1 September 2009 **** Front Page

Are you Israeli?

By Haseeb Shehadeh

For most of the Arab national minority in Israel, who number approximately one and a quarter million, the answer to the question 'Are you Israeli?' is not simple, nor does the answer come automatically. This segment of population is the only one in the world that bears the word 'Arab' on their Israeli identity cards. The answer to such an inquiry depends on several factors, such as who asks this question and where as well as in which circumstances the question is asked and what is its purpose.

Numerous questions are well known to all Arabs who leave Israel via Ben-Gurion International Airport in Lydda or who return to Israel. These questions may include: what is the reason for your visit to Israel (the homeland)? Where will you stay in Israel? Whom did/will you meet? What is your occupation abroad? Are you carrying any weapon or sharp tools? Did you pack everything in your luggage yourself? Did anyone give you anything to deliver?

The question in my title is not among these routine inquiries. It was directed to me on the 5th of April 2009 at Ben Gurion Airport before I was to board Finnair flight AY 1922 to fly to Helsinki. As usual the passengers on this weekly flight were waiting in Hall C3 in Tel Aviv airport. The overwhelming majority of the passengers were Finns returning to Finland after a short visit to historic and Christian sites in Israel and Jordan. As for me, I was on a research trip sponsored by the Academy of Finland that had lasted two weeks. During that time I visited the two only Samaritan centres — Holon to the south of Tel Aviv and Mount Gerizim in Nablus. This smallest and probably the oldest community in the world which numbers fewer than 750 faithful, lives only in these two cities. The five pillars of the Samaritan faith are: One God who is called Sheema (meaning the ‘name'); the Torah, which differs from the Massoretic Text in more than 6,000 cases; Moses as the only prophet; Mount Gerizim as the holy place; reward and punishment; Taheb as the Messiah.

I had also visited the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. There I discovered a recently purchased Samaritan Arabic manuscript with the title ‘al-Irshaad w-al-Ishhaad' (Guidance and Certification), an autograph by Abraham El-Ayye completed in 1778. In addition, I visited the German Protestant Institute Library in the hospital compound of Augusta Victoria in East Jerusalem. There I found sixteen Samaritan manuscripts that are essentially unknown to the scholarly world.

To return to our subject. A female official in the waiting hall approached me and asked in Hebrew: You Israeli, without the question particle. I replied with a question, Why would you like to know? The reply reminded me of an incident that took place forty ago before in Jerusalem. At that time, I was teaching Palestinian Arabic to students of various nationalities. I asked a Jewish student whom I knew well, Tell me, why do Jews always answer a question with a question? He responded, Why not?

The official explained that there was a 14-year-old girl on our flight by the name of Galit who needed assisstance. I automatically said, Yes, why not help her, and then turned to Galit, saying shalom. Then the employee asked my family name. I pronounced it as it should be said, namely, with the guttural ˙, a sound very seldom used by either Jews or Arabs in Israel today in spoken Hebrew, owing to psycho-sociological reasons. The official went away for a few moments and then returned, asking for my flight ticket, ostensibly in order to see the number of my seat. Actually, she was staring at my full name. Again she went back to her place behind a counter on which sat a computer. After a while I noticed the official approaching Galit with a young Israeli Jew. He and Galit were introduced, and together they headed to the door of the plane before the boarding announcement. The whole episode was witnessed by three other persons.

For some time the official was not within my visual range. Finally, just before leaving the hall to board the plane, I stepped up to her along with one of those who had seen the episode unfold. The official was about to speak into a cell phone when she saw me. She closed the telephone and waited. In fact I was waiting quietly for some kind of explanation, if not an apology. Yet the official said nothing; she ‘filled her mouth with water' as the saying goes in Hebrew. Finally, I asked, Where is Galit? Ah, we found a member of her family to accompany her, the official  replied. Did you not see any reason or moral duty to come and notify me? I asked. She blushed and said only, ‘toda' (thanks).

More than six decades have elapsed since the establishment of the State of Israel; yet trust between Jews and Arabs in Israel, even at the general human level, is lacking. Naturally, a serious question may be raised: how can trust and peace between Jewish Israelis and Arabs from the twenty-two Arab countries be achieved? There is another Hebrew saying ‘kabdeehu ve-hoshdeehu' — respect him, but do not trust him. It is evident that this saying no longer fits. There is no respect or honour, but only mistrust and suspicion.

Haseeb Shehadeh is Arab, Palestinian, Israeli and Christian. He was born in Kufir Yasif in Western Galilee. He holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University. He has lived in Finland with his family since 1990. He is Professor of Semitic Languages and Cultures at the University of Helsinki.

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