Speaker paints dark picture of Arab-Jewish relations

In the comfortable living room of a private home in San Francisco, Walid Mula told a group of young American Jews last week exactly what is wrong with Israel. Or at least, what is wrong with it in his eyes.

Mula is Druze, an Arab people who are not Muslim and often serve side by side with Jews in the Israeli army. Mula has devoted more than 20 years to working in the field of coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Many of his friends are Jewish. Given his background, one might assume Mula would paint a rosy picture about the future of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel.

He did not.

Instead, Mula offered what he considers to be the painful truth.

Mula's visit was sponsored by Tzavta ("Together"), the young-adult division of the Jewish Community Federation's Israel Center. While he spoke throughout the Bay Area, Mula's Jan. 23 talk was to some 20 people at Tzavta's Chug Bayit, a series that aims to portray the diversity in Israeli society.

As Inbar Hurvitz, the director of Tzavta, put it, "Our goal is to represent different viewpoints, not the government. We're strong enough to hear it and be open to it. It's important to show contemporary Israel, and not only the myths we grew up on."

Mula, then, did what was expected of him. First, he made it clear that although others might consider him a Druze, or an Israeli Arab, he considered himself first and foremost a Palestinian.

To some, that came as a surprise.

"The way I define my identity is influenced by Palestinian identity," he said. He added that one can't help but internalize the majority's perceptions.

Unlike most Arabs in Israel who attend Arab schools, Mula attended a Jewish high school. As one of the few non-Jewish students at the school, he said that because his village was not on the map, no one knew its residents existed.

The injustices do not go unnoticed. "From age 5 or 6 we are taught there is the other in this country and that we have to accept their right to exist," he said. And yet, "Jews are not taught that there are other people who feel that they have the right to this land at the same time."

It is not surprising, he said, that Israeli Arabs — whom Mula referred to as Israeli Palestinians, as many now do — have joined recent demonstrations against Israel. Their dissatisfaction with their unequal status had reached a boiling point, he said.

Why? In the cases of both Lebanon and the areas now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, "Israel did not withdraw because they decided to be more moral, or because they thought it was no longer OK to occupy others," he said. "They withdrew because mothers were not prepared anymore to pay the price by losing their kids as soldiers." Israel, he concluded, is still not ready to deal with its Arab minority as equal citizens.

He repeatedly mentioned the 13 Israeli Palestinians who were shot dead by Israeli police when the rioting first broke out — as an example that the loss of Arab blood was not considered equal to Jewish blood. The shootings showed that Israeli police were all too ready to shoot at Arabs, even if they were citizens of Israel. Nine of those killings, Mula said, were later proven to be situations where the police were not threatened.

A double standard exists in just about every sector of Israeli society, he asserted. For example, if an Arab throws stones at a Jew, army policy dictates that a soldier can shoot. If a Jew throws stones at an Arab, there is no such policy.

Of his own work promoting coexistence, Mula likes working with children. But the results were less tangible than other forms of coexistence work, he said.

"Working with kids cannot change reality. Reality is changed by politics."

In speaking of politics, Mula confirmed that many Israeli Palestinians may indeed leave their ballots blank in the upcoming election for prime minister.

"Ninety-nine percent of Israeli Palestinians voted for [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak," he said. "And after he won, he never thanked them, never acknowledged them." Aggravating the situation was the admittance of Shas, a fervently religious party representing 400,000 voters, into Barak's coalition; the Arab parties representing some 1 million voters, were not.

There are no Palestinian commentators in the Israeli media to point this out, he said.

Mula also had some harsh words for the Palestinian leadership. "We must deal with the Israeli government on an equal basis, not asking for favors, but asking for our rights." Also, equality among the sexes needs to be more of a priority in the Arab world.

But his harshest criticism was reserved for the Israeli government and what Mula called its sanctioned discrimination. "No one should be humiliated, deprived of education, housing or work in his own homeland," he said. "No one should be deprived of the ability to dream."

Lisa Gann-Perkal, director of the San Francisco Israel Center, said that after a week of Mula speaking throughout the area, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

"In order to build a real relationship between this community and Israel, they need to understand Israel in all its complexity," she said. "This was a tough issue, we knew it was tough, but it's part of the reality."

Noting that many people might have expected to hear a much more positive picture, Gann-Perkal said, "It's a very difficult issue and it's often tough for people to hear. But people are interested in learning more about it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."