"Don't call us Israeli Arabs. We are not the Arabs of anyone. We are not Arab Israelis. We are not Palestinian Israelis. We are not Israeli Palestinians. We are not really Israelis. Israel doesn't see us as Israelis. We are Palestinians living in Israel."
The fluency and literary quality of their spoken Hebrew was no indication of their nationality. It was the language of their reality.
This has been my third trip to Israel in the last several months on behalf of the Ford Foundation, gathering information for the building of a marketing institute which will service grantees in Israel, mainly Jewish organizations.
During this trip, I interviewed Arab grantees with Debra London-Ben Ami, my Israeli partner in this effort. Since August, we have spoken with Jewish grantees all over the country, as well as the advertising and media industry in Tel Aviv, research firms, public relations firms, lobbyists, corporations and professors. We have also met with the committed, visionary and influential leaders of Israel's emerging nonprofit industry.
None of them presented the challenges of this week's interviews.
The situation, as Israelis refer to the current crisis, has greatly altered the perceptions and identities of the Arabs who live in Israel, as well as the Jews. The debate over what to call themselves is a direct reflection of the confusion and tension inside their own heads. While they may be in a quandary over who they want to be, they are certainly clear about who they are not.
"Don't bring us your marketing models for this institute, Gary, and ask us to comment. It is not about two Jews deciding for the Arabs and asking for our input and approval. You need to work with us from the beginning, as separate and equal partners. We need to create the models with you," said Aida Touma-Soliman, the executive director of Women Against Violence and a resident of Nazareth. Touma-Soliman, along with her colleagues, have requested that I facilitate a marketing seminar exclusively with Arab nonprofit leadership in Israel, to concentrate solely upon their issues.
While matters among Jews in Israel are now in flux and chaos, the Arabs in Israel appear to be finding their path. The people we interviewed were educated, highly experienced, professional, strategic in their thinking, committed to their goals and energized over their actions. I may not feel comfortable with all their desires and thoughts, but I realize Arabs are part of the fabric of the state and will no longer be a quiet, docile population. If Israel is to thrive, they need to be considered seriously as an equal population. They aren't going away. And neither are their ambitions. No matter how iron-fisted the Sharon government may prove to be, the Palestinians in Israel will never return to being "Israeli Arabs."
"Any solution to the Palestinian issue must take us into consideration. That is what is meant by a comprehensive solution. We are Palestinians, too," said Ameer Mahoul, the director of Itiijah in Haifa, a capacity-building organization for Arab nonprofits and one of the more radical ideologues among the Palestinians. He continued, "There are 250,000 displaced Palestinians living within Israel. There must be a solution for them as well."
I didn't ask him what exactly he meant by that statement. I simply wanted to hear the thinking. At this point it was not my place to challenge, but to listen. As the plans for the marketing institute move ahead, there will be countless opportunities for challenge, clarification and reality checks.
"If Ford alone is funding this institute, we have no problem," said Mahoul. "However, if there will be other funders, we must take into consideration their views regarding our population....We are moving away from dependencies upon Israeli and Jewish organizations for our funding. We are working to establish funding and cooperative relationships within the European Union and with other Arab countries."
The purpose of this, he explained, is to build their own identities independent of Israeli influence. "Once we are certain who we are and what we want, then we can return to work with Israelis," Mahoul said.
Leaders of different Jewish nonprofits in Israel, even far left ones, listened well to what I repeated, but cautioned that the reality Mahoul projects is far away from that of other Arab organizational leaders. "No Arab organization has yet to cut themselves off from Jewish funding," said Rahel Liel of Shatil, an organization founded by the New Israel Fund. "Yet his opinion is significant and must be taken into consideration."
An alarm seemed to go off for Israeli Jews when I mentioned the displaced persons issue. "What do they mean by 250,000 displaced persons?" asked Amiram Goldblum, head of Settlement Watch for Peace Now. "Are they talking about the original Arab population of Jaffa? Baram and Ikrit [two villages in the Galilee where there are now kibbutzim]? What are they proposing we do about it?" People at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University did tell me that their estimates are closer to 180,000, confirming that there are displaced Palestinians in Israel -- though no one was able to define what constitutes a displaced Palestinian.
Mahoul did ask me if I would be comfortable working with them. "As a Jew and supporter of Israel, I have to admit I am threatened by some of what you have said," I replied. "But let's move forward. I'm not closing any doors, and, apparently, neither are you at this point."