forced Jews to come to Israel.  Most Jews lost their Iraqi, Egyptian, Yemeni citizenship and all their property.  It’d be hard for them not to come to Israel angry and wanting some distance from the people who were supposed to protect them.  Only to find their new Arab neighbors here blowing themselves up in pizzerias.  The other factor is that the Middle East wasn’t always Arab.  Arabs are from Arabia and conquered the region to spread Islam.  Jews have been living in Iraq, for example, since the Babylonian Exile, 600 years before Christianity.  Over a thousand years before Islam.  So to call an Iraqi Jew Arab- that could be a real invalidation of their identity and history.  A small minority of Mizrachim do identify as Arab Jews, often as a way of contrasting with the European elite.  But I would strongly recommend not calling Mizrachi Arabic-speakers Arab and certainly not Palestinian.

Notice we haven’t even gotten to the Christians, Muslims, and Druze.  In general, Arabs who are citizens of Israel do not define themselves as Palestinians.  Here is some polling data:

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 10.49.38 PM

Here’s another poll with similar but sometimes contradictory data (perhaps depending on the phrasing of the question- also the first poll doesn’t include East Jerusalem):

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 10.56.02 PM.png

What overlaps is that about 15-20% of Arabs who have Israeli residency identify as Palestinian.  Sometimes hyphenated or attached to the word “Israeli”.  A larger portion identify as some variation of Arab, again sometimes hyphenated as Arab-Israeli or Arab citizen of Israel.  And a significant number just identify as Israeli.  For what it’s worth, there are also Arabs here who primarily identify by their religion, not their language or ethnicity.  Food for thought for people who are looking for a simple black-and-white breakdown.

Druze, Christians, Circassian Muslims, and Bedouin Muslims tend to identify more with Israel and less with Palestinian identity.  There is also a strong contingent of Christians who feel strongly about their Arab or Palestinian identity.  And other Arabic-speaking Christians who don’t even identify as Arab.  Many Druze, contrary to Israeli popular belief, feel they are both Druze and Arab.  I believe I got that info from a Pew survey, but am having trouble tracking it down (feel free to send it!).  Very, very, very few Druze would call themselves Palestinian (though a few do like Maher Halabi).  And many would be quite offended at the statement.  And they are native Arabic speakers.

Among these groups, Druze and Circassians crafted agreements with the Israeli government for their sons to be drafted into the military.  By agreement.  An increasing number of Bedouins and Christians- and even Arab Muslims- are choosing to volunteer or do national service, even though they are not legally obligated.  There are even Arab Christian priests encouraging it.

It’s worth noting the Druze mentioned here are the ones in pre-1967 Israel.  The ones in the Golan Heights were formerly citizens of Syria- and some now are taking Israeli citizenship in light of the brutal civil war.  They are not obligated to serve in the military and would almost certainly identify themselves as Syrian rather than Palestinian.  My friend’s dad says he’s a “Syrian now living in Israel”.  And I imagine people in his community have a variety of ways of describing their multifaceted identities.

If you’d assume that Israeli Muslims would be the most likely to identify as Arab or Palestinian and less so as Israeli, you’d be correct.  With some very important qualifications.  As mentioned, Bedouins and Circassians- both Muslims, are much less likely to identify as Palestinian in any form.  In the Bedouins’ case, Islam is generally much more important than nationalism and they’ve often been discriminated against by their sedentary Arab neighbors.  Circassians are quite fully integrated into the society and while many speak Arabic as a second language, they tend to be much more Israeli.

It’s also worth noting that if someone identifies as Arab or Palestinian here, there is a difference.  When someone says “Arab-Israeli” or “Arab citizen of Israel”, there are a few potential reasons why.  First off, there are Arab nationalists here who are against Palestinian identity.  Pan-Arab nationalism, which believes in an Arab identity stretching from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, is less a fan of state-based nationalism (e.g. Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian nationalism).  There is the concept of bilad al-sham- the Levant.  Some Arabs here prefer to think of themselves as part of the greater Arab culture rather than the particularistic Palestinian identity.  Palestinian identity- like every other country in the region- is a modern concept.  Not because the people didn’t exist here (before anyone goes there), but rather because this area didn’t have borders before colonialism. Which is why the Arabic spoken in northern Israel is almost identical to Syrian or Lebanese and the Bedouin Arabic in the Negev has a Saudi or Jordanian tint to it.

Another reason why people here might prefer Arab over Palestinian is because there is pressure here to dissociate themselves from the conflict.  Someone might even choose one label in one context and another in another.  Identity can be relative.

A final, and important reason, is that some Arabs here just don’t identify with Palestinian nationalism.  And not because, in the case I described, they are pan-Arab nationalists, but because they simply want to live a good life here.  They don’t like politics.  They don’t like violence.  Some may even feel that if they took on the label Palestinian, it does a disservice to the real suffering of people in the West Bank and Gaza.  That basically if you have Israeli citizenship, things might be rough sometimes, but overall the quality of living is quite good.  And to compare yourself to someone living in abject poverty and misery- that’s not quite so fair.

Sometimes when American and European progressives come here, they try to correct me when I call someone Arab.  “Don’t you mean Palestinian?”  or they’ll just work the word “Palestinian” into their response- even though I just said Arab.  Maybe it’s not their intention, but I feel there’s a kind of “let me educate you” haughtiness.  That somehow if I’m calling someone Arab instead of Palestinian- someone who’s a citizen of Israel- it must be because I’m a hyper nationalist intent on denying their identity.  And thank God for the Western Liberal who can come teach me civilization.

And they’re wrong.  Because I have a basic rule- I identify you the way you want to be identified.  If I meet an Arabic-speaker here in Israel who prefers to be called Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli, Palestinian citizen of Israel- I will call them that.  Or Arab.  Or Arab-Israeli.  Whatever they choose I validate that.  And I’m not going to impose my New York Times Huffington Post NPR podcast understanding of the Middle East on them.  Because newspapers are printed in black and white.  Which is about the depth that they can offer of a society thousands of years old halfway around the world.

So I encourage you- don’t put me or my Arab/Palestinian/Arab-Israeli/Arab citizens of Israel/Christian/Muslim/Druze/Bedouin friends in a box.  Because boxes are for shoes.  And unless you’re willing to walk in ours, you should probably return them to the store.

What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?  Ahmed, Maryam, Ovadia.  Even Matt or Matah.

Or as the cover photo says: friend.


Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": http://tiny.cc/qjfbsz & http://tiny.cc/gkfbsz. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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