“The struggle for Arabs in Israel is against everyday racism”

A Palestinian-Israeli writer and literary critic, Ayman Sikseck was born in Jaffa, a mixed city that inspired his popular Hebrew novel To Jaffa. On November 23 [2014], the government of Benjamin Netanyahu approved the latest draft of a contentious bill to declare Israel “the national homeland of the Jewish people.” To Sikseck, “the nationality law is dangerous not only for Arabs in Israel – it’s dangerous because it betrays Israeli society at large.“ (Read more…)

 A woman inspects the damage on the aftermath of an arson attack that targeted first-grade classrooms at a Jewish-Arab school in southern Jerusalem. Scrawled on the walls were offensive slogans in Hebrew reading 'Death to Arabs' and 'There's no coexistence with cancer'. © AFP

A woman inspects the damage on the aftermath of an arson attack that targeted first-grade classrooms at a Jewish-Arab school in southern Jerusalem. Scrawled on the walls were offensive slogans in Hebrew reading Death to Arabs and There’s no coexistence with cancer

To readers not familiar with your work, would you please us give some details about your family background?

I was born in Israel, in the multi-national and multi-lingual city of Jaffa. Growing up as an Arab here, you speak both Arabic and Hebrew from childhood.

I don’t have any recollection of learning Hebrew – the way none of us remember learning our mother tongue. We just know that we’ve always spoken it. And though my mother tongue is Arabic, life in Israel in mixed cities marginalizes the Arabic language. Arabic has been controversial in the Israeli landscape in the past few years.

There are legal motions to erase Arabic from street signs and city signs. Arabic is no longer taught in schools to Jewish students. So there’s a real danger to the Arabic language within Israel, and a real sense of urgency for Arabs that our language is being lost.

What was (were) the main reason(s) that led you to write in Hebrew instead of Arabic?

Though it was a natural instinct for me to write in Hebrew at first, retrospectively it also became a political decision. The issues I want to discuss in my writing – questions of identity, nationality, individuality and race – are issues I want to communicate to the Israeli public at large.

In order to speak to the entire Israeli public- you must speak Hebrew, as both Arabs and Jews understand it. The same is not true, sadly, for Arabic.

Who are the Israeli and the Palestinian writers who inspire you, and influence your literary journey?

My personal favorite Palestinian writer is Ghassan Kanfani – an amazing writer. One of his most famous pieces deals with a Palestinian child who is left behind in Haifa when his parents are expelled by Israel. He is then raised by Jewish parents as a Jew. Kanafani was a controversial figure – and was ultimately killed by the Israeli security forces.

My favorite Israeli writer is David Grossman – who does not need my praise, he’s internationally renowned as a literary success, and rightfully so.

Mahmoud Mansour and Maral Malka celebrate before their wedding in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. More than 200 far-right Israeli protesters tried to disrupt the union of a Jewish woman and a Muslim man © Reuters | International Business Times

Mahmoud Mansour, 26, and Maral Malka, 23, celebrate before their wedding in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. More than 200 far-right Israeli protesters, shouting Death to Arabs, tried to disrupt the union of a Jewish woman and a Muslim man
© Amar Awad | Reuters | International Business Times

How do you perceive the recently approved nationality bill that threatens to deprive Israel’s minorities of their rights, one of them the Arabic as official language of the state?

The nationality law is dangerous not only for Arabs in Israel. It’s dangerous because it betrays Israeli society at large. What we’re seeing now in Israel is a multitude of backgrounds: Russians of Jewish and non-Jewish descent, Druze, Bedouins, Sudanese immigrants – all of whom are participating in Israeli society as active members.

The definition of what it means to be an Israeli is growing, it’s expanding to include more and more individuals. But the nationality law aims to reverse that. It aims to say that there is only one thing that defines an Israeli – and that is the Jewish religion.

Do you feel yourself more Israeli (citizenship) than Palestinian (nationality)?

Arab is a matter of national identity that surpasses geographic location. The Palestinians is the West Bank and Gaza are Arabs, so are the Arab citizens of Israel, and for that matter – Arabs all over the Arab World.

There is a difference between Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian Territories – in terms of everyday life. Arabs in Israel do not need to cross the checkpoints to get to school, or work, or hospitals. They are not under heavy military rule and attacks. They do not suffer the same hardship faced by Palestinians in the territories under the occupation.

The struggle for Arabs within Israel is a struggle for recognition, a struggle against everyday racism, against economic discrimination and for equal opportunities in the various areas of life.  As for me, my heritage is Palestinian. My culture is Palestinian.

My parents and the personal story of my family are all tied to Palestine. Nevertheless, I’m an Israeli author. I write in Hebrew. I create Hebrew literature. And with the nationality bill trying to take the Israeli identity away from me – there’s one thing it cannot take away from – my being an Israeli writer, if not an Israeli citizen in the way the new bill sees it.

You and your mother – probably your friends too – have been victims of vicious attacks. When did you notice that an “incitement atmosphere” was getting out of control? How do you explain it?

I’ve noticed racism throughout the years in Israel, but things have changed dramatically over the past year. We’ve seen protests in Jerusalem – the capital city – where people called “Death to Arabs”. This is something I cannot remember happening at any other point in my lifetime. Racism is no longer something to be ashamed of, it seems. People are proud to be racist – they confuse hatred towards non-Jews with Patriotism.

This was backed by silence on all the official government levels. There was no condemnation by the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] and his coalition.

And if the Prime Minister does not condemn people who wish me and family death – and a few months later proposes a law that says that this country is the home of the Jewish people – in my feeling he’s hijacking Israel away from me, and away from its citizens.

srael's President Reuven Rivlin, (left) attends a memorial for Israeli Palestinians killed in 1956 by Jewish Israeli troops in the town of Kafr Qasim. © Ariel Schalit Associated Press | Los Angeles Times

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin (left) attends a memorial for Israeli Palestinians killed in 1956 by Jewish Israeli troops in the town of Kafr Qasim
© Ariel Schalit Associated Press | Los Angeles Times

Why did you describe Jerusalem as the “capital city” of Israel?

The key to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. This is a crucial part of the Palestinian claim, and also the most problematic one for Israel.

Years of Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, following the six-days war, have created a new status quo: Jerusalem is under Israeli rule. This may not be recognized internationally, but for Palestinians this is a reality – Israel exercises its control of Jerusalem on a daily basis.

In March there will be new elections in Israel. At what extent can a united Arab list be a game changer?

The issue of a possible unity between Arab parties has been discussed many times in the past. Sadly, it never materialized. Arab parties in Israel must realize that now more than ever, they are under threat to their very existence. Israeli society is growing increasingly intolerant to non-Jews, and the agenda of Arabs in Israel is becoming much more pressing. We have to fight for our civic rights.

With the Arab parties being separate they are forming small factions within the parliament, and this time around, they risk disappearing altogether.

They are doing a disservice to the Arab population by insisting on their egos and their inner politics, and refusing to unite and create a larger Arab front in the parliament. I cannot say I’m optimistic about this happening, but I do hope it will.

Israel suffers from the same problem it accuses the Palestinians of having – lack of visionary leadership. Our current Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] does not have a clear prospect for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he’s a professional in avoiding talks and disregarding agreements, and the social well being of the Israeli public is the last thing on his agenda.

The same can be said for the Palestinian leader [Mahmoud Abbas] that he’s opposed to. [“Bibi”] is a Prime Minister who survives on wars and on threats to national security.

The goal of Haitham Khalaily, from Majd Al-Krum, a village in the Galilee, in northern Israel, was to win the Arab Idol contest, broadcasted from Lebanon. He went up to the finals. Back home, he faced the risk of being jailed
© deseretnews.com

Portugal is following the example of other European countries that are recognizing a Palestinian State. Some people consider this gesture merely symbolic. How effective can it be? 

Let’s journey back a few years, to the time when Yasser Arafat came to power. Yasser Arafat was an extremely controversial leader who made several historic mistakes. But he also completed one extraordinary mission.

Before Arafat came to power, the Palestinian people were dispersed, largely hopeless, and suffering the after effects of Israel’s wars with the neighboring Arab nations. Yasser Arafat brought the Palestinian cause to life. He tuned what used to the Palestinian people into a Palestinian Nation. For the first time, Palestinians felt like one nation.

Some people would say this is also “symbolic”. But because they perceive themselves as a nation – they now want a state for that nation. The national identity gave birth to the desire for a state. What seems symbolic at one point – becomes largely real later in history.

Therefore, I’m extremely hopeful and pleased at the European states’ recognition of Palestine. And I want to say to Portugal – history will remember your support for this state. Bu supporting it, you are helping to shape the future landscape of history.

What’s the viability of the two-state solution?

Here’s the bad news about the two-state solution: it’s flawed, controversial, and because of Israel’s continuously changing borders and expansion of settlements, it’s extremely difficult to achieve agreeable lines of separation.

Now, here’s the even worse news about the two-state solution: it’s the only solution we have to work with. At this point, it’s safe to say that anyone who supports Israeli and Jewish rule all over the West Bank and Gaza as well – is supporting the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people, and therefore creating a long-term security issue for all Israeli citizens.

Anyone who supports Palestinian-Arab rule all over Israel as well – is an extremist who does not respect the reality within which we live.

The two-state solution, with all its faults, is the only solution we have left now, because after years of conflict and mutual hostilities, we have backed ourselves into a corner – and exhausted all other options.

Most importantly, it allows the Palestinian people the basic human privileged of no longer living under foreign military rule, and identifying with the state in which they live.

March 17, 2015: Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties accompanied by his family, casts his ballot in Haifa, Israel
© Mahmoud Illean | Associated Press

Do you really believe that the creation of a Palestinian state, in a two-state solution, will change the second-class condition imposed on the Palestinians, the Druze or the Bedouins of Israel?  And do you believe that a Palestinian State will ever be sovereign?

I’m not a political analyst. I do not presume to have all the answers. But I do know that every nation of people deserves a state. And more importantly, no nation should be under aggressive and foreign military rule.

A Palestinian state is crucial not only because the people deserve it, but because, at this point, the Palestinian frustration with the occupation is so extensive, that the continuation of the occupation will only bring about tragedy for both Palestinians and Israelis.

What will the Palestinian state look like and how will it function? I cannot predict an accurate scenario. But I think every nation struggles at first.

Things will not be ideal, not for Palestinians and not for Israelis, for some time, even after the potential establishment of a Palestinian state. But Israel too was established less than 70 years ago.

Seven decades have gone by, and Israel is still struggling: it’s struggling in defining its borders, it’s struggling to meet the needs of the elderly, the poor, the Holocaust survivors, and the Arab population in the country – all of whom are suffering from a severe lack of state funds, because the country invests the vast majority of its money in military and security. If it’s taking Israel 70 years to stand on its feet – how can we judge Palestine before it’s even established?

A final question: in face of what seems to be a growing climate of incitement, have you ever planed to leave Israel, as did Sayed Kashua, the Israeli Palestinian author who also writes in Hebrew like you?

I do not see myself leaving Israel – at least, not for long. Despite the struggle with racism, the growing feelings of anxiety and desperation in light of the rise of the far right in Israel, and the hardship of dealing with Israeli extremism and seeing Israel’s brutality in Gaza this summer – this is my home. I will not allow for it to be taken from me.

The Palestinian people have already been through an expulsion. One cannot happen again. Despite the feeling that this country is becoming more and more foreign to me, I do not plan to leave. This is where I was born, and where my writing was born.

There is no other place in the world where my writing, which deals with the issues of racism and nationality, would be more powerful and controversial and prominent than right here, because of the volatile situation. So if I ever leave, it will be with full intention to one day come back.

[In July 2018, after years of delays and disputes, the Nationality Bill was passed after a stormy eight-hour debate in the Knesset. The vote was 62 to 55, with two abstentions in the 120-seat parliament. The Bill, pushed through by a right-wing and religious coalition, defines Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”. The measure sets “the development of Jewish settlements nationwide as a national priority” and downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language to one with “special status”. Opposition lawmakers, human rights groups and diaspora Jewish organisations have criticised the Israeli government for passing the controversial law, which critics say discriminates against Arabs and other minorities. Source: Irish Times]

© Erez Kaganovitz, Humans of Tel Aviv

© Erez Kaganovitz, Humans of Tel Aviv | Courtesy of Ayman Sikseck

Parts of this email interview, edited for clarification and updated, were included in an article published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on December 20, 2014.

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