October 28, 2004

Between the Jewish State And the Arab World: Israel's Arab Minority

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Being Arab in the Jewish State

JERUSALEM — I’ll never forget the first Arabs I saw during my year in Israel. It was early September, and my flight had just landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. It was 6 a.m. local time, but my watch — still on Boston time — read 11 p.m.

My eyes halfway open, I followed the other passengers into the terminal to have my passport checked before officially entering the country. I randomly stepped into one of a dozen or so lines — the one I soon noticed wasn’t moving. Becoming increasingly agitated at the swift movement of the lines on either side of me, I looked to the front of mine to see what was causing the holdup.

Standing before the customs officer was an Arab man in his early twenties and a hijab-wearing woman I presumed to be his mother. He was angrily holding up some documents, but was refused entry. After a few minutes of a heated exchange I couldn’t hear, the two were led aside by airport officials, at which point they fell out of my view.

I’m not certain exactly why these people weren’t let through like the others, but I suspect — I know — it had something to do with their being Arabs.

The cloud of suspicion that has hovered over Arab-Americans since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, has been present for Israeli-Arabs, almost 20 percent of the country’s population, since Israel’s 1948 establishment. With the recent surge in terrorist attacks on Israeli soil, Israeli-Arabs have become guilty by association in the eyes of many.

“There’s a pervasive fear of the Arab male in this country,” said Khaled Abu Toameh, West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s leading English-language daily newspaper. “It is a fear that, I regret to say, the Israeli media has played upon. I saw a headline in another newspaper the other day–Arab Man Rapes Girl. Tell me, what does his being an Arab have to do with anything?! O.K., if he later admits that the Qu’ran told him to do it, then maybe it’s relevant.”

I had come to interview Toameh, a self-described “journalist without an agenda,” at his office in the French Hill neighborhood of East Jerusalem, a few blocks from the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University.

A week before our meeting, one of the university’s Arab students, 20-year-old George Elias Khoury, had been gunned down while jogging at night by Hamas members mistaking him for a Jew. Two years before that, terrorists had planted a bomb in the university’s Frank Sinatra Caf