Israeli Arabs in Search of Identity

The Balad Party – inherently – cannot identify with the Jewish State, despite its having members sitting in the Knesset.

Dr. Mordechai Kedar

OpEds בל"ד
Eliran Aharon

When Israel's Jewish majority sees the Arab MK's, especially those from the Balad Party, travelling to Qatar, many of them are furious. They see the contacts between Israeli MK's and a terror-sponsoring country that supports Hamas as a form of treason against the state. Some call for the MK's to be tried for travel to an enemy country, although Qatar is not defined – as of now – as one.

It should be recalled that the party's founder, Azmi Bishara, visited Syria and Lebanon, meeting Hezbollah representatives there. He was put on trial for that in Israel and was acquitted due to his parliamentary immunity.

His student and fellow party member, Hanin Zoabi, took part in the Marmara flotilla, an act designed to show solidarity with the Hamas terrorist entity in Gaza.

Another party member, Said Nafa, a member of the Druze religion, steadfastly refused to enlist in the army, and founded an NGO that acts – within legal parameters, naturally – to end the compulsory draft for Druze living in Israel. The Balad party platform (par. 11) says: "Balad will act against the policy of drafting Arabs into the army, and against the propaganda in Arab schools and society that encourages enlistment".

The platform further says (par. 4): "Arab citizens of Israel are part of the Palestinian people and the Arab Nation when it comes to their cultural and national identities."  

Par. 2 states the party platform goal – the elimination of the Zionist character of the State of Israel. "Balad will fight to change the State of Israel to a democratic state for all its citizens – Jews, Arabs and others, for the application of civil and human rights on an entirely egalitarian basis for all citizens of the state, without any discrimination based on nationality, religion or gender".

In the lectures he gave abroad, Azmi Bishara took pains to stress that the "occupation" does not only apply to the areas Israel conquered in 1967 during the Six Day War, but to the areas Israel controls since 1948, meaning the Galilee, Sharon Valley and the Negev, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva. All of them are "occupied" and therefore illegitimate, according to the party, the very existence of Israel is illegitimate, and therefore it must be ended.

Zoabi said that the men who kidnapped and murdered the three boys..are not terrorists. What was she attempting to say? That they are ordinary people who acted properly?
This leads to the conclusion that the Balad Party – inherently – cannot identify with the Jewish State, despite its having members sitting in the Knesset, the institution that most clearly expresses the sovereignty of the state and its definition as the national democratic home of the Jewish people. As a result, Balad party members are obsessed with finding an identity for themselves in geographic proximity to the State of Israel.

The Islamic world is not a potential environment for Balad because the party distances itself from religious identity, it has a Christian – Azmi Bishara, its founder – a Muslim (Hanin Zoabi and Wasil Taha) and a Druze (Said Nafa), so it does not wish to have Islamic identity as its focal point. Hanin Zoabi's presence on the Marmara flotilla was due to her identification with the "Palestinian people imprisoned in the largest prison in the world" as she explained at the time.

For this reason, Balad has two possibilities with which to identify: the greater Arab nation and the nearer Palestinian circle, both of which are problematic. The "Palestinian nation" is polarized and split between the PLO and its attached organizations on the one hand – and on the other hand, there is Hamas, a religious Islamist terror organization that abhors the Gaza Christians and gained control of Gaza by engaging in a bloody murder spree against the PLO's security forces.

The PLO still seems the natural candidate, but connecting with them might make Israeli Arab citizens subordinate to the PLO and its agenda and Israeli Arab citizens have rejected that possibility out of hand. They refuse to give up Israeli citizenship, do not want to join the Palestinian State that the PLO wishes to establish in Judea and Samaria, and do not want to be represented by the PLO vis a vis Israel.  That explains why Balad is not interested in total identification with the PLO, because the party cannot identify fully with an entity that its voters do not wish to be part of.

The only possibility that remains is the Greater Arab Nation, but this too, presents difficulties. Quite a few people in the Arab world see the Arab MK's as traitors to the Arab Nation – how can they be part of the Zionist Knesset and be loyal to the Arab Nation? This outlook is not limited to the MK's but includes the entire Israeli Arab sector: one of the popular names in the Arab world for Israeli Arab citizens is "Arab al-Zibda" – Arabs made of whipped cream because they live the good life in democratic Israel and do not aspire to return to being part of the Arab world.

The heads of Balad did not hide their desire to be considered an integral part of the Arab Nation.  That explains Bishara's visit to Syria and his participation in official ceremonies to memorialize Hafez el Assad. His connecting  with Nasrallah – the super star of the Arab Nation after the 2006 war – was meant to create a link for Balad with the fighting Arabs who garnered success.

Zoabi and Zahalka's visits – along with tens of Israeli Arab public figures – in Libya and the warm meeting they had with Qaddafi, the mass murderer, can be seen in the framework of their search for an authentic Arab "father", one that can give them Arab wings that will kosher them in Arab eyes and remove the guilt for sticking to their Israeli citizenship and their seats in the Israeli Knesset, padded as they are with hefty salaries, pensions and other benefits.

The last three years have witnessed double edged and diametrically opposite activities as far as the psychological connection of Israeli Arabs to the Arab environment goes. On the one hand, the Arab elite held hopes for the rise of legitimate, democratic regimes in the years 2011-12, knowing that if the Arab countries become democracies, Israel will not be able to call itself the only democracy in the Middle East and this would make it easier for them to identify with modern Arab democracies. And if as a result of democracy's spread  in the Arab world, Israel is accepted as a state with the right to exist – with which one can live in peace – Israeli Arab citizens would shed their guilt at making their peace with her. .

Except that the reality was very different. Instead of an Arab Spring, the Middle East has been subjected to an Islamic winter. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's rule lasted just one year and a regime with a religious Islamist character was not to Balad's liking.

In Syria, instead of a democracy run by Assad, they were presented with a murky swamp of blood, tears and flames along with the radical Islamist slogans of Jebhat al Nusra. And if that were not enough, the last few months have seen half of Syria and a third of Iraq fall under the control IS and the rule of  Caliph  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose unadulterated form of ancient Islam is forced on everyone in the conquered areas. The methods are the ones used by Islam in its early years: persecution of Shiites, beheadings, forced islamization, the sale of women in the slave market and mass forced exile resulting in death by starvation.

Balad cannot live with that or identify with it. The "renewed" Arab world is not a source of identity for a political party looking for light and life outside of Israel and finding only darkness and death. In this period of general loss of identity, party members have no choice but to turn to Qatar, the only Arab state that provides a real challenge to Israel due to the funding it provides for Hamas, there to meet with the "great light" of the party, Azmi Bishara, in order to look for a new identity figure that can replace the fallen idols.

I do not agree with the criticism hurled at the Balad party MK's for visiting Qatar. This visit is born of a heavy feeling of loneliness brought on by the collapse of the Palestinian dream, deep disappointment with the hoped-for "Arab Spring" and the anxiety brought on by the growing feeling that more and more Israeli Arabs prefer to remain Israeli citizens in the long run, with all the attendant problems and all the complaints of discrimination, racism and being pushed to the sidelines – complaints that have more than a kernel of truth.

This feeling of losing their way pushes the Balad MK's into making unfortunate statements: Hanin Zoabi said that the men who kidnapped and murdered the three boys, Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach Hy"d, are not terrorists. What was she attempting to say? That they are ordinary people who acted properly? Suitably? Does that mean that Zoabi thinks that an Arab who kidnaps and murders young boys is a normative human being?

It seems to me that there has never been such a collectively damning, insulting and infuriating statement about the Israeli Arab population or that of Judea and Samaria – and this from a woman who claims to represent the Arab citizens of Israel.

The Israeli Arab population of Israel deserves better representation, people who are more worthy of leadership and who will put the welfare of Israel's Arab citizens at the top of their list of interests, instead of searching for virtual identity figures in areas where identity is blurred, reality is bitter and evil, violence surges, terror rules and the future is shrouded in fog.