Sunday, February 10, 2002 Shvat 28, 5762

Above the piano on the wall of the principal’s room in the Mar Elias High School in the village of I’billin, there is an unusual icon. Under the painting of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, in a black frame, one can see the smiling face of Asil Asala, a 17-year-old student killed in the events of October 2000 [the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada, when 13 Israeli Arabs were killed during rioting in the Galilee]. A policeman’s bullet killed Asala, a boy who was active in the peace movement and friendly with many young Jews. 

According to the teachers and the students, Asala’s death is a symbol of the crisis in the relationship between the Arab minority and the Jewish majority and the Jewish establishment in Israel. For the hundreds of students from all over the Galilee who attend the school, the killing of Asala was a formative experience, an emotional trauma with a lifelong political message.

Mar Elias is a private Christian school with a mostly Muslim student body. Its educational philosophy is to encourage the Arab-Palestinian identity of the students. “We do it at every opportunity, both through meetings with Arab Knesset members and public figures, and through the preparatory workshops which precede Jewish-Arab encounters,” says principal, Issam Houri. The school is considered good but not elitist, although the students in the physics track have an elite image. Mar Elias is both an academic high school and a trade school. There are about 1,270 students in grades 9-12. About 8 percent of Arab high school students in Israel study in such private schools.

Haled Atallah, Bushara Sheikh Ahmed, Bashara Abed and Lina Kenani are 11th grade students in the physics track, where Asala was studying. They are 17, two years younger than Asala would be now. Like he was, they are excellent students, ambitious, savvy, with a high degree of political awareness and a well developed national identity. Most of all, they are very conscious of the difficulties and limitations that stem from their belonging to the Arab minority in the Jewish state.

From left, Lina, Bashara, Haled and Bushara. All students at the Mar Elias School in I’billin, they doubt they can lead full lives as Arabs in Israel.
(Photo: Yaron Kaminsky )

Haled, who lives in Kafr Yasif, is the eldest of three brothers in a Christian family. His father is a dentist and his mother, a laboratory technician. His hair is spiky and covered with gel, and he complains that conservative Arab society doesn’t allow him to grow “two-meter spikes.” He plays the piano and listens to classical music. “Both classical Arabic, and classical classical, you know, Beethoven and Mozart and those good guys,” he laughs. When he introduces himself, he makes sure to mention that “Grandfather and Grandmother were uprooted from the village of Ikrit” [a village in the Galilee whose residents were promised in 1948 that they would be able to return, but were never permitted to do so].

His friend Bashara, who lives in I’billin, immediately mentions that his mother’s parents were uprooted from Biram [a village with the same history as Ikrit]. Lina, who lives in Kafr Tamra, says her mother’s parents were originally from Haditha, a small village next to Ikrit and Biram, that was destroyed. It is important to them to tell about their roots, they say. “It’s a significant part of our identity. We talk about it almost every day and all of our friends know where we come from,” says Lina. Her girlfriend Bushara explains that “maybe we emphasize it because we’re talking to a Jew and the conversation reminds us of the conflict.”

The conflict plays an important role in their lives, mainly since the beginning of the intifada, but they make an effort not to let it dominate their lives. “It’s sure to come when we go to university,” says Bushara. “We’ll be more involved in politics and in political parties, and we’ll also get to know Jews.” Now they have hardly any contact with Jews. Lina’s parents have Jewish friends who sometimes come to visit. The entire class met last year in Neveh Shalom [a mixed Arab-Jewish community] with Jews their age, kibbutzniks. Some of them maintained phone contact with their Jewish counterparts for several weeks. Afterwards the contact stopped.

Lina, a tall, thin girl, who does fashion drawings for fun, and says she is addicted to television and to chat rooms on the Internet, would like to have one Jewish girlfriend. “Someone through whom I could learn about another culture. Someone who would be like my Arab girlfriends, who understand me and whose company I enjoy, a friend in the full sense of the word. Maybe it will be possible at the university, if she accepts me as an Arab.”

Bushara hears and gets angry. “What do you mean, if she accepts you? You’ll also have to decide if you accept her. It’s an illusion that at the university we’ll meet Jews and everything will be just fine. At the university there’s also a separation between Jews and Arabs, just like in the country. That’s the situation.”

Bushara lives in I’billin. She is the eldest of four brothers and sisters and her parents are teachers. She also loves music. She listens to everything: English, Arabic, Hebrew, old and new. Umm Kulthum, Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifa, Shlomo Artzi. But what she loves most is the “music of MTV.” She has a great deal of social awareness. “We are a small, closed society, which lives within a Jewish society, within a Jewish state that to a great extent is not mine. And I have to break through the limits that these two societies place on me,” she says: both the conservatism and provinciality of Arab society, and the discrimination and racism of Jewish society. Arab girls like her, she says, are frequently busy acquiring and refining tools with which to deal with the barriers placed on them by Arab society, and even more, with acquiring tools with which to deal with life in a Jewish state.

However, all four are convinced that they have no chance of living a full life as Arabs in Israel, even if they fulfill themselves professionally and build a family. “I know that in a Jewish state I won’t have equal rights as an individual, that there will always be some place where someone will say: `We give preference to those who have done army service.’ I know that even as a nation, we will not realize our collective dream of living in freedom,” says Haled. “Maybe it would be possible if we could enter the hearts of the Jewish nation, so that there would be love and peace between the nations, but it is clear to me that the Israeli government wants the Jews to hate us.”

None of them pins any hopes on the government. “After more than 50 years in which all the governments did nothing for the Arabs, how can we expect anything?” says Bashara, and Bushara adds: “We have a right to expect a great deal from the government, but we have already learned that we actually have nothing to hope for. If you think that it’s possible to receive equal rights, or even fair treatment, in a country that defines itself as Jewish, you are dreaming.”

Bashara, who after school volunteers as a youth group leader in a church in I’billin, and plans to be a priest when he grows up, often compares his situation, and that of his friends, with the lives of his cousins in America. “I couldn’t even dream to live as they do. They do what they want. They dream whatever they want, and know that they can fulfill any dream,” he says. Even his cousin in Haifa lives a freer life. “After school, he can go the community center, to the mall. I go home, to television, to music or to the computer.” He defines his life and those of his friends as “isolated.” He says that young Jews have no idea how he and his friends live. “Many of them have no idea that there are Arabs in this country. They know what is happening in America and in the Philippines, but they don’t know what’s going on in their own country.”

Bashara and his friends know very well what’s happening in the country. They are plugged in to television, to radio, they read newspapers. They follow the clashes in the territories, are familiar with Arab-Israeli politics (and spare no criticism for the internal splits and the rivalries among their leadership). They know about the public campaign to promote the idea of transfer, initiated by late tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi. They often speak about transfer. To them it is not a wild idea, but a real threat.
“The truth is that many of us discuss personal transfer,” says Haled with a bitter smile. “Many say that they would like to get out of here. I sometimes talk that way, too. Already at age 16 or 17, we understand there is nothing for us here. But I say: We cannot leave our land and our family just because we can’t find ourselves here.” The other three say they too sometimes consider getting up and leaving, but they have no intention of fulfilling Israel’s dream, as they put it, even if they know that they won’t be able to fulfill their personal dreams in Israel. “It’s that very thing that’s keeping us here,” says Bushara.

The four of them live in villages, with limited possibilities for entertainment and fun. Since the beginning of the intifada, their parents have almost entirely forbidden them to go out to have a good time in the neighboring cities. “Our parents, justifiably, are afraid of terrorist attacks, and are also afraid that we will be attacked because we are Arabs,” says Haled. “When they do let us go out, they ask us not to speak Arabic in Jewish places, so that we won’t stand out. It’s hard.”

All four are studying Hebrew at the 5-point level, which is the highest level of the bagrut, or matriculation, exams (they are also studying mathematics, physics and English at the 5-point level). The Hebrew curriculum consists of language, Bible, Jewish Oral Law and Hebrew Literature. They study Hebrew diligently because of its value as an instrument for social advancement in Israel. They study Bible and literature “because there’s no choice,” according to principal Issam Houri, who is also a Hebrew teacher. Hebrew literature sometimes interests them, he says, because of its universal content. The reform in the Hebrew curriculum for the Arab sector has led to the omission a large percentage of the Zionist Jewish content and today, Arab students do not study the patriotic poems of Bialik and Tchernichowsky, but rather their lyric poems, the nature poems of Rachel, and the emotional and contemplative poems of Yehuda Amichai and Dalia Rabikovitch.

They read good literature in Arabic, newspapers in Hebrew, and talk for hours on Internet chat rooms in Arabic using the English alphabet. Arab chat rooms give them a chance to make contact with the Arab world, to talk to their peers in Egypt, Kuwait and Algeria. “We talk to them, and understand how alien we are not only in our country, but in the Arab world as well,” says Lina. “Here they don’t accept us, and there they are suspicious of us.”