Contemporary Issues in Arab-Israeli Identity as Seen through the TV Show “Arab Labor”

Arts Column

Written by: Sam Pekats, Davenport College ’22

Humor and personal narrative are two powerful techniques one may use to legitimize and elucidate his own marginalized struggle. Arab-Israelis, Israeli citizens of Arab ancestry-many of whom are Muslim-have a precarious position in Israeli society such that their unique identity is often either erased-namely by Israeli Jewish voices-or is claimed by forces connected to government organizations in settlements outside of Israel’s Green Line as part of a greater Palestinian identity. Without popular and widespread recognition of the issues tied to Arab-Israeli identity, change will be continually challenging to exact, and Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli relations will remain strained as Arab-Israelis continue to inhabit a dual identity which, while on the one hand allows them recognition as citizens of a democratic Israel, on the other hand, causes for their ostracism from the Jewish state and its society. Sayed Kashua’s Hebrew language sitcom, Arab Labor uses absurdist situational comedy–often predicated on coincidences that befall characters allowing for meaningful introspection among viewers–pertaining to everyday life of both Jewish and Arab characters to convey the meaning of the internal Arab-Israeli struggle within a medium that is accessible to the secular Israeli populace: primetime television. Close analysis of Arab Labor season 1, episodes 1 and 5, and season 2, episodes 1 and 11, allows viewers a glimpse of various aspects of the Arab-Israeli condition; [1] this paper will focus on the topics of Arab-Israeli identity, notions of Arab-Israeli loyalty to the state, and Arab-Israeli interaction with inherently Jewish facets of popular Israeli culture.

Israeli Arabs: The Official Summation of the Or Commission Report (September 2, 2003), the English language summary of a government report conducted under the authority of Israeli Supreme Court deputy chief justice Theodore Or in response to national violence and disturbances related to the al-Aqsa intifada–which begun in October, 2000–explores the complexities of Arab Israeli identity, especially in relation to the events of that month, stating, 

the committee determined that, while most of Israel’s Arab citizens are loyal to the state, the messages transmitted during the October disturbances blurred and sometimes erased the distinction between the state’s Arab citizens and their legitimate struggle for rights, and the armed struggle against the state being conducted by organizations and individuals in the West Bank and Gaza.[2]

More broadly, the report names the predicament of Israel’s Arab citizens as “the most sensitive and important domestic issue facing Israel today.” 

As Professor Shiri Goren points out in her work, Arab Labor, Jewish Humor: Memory, Identity, and Creative Resistance on Israeli Prime Time Television, Sayed Kashua’s Hebrew language sitcom, Arab Labor “mark[s] a milestone on Israeli television as the first sitcom to present Palestinian characters speaking Arabic on primetime.”[3] The fact alone speaks to the condition of Arab-Israeli identity through its lack of representation in popular media. Not fully embraced by Israeli popular society, Arab-Israelis often occupy an identity-based in dual allegiance to the Israeli state and to Palestinian identity and institutions (which may or may not lie outside of Israel’s Green Line). This situation stands in stark contrast, however, to the reality that many of Israel’s founders envisioned for Israel’s Arab citizens, as one can see within the words of David Ben Gurion to his own Mapai party, for instance. On December 1947, Ben Gurion elaborates his intention that non-Jews “will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is, the state will be their state as well.” [4] This aspirational status of equality, however, seems to have shriveled to an all-time low; Israel’s Jewish Nation-State Law, recently passed in July of 2018, states that Hebrew is the sole language of the State of Israel, and that Arabic no longer holds recognition as a national language, but rather, will hold “a special status in the state,” and that “[t]he state of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” [5] Goren further analyzes the precarious position of modern Israeli Arabs when commenting on the contents of one of Kashua’s columns Haaretz had published the evening prior to the sixty-fifth anniversary of Israel’s founding, in which Kashua records a disagreement he had with his daughter when she tells him, “[m]aybe you’ll finally buy one [Israeli flag] for your car,” “[i]t’s our country, too, isn’t it?” Kashua replies, “[o]ur country is the Star of David? Does ‘our’ country even want us here?”[6] This scenario parallels a moment within season 2, episode 1, during which Bushra–the wife of the series’ protagonist, Amjad–yells at her daughter, Maya, for speaking Hebrew in the home. Bushra explains that while she will allow Maya to attend a Jewish school, she must speak Arabic at home with family. Later in the episode, Bushra again endeavors to preserve her family’s Arab identity when she refuses to allow her family to live in a Jewish neighborhood with better infrastructure, specifically a better shower, in fear that it will negatively affect her children’s view of self. [7]

Amjad emphasizes self-preservation within Jewish-Israeli society and Bushra’s firm Palestinian identity and support of pro-Palestinian principles often puts the two at odds with one another in public and private settings. For example, during a dinner party with some Jewish neighbors in season 2, episode 11, tensions begin to run high after Natan, a Jewish guest and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reservist, receives a text message declaring a Code Red military emergency that demands his deployment, and Natan and Bushra entertain a very heated verbal disagreement about the political situation. Amjad detests conflict, and attempts to arbitrate, commenting, “what do we have to do with this war? We’re citizens.” Here, Amjad appeals to these ideologues–Bushra and Natan, who see the military situation in ethnic terms–that common citizenship as Israelis should trump political disagreement. Totally negating Amjad’s plea to fraternity just seconds earlier, the television then blares, “within the Green Line, Arab citizens are demonstrating in support of Hamas,” cementing Bushra and Amjad’s supposed otherness and enemy status as Israeli Arabs.[8] Natan questions Bushra and Amjad’s loyalty to Israel as citizens, demonstrating the underlying supposition that in times of war, Arab-Israelis are aligned with the enemy, Palestinian forces, and actively work to undermine Israel’s military position and right to exist. This Arab-Israeli loyalty question has deeply affected Israeli society in many ways, including Arab-Israeli preclusion from military conscription. In his paper, Israeli Arabs: Deprived of Radicalized? Zionist historian Ephraim Karsh explains the historical foundations of this supposition when he posits, 

[e]arly on, the attempt of the Arab states and the Palestinian Arab leadership to destroy Israel at birth, [and] the repeated talk of a ‘second round’…fuelled fears within the Jewish state of a possible transformation of its Arab communities into hotbeds of subversive activity. [9].

The Or Commission report uses this historical background to comment on events leading up to the October 2000 situation, stating that the “radicalization process…related to the increasing strength of Islamic politics in Israel in the period preceding the events [of October, 2000],” “blurred…the line between the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria and the Arab citizens of the state.” The report further emphasizes that, “the concept of citizenship is incompatible with the presentation of the state as the enemy…,”  and also encourages Arab-Israeli leaders to refrain from transmitting messages that are “incompatible with the loyalty that every citizen of every nation must show.” [10] In a nation often characterized by terror and violence, which fosters a wartime emergency sentiment, known in Hebrew as hamatzav, questions of Arab-Israeli loyalty to the Israeli state cloud understanding of Arab-Israeli identity, helping to cement the group’s otherness from the majority society at large. Nearly a decade after the events of 2000, Kashua writes about the situation surrounding Natan’s military deployment illustrating the continued rift during wartime between Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis–who question Arab-Israeli loyalties.

Amjad’s search for normalcy[11] and reconciliation of personal ethnic identity with nationality regularly clashes with the ideas of his parents, Um and Abu Amjad. At times, however, even they–two individuals with strong Palestinian identities–demonstrate interaction with Israeli Jewish society’s religious facets, which the couple’s familiarity with Passover in Arab Labor season 1, episode 2 demonstrates well[12]. There is one humorous moment in which Abu Amjad brings home a box of matzo and asks Um for some jam, to which she replies that she can’t bring out the jam since it isn’t Kosher for Passover—despite the fact that the Muslim couple doesn’t observe the Jewish holiday or its customs. Amjad, Maya, and Bushra are also versed in Passover when they go to Maya’s friend Tal’s home for a Seder already knowing the popular prayer Dayenu after reading a Passover Haggadah sent home in Maya’s backpack. This instance stands in stark contrast with when Tal’s family comes to Um and Abu Amjad’s home for an unnamed holiday. In line with his inferiority complex toward Jews and Jewish tradition, Amjad fashions this holiday observance after Passover traditions which he sees as superior to his own culture’s customs. Tal’s mother, however, lacks the basic knowledge to see that Amjad has made up all of the rituals in order to mimic a Passover Seder. Tal’s mother is unable to utter even one word in Arabic, and thinks Abu Amjad saying “this drink is flat” in Arabic is a cheer, and repeats it as a toast before drinking. Each of these misconceptions and inabilities on Tal’s mother’s part expose the double standard that Arab-Israelis are expected to understand Jewish custom and Hebrew, while Jewish Israelis by in large lack rudimentary knowledge of the customs and language of their Arab-Israeli neighbors. Despite his initial anger with changing observances of the holiday–which is usually celebrated with the ritual slaughter of livestock–Abu Amjad eventually collaborates with Amjad in the making of the false holiday meal to find normalcy within Jewish-majority society. Amal, an Arab-Israeli guest to this unnamed holiday dinner explains to Meir, a Jew at the dinner–and to Jews in the show’s audience–that the holiday observances that Amjad and Abu Amjad undertake are a sham. Amal goes so far to call a song that the group is singing Amjad’s “Chad Gadya in E major,” referencing a popular song at Passover Seders, illustrating that she recognizes that Amjad has cooked up this fake holiday observance to mimic a Passover Seder and impress the Jewish Israelis in his home, while disregarding any actual Palestinian culture or Muslim observance. Goren further explores the Arab-Israeli search for normalcy as she considers the implications and context to passing as Jewish versus passing as Arab. For example, in season 1, episode 1, Amjad becomes obsessed with finding ways not to look Arab so that he will be able to pass through roadblock checkpoints without being questioned by Israeli police. He changes what plays on the radio, tries to tell his wife verbatim what to say and how to say it–so as to not sound like an Arabic speaker—and, by the ends of the episode, ends up buying a new car to evade police of his identity. [13]

Recognizing the strained relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, Arab Labor, and media like it, has the important capability of “manifest[ing] creative resistance and provid[ing] productive interventions in the existing Israeli social order.”[14] Frequently separated by geography, Jewish and Arab citizens regularly do not see eye to eye, frequently leading quite distant lives from each other. Arab Labor allows all citizens of Israel–especially Jewish citizens–a glimpse into life of the other. Only through gaining insight into the perspective of the other side will peace in Israel ever fully flourish. Thus merely for the sake of educating the other, Arab Labor is a groundbreaking series and can be viewed as a true effort in the search for peace, pointing out the contradiction in Arab-Israeli identity between citizenship to a democratic Israel, and ostracism from the Jewish state and its society. Humor can humanize subjects, giving their viewpoints and experiences their deserved legitimacy. Perhaps if there more examples of cross-cultural comedy of this kind were made for the Israeli viewer, hostilities between Jewish-Israelis and Arab-Israelis could begin to subside, making way for a truly just Israeli society for all.


References

[1] Arab Labor [avoda aravit]. Directed by Ronnie Ninio (season 1) and Shai Kapon (season 2-4). Created and written by Sayed Kashua. Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, Israel, 2007-2014.

[2] “Israeli Arabs: The Official Summation of the Or Commission Report (September 2, 2003).” www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-official-summation-of-the-or-commission-report-september-2003.

[3] Goren, Shiri. “Arab Labor, Jewish Humor: Memory, Identity, and Creative Resistance on Israeli Prime Time Television.” Jewish Social Studies, (Accepted, Nov 2018) Forthcoming.

[4] Karsh, Efraim. “Israels Arabs: Deprived or Radicalized?” Israel Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1, 2013, pp. 2–20., doi:10.1080/13537121.2013.748285.

[5] JPost.com Staff. “READ THE FULL JEWISH NATION-STATE LAW.” The Jerusalem Post, www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Read-the-full-Jewish-Nation-State-Law-562923.

[6] Goren, Shiri. “Arab Labor, Jewish Humor: Memory, Identity, and Creative Resistance on Israeli Prime Time Television.” Jewish Social Studies, (Accepted, Nov 2018) Forthcoming.

[7]Kashua, Sayed. “Crime on the Border.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 2, episode 1, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 3 Jan. 2009.

[8] Kashua, Sayed. “Tension in the South.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 2, episode 11, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 24 Nov. 2014.

[9] Karsh, Efraim. “Israels Arabs: Deprived or Radicalized?” Israel Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1, 2013, pp. 2–20., doi:10.1080/13537121.2013.748285.

[10] “Israeli Arabs: The Official Summation of the Or Commission Report (September 2, 2003).” www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-official-summation-of-the-or-commission-report-september-2003.

[11] Goren, Shiri. “Arab Labor, Jewish Humor: Memory, Identity, and Creative Resistance on Israeli Prime Time Television.” Jewish Social Studies, (Accepted, Nov 2018) Forthcoming.

[12] Kashua, Sayed. “The Sheep.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 1, episode 2, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 1 Dec. 2007.

[13] Kashua, Sayed. “The Car.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 1, episode 1, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 2 Sept. 2012.

[14] Goren, Shiri. “Arab Labor, Jewish Humor: Memory, Identity, and Creative Resistance on Israeli Prime Time Television.” Jewish Social Studies, (Accepted, Nov 2018) Forthcoming.


Works Cited

Goren, Shiri. “Arab Labor, Jewish Humor: Memory, Identity, and Creative Resistance on Israeli Prime Time Television.” Jewish Social Studies, (Accepted, Nov 2018) Forthcoming.

“Israeli Arabs: The Official Summation of the Or Commission Report (September 2, 2003).” www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-official-summation-of-the-or-commission-report-september-2003.

Karsh, Efraim. “Israels Arabs: Deprived or Radicalized?” Israel Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1, 2013, pp. 2–20., doi:10.1080/13537121.2013.748285.

Kashua, Sayed. “The Car.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 1, episode 1, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 2 Sept. 2012.

– – – . “Tension in the South.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 2, episode 11, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 24 Nov. 2014.

– – -. “The Sheep.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 1, episode 2, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 1 Dec. 2007.

– – -. “Crime on the Border.” Arab Labor [Avoda Aravit], season 2, episode 1, Keshet Broadcasting, Channel 2, 3 Jan. 2009.

JPost.com Staff. “READ THE FULL JEWISH NATION-STATE LAW.” The Jerusalem Post, www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Read-the-full-Jewish-Nation-State-Law-562923.

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