Image: Jakob Rubner via Unsplash.
In 2012, my play Facts toured the West Bank and Israel (in an Arabic translation by Kamel El Basha). Facts is a murder mystery with three characters: Yossi, a Jewish-Israeli cop; Khalid, a Muslim-Palestinian cop; and their primary suspect, an Israeli settler.
The production was directed by Palestinian-Canadian Samer Al-Saber. After the tour, Samer wrote about his experience in an article entitled “Arabic Facts in Palestine: Clashing Hybridities in Transnational Cultural Production.”¹ Overall, Samer was accurate, fair and positive. For example:
The depth of Milner’s negotiation of interpersonal relationships and his exploration of the impunity of West Bank settlers received accolades in nearly every talkback session with the audience. In Ramallah, one audience member remarked: “How is it possible that a Canadian could represent our situation with such complexity?”
But Samer was torn. He and others were worried that the play could be seen as an endorsement of “security coordination” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And toward the end, he wrote,
One moment encapsulates my struggles with the text and my experience as director … Milner and I had a number of conversations about the script. In one instance, I objected to the following dialogue:
Yossi: We are peasants. Speaking on behalf of my people. We Zionists had ambitions, we embraced socialism and science. But Israel is full of peasants who worship and idolize. And the Palestinians?
Khalid: We were on our way.
Yossi: To what?
Khalid: To modernity.
In this exchange, Milner adopts a rational liberal humanist belief that a universal modernity exists. He looks at Palestine from the outside, evaluating the historical moment from his own lens. His character, Khalid, recognizes this modernity and not only does he believe it to be attainable, he also declares that the Palestinian people have yet to reach it. As a Palestinian, an Arab, I reject the concept of a universal modernity as a colonial construction. Milner chose to keep the exchange.
This issue greatly troubled Samer and he returned to it at the end: “Although the subject of the play remains topical in Palestine, Western modernity is not indigenous to the land. The gap between our intention … and our final action still haunts me.”
I am reviewing all this in the context of the current crisis in Israeli democracy. The play’s third character, Danny, and his settler friends are now running the Israeli government. The modernity that Samer objects to is threatened, not by Palestinians, but primarily by Jewish Israelis who, as Yossi describes, “worship and idolize.”
I am struck by one phrase in Samer’s critique: “As a Palestinian, an Arab, I reject the concept of a universal modernity as a colonial construction.” Those who have taken over Israel’s government would, as ethnic and religious Jews, reject the concept of a universal modernity – perhaps as an antisemitic construction.
I am not defending previous Israeli governments. Liberal Israelis might have claimed a universal modernity, but they failed miserably to live up to its principles, chief of which, I would say, is “Do unto all human beings as you would have them do unto you.”
The irony for me is that the radicals who, with Samer, criticized Facts for its alleged promotion of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation have also increasingly condemned the two-state solution: one state for Jews and another for Palestinians. It seems obvious that the alternative they promote, the single democratic state, would have a greater chance of success if its constituents identified less as tribes and more as children of the Enlightenment.
One event encapsulates for me the sadness of the current state of affairs. If you’re not familiar with the Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, you should be. For a quick introduction, watch the eponymous film adaptation of his 2002 novel Dancing Arabs. For several years Kashua was a featured columnist in Haaretz. In a 2014 column, “Why Sayed Kashua Is Leaving Jerusalem and Never Coming Back,” Kashua described his effort to explain to his teenage daughter why the family is leaving Israel:
She’s sitting on her bed with her computer. I sit down next to her, knowing I’m about to tell her what my father told me when I was a boy her age. It was my first day at a Jerusalem boarding school, where only Hebrew was spoken … A moment before parting from me, at the entrance to the school, he said, “Remember that for them you will always, but always, be an Arab, understand?”
“I understand,” my daughter said and hugged me close, “I understood it already by myself.”²
No single Israeli, Palestinian or Jewish, has made a greater effort than Kashua to reach out across the ethnic, religious, cultural and political divide. No one has done more to fashion himself into a loyal Israeli. No failure is more indicative of Israel’s failure to be a liberal democratic state, accepting of Palestinians who accept Israel.
In a recent interview, Peter Beinart asked Kashua, now in the United States for almost 10 years, how he maintained his children’s connection with “Palestinian-ness”:
I’m not the best nationalist father one can imagine. If they ask, I tell them my opinion, of course. But we don’t have a picture of Al-Aqsa Mosque or go to mosque on Fridays, or have Palestinians flags in our home – nothing like that. But they are activists. My daughter and older son are very well aware. When we went to visit Palestine in 2018, my youngest said, “I’m sorry, Dad, I couldn’t tell who’s Arab and who’s Israeli. They all look the same to me and all sound the same to me.” Well, that’s also a very good approach. They are aware of the situation, they follow the news apparently. But I’m a very bad person to deliver national values to my kids. More universal values, I think. I hope.³
Israel is now run by Jews who look at everything, unashamedly, from the standpoint of Jews. The current coalition government is composed of two ultra-Orthodox parties (18 seats), one religious nationalist party (14 seats), and one far-right party (32 seats). The ultra-Orthodox and the religious nationalists have birthrates twice the national average; and by and large it is liberals who leave Israel. So, it’s likely that support for the ultraright will only increase in the future.
I wish Israel’s democrats all the best. However, since I am a Canadian, democracy in Israel is not my concern. Or let me say I’m as concerned about democracy in Israel as I am concerned about democracy in Turkey and Argentina. But I am greatly concerned for the safety of Palestinians who are trapped in this fight between liberal and fascist Israelis, and who seem to me at greater-than-ever risk of murder and expulsion. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider Netanyahu’s commitment to allow National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to form his very own Schutzstaffel.
This would be a good time for the international community to act pre-emptively, by forcing Israel out of the occupied territories and leaving behind an army to protect Palestinians.
³ Transcribed and edited by Arthur Milner.