Every Jew has their unique connection to heritage. For me, it has always been our historical identity as the wandering other. To be different—and to persevere through centuries of prejudice—resonated with my outsider identity when I was little. As a child attending religious services, there was always one song in particular that brought tears to my eyes: Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
I didn’t know the meaning of these words in Hebrew back then or what it was for. I simply felt what my cantor solemnly sang connecting with my Jewish sense of wandering and persecution. The harmony would conjure images of the Jewish past, not of the Israeli present or future.
It was during my time in Israel and Palestine that my connection with Hatikvah was challenged, for I now knew the words of this Zionist anthem—and what they meant.
I spent one weekend in Haifa with my Arab host and new friend, Firas. He expressed succinctly how the Israeli national anthem made him feel: “Hatikvah doesn’t mean anything to me—it doesn’t represent me.”
There is a fundamental conflict in Israel’s basic identity. Simply, how can a state that is supposed to be for Jews, by Jews, truly be democratic for all? This question cuts to the very heart of people’s vision for Israel. Some emphasize the “Jewish side,” some emphasize the “democratic side,” and most Israelis try to somehow combine the two. Proud Israelis cite the extensive rights minorities in Israel have that are nonexistent elsewhere in the Middle East. But with over 50 discriminatory laws and 79% of Jewish Israelis saying Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel, to be a gentile in Israel parallels the collective alienation I felt hearing Hatikvah growing up.
Firas was seemingly the ‘model Arab’ Israelis would point to for all the Jewish state has done for its Arab citizens. Firas was educated, living in a nice apartment, was well spoken with a Western outlook, and finishing up medical school. “To Jewish people, I am considered a ‘light Arab,’ like the better Arab,” he said. “I don’t really speak Hebrew with much of an accent, so sometimes they think I am Mizrahi. And when people hear I am Arab, they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re Christian, right? Not one of the scary ones who are terrorists and want to blow us up.’ No,” he asserted. “I am Palestinian.”
The alienation that festered within him but never to be said began to pour out. Israelis often preach for coexistence, but Firas dismissed the word adorning thousands of bumper stickers. “This is not coexistence,” he insisted. “It is the concept of this state that they deserve something over me. They deserve everything because they are Jewish. It’s the idea that you came here because you believe that you are entitled to this place.”
People like to point to Haifa as a place where Jews and Arabs enjoy “coexistence.” Firas mentioned the Al-Sham Festival in Haifa that week, which advertised Al-Sham—the Arab name for the region encompassing the Holy Land, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria— as the name for “Historic Israel,” all in an effort to promote coexistence. “Most of the people that will benefit from the festival are Jews, not Arabs,” Firas noted, “so you’re taking Arab foods, spinning them as Israeli, and saying this is coexistence. But basically, it’s just trying to take our history and our culture. It’s pointless. This is not coexistence.”
Jews only come to Arab areas in Israel for the cheap groceries and the world’s best hummus (can confirm). But this only deepens the servant-servee relationship developed under colonialism. “They are saying, ‘Oh, we will eat your hummus, but you have to stay in your place,’” he commented. “Coexistence for me is if I wanted to go live in a kibbutz up north and I was actually able to.” Kibbutzim are notorious for rejecting Arab applications to live there. “So you don’t want me living in your neighborhood, but you want us to ‘coexist.’ You want me to stay in our neighborhoods that the state doesn’t really take care of. You want me to live in my towns that have no financial budget from the government.”
Firas grew up in Nazareth, which now experiences tremendous overcrowding after all of its surrounding land was taken in 1956 to create the Jewish-only town of Nazareth Ilit. Without a single new Arab town established since Israel’s founding, this overcrowding is prevalent in Arab areas of Israel. “This is not coexistence,” repeated Firas. “It’s just bullshit for the media.”
And yet, in a society born out of past persecution, Firas struggled to feel solidarity among the persecuted other as I did in religious services growing up. The efforts by the Israeli government and resulting social sentiment attempt to fracture a united Palestinian identity, denying even the term “Palestinian.” Palestinians in the West Bank see him as a “traitor” for living in Israel. Bedouins have been “injected” with the thought they are completely separate from their Arab brethren. He was told all his life that he should be the “better Arab” because he is Christian and not Muslim.
It was when I returned from a Druze village, however, that he expressed his greatest distaste for this systematic division. The Druze people are an Arabic-speaking people that follow an esoteric religion with influences from all three of the Abrahamic religions. In spite of its cultural and historic ties with other Arab populations, they are the only significant minority group in Israel with men conscripted into the Israeli army.
“The Druze betray themselves and the other oppressed people in Israel and they don’t even realize it,” opined Firas. “They’ve been taught by the government all their lives that they are different from the rest of the Arabs and they hate us from it. But how can they not see this dogma that’s fed to them? They’re like pets for the state.”
“They keep saying, ‘You don’t serve in the army, that’s why we don’t give you services to your villages, fund your education…they blame it on us for not being an active part of society and whatever. The Druze, you see in their villages, they still don’t get the funds and same attention that Jewish towns and cities do.”
Druze and all Arab villages today receive a fraction of the funds per capita from the government that Jewish towns do, and this was visible walking the streets of Daliyat Al-Karmel, the largest Druze village in Israel.
In some ways, I felt like I was walking through a normal Arab village. People offered me tea and sweets in the shops I’d pass by. There was that special sense of community felt in an Arab village.
But in this Arabic-speaking village, mostly all the signs on shops were in Hebrew. The village’s exterior was Judaized as every street corner proudly raised an Israeli flag.
And yet, this still felt like a façade. While the village was made presentable for the Jews who came from nearby on weekends for shopping, the cracked streets and drab aesthetic seemed more like the underfunded Arab villages than the well-manicured Jewish areas. These people may have had perks, but by no means were they privileged.
I went to the city council, where I met a petite woman in her early thirties. Hiba and I sat together munching on baklava and cake a passing woman offered us. Every person coming in and out of the local council would stop for a quick chat with Hiba. “Everyone knows everyone in this village!” she exclaimed.
Born and raised in the village, Hiba studied at the nearby University of Haifa, where she had both Jewish and Muslim friends. “It is difficult to be around Arabs, though,” she admitted. “When they hear you are Druze, they back away from you. They think we are traitors.”
Hiba instead felt closer with the Israeli side. “They provide security,” she explained, detailing her family members in Syria without any food for years while weathering the ongoing civil war. “In Israel, I feel secure knowing that our village is safe.”
Hiba works for the local council, going to the streets to promote education. Though aware of the inequality in resources the village receives, she oddly accepts it. “Any other situation would be worse,” she said.
This acceptance of Israeli rule that delineates the Druze from other Arab-speaking people is instilled when they are very little, and the basis of Hiba’s connection to Israel revealed the contradiction at hand. Looking past the Israeli flags and Hebrew signs, the people’s openness to strangers, their hospitality, even the way they spoke reminded me of other Arabs. “Yes, we speak Arabic, and there is a difference in family life,” she admitted. “[The Jews’] general approach to life is just different from us.”
What was similar, then? “The humanity,” was her reply. “We approach humanity like the Jews do. Like when the terrorists are coming to kill Jews, the Jews don’t kill them.” Questionable reasoning while the Israeli public was justifying the extrajudicial killing of Palestinian assailants, but okay. “They have a certain humanity to how they approach these Muslims. With Muslims, they would kill any person from the other side. We share a strong sense of humanity with the Jews.”
The source of this sentiment became clearer when Hiba explained the differences—from her point of view—between the Druze religion and the Muslim religion: “For us, you don’t go to heaven if you kill someone. But in Islam, to kill someone means you are going to heaven,” she said. “Unlike Islam, our religion tells us to love all people, to love all religions. We love everyone.”
Hiba was raised with the same implicit notions as many Jewish Israelis are of what Muslims are like, and this ignorance and fear combines with the ingrained concept that Israel would protect her—again, not different at all from Jewish Israelis. She wasn’t expressing hate, but tragic ignorance. Like Jewish Israelis, Hiba was always kept away from the “others,” both physically and emotionally.
From a historical standpoint, as minorities within the Arab community, the “favored other” status in Israel is still better than the minority status the Druze historically had in general Arab society. Indeed, Israel serves as a sense of security the Druze people never had before.
But this “favored other” status still creates a sense of separation, both economically and socially. Hiba’s brothers, father, and husband all served in the IDF. “There is a kind of distance between the Druze soldiers and the other ones,” she said. “The Jewish soldiers hear them speaking in Arabic, and they know that is the language of the enemy. So it would be a problem sometimes in having the trust of the other soldiers. In their mind, how can they separate us from the terrorists?”
“That is the problem for the Druze community,” she lamented, putting on my plate another piece of baklava. “We are kind of stuck in the middle. The Muslims think we are traitors and never speak to us. But we will never be like the Jews. In their eyes, we will never be like the rest of them.”
Acknowledging this “otherness,” how did she feel hearing Hatikvah, the national anthem so explicitly directed towards Jews? “I feel very connected with it,” she still said. “Since I was very young, I was taught to be very proud of that song. For my own children, just like me when I was little, I try to instill a sense of pride of Israel into them.”
I was in Tel Aviv, sitting in Israel’s Independence Hall, listening alongside an American birthright group to a speaker discussing how Israel was founded in this same room in 1948. She showed the audience a map of the 1947 UN partition plan, guiding them along by asking obvious yes/ no questions. “Are countries with borders that are long and narrow easy to defend?” she asked, connecting the basis for modern-day Israeli debate to the founding of the country itself.
Her one-sided account was, of course, expected. But I was taken aback when she asked everyone to stand, put their hand over their heart, and sing the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.
I had spent the previous summer with a Palestinian family in Hebron nearby an Israeli checkpoint. So many nights, while hearing soldiers shooting from the nearby street, I would hear Hatikvah ringing in my mind, its melancholy coming to me like a blessing and a curse whose meaning I failed to decipher.
Now, to sit in Independence Hall and see these American Jews just like me recite Hatikvah to pledge allegiance to a state, a state that made others feel second-class like we had felt for so many centuries before, my stomach churned. I was having my Jewish identity stripped and politicized for the sake of blind nationalism and told it was all the same thing.
Hatikvah didn’t feel so close to my heart any more. Its solemn melody still aroused that sense of belonging through wandering, only now, this sense felt betrayed by the song’s words. Everyone singing Hatikvah in this room felt like they belonged in a state they barely knew of— to the exclusion of so many whose home this had once been.
I thought of Firas, Hiba, and everyone I’d met in this land who were the wandering other. What was one person’s hope had unwittingly been another’s conquest. For Zion had finally been retaken to cherish, to hold, to finally feel like we belonged somewhere.
This was our world now, and all any other could do was coexist.