A question I often ask Palestinians in Israel/Palestine is: What if you just want to get ahead with your own life, is that possible? We know the political situation is horrible; but it has been horrible for many decades; so is it possible to say, I am not going go to get swept up in this problem, but try and get what I can out of Israeli society?
The other night I got an answer when the Israeli Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua spoke at NYU. Kashua is a giant success. He was the writer of Arab Labor, a popular TV sitcom often compared to All in the Family; he is a novelist and a columnist for Haaretz; now teaching at the University of Illinois, he was profiled last year in the New Yorker.
But the writer who spoke at NYU last Thursday is openly undergoing an identity crisis heightened by the experience of freedom in Champaign, Illinois, for the last 18 months. Kashua says that he was a “hostage” who lived in “fear” when he was in Israel; all his efforts to fit in and change Israeli society by making jokes to Jewish Israelis did nothing to change the balance of power; he feels he took the “wrong paths” in language and work. He said he had been trying to quit his Haaretz column for over a year, and did so again just last week; he would prefer to be writing for an Illinois newspaper; he does not know why he writes in Hebrew, the language of the “enemy” or the “oppressor.”
Kashua is now unsure if he will return to his beloved Jerusalem. He has lost hope in the Israeli future.
The writer has been widely profiled, but I do not believe he has ever expressed his personal crisis in such anguished terms as he did the other night in downtown New York. But listen to him.
On his personal crisis:
The only reason I’m there [Illinois] is the political situation, the racism and the despair I think that I couldn’t handle any more back in the summer of 2014. And it was frustrating. I think that I’m still suffering some kind of traumatic situation. I didn’t recover yet from that traumatic period… I had a very strong feeling that I took the wrong paths in my life. And all the decisions… writing for TV, and choosing the wrong language, and living in the wrong place—I very much hope that I will gain some powers and recover…
I miss Jerusalem so much. I don’t know about home, I really don’t know about home because now Champaign is home…. So now I miss Champaign… I miss Jerusalem, I miss Tira [my village] very much. I’m still there, stuck there I think. Believe it or not, but I’m not worried that much about Trump. Maybe I should be. But the first news that I read when I wake up in the morning are the news from Jerusalem, from Palestine-slash-Israel
On his belief in assimilation in Israel:
The main character in Arab Labor was a journalist, who… just did his best to assimilate, to fit in to the Ashkenazi Jewish society in Jerusalem. Of course he was rejected every single episode… When it comes to nationality, he doesn’t have this dignity at all, and he was in no way this proud Palestinian nationalist at all. He just wanted to be a citizen and he just wanted to fit in. So to be honest, that’s the way I do think generally speaking about the Palestinian citizens inside Israel. That since 48, if we talk generally, they are trying to fit in and be equal citizens in the state of Israel– and again and again they are rejected and not welcome as citizens.
On his misgivings about using Hebrew to tell his stories:
To choose the Hebrew language was a big problem. Hebrew is the language of the state of Israel. If you want to be a lawyer, if you want to be a teacher, if you want to be a criminal you have to speak Hebrew…
In a strange way, if you want to address the Arabs inside Israel, it’s better to use Hebrew. There are no real publishing houses and no real bookstores or marketing for books, so if you want to address or criticize Arab society inside Israel, the best way to do it is doing it in Hebrew, but Hebrew is the language of the enemy. So how do you criticize the society with the language of the enemy–or the language of the other? I’m not sure– enemy is a little too much, maybe, but at least of the oppressor.
Of course Hebrew is not just a language, it’s the modern Hebrew, the Hebrew of establishing the new Jew, the new Hebrew with this Ashkenazi accent, the new Hebrew that is supposed to be controlling and ruling the land of Israel. As Amos Oz, a wonderful writer, and a good supporter of my work, I guess, he would say that Hebrew is the biggest achievement of Zionism. That makes it even much more problematic. It’s not a language, it’s their language, it’s the language of Israel, the language of occupation and it’s the language of discrimination….
On wanting to quit Haaretz:
I have been trying to quit writing for Haaretz since I moved, to be honest. Including a week ago. I filed my column and again I called my editor and said, That’s it. I don’t feel any–. I don’t know what I am doing here. I am writing about Urbana Champaign and the Uber driver in Urbana Champaign. If it was a local newspaper in Champaign, I would do that.
Things are happening [back in Israel/Palestine], I do relate to them, but not the same way I do if I am living there. The feeling of freedom is so strange to me. It’s not that I feel so free…. Sometimes I wonder how the fact that I choose to write in Hebrew– am I censoring myself only because of the choice of the use of the Hebrew or not? I have no idea. So that is tough… Everything I write is still connected [to Israel/Palestine].
On Hebrew as a form of self-protection:
The use of Hebrew for me, or writing the satirical columns for Haaretz or of course writing for Israeli TV, was a way to protect myself, using humor. Knowing very well that there is no way to make lectures against occupation and discrimination on prime time TV. You have to sell. And to sell you have to use humor…
Many Israelis would like to call it Jewish humor. I completely disagree with that. Maybe minority way of humor. But to protect yourself with humor.
I used to believe and I still believe that the only way to figure out the solution, to share the land equally and to end the occupation, is to address the Israelis and tell the Israelis a different story. I always thought it was very important, yes, to influence the majority, the people with the power. Because in a way our lives are in their hands. So it was some kind of self-protection. I always use the sentence of, “Please don’t shoot me, I can tell you a joke.” But it’s not only that. It doesn’t end there with please don’t shoot me, I want to tell you a joke. It’s more: “I will tell you a joke, and maybe it will make you laugh, and then I tell you another joke and maybe we can laugh together and you will listen to me, then maybe I can tell you a little bit of a sad story.”
Kashua then read a very sad story indeed: a column about his beloved grandmother, whose husband was killed during the Nakba in 1948, and Kashua’s desire to justify and understand his choices by talking to her.
More on his misgivings:
According to Pew, an American research association, around 50 percent of Jewish Israelis do believe that Palestinians should be transferred; 80 percent think we should be discriminated against and we don’t deserve to be equal citizens. That’s one of the problems. You don’t have a way to escape. So that’s it. Am I going to criticize Israeli society as if it was my society? Am I allowed to do that? I can criticize racism in order to create? Because that was my belief: that one day we will be equal citizens and we can share the land and all the citizens could live wherever they want in the state of Israel, I don’t know the borders of the state. That is the very basis of democracy, really the very basis, that all citizens are equal; and all people are equal—
And they failed even to do that…. And I felt so ashamed of trying to do something with my writing and my TV show. So as I say I am still trying to recover.
On his loss of hope:
In order to use humor, to use satire, you have the basic feeling of instability in life and of course you need a lot of hope. And I think I always had this hope, based on knowing the people, knowing [my producer and director and neighbors]… the kids in the bilingual school that my kids used to go to.
One of the sad things was to see here the classes of my kids in the bilingual school in Jerusalem on fire, because extreme rightwing Israelis decided that Arabs and Jews are not supposed to study together so they burned the school.
I miss that so much and that’s what always gave me a reason to believe or hope that we can live together. I think that I stopped doing that … even before the war in Gaza. This feeling that I couldn’t lie to my kids anymore. I couldn’t tell my kids that they could one day be equal in Israel….
He thinks now he was a hostage to Jewish Israeli society:
So it’s painful and it’s also not fair, because back then– being a Palestinian citizen of Israel, I belong to this discriminated minority that has no power at all, not economic power or any kind of power in the general society. Because this fear was part of my life and this fear that I was kept as a hostage was part of my life. It wasn’t like I wasn’t working for wonderful places like Haaretz [and the television production company]. But fear was always there, and I think it was always much more difficult to criticize Israel as an Arab, and not as a Jewish Israeli… Even writing about occupation as apartheid– that’s what happens in Haaretz– it’s still part of that internal Jewish discussion within the family.
But when the Arab is criticizing that– “Oh he just wants to destroy the state of Israel.”
Which was never true, quite frankly. Because I really want to make that place a better place for my kids and for Jonathan, he was my neighbor in the same building and his kids used to go to the same school with my kids. And I really cared about his future, Jewish kids, and my kids.
On his despair:
It makes criticizing and humor a little bit sad, realizing that power respects only power. And realizing that it’s only the language of violence that can be understood. That is so frustrating for a person who believes in the power of culture and the power of words and the power of making changes, even small changes, again with art.
But unfortunately that is a big shock, and huge despair, to realize that unfortunately it is worth nothing.
Two other points. Kashua was critical of Palestinian society, for its intolerance of free speech. But he said that Israel is now manifesting the same intolerance, and– more important– Palestinian urbanity is destroyed by Israel. There are no Palestinian cities; Palestinian urban growth is extremely circumscribed. This leaves the traditional village structure the only structure in Palestinian society and forecloses the possibility of a thriving urban Palestinian literary/intellectual culture in Israel.
Last week it was the Pew study showing that 80 percent of Israeli Jews think discrimination is hunky-dory. A few days before it was the news that the Israeli left has come up with a plan to wall off and segregate the Palestinians of Jerusalem to protect the Jewish state. And here you have a fine Palestinian writer saying he doesn’t want to write in Hebrew anymore. What will it take Americans to understand that Zionism doesn’t work in this day and age?