Responding both to the Palestinian intifada and long-term developments within their community, Arab citizens of Israel have increasingly asserted their national identity as Palestinians. Israeli nationality is not an option for them, as this is not a recognized legal category. The Israeli bureaucracy officially acknowledges the Arab nationality of the vast majority of its non-Jewish citizens, but the common practice is to dissolve their collective identity altogether by labeling them “minorities” and emphasizing distinctions among Bedouins, Druze, Christians, Muslims and Circassians. Several key factors have blocked the full mobilization of Palestinian nationalist sentiment: the dominance of the Communist Party in the Arab community from the mid-1970s until recently; the law allowing only parties that acknowledge “the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people” to participate in Knesset elections; and Israeli propensity to consider any expression of Palestinian nationalism as a security offense.
Azmi Bishara boldly raises this issue in his Hebrew-language pamphlet: “Autonomy for the Palestinian Citizens of Israel” (excerpted in English as “To Be a Palestinian in the Jewish State” in the March-April 1992 News From Within). Since Palestinian-Israelis are “citizens of a state which proclaims itself not to be their state and concurrently to be the state of many people who are not its citizens,” Bishara advocates recognizing their national minority rights within Israel, proposing a version of national-cultural autonomy that evokes the theorizing of Otto Bauer and the early twentieth-century Austrian Marxists. This political-cultural demand is not dependent on Raja Khalidi’s claim in The Arab Economy in Israel: The Dynamics of a Region’s Development that a distinct, though subordinate, Palestinian Arab economic unit exists within Israel.
Bishara’s pamphlet is based on a lecture delivered in Nazareth in December 1991 to a national conference attended by Arabs, many of whom had recently left the ultra-Brezhnevite Communist Party, and Jews, most of whom have not recently been Communists but who cannot support the Zionist politics of the dovish “Democratic Israel” bloc. In April the group organized itself as the Alliance for Equality (Brit Shivyon). Autonomy for Palestinian Arab citizens is one of the points in its program. Alliance for Equality did not participate in the 1992 Israeli Knesset elections. But raising issues of collective political rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel highlights the ways the question of Palestine extends beyond the disposition of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and raises questions about the legitimacy of the political structures of Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. The conditions of life of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens are sympathetically and engagingly presented in Michael Gorkin’s Days of Honey, Days of Onion (Beacon Press, 1991). This ethnographic narrative centers on the life history of one family in the Triangle village of Kufr Qara‘ and vividly depicts the concrete effects of the repressive mechanisms more abstractly described in Ian Lustick’s Arabs in the Jewish State. What makes Gorkin’s effort distinctive is that he is an American Jewish immigrant to Israel who became convinced of the necessity to understand his Arab fellow citizens.
Despite his evident sincerity, Gorkin is oblivious to recent critiques of traditional ethnography and its relationship to colonialism, and this prevents him from considering the extent to which his entire effort is enabled by existing relations of power in Israel. Abu Ahmad, the patriarch of the central family in the story, has had pragmatic relations with Jews since the Mandate era. He, his clan and in some respects the entire village have prospered under Israeli rule despite the hardships of the 1948-1949 war, the repression of the military government, and many institutionalized discriminatory practices. Abu Ahmad’s collaboration with Gorkin is an expression of his pragmatism. If Gorkin had selected a village or a family with a strong tradition of nationalist resistance, their fate might very well have been much harsher and their sentiments toward Israel and Jews less generous — if they would have trusted even a sympathetic Israeli to present their story.
Nationalists are the main subject of Amina Minns and Nadia Hijab’s Citizens Apart: A Portrait of the Palestinians in Israel (I. B. Tauris, 1990). The first half of the book confirms and updates Lustick’s findings, while the second half contains vignettes comparable to Days of Honey, Days of Onion. But Citizens Apart focuses on repression and resistance in the form of constructing Palestinian Arab institutions — the infrastructure that makes the demand for autonomy possible.
In contrast with the Arab-centered approach of Minns and Hijab, Gorkin’s Israel-centeredness is jarring. Liberal good will is an insufficient mechanism to overcome the limitations inherent in his position as a Jewish Israeli. A small but indicative example is the word he uses for pocket bread — pitot. The common Palestinian Arabic word is khubz. Pita (pl. pitot) is originally an Aramaic word (a Greek derivation is also possible) that entered modern Hebrew at the time of the Zionist campaign to revive the language. Subsequently this term has been popularized internationally. Arabs do not normally use this word when speaking Arabic, though it might be used when they speak Hebrew. (Gorkin’s interviews were largely in Hebrew, which his interviewees understand only as a consequence of living under Israeli rule.) In rendering bread as pitot, Gorkin has, probably unintentionally, participated in an act of cultural expropriation whereby Israelis have renamed a Palestinian Arab product and represented it to themselves and to the world as a Jewish thing. The power relations embedded in such practices will have to change along the way to fully resolving the Palestinian problem and establishing substantive democracy in Israel.