A paper presented at a conference on
"Israel's Arabs as a Political Community in Formation"
held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
May 31, 1993
Laurie King-Irani, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology,
Since the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ensuing re-evaluation of socialist ideologies and socio-political structures throughout the world, the concept of civil society has assumed an increasingly prominent place in the works of a wide variety of social scientists and political policy experts. Scholars and politicians throughout the world are attempting to make sense of changing bases of communal identity and emerging forms of political participation in a world witnessing a return to primordial sentiments and bonds of affiliation in many regions, most notably, Eastern Europe and the Middle East (Seligman, 1992; Tester, 1992). The concept of civil society is wide and amorphous. In general outline, it usually refers to those public associations, institutions, and spaces (literal and figurative) which mediate between the individual and the governmental structures of the state. As characterized recently by one scholar,
Civil society can be said to equal the milieu of private contractual
It is a coming together of private individuals for the public good....As such, civil
society is clearly distinct from the state. It involves all those relationships
which go beyond the purely familial and yet are not of the state. Civil
society is about our basic societal relationships and experiences (Tester, 1992: 8).
Many scholars use the concept of civil society not only descriptively, but also prescriptively. Those focussing on the political and social upheavals in the nations of the former Communist bloc discover in civil society fertile soil for the growth and nurturance of democratic institutions capable of mediating between individuals and governmental authorities (see Seligman, 1992, for a critique of this view). In the context of the Middle East, some scholars have presented the concepts of civil society and democracy as an alternative to, or as a prevention against, the rising strength of Islamic political movements and socio-political institutions (Norton, 1993). In both cases, authors tend to depict emerging social and political situations not simply "as they are", but also, as they could, or should, be.1 Since the potential for ethnocentrism, and its concomitant skewed perceptions, is quite high in the application of the concept of civic society, scholars should be sensitive to this intellectual hazard lest they reduce a potentially fertile interdisciplinary concept to academia's version of the "New World Order."
Most recent discussions of civil society in the changing contexts of Eastern Europe and the Arab Islamic world contain tacit assumptions about identity, citizenship, power, political participation and the parameters of public and private space which derive from the political history and cultural traditions of Western Europe and the United States, and which may not always be culturally appropriate for the examination and explication of political phenomena in non-Western contexts (Seligman, 1992). At the risk of being labeled "orientalist," this paper will examine the development of components of civil society in a community in which communist, Islamist, nationalist, democratic and familial ideologies and organizations intersect and compete: Nazareth, the largest all-Arab city in the state of Israel, where I conducted anthropological field research between December 1991 and December 1992. I will examine some catalysts for, as well as obstacles to, institutions and aspects of civil society which were evident in Nazareth's dominant political organization, the communist-dominated coalition known as the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (al-Jebha in Arabic, Hadash in Hebrew) as its members critiqued its leadership, re-evaluated its ideologies and attempted to restructure its institutions in order to adapt to new political realities in Israel, the Middle East, and indeed, in the global order.
I chose Nazareth as my field research site not because it is representative of Palestinian Arab communities in Israel (which it is not), but because of its prominence in the history of the political organization and evolution of the Palestinian minority in Israel. Because it is home to the largest and densest concentration of Arab citizens in the state of Israel, and due to its role as the birthplace of two political organizations dedicated to addressing the concerns of the Arab citizens of Israel i.e., the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (al-jebha ad-dimuqraaTiyya lisalaam wa musaawaa; Hadash) and the Progressive List for Peace (al-qaa'ima at-taquddumiyya li-salaam), as well as its role as an important Palestinian commercial and literary center, Nazareth is often referred to as `aaSimat al-`arab fii israa'iil ("the Capital of the Arabs of Israel") or, more sardonically, as jumhuuriyyat an-naaSira al-mustaqalla ("the Independent Republic of Nazareth").
Nazareth's population of 64,000 is large and heterogeneous, consisting of Muslims (who now represent approximately 60 percent of the city's population), as well as Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Maronite, Latin Catholic, Coptic and Protestant Christians and not a few agnostics. At least one-third of Nazarenes (naSraawiyeen) are relative new-comers, having arrived in Nazareth in the summer of 1948 as internal refugees fleeing from several nearby villages which were destroyed in the war. Forty-five years later, sociological, political and economic differences still distinguish these refugees from the original Nazarenes. Furthermore, Nazareth is unique in that it has been a center for communist ideology and political organization since the British Mandatory period (Nahas, 1976), and also witnessed, in the early 1960s, the formation of a controversial nationalist, non-sectarian and non-communist political organization, al-arD ("The Land") which was later banned by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Because of its size, heterogeneity and plurality of political opinion, no one sect, kin group, or political ideology can completely and decisively control Nazareth's political life, although the Jebha, a coalition composed of the Nazareth branch of the Communist Party (Rakah), the Nazareth Committee of Merchants and Professionals, and the League of University Graduates, has made a deep and enduring imprint on local political structures and discourse since 1975, when the coalition, led by the late poet, Towfiq Zayyad, won control of the Nazareth municipality in a land-slide election which is still remembered fondly by Nazarenes, even those who have long since grown disenchanted with the Jebha.
Given the foregoing, I had assumed that Nazareth would be an interesting and exciting setting in which to document and analyze the dynamic relationship between political identity and political participation among members of a non-assimilating minority community in a modern nation-state. I expected to witness lively public debates and an active and resistant political life. Instead, I arrived to find a tensely quiet town of bitter and frustrated people who were not eager to discuss the painful topic of their political identity or their political participation in the local or national arenas. What discussions of politics I did record in the early months of my research were marked by cynicism, sarcasm, and scathing criticisms of every political leader, Arab or Jewish, active in Israel's crowded political arena. Some typical comments and complaints were: "fii `andunaa azmat al-qiyaada kabiira" ("we have a huge crisis of leadership here"); "kul shii fii majaal siyaasii mu`alliq fii al-hawaa'" ("everything in the political realm is hanging in the air"); and "haadeh mish an-naaSira -- Saaret al-maksoura!" ("This is no longer `Naasira' [meaning `the victorious one' in Arabic] -- it has become `the vanquished one'!"). A recurring term in everyday discussion, political or otherwise, was iHbaaT, meaning a deep frustration bordering on despair.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the outcome of the Gulf War and the commencement of Arab-Israeli peace talks in Madrid, the people of Nazareth were confronting a crisis that was not simply political, but also existential. It is difficult enough to be a Palestinian Arab in Israel, but to espouse communist and Arab nationalist ideologies in a world which has just deemed both to be bankrupt is even harder. Furthermore, the much-heralded Madrid peace talks, which provided an opening of hope for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, did not inspire unguarded optimism among Palestinian citizens of Israel. "They will solve the crisis of the occupied territories at our expense," one man told me. "All of those settlers in the West Bank will eventually come to live here in the Galilee, and if we don't like it, the government will say, 'there's the border; go to your country of Palestine'!". Further compounding the pessimistic mood in Nazareth was the arrival, in 1991 and 1992, of thousands of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, some of whom were being settled in Nazaret `Illit, the Jewish development town built in the 1950s on lands confiscated from Nazareth. This development caused deep concerns and anxieties about unequal resource allocation and a lack of employment in Nazareth, where the unemployment rate already exceeded 20 percent and whose municipal government receives only half the amount, per capita, of funding from the Ministry of the Interior as does Nazaret `Illit. As a result of so many global and local changes, many people feared that they had been forgotten, ignored or "written off" by the rest of the world, including the PLO and their brothers and sisters in the occupied territories.2 An intellectual in his sixties told me he felt sorry for me because I was "trapped in Nazareth during the year of our disillusionment," adding with a sigh, "Sirnaa aitaam marratain" ("We have become orphans once again", referring to a common statement among Palestinians in Israel that, after 1948, they were reduced to "orphans on the tables of the wicked" (aitaam ala muwaa'id al-lu'amaa') following the flight of their political leadership).3
Cut off from or seriously questioning their ties to various sources of political power and moral support, whether in the Occupied Territories, the capitals of the Arab world, the offices of the PLO in Tunis, Israeli government ministries, or the Kremlin, people in Nazareth were re-evaluating their identity, purpose and place in the emerging political frameworks of the post-Cold War world. More so privately, and less so publicly, Nazarenes were wondering who they were, what political spaces and possibilities were still open to them, and where they were going. In such an atmosphere of uncertainty, shock and bitterness, the figurative public space of Nazareth narrowed as people turned inward to the comfort of family and friends, feeling betrayed by and mistrustful of political parties and leaders who had promised so much but delivered so little. A February 1992 conference held in Nazareth on the topic of the Arab Citizens and the Knesset Elections attracted only a handful of participants. According to some of my colleagues and informants, a similar event only four years earlier would have been well attended and lively. "People are tired and angry from politics," one schoolteacher and Jebha activist told me when I commented that Land Day had come and gone with scarcely any political rhetoric or activity in Nazareth. "Each one is concerned only with feeding his kids, paying his bills, and watching videos."
It is often said that crises present not only danger and uncertainty, but also opportunities for change and growth. The existential and political crises in Nazareth began to suggest opportunities for change just before the June, 1992 Knesset elections. In early May, the leaders of the Progressive List for Peace and the Democratic Arab Party held discussions on the possibility of forming a joint list for the upcoming elections in order to consolidate the Arab vote (which, in theory, could attain twelve or thirteen of the Knesset's 120 seats) with the aim of guaranteeing that members of each party would win places in the Parliament. Since recent legislation stipulating that each party must receive at least 1.5 per cent of the popular vote in order to attain a Knesset seat could severely diminish Parliamentary representation by Arab parties (i.e., DFPE, DAP and PLP), the possibility of a unified list was greeted as a very good idea.
When negotiations between the PLP's Mi`ari and DAP's Darawshe ended in failure and divisive recriminations (since both politicians wanted to be first on the list), most people in Nazareth were disgusted. The self-interest and short-sightedness of Arab political leaders was roundly criticized and condemned, and the poet and newspaper editor, Sameeh al-Qaasim, in an editorial entitled "al-wifaaq al-waTanii ow an-nifaaq al-waTanii?" ("National Unity or National Hypocrisy?") satirically asked whether the inability of Arab political leaders (not only in Israel, but throughout the Middle East) to get their act together was due to genetic imperfections, an ancient curse, or a punishment from God (Kul al-`Arab, May 8, 1992).
No less than the Democratic Arab Party and the Progressive List for Peace, the Jebha also received its share of criticisms and condemnations, mostly from its own members and prominent former members. During a mid-April meeting which was held to select the list of Jebha candidates for the Knesset elections, a vigorous disagreement arose when the individual whom most assumed would lead the list, Haashem Mahaameed of Umm al-Fahm, was pushed out of the first slot in favor of Towfiq Zayyad, Mayor of Nazareth, by means of pressure tactics, bargaining and promises. Although some Jebha members stated that it was in the long-term interests of the Jebha to do this, since Towfiq Zayyad has a solid record of winning elections while Hashem Mahaameed had lost the mayoral office of Umm al-Fahm to the Islamic Movement in the 1989 municipal elections, many people complained that the Nazareth branch of the Jebha was acting "like a mafia," and that Zayyad was behaving like a za`im (a boss) or a patriarch, not like the leader of a progressive political party espousing democratic ideals. "kaan ghair dimuuqraaTii; `amalou 'putsch," ("It wasn't democratic; they made a 'putsch'."), a young Jebha activist and Communist Party member told me, complaining that "the Jebha has replaced the Hamula (the patriarchal clan) in our society; it tells people what to think and do, rather than the reverse, and this is wrong. The inner core of leaders, the Hizbiyeen (Communists) are in shock after what happened in the Soviet Union. Because they are scared, they are trying to control everything, but if they continue like this, they will lose everything instead." Another man in his early thirties, who had been very active in the Jebha in his teens and twenties, but who now wanted nothing to do with politics, explained his dissociation from the Jebha: "In the beginning, people voted for the Jebha because it was striving for the common good of Nazareth. Now they just vote out of blind loyalty or in the hopes of getting special treatment by the municipality. an-naas fii al-qiyaada Saarou muSlaHjiyeen, lakin, min zamaan, kaanou mukhliSeen wa mustaqeemeen" ("The people in the leadership [of the Jebha] have become too self-interested, but before, they were sincere and honest"), he concluded, echoing the views of many people I interviewed in Nazareth.
The 1992 Knesset elections were an acid test for the Jebha at the national as well as the local level. Many pundits in the Israeli press and in Nazareth coffee shops had predicted that the Jebha would be lucky to win even one seat, given the recent worldwide discrediting of communist ideologies. Nonetheless, the Jebha won three seats, only one less than it had held in the previous Knesset. Jebha members in Nazareth, though relieved, were not about to rest on their laurels. The overall election results had revealed an apparent sea change in Arab public opinion in Israel. For the first time in 15 years, a majority of Arab voters (53 per cent) chose Zionist parties on the left of the political spectrum over the three Arab parties.4 Also, the 1992 Knesset elections witnessed the lowest turn-out of Arab voters in the history of Israel. A non-communist Jebha member told me that the election results showed that the Arabs in Israel were sick of rigid ideologies and ineffective leadership. "For the first time in 15 years, people were not ashamed to publicly support the Labor Party. It shows that they are desperate for changes and that they are losing faith in the Arab parties. If the Jebha doesn't do something to respond to this soon, it will die."5
At a crowded public meeting of the Jebha held in Nazareth two weeks
after the Knesset elections, Towfiq Zayyad told the audience that the election
results were cause for relief, pride and happiness; the Jebha had weathered
a fierce storm, and even though they had lost one seat, it was still a
great victory, given the world-wide collapse of communism. The audience
would have none of it. Two men sitting near me got up and left early,
commenting audibly that Zayyad's interpretation was "Hakii faaDye" (empty
talk). Several other people, men as well as women, jumped up and
began shouting at Zayyad, complaining about the internal organization of
the Jebha and questioning the fairness and efficacy of its decision-making
processes. Zayyad was clearly surprised by the outcry and attacks,
and I was reminded of what a middle-aged woman, a communist party activist,
had told me a few days before: "Zayyad is an important symbol for us; he
was brave and made many sacrifices in the days of the Military Administration,
and his poetry shows that he feels our pain and honors our dreams.
But now, he is getting out of touch with the people. The inner circle
of leaders protects him from our complaints and demands."
Within days of this public meeting, the Communist daily paper, al-ittiHaad, carried front-page stories about a plan to conduct primary elections for the leadership of the Nazareth branch of the Jebha and to restructure the coalition's internal organization. This was soon followed by proposals to revise and update the constitution of the Jebha. Several Jebha members I spoke with referred to these developments as arising from a need to "make a `perestroika', to open up the power structure of Jebha from within," i.e., to democratize the Jebha so that it would be more broad-based in its representation and more fair in its functioning. By December of 1992, the Jebha of Nazareth had adopted a new constitution, which was publicly debated, critiqued and refined in a grueling 13-hour meeting attended by 200 activists, and which contained many checks and balances on the use of power by Jebha offices, bodies and personnel. A new, larger and more diverse and representative Jebha Council was elected by the entire membership of the Nazareth Jebha in the framework of neighborhood meetings and a public conference, the theme of which was "Towards Widening the Bases of Alliance." The last Jebha conference, held in Nazareth eight years earlier, had had as its theme "Towards Unifying the Ranks." The participants of the conference selected, by popular vote conducted by a secret ballot, the person who would head the Jebha list for the next Nazareth municipal elections.6 Looking toward the future, the Jebha announced that it was launching an ambitious, multi-faceted urban renewal program, "Nazareth 2000", to prepare Nazareth for the coming millennium and an expected tourism boom, as well as to address the interrelated crises of housing, unemployment, drug abuse, traffic and urban decay which currently confront the city.
Thus, after nearly one year of quiet desperation, the public space of political action and discourse in Nazareth was being reopened and redefined; criticisms and complaints previously voiced in private were now voiced in public fora, leading to structural and ideological transformations of the Jebha coalition in Nazareth. These developments offered an excellent opportunity to examine catalysts for, as well as obstacles to, the development of values, institutions and processes characteristic of civic society in Nazareth. Chief among the catalysts were community support for and continuing commitment to the original ideals and policies of the Jebha, as enunciated in seventeen years' worth of campaign literature and public rhetoric. Ideologically, the Jebha has consistently stressed the need to unify the people of Nazareth to work for the common good of the city on the basis of public service and communal dignity and honor, without respect to traditional social divisions. In its early days, the Jebha had galvanized and inspired the people of Nazareth, and it still derives considerable legitimacy from the community's collective memory of this period. When people reminisced about the day the Jebha won the Municipal elections in 1975, they emphasized how wonderful it had been to feel excited, united, and empowered by a broad-based political coalition which had the support of Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, communist and nationalist, male and female, auto mechanic and university graduate, original Nazarene and internal refugee. "Kaan zay `urs! kaan zay `ilaan al-istiqlaal!" ("It was like a wedding! It was like a declaration of independence!"), people warmly recalled. The Jebha victory clearly had all the earmarks of the "communitas" experience described by the anthropologist Victor Turner. The Jebha thus set a precedent for the formation of political institutions and the initiation of political action on the basis of civic, rather than primordial, identity, sentiments and ties of affiliation. It proved that diverse groups could work together successfully and constructively, despite confessional and class differences. In so doing, they elicited suspicion, concern and disapproval from Israeli governmental institutions.
Associated with the Jebha's criticism of political institutions and leadership formed on sectarian or familial bases was an emphasis on the value, worth, and dignity of each person as an autonomous individual, and a corresponding call for formal equality, not just between Arab and Jew in Israel, but also between male and female, Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, in Nazareth. Several Jebha members I spoke to, men as well as women, were very critical of traditional cultural values concerning "sharaf al-`aa'ila" (family honor), and its detrimental effects on the personal and political development of women, as well as men. One Muslim Jebha member who is also a municipal official told me that the greatest weakness of Arab society was that the contributions of its intelligent, creative and courageous women were severely limited by archaic and dysfunctional values and institutions, adding that "the women in our society experience a double oppression: from the Israeli government and from patriarchal Arab culture." He expressed concern that the lot of women in Nazareth would deteriorate and regress if the Islamic Movement (which then held one-third of the Municipality's seats) continued to gain ground. Similarly, a 32 year-old Christian Communist activist spoke proudly of the time he had organized discussion sessions for the local branch of the shabiba (Communist Youth League) in the early 1980s on the topic of women's role in Arab society. "I told them `if your honor is not in yourself, but between the legs of your sister, you may as well kill yourself right now, because this means that you will have to control and limit the behavior of another human being for the rest of your life, and this will cripple you as an individual'."
In addition to its progressive, democratic rhetoric and ideals, the Jebha is also characterized by a valuable structural asset conducive to the establishment of civic society in Nazareth: highly organized, effective and deeply-rooted committees in every neighborhood and workplace in Nazareth, a legacy of the communist party's intensive organizing efforts in Nazareth since the 1940s. These committees had legitimacy in the eyes of Jebha members as well as those outside of the Jebha. Neighborhood committees served as public fora for discussion, debate and conflict resolution; venues for agenda-setting and coalition-building; proving grounds for the next generation of leaders, and key mediating agencies between the private and public domains of Nazareth society. Jebha committees proved their effectiveness as well as their dedication to Nazareth's common good by playing an instrumental role in the coordination of the voluntary work camps organized by the Nazareth municipality every year to compensate for neglect and underfunding by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior. The Jebha's high degree of political organization was considered an important political resource, even by people who had become disillusioned with the Jebha and hoped for the formation of a new party. "Their political organization and coordination is something incredible and unique among the Arabs of Israel; regardless of what happens to them ideologically, this must not be lost," one former Communist party member told me a few days before the Knesset elections.
Obstacles to the development of civic society in Nazareth arise
from external as well as internal sources. From the perspective of
Jebha activists who stress the need to unify and coordinate the various
segments of Nazareth's diverse population, external pressures emanating
from Israeli Government ministries appear to be based on a strategy of
"divide and rule." As delineated by Lustick (1980) and Zureik (1979),
and as revealed in the Israeli Government's infamous Koenig Report of 1975,
the policies and discourse of the Israeli Government concerning the non-assimilating
Arab minority within its borders clearly have served to obstruct and hinder
the establishment and functioning of institutions and associations attempting
to organize and represent the Arab minority in Israel, especially if such
organization and representation has a Palestinian nationalist basis, as
does the Jebha. Although the increasing prominence of the Committee
of Heads of Arab Local Authorities in the Israeli political arena and the
recent decision of the Labor Government to abolish the office of the Advisor
for Arab Affairs may indicate changes in state policies, relations between
the Jebha-led Municipality of Nazareth and the Israeli Government, especially
the Ministry of the Interior which funds local governments, were quite
strained and hostile in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. In the
view of Municipality officials I interviewed and according to documents
and correspondence I copied from the Municipality Archives, these hostile
relations resulted in the underfunding of the Nazareth Municipality, which
constrained the Jebha's ability to deliver key services to the people of
Nazareth in its capacity as the leader of local government, and which thus
damaged its legitimacy in some quarters of the city, particularly in the
more impoverished neighborhoods inhabited by internal refugees, the same
neighborhoods which later became fertile ground for the nurturance of the
Local attitudes, beliefs and expectations concerning the nature and exercise of political power also constrain the development of values and institutions of civic society in Nazareth.7 Never having had the experience of self-government, Palestinians in Israel view centralized political authorities cynically at best, and with hostility at worst. Governments, whether local or national, are seen not as frameworks for representation or providers of public services, but as self-interested structures dedicated to exploitation and coercion. Unfortunately, the Israeli Government, like the British Mandatory Government and the Ottoman Empire before it, has lived up to these low expectations, especially in its expropriation of land. Accustomed to being disempowered and ignored by their rulers for centuries, many Nazarenes do not hold the firm conviction that government can or should be held accountable. A key term I heard in discussions of this topic was qahar, a word which is hard to translate into English, as it means not simply "coercion", but also, as one man defined it, "having to smile while someone breaks your will." Hence, when the Jebha leadership began to exercise power in arbitrary, preferential and undemocratic ways, there was no immediate, organized public outcry from the Jebha membership, although some original Jebha members did quit and later formed the Progressive List for Peace in the early 1980s, partly in reaction to abuses of power by the Communist Party component of the Jebha coalition.
According to many angry and disappointed people I interviewed (some of whom were still Jebha members), the Jebha, too, had engaged in its share of political exploitation and coercion, although to a far less threatening degree than that of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate or the Israeli Government.8 As I collected oral histories and listened to people's complaints about the local political scene, it became clear to me that the Jebha had, in recent years, become a fine-tuned and well-entrenched political machine. Jebha members occupied influential positions not only in the Municipal government, but also in trade unions, women's organizations, merchants' committees, teachers' and students' associations, and even in some church organizations. Every potential forum for the formulation of key issues and strategies, the exercise of political power, and decision-making felt the impress of the Jebha. A common complaint from former Jebha members was "al-jebha bidha saiTara `ala kul shii fii kul majaal an-naaSira!" ("The Jebha wants to control everything in every domain of Nazareth"). Thus, if any individual or group was dissatisfied with some aspect of life in Nazareth and wanted to organize a committee or work-group to address it, they would have to do so either through the framework of one or another Jebha body, or with the permission of Jebha leaders, who, as the incumbents of local governmental authority, held coercive power in the form of zoning and commercial licenses which could be voided or discontinued. The Jebha power structure had just about taken over nearly every centimeter of available political "space" in Nazareth. As several people told me, "unless you are in the 'red zone' (i.e., a loyal member or friend of the Communist Party), you can't get anything done in Nazareth." This dimension of the Jebha certainly contributed to frustration, disempowerment and apathy in Nazareth. After organized public criticism and debate about the future of the Jebha began, however, I noticed that some groups were actively and openly organizing committees, outside of any framework of the Jebha, to deal with women's issues, as well as with serious problems stemming from unemployment, the problems of frustrated young people, and drug abuse in Nazareth, particularly in the old suq area, which is the most economically impoverished, but also historically and culturally the richest, section of the city.
The power-hoarding of the Jebha leadership is an index of fear, vulnerability, insecurity, and a pervasive lack of trust. Mistrust and suspiciousness are an unavoidable part of everyday life for Palestinian citizens of Israel. As an American anthropologist, I was constantly on the receiving end of this mistrust for the first half of the year I spent in Nazareth. When I commented on this to a friend, she said, "Of course! We live with doubts here everyday, we even doubt our own family and neighbors! So, of course we are going to doubt you, especially since you are an American!" She went on to explain that, in the days of military administration, "every other person in Nazareth was probably an informer; they had to be, in a way, if they wanted to get special passes to work so that they could feed their families -- there was hunger in Nazareth in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We are under a lot of stress to be loyal to Israel, but also to ourselves, so you never know whom to trust." As mentioned earlier, there is a marked lack of trust between Nazareth and the central government; people seriously doubt that the Israeli government really has their best interests at heart. Without trust among individuals and between individuals and the state, it is doubtful that institutions of civic society have much chance of survival. In such a situation, intermediary institutions and spaces are always subject to attempts by insecure and uncertain individuals or bodies to decisively control and dominate agenda-setting and decision-making.
Perhaps the most serious challenge to the development of institutions and values of civic society in Nazareth, and indeed, any Arab community inside Israel, is the pervasive problem of fragmented identity. I do not have sufficient space to discuss the many studies that have analyzed this topic in the context of this paper. I can only state that, based on my research in Nazareth during a crucial year in the community's political history, I concluded that it is fruitless to try to decide, once and for all, whether the Arab citizens of Israel are more Israeli than Palestinian or more Palestinian than Israeli. They are neither. Both the Palestinian and the Israeli identity options are, ultimately, closed to them. Politically constructed as non-Jewish citizens of a Jewish state, they are also existentially constricted, individually and collectively, in how they can conceive of themselves, envision their future, and enact their political lives. This has a detrimental impact on the development of the community's political institutions. To be denied a clear, unambiguous and satisfying identity is to be denied access to frameworks of affiliation and organization through which political power is effectively exercised.
Closely linked to the concept of identity is the concept of citizenship. If the basic building block of any civil society is the citizen, of what entity are the Palestinians in Israel citizens? With what state do they identify? Theoretically and legally, they are, of course, citizens of Israel. But emotionally and viscerally, they know that they are not citizens the way Jews are citizens, nor will they ever be, if the current laws, definitions, perspectives and ideologies that undergird the State of Israel remain unchanged. I doubt that anyone in Nazareth joyfully celebrates Yom ha-Atzmaout (Israeli Independence Day). When I asked my neighbors, who were Labor Party supporters, how they were going to celebrate Israel's Day of Independence, the wife looked at me, perplexed, and said they would be staying home and eating dajaaj mHammar (chicken with onions and sumac), with their son, his wife, and their grandson, adding that it would be `aib (shameful) for any Arab to celebrate such a holiday, which marked their defeat. In my research I saw indications that an overarching Palestinian identity, emphasizing rootedness to the land and common traditions and cultural values arising from a peasant lifestyle, were beginning to subside with the passage of time. Perhaps this is partly due to the intifada, which revealed to Palestinians in Israel just how many substantial differences distinguish them from Palestinians living and dying on the other side of the Green Line. With the attenuation of an over-arching ethnic/national identity, religious identities and bases of affiliation are becoming more salient. Religion, especially for Muslims, provides quicker and more fulfilling access to sources of political power and self-esteem. Subtle tensions were developing between Christians and Muslims during the year I spent in Nazareth, which does not augur well for the future of civil society in a city which has frequently been a political leader and trend-setter for Arab citizens in Israel.
In light of these observations, the Jebha proposal to prepare Nazareth
for the beginning of the next millennium may provide some solutions to
these tensions. While people may often doubt whether they are really
Israelis, and sometimes wonder to what degree they are truly Palestinians,
they can be sure of one thing: they are indisputably Nazarenes (naSraawiyeen).
The Nazareth 2000 project emphasizes this overarching communal identity,
which is a civic identity, and may thus prove to be form of socio-political
"preventative medicine" against potentially dangerous divisions between
Christians and Muslims in Nazareth. The project is so large and multi-faceted
that, to be carried out successfully, it will require the participation,
contribution and commitment of representatives and leaders from every class,
religion, political persuasion, occupation and neighborhood in Nazareth.
It will also necessitate considerable cooperation and coordination between
associations, institutions and individuals in Nazareth, the Israeli Government,
and external funding agencies, and will thus make power-sharing compulsory
and the power-hoarding of "machine politics" unacceptable. If it
succeeds, the Nazareth 2000 project would do much to halt the narrowing
of space -- physical, political, cultural and emotional -- which now challenges
the future of civic society in the Arab Capital of Israel.
1 In discussing civic society in prescriptive terms, it is perhaps not surprising that authors focussing on the state of civic society in the West express concern that public space is threatened by an overemphasis on the individual and the private sphere (Lappe and Du Bois, 1994), while those scholars examining civic society in the Middle East or Eastern Europe warn that the autonomous individual, and the associations and institutions formed by individuals, are in danger of being crushed by state or religious institutions unaccustomed to respecting individual needs and desires or a plurality of opinion (Seligman, 1992; Norton, 1993).
2 The general lack of understanding and awareness of the situation of
the Palestinian citizens of Israel was brought home to me time and again
when American and European friends and colleagues would express confusion
about the geographical and political status of Nazareth. Most people
assumed that it must be in the West Bank, since it is entirely Arab in
population, and expressed amazement when they learned it was an Israeli,
as well as a Palestinian city. One American anthropologist who visited
me in the summer asked why I had not chosen to study the "real" Palestinians,
i.e., those living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which implied some
unsettling questions about the political, and indeed, the existential,
status of Palestinians in Israel.
3 I was continually impressed at how much the Palestinians in Israel had accomplished in only four decades, despite considerable social, political, and legal obstacles. Consequently, I was amazed that, in spite of their ability to form a viable political and social leadership and achieve notable successes in a state where they face considerable institutionalized discrimination, Palestinians in Israel nonetheless held a collective self-image characterized by powerlessness, passivity and ineffectiveness. One of the few times when I saw someone vigorously challenge this popular perception was at a public meeting of a new organization, "miithaaq al-musaawaa" ("The Covenant of Equality"), in which the speaker, Dr. Azmi Bishara, upbraided his listeners for considering themselves weak and passive orphans, reminding them that they are capable adults possessing the ability to exercise considerable political powers.
4 In Nazareth, however, the Jebha still won the lion's share of the vote, with the Labor party coming in second and the Democratic Arab party third.
5 When I asked people whether increased Arab support for Zionist parties indicated a shift in identification among Arabs in Israel from "Palestinization" to "Israelization," several people responded that this was not at all the case. "If we start thinking that we are Israelis, someone will remind us, sooner or later, of what we really are: non-Jews in a Jewish state. In the long run, we are always going to be outside the rules of the game." In Nazareth, at least, increased support for the Labor party in the 1992 Knesset elections seemed to stem from the perception that the long-reigning Likud Party might actually be defeated, as well as from Labor Party statements suggesting a very different approach to the final status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
6 Considering the many criticisms of the communist-dominated inner leadership of the Jebha coalition in Nazareth, it is not surprising that the individual selected to head the Jebha's list for the next municipal elections was not a communist, but rather, a member of the League of University Graduates, breaking a 17-year tradition of communist representation in the first slot on the list. In the end, however, the perennial winner Towfiq Zayyad ran at the head of the list, and won yet again in November, 1993, seven months before he was killed in a tragic highway accident near Jerusalem.
7 Common Palestinian proverbs referring to the relations between subjects and rulers speak volumes about these pessimistic expectations: "Walk close to the wall and ask God's protection!" and "The hand that you cannot break, kiss it and pray that it breaks".
8 In the course of an interview with one middle-aged Jebha member, the
topic of coercion came up. He expressed the opinion that "if there
is ever to be true democracy in Arab society anywhere in the Middle East,
it will happen here first, among the Palestinians inside Israel."
"Why?," I asked, "because of the example of Israeli democratic behavior
and institutions?" "No!" he replied, "Because our leaders aren't
allowed to have any weapons or secret police, like Asad and Saddam, so
they have to get their power from the people or not at all."
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