Being Palestinian Being Israeli
By Ayman Sikseck
Last year, as a likely declaration of an independent Palestinian state drew near, Arabs born in Israel faced again the complex questions regarding their personal and national history. It made me think back of my own childhood; growing up as a Muslim Arab in the nationally and religiously diverse city of Jaffa, when Palestinian state was still considered a far-fetched idea upheld only by religious extremists, and ridiculed by Jews and Arabs alike.
My parents were born before 1948, the year in which Israel succeeded in an over-publicized endeavor, similar to this made by Palestinians now, to be recognized as an independent Jewish state. Born Palestinians, my parents were nevertheless compelled to hold documentation by the newly founded country, thus virtually, overnight, becoming Israeli. They were later labeled as the lucky ones; the remaining few Palestinians, spared the fate of the rest who had not been driven out of their villages into refugee camps in the neighboring Arab countries. They belonged to those who had resided in central cities and where Israeli evacuation operations were relatively less successful.
The Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and Gaza grew stronger over the years, creating generations of victims on both sides. Hence the Israeli identity, which had been enforced upon Palestinians living in Israel, gradually became desirable. What had been initially perceived as depriving Arabs of a core element of their national identity, proved later to have shielded them from a life of hardship and humiliation suffered by family members and neighbors in Palestinian Territories. A noiseless and slow process of assimilation thus started to take place. Palestinians like my parents who were born in Palestine but brought up children into what have already become Israel, learned to keep their own history to themselves. Recognized by the State as an Israeli-Arab, I was sent to an Israeli school; World War II and the Holocaust were two major lessons in my education about the history and establishment of the country. Hebrew became the language habitually used by me and my peers, while Arabic language was steadily pushed aside which made it more difficult to use in our daily life. Ironically, I owe much of my becoming a Palestinian author who writes exclusively in Hebrew to this very process of interchanging identities. Only four of us contemporary Arab authors born in Israel have been published thus far, and one has already left the country and no longer writes in Hebrew.
Young Arabs who were born in Israel to Palestinian parents are having now to independently retrace the record of their national history. As issues of Palestinian heritage, testimonies and culture became pressing, in the light of Palestinian bid for statehood, a generation of young Arabs born in Israel, as Israeli citizens, is now reclaiming their Palestinian past. Palestinians on both sides of the Israeli wall of separation are now sharing a sense of hope for a Palestinian state. For young Arabs in Israel, this is a fundamental step towards recognizing themselves and their communities as Palestinians; for their parents, it is a display of unity which has not been witnessed between the two Arab societies since 1948.
For Palestinians on both sides of the border, an independent Palestinian state is their basic right to political autonomy and freedom from an occupying and oppressing foreign authority. But it is also a matter of reclaiming their right to their national and historical identity. The identity which has long been renamed, delegitimized, and repressed, is slowly re-emerging through a new generation, different in its ideals and context, yet intrinsically familiar to its new generation of claimants. The stories of our parents were not handed down to us, but we have insisted on discovering them still, and are now trying to retell them in our daily lives, to our children and the children of our Israeli friends, and in our artistic work and fiction. A vote for an independent Palestinian state is a vote for the persistence of these stories; and for a free and sovereign home for the stories yet to be told.
- Ayman Sikseck’s debut novel, To Jaffa, which explores the paradoxical and problematic life of a young Palestinian-Israeli was published in 2010.