Israel’s Arab community and its contempt for its youth

I have zero expectations from racist Jews, but I’d expect the Arabs, my own community, to be less judgmental of young people. You have no idea what it’s like to walk down the street fearing the police and criminals, as well as your judgment.

By Abed Abu Shehadeh

Illustrative photo of Palestinian youths in Haifa, July 19, 2015. (photo: Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)
Illustrative photo of Palestinian youths in Haifa, July 19, 2015. (photo: Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Every time a young Arab is killed in our society, social media is flooded with condemnations and expressions of shock for about a week until their authors go back to their arrogant, standoffish selves thanking god, deep down, that some night clubs in our community don’t let young Arabs in.

One of the most formative moments in my life came when I was 17. I went to a have a passport photo taken at a shop on Jaffa’s Jerusalem Boulevard with two friend. An Arab woman in her 40s stood before us in line and the minute she saw us she clung to her handbag assuming, probably, that we were about to rob her.

I have no words to describe the humiliation I felt because at the time my friend and I were ready to do whatever favor she might have asked us. But since that was her attitude, we decided to reciprocate. We came closer and suggested menacingly that she be very mindful of her handbag. We later found out she was a famous local politician.

The problem is endemic to the Arab society. We stereotype and stigmatize our youth only to be taken aback when the sky-high crime rate comes back to haunt us. How about just being straightforward with our youth and saying that we have nothing but contempt for them? Every young Arab is a potential menace – unless he is educated, enlightened, rich or, better still, a hipster.

No sector in our society is immune to that kind of prejudice. The religious moan that we’re not religious enough, and the secularists moan that we’re too religious. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. When demonstrations take place everybody wants to know why we don’t show up, but in the day-to-day routine nobody gives a toss about us. Only when we stand up to the establishment we get some sympathy, but usually from people who want to recruit us to their political ends.

I used to think it’s unique to Arabs within Israel, but I was once humiliated in the same way in Ramallah, where portraits of illustrious revolutionaries can be seen everywhere and Che Guevara t-shirts are the latest fad among café owners. However, they inflate the prices to keep the young residents of nearby refugee camps away.

Last February I was in Jordan. I made plans to hang out at one of the country’s modern malls with friends, but they categorically told me not to come underdressed because I may not be let in. Single young men, especially in groups, are frowned upon.

This kind of behavior deliberately ignores the social and political challenges that we face by virtue of being Arabs. Westerners see us as potential terrorists, but at the same time our own society sees us as a nuisance.

Young Arabs are de-humanized. We don’t give them the opportunity to integrate, we don’t want them next to us, we’d rather have them as far away as possible. But then they are being slagged off for not being hardworking or accomplished enough. Our society chooses to ignore our interpretation of the institutional racism in Israel thanks to which we end up unemployed and badly off.

With the Palestinian national struggle in the background, the Israeli government does its utmost, in every walk of life, to make sure we don’t succeed. I’m not sure which is more strident a manifestation of Jewish-Israeli racism – white Ashkenazi Tel Aviv, a liberal environment for Jews only, or Jerusalem, where Border Police strip-search young Arabs just to address their own inferiority complex? Be that as it may, I have few expectations from the pervasively racist Jewish society. However, I’d expect our very own – especially the educated middle class – to champion an alternative and harness us.

I’m not here to preach or educate anyone. All I’m saying is, don’t lie to us. If you’re not willing to see us as bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh, don’t bother to turn to us. You don’t know what it’s like to walk down the street and be equally terrified of the police, the criminals and your judgement. Please forgive us for not growing up in wealthy homes that could afford to buy us private and higher education. Please forgive us for having little patience – please understand, this is the only way we could survive in an environment that wants to undo our existence. I don’t know what could be the excuse for crime being such a central feature in our lives. But whatever it is, our hospitals and cemeteries are full of the victims of that situation.

A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine got out of prison. We sat at his home, and a social worker came by and started lecturing him about how he should behave. He looked at her, wiped the smile off his face and said: “My dad convinced me to drop out of school so that I could help him make a living. My brother used to send me to sell drugs, my mother is crazy and the only skill that I have is stealing. Where were you when I really needed you?” There was nothing any of us could say. Two weeks later I scraped his body off the street, riddled with seven bullets to his head.

The Arab society in Israel needs to realize that young people aren’t pawns on a chessboard. Like you, we have dreams and aspirations, and a desire to be allowed into every establishment we want. We don’t want to be blamed for a reality that imposed itself on us. Let’s try to do things together – who knows, it might be the way out of violence and crime.

Abed Abu Shehadeh is a Balad Party member and a student at the School of Government and Society of Tel Aviv-Yaffo Academic College.