In Let It Be Morning, the book by Palestinian novelist Sayed Kashua, Israeli troops blockade an Arab-Israeli town. For days, no one gets in or out, there is no electricity, no communication, no deliveries, no garbage pickup, no explanation. All week the families in this Arab village in Israel curse the state, try to govern themselves among the growing anarchy, assert their wish to be free of all this. Finally, the blockade is lifted and the Arab-Israelis learn what all the fuss was about: There is peace! A two-state solution has been achieved.
And this town, once part of Israel, is now on the Palestinian side of the border. The Arabs react not with celebration or relief but with existential, crushing disappointment.
“The Jews have sold us down the river,” a grocer shouts. “At least it’s better than this Jewish s**t,” the protagonist’s brother says, at which point their father seethes: “Shut up, you. You don’t have a clue. And I don’t know what even gives you the right to talk… Have you asked yourself what’s going to happen to your studies? Where will you continue studying? Where will you work anyhow? Have you given it any thought? That’s assuming your new state has courts to begin with.”
Your new state, he says.
I think of this every time I see the contrast between Western reporters and pundits talk about Arab-Israeli identity and the actual reality as experienced and expressed by Arabs in Israel. And the war in Gaza has given rise to a new round of orientalist New York Timesniks telling Arabs who and what they are.
“Arab citizens of Israel, many of whom want to be identified as Palestinians, make up some 18 percent of the population,” wrote the Times in a story about Israeli Arabs after Hamas’s attacks. Well, the reporter identified two such people, so perhaps we have a slightly different definition of “many.” (The Times probably uses the Gaza Health Ministry’s definition.) Such lines are worded this way to give the impression that Arabs in Israel do not identify with their state and in fact believe they are themselves under some form of occupation.
And now we know from reading the New York Times that at least two people feel this way.
The truth is more complicated but also more rewarding for anyone who wants to understand the conflict. Israeli columnist Nadav Eyal points to a new study, which finds a decrease in Arabs’ description of their “most important identity factor” as Arab and an increase in those “who say the most important part of their identity is Israeli citizenship, which now stands at over 33%, surpassing all other factors (religious affiliation, Palestinian identity, and Arab identity).”
Israeli was the top choice for the most important facet of Arab-Israeli identity. The least popular choice? Palestinian, with 8 percent. That certainly counts as “many” people if, say, you’re stuck in an elevator with all them.
It’s not too difficult to understand the trend. After all, on October 7, a foreign army invaded their state and butchered Jews and Arabs alike. A similar poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found a marked increase in Arabs who feel part of the state. A few months ago, Tamar Sternthal and Gilead Ini surveyed previous polling:
A 2019 Israel Democracy Institute report found that only 13 percent of those surveyed identify as Palestinian (“Jews and Arabs: Conditional Partnership”). Other surveys have similar findings. For example, a 2017 study by Arik Rudnitzky and Itamar Radai found that only 8.9 percent of Israeli Arabs identify as “Palestinian in Israel/Palestinian citizen in Israel” and 15.4 percent identify as “Palestinian” (“Citizenship, Identity and Political Participation… ” p. 22). A third study, conducted in 2020 by Camille Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, found only 7 percent of non-Jewish people in Israel identify as Palestinian. Similar findings are apparent in the 2017 Shaharit survey.
None of this means the Palestinian cause isn’t important to Israeli Arabs. The point is that much of the Western media and activist class sees Israel’s Arabs as their own personal agents of destruction within Israeli society, while Israelis of all stripes view them as citizens. Deep Western antipathy toward coexistence in the Middle East isn’t helping anyone. It is also, thankfully, unrepresentative of the people these activists claim to speak for.