Arab Nazareth, Israeli Democracy--Bundist Dreams

The funeral of Marek Edelman, Poland's wartime (and last) Bundist leader, Warsaw Jewish cemetery, October 2009. 

A little over three weeks ago (around the time the blog went quiet, in this season of reflection), Sidra and I took a little road trip to the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth, where we spent the weekend in a funky little inn, the Fauzi Azar. I haven't stopped thinking about it since. When you get away from the headlines that force your attention to the foreground--e.g., the Clinton speech, the rabbis' letter, unprecedented European calls for sanctions against settlements--the more ultimate truths of the background come into relief. The case of Nazareth is both fascinating and disturbing.

The city, it is true, didn't change my mind about things I and others have written about in the past. But it did make those things so vivid that I haven't been able to see the most familiar parts of Israel in the same way. The question, you see, is really not whether Israel can remain democratic; really, what's new about that worry except for the fact that it is finally dawning on people who call you anti-Zionist for saying it before it finally dawned on them?

No, the real question is whether any democracy can implement the kind of visionary federal arrangements Israel will need--not only with a Palestinian state, but with its own Arab minority--to survive as a vital, global and Hebrew democracy. The answer is yes, at least in principle. When you think about it, Europe's biggest national Jewish movement of the interwar period might serve as inspiration, if not as a model. But is there the time, let alone the will, to try in today's Israel, with its growing, orthodox right? Can Israelis be expected to muddle through by themselves?

A NUMBER OF my students had done a business plan for the Fauzi Azar last year and I was curious. It seems that the stately building in which the inn was established was the family home of a scion of a large, established Christian family that had been divided by 1948 war, with some cousins staying put, and others escaping the violence to Syria and Jordan--and then finding themselves unable to return. The building had meanwhile declined into disrepair, after the parents of the Azar branch died in the 1980s. Until, that is, a young Israeli Jewish entrepreneur, Maoz Inon, approached the younger generation of the family with a proposition:

The children, whose father had stood up to the government when its lands were threatened, would agree to lease Inon the building at no cost for years into the future; he would renovate the entire property, creating an international inn and youth hostel. Profits, such as there were, would be taken by his company, but there would be jobs for the family if they wanted them. Understandably, the children were skeptical at first, but his good-natured idealism eventually won them over. One daughter, Odette Shomar, eventually became chairman of the board. (I am oversimplifying the terms of the agreement a little, but never mind.)

The inn is now an international phenomenon. Volunteers from all over the world come to its hostel, where they are given a free room to sleep, and breakfast; they, in return, serve the hotel guests: walk them around the old city of Nazareth, bring them extra pillows, play them music, make them tea. Not coincidentally, the old city of Nazareth has been reviving wonderfully since the inn got started. Everywhere you go in the old city today there's the musty-sweet smelling dust of cement bags and hammer sounds of renovation: new places to eat, boutique-like stores and food emporia, crafts shops, and open air fruit vendors.

The atmosphere is not like the old city of Jerusalem, which takes for granted how central, contentious, and and beautifully pathetic it is; the old city of Nazareth, also lovely, is rather a kind of backwater human experiment. Nobody doubts it will remain in Israel. Like the rest of Israeli Arab towns, it is a hybrid between Hebrew commercial culture and Arab domestic culture. Yet here there are also bright-eyed evangelicals with a need for missionary work (also for clean beds and toilets) filling the negative spaces. You have a delicious little portent of what peace might feel like in this country, with Israeli Jewish tourists—bikers from Tel Aviv coming for a rest-stop, moshavniks from the Valley of Jezreel coming for olive oil and embroideries—sharing a dreamy Sabbath sunset in an Israeli Arab town.

OF COURSE, MOST Israeli Jews, not to speak of American Jews, would not even recognize Nazareth as “this country”—any more than a Polish nationalist or priest, visiting mainly Yiddish-speaking Bialystok in 1920, would have recognized that city as it was as a part of the new Polish state. On the contrary, Nazareth—for all its rivalries among Christians, Muslims, and Druze—would be lumped into the scare phrase “demographic problem,” or be seen as a symptom of what is threatening Israel’s character as “Jewish and democratic”—with “democratic” here pretty much boiling down to "more of us and fewer of them," so we can feel less guilty about giving ourselves privileges they don’t have, but presumably would have in their state, that is, if we ever get around to agreeing to end the occupation.

And when you emerge from the little bubble of the old city of Nazareth stronger realities assault you. Upper Nazareth, which was conceived as a Jewish town to look down on the Arab town, is an increasingly tense place, with Christian Arabs moving in, at times to avoid unpleasant confrontations with Muslims; and Russian Jews who were settled there in the 1970s, unsure about whether to stay or leave, rent to Arabs or refuse to.

Staying a couple of days in Nazareth, in short, feels a little like taking a vacation to a foreign, if curiously familiar country. (Wherever we went in Nazareth, Sidra and I first defaulted to English, as if we were walking through Ramallah, or Athens, for that matter, only to find our interlocutors stumped and frustrated; then we’d switch to Hebrew, the language of Yehuda Halevi, and see the relief coming over their faces.) And our drive only reinforced the feeling of familiar foreignness. We left the central thruway and drove up to Sakhnin for its “olive festival” (which we pretty much missed, alas); then El-Arabeh, then took the back road to Kefar Kana, and from there another back road to Nazareth. When we left Nazareth, we headed straight across the Emeq to Wadi Ara, where we skirted past the cities of Um-el-Fahm, Baka el-Garbieh, and the other cities of the Little Triangle, which border the Palestinian territories to the east.

We drove, that is, through six or seven Arab cities, more or less contiguous with one another, running from the Western Galilee down to the center of Israel, to the area where the Hebrew megalopolis of Tel Aviv starts spreading north and east. Roughly, we drove in and past Arab cities containing at least 600,000 people, as many people who were in the Jewish Yishuv and rose against the British in 1948.

The Arab cities are handsome in their way, since the architecture of their family compounds are handsome. But they are also suffering from serious infrastructural and educational deficiencies, inevitable in a country that spends less than half per capita on its Arab citizens than on its Jewish. They are hemmed in by state land policy. You hear of youth gangs growing, problems with drugs and petty thefts, maniac driving habits. And we haven’t even gotten to the feelings of rage inspired by such things as the rabbis’ letter suggesting the Jewish law mandates refusal to rent apartments to Arabs in Israel’s larger cities.

I DON’T MEAN to imply that this Arab population will rise against Israel, not in the short-term, not if things can remain "quiet." By any measure, polls show Israeli Arabs, including Israeli Arab youth, more liberal and tolerant of Jews than the other way around—what you’d expect from a minority. Up to 80% of Israeli Arabs express positive attitudes toward integration (a willingness to have a Jewish friend, and so forth), but just under 50% of Jews do. On the other hand, if, say, Jerusalem were to explode in violence tomorrow, or missiles start flying into northern cities from Lebanon, sympathetic rioting in these cities seems inevitable—a replay of events in 2000 and 2006.

Yet, again, it is not the short-term that is troubling and exciting. The long-term question these hybridized Israeli Arab cities prompts is, what kind of democracy can Israel become, with and without the state of Palestine, given such facts on the ground? The assimilation of Israeli Arabs on, say, the French model seems unrealistic; these cities are not just transitional suburbs, and they are a forty minute drive from the rest of the Arab world, though who knows what they will will look like after another generation of network technology. Nor can they become part of the Palestinian state: they are too advanced, democratized, and Hebraized for that; aside from the triangle they are not abutting Palestine.

When you look at the West Bank, irrespective of the facts created by Jewish settlers, the case for some kind of federal arrangement seems pretty compelling. (My friend Sam Bahour and I made the case last year here, and I expanded on the point here.) Is there a federal model that will have to be considered here, too? This has been batted around in think tanks like the Adallah Institute for some time now, but the question no longer feels merely hypothetical--not to me, anyway, not anymore. Just as it would be vain to try to make peace with Syria before the Palestinian issue is resolved, it may be vain to imagine making peace with Palestine, while ignoring the festering problems of Israeli Arabs.

PERHAPS IT IS perverse to raise the point in this context, but the situation of Israeli Arabs is in fact curiously like that of the Jews of Poland during the interwar period, in that the Yiddish-speaking Jews represented an indissoluble minority that was culturally distinct, and would remain fiercely so, at least over a couple of generations; a minority with a centuries' long history and sense of place; a minority living in the interstices of a Polish nation with a quite distinct religious culture; a new Polish state, born out of deep historical grievance, and an equally fierce, once-repressed nationalism. How to absorb this growing, noisy Jewish minority, something over 10% of the population, into the new Poland?

And the strongest political movement in the interconnected Yiddish towns and cities (or parts thereof) was the Jewish Labor Bund. What this movement demanded was recognition as a national minority within the Polish state, constitutional equality, protection for its language and educational system, and more. Bundists ran as separate, Jewish national political parties. In December 1938 and January 1939, at the last Polish municipal elections before the start of the Second World War, the Bund received the largest segment of the Jewish vote. In 89 towns, one-third elected Bund majorities.

As socialists, Bundists sought "fraternal" relations with Polish workers, much like Israeli Arabs seek cordial commercial relations with Jews. But they mainly sought a kind of recognized autonomy in Yiddish towns, and, as individuals, the full rights in the great Polish cities like Warsaw and Krakow. And much like the rights of Israeli Arabs have become the crucial cause for Israeli Jewish progressives, so the rights of Jews were critical for Polish liberals.

SADLY, IT HAS become commonplace for Israelis, and American Jews, too, to look at the fate of Polish Jewry and consider the Bund hopelessly naive. But this view is itself naive--and cruel. The fact is, the Bund was suggesting an experiment in democracy that the Nazis ended, not the Poles, though there was a substantial Polish ultramontane right that was relieved to see it end: to see Polish Jews and progressives both put out of their sight, if not put to death. We simply do not know if the Bund's experiment could have worked, or how it could have been managed over several generations, particularly if there had been no war, and Poland had slowly begun to enjoy the benefits of European integration.

In any case, it is terribly wrong for us to look at the burgeoning cities of Israeli Arabs and see only a fifth column or a frightening birthrate. In any peace, Israeli Arabs will be a natural bridge to commercial, scientific, and cultural opportunities in the Arab world. They are also a lovely chance for Israeli Jews to get into the car and change the national gestalt without leaving their country, sort of like residents of Ottawa spending time across the river in Hull. Israeli Arabs are asking Israeli Jews something difficult: that little Israel become a Hebrew republic spacious enough, democratic enough, to absorb and acculturate another, even smaller people.

It might have worked in Poland, eventually. It had better work, with adaptations, in Israel.