The demographic war was apparent from the very moment I got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport.
I could easily have been with that group of Asians cornered and sent to a special interrogation room, or that African, who was being questioned about his citizenship and true purpose in Israel. Instead, my double-identifier as a Canadian and a “pseudo-fervent Christian pilgrim” gave me all the privileges a foreigner could wish for in Israel. With these simple identifications, I was exempt from the interrogation received by other less fortunate sojourners.
As I strolled onto the train to Haifa, I was immediately reminded of Israel’s reality – its existence is premised on occupation. Soldiers in their early twenties touted guns and donned Ray Bans, with almost a look of pride – or perhaps nonchalance – over their actions in defending Israel from the barbarous Arabs.
How this image contrasts with my first impressions of Haifa, a city that is seemingly characterized by a certain kind of rhythmic calmness. Some would attribute it to coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, one would not find the usual markers of colonialism and feud in this port city. I saw Jews and Arabs working side by side, with Shaloms and Salaam alaykums passed to each other.
But how wrong I was. These impressions were facades of a larger storm underneath the friendly exchanges. In fact, the everyday “normalcy” should be contextualized within the larger structural conflict. It is inherently power-laden, where one side has the power to dictate the terms of negotiation, while the other has to yield to the externally-defined parameters for engagement.
This is apparent in how Arabs of 1948 Palestine talk about their everyday lives. “We survive and try to live each day as normally as possible.” These words are spoken so that they can cope with their realities. Arabs know they are not in a position in power to openly fight back. They cannot openly criticize the state and oppress every symbol – whether it is the Israeli flag, or the national anthem, or the fact that Hebrew gains primacy over Arabic in their everyday lives – that tries to wipe out their narratives of the place.
Oh yes, they do not forget their connection with the land. As one man in the Wadi pointed out a pre-colonial building to me – “It’s my home” – I realized that the Israeli government cannot erase the memory of the Palestinians, whether they are inside the 1948 borders or not. Atrocities cannot be erased by mere renaming of cities and districts, house demolitions, symbolic and empty peacemaking gestures, and suppression of speech.
Alas, I want to end on a happy note.
I’m staying with a mixed family in Haifa. The wife is Jewish, while the husband is Arab. Their story is one of real coexistence – one of compassion, empathy, and true understanding.
I thank God for the opportunity to witness such love amidst the oppression.