Israel-Palestine Politics in brief: Language, Culture, and Identity

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This our brief explainer on Israel-Palestine Politics, or the politics of “That Part of the World Between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon”, and how it relates to religion, ethnicity, language, and identity.

“This part of the world” is a crazy place.

I say “This part of the world” to refer to Israel / Palestine because people here even disagree on what to call it. Millions (or billions) call it Israel. But there’s a huge proportion of the world that still calls it Palestine, even though that name, too, is relatively recent in history (just less recent).

Nobody is shy about their politics in this part of the world. I recall vividly the guy I sat next to on the plane, flying out of Ben Gurion Airport, who told me candidly asked me: “So, what brought you to ‘Occupied Palestine’?”

I’ve updated this post following the invasion of the Israeli military into Gaza following the terrorist attacks of late 2023. Since Israel’s response, I’ve lost a lot of faith in the country and other countries’ leaders, all of whom have contributed actively to Gaza becoming such a poor place over the last few decades, and who now support an incursion that has cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. Despite my love for Tel Aviv (a hippy, vegan and queer-friendly enclave in an otherwise conservative country), it’s no longer a country I can support.

Tel Aviv is a very liberal city, definitely the most left-leaning city in Israel, but the centre of Israel-Palestine politics

Israelis (who recognise the state) also use the word Palestine to refer to the West Bank and Gaza… usually. Some people call it all “Israel” and call the West Bank “Judea and Samaria” (I don’t want to link to a source because they all are controversial — but it’s easy to Google).

And some call it all “Palestine”. When you’re talking politics with someone who uses “Palestine” to refer to the whole shebang, I’ve heard the conversations go:

— “When you say ‘Palestine’ you mean pre-1948 Palestine, right?”

— “Yeah. Palestine.”

This is awkward.

Tel Aviv is extremely liberal, actually. Lots of Israeli friends casually use Arabic slang in their daily conversation. Tel Aviv is very queer-friendly (its main beach was ranked the most LGBT-friendly in the world), which I feel is a good acid test for how liberal a place is.

Rather than go into a deep geopolitical debate of who got where first, or who started attacking whom first, we’re going to just look at people — what they say and how they feel.

Let’s talk language first.

Israeli-Palestine Politics and Language: Arabic, Hebrew, and Other Languages

It was quite fun to speak Arabic to Christians in a Jewish country.

The plaque in front of the YMCA Three Arches  hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel was built as a place where people of all backgrounds could mix freely.
The plaque in front of the YMCA Three Arches Hotel in Jerusalem. It was built as a place where people of different backgrounds can assemble in unity.

“Yep, I’m a Palestinian Christian Arab with an Israeli passport,” said one friend we made here (the business manager of the YMCA Three Arches hotel). “It’s confusing.”

Identity gets very confusing in Jerusalem.

You don’t have to be a Muslim to speak Arabic, but language is extremely closely tied to religion. Lots of casual day-to-day expressions in Arabic mention “Allah”. Technically, “Allah” means means “God”, but in modern society people hear it as “God as Muslims see it”. Muslims will tell you their view of God is no different, fundamentally.

To explain how the idea of God is slightly different in Arabic (and Islam), and how it influences Arab culture, you just have to look at a few common phrases containing the word “Allah”. These phrases are everyday expressions, but they are tiny examples of how Muslims understand God’s nature.

The using “Allah” expressions are things like “if God wills” (which you say after any hopeful reference to the future), “May God preserve you” (which you say as thanks, kind of like “God bless” in English), and “As God ordained it” (which you say whenever someone talks about or shows you a picture of their kids).

These are super casual sayings. To the point where Christians say them. I say them. They just fit in. They make people feel good. They feel more secular than, for example, the English phrase “Thanks and God bless”.

But those phrases are an example of the Muslim view of God. Muslims see God as being interventionist. He (and it’s a “he” in the Quran) defines your fate. Islam has a concept of the “Names” of God, which is like a list of attributes, like the Preserver, the Maker, the Kind, and many others. These come from the Quran.

So, just speaking a language creates a little identity confusion.

Consider Hebrew, too. Hebrew is, after all, a religion extremely tied both to Judaism and to the state of Israel. The majority of Arab Israelis speak Hebrew, either as a first or second language, but when they do, they know they’re not speaking their own language; they’re speaking an adopted lingua franca necessary to exist in modern Israel.

Muslims (the educated ones you’re likely to meet and call friends) are quick to tell you they have zero problems with Judaism. Judaism is explicitly recognized in Islam as one of the three “Abrahamic” faiths.

Muslims you’ll meet in modern society in Australia, Europe and America will have friends from all walks of life, and see the things they have in common with everyone.

But there’s still cultural conflict between (mostly Muslim) Arabs and Jews in Israel. And it ties into modern history as much as identity.

Israel-Palestinian Identity and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is built on the holiest site for Jews, the Temple Mount.
The Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a very holy place for Muslims, built on top of the Temple Mount, a very holy place for Jews and Christians.

The cultural conflict is more with the state of Israel and what it stands for. Jews, Christians and Muslims have shared history in the same country, and sometimes in the exact same spot (like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem).

The most significant broader regional conflict was the “Six-Day War” (also known as the Third Arab-Israeli War, or the 6th of October war) in 1967. The exact “cause” is debated (let’s not get into a “who started it” because I don’t know). But basically:

  • Israel said “You guys better not close the Strait near the Gulf of Aqaba or there’ll be war”
  • Egypt went ahead and closed the Strait and mobilised troops
  • Israel struck in a surprise attack and destroyed Egypt’s entire air force before they knew it
  • Jordan and Syria started getting involved. Israel was now fighting a war on three fronts, but overall doing pretty well
  • Israel got within striking distance of several major capitals in six days before a peace accord was struck. Everyone backed off. But Israel kept hold of Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza, and most of the Golan Heights.
  • Two years later, they ceded Sinai to Egypt in the Camp David treaty, but Egypt agreed it was cool for Israelis to keep going diving there.

Since the Six-Day War, Israel has controlled the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights to various degrees.

Except… most of the people who live in those regions (over three million) don’t count as Israeli citizens. They have Palestinian Authority (PA) passports, but the rules of how you get one are murky, and the PA’s authority varies and is largely considered corrupt. Gazans and residents of the West Bank can’t vote in Israeli elections.

Israel wants to be a democratic state. It’s defined in its Constitution as being a “Jewish and Democratic” state. But this is tough because most people in the occupied territories can’t vote in Israeli elections, and if they did, things wouldn’t look the same.

A study by the Pew Center in 2014-15 showed that most people think the state can be both Jewish and democratic. This was irrespective of how conservative/secular they are. But if they had to choose what takes priority, the more secular they were, the more they’d prioritise democratic principles over religious law.

Israel-Palestine Politics in brief: Language, Culture, and Identity 1
Source: Pew

On the other hand, the Arab residents of Israel (numbering over a million) do have the same rights on paper. They can vote, work, and serve in the military. They are excused from mandatory military service, which most — but not all — Arab citizens accept, because they feel they’d be at war with their Arab brethren.

See how complex ethnicity, nationality and identity can be?

Again, prior to the 2023/2024 Israeli invasion of Gaza, the thing that gets everyone really riled up is “settlements”. In a nutshell, this is where a series of Israeli governments created policies to build settlements for Israelis in occupied lands mostly in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (but also in other places). A lot of the land was seized “for military purposes”, but then Israel built civilian housing on it.

There are around 800,000 people living in Israeli settlements now. The Palestinians are not happy about it, because settlements are quietly annexing their lands. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in April, right before the elections, that he was going to extend Israeli sovereignty to all the settlements.

Basically, Israel is quietly making it hard for the residents of the West Bank to get the right to govern themselves because it’s slowly all becoming absorbed into Israel.

The people settling there have a historically very strong point of view that the lands really belong to the Jewish People and Israel; they call the West Bank “Judea and Samaria”. See this interview with a settler, for example.

They also may have settled for a number of other reasons, like believing they’re doing a service by living in a strategically important point, wanting to return to a home of a couple of generations prior, and a few others (there’s a good list here).

So if you’re anywhere in ‘this region’, you might

  • Speak Arabic, Hebrew or some other language primarily (or secondarily)
  • Live in Israel proper, Gaza, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East or West Jerusalem
  • Call it (wherever that is) Israel, Palestine or some other name
  • Identify as Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian or another minority

And we haven’t even gotten to ethnicity and sub-ethnicity. How many circles will this Venn diagram have?

By the way, that video above was from Corey Gil-Schuster’s Ask Project, a private initiative where he gets people like you to ask questions. He then takes those questions to Israelis and Palestinians and records their unedited, verbatim answers, in both Hebrew and Arabic.

Choosing a Language and Implicitly a Side

Choosing a language to speak in Israel sets the tone for the conversation.

Choosing Hebrew is great if I’m speaking to an older, mostly native, presumably Jewish speaker. Hebrew was once a lingua franca, is an adopted language for many Jewish immigrants and is tied to cultural identity for a lot of people in Israel.

So when I make the effort to communicate in Hebrew, I get very positive reactions. People are patient and kind. They assume I’m Jewish and ask questions like “So are there many Persian Jews in Australia?”. (“Sure, a few, but not as many as here!”)

Even speaking Hebrew to the ever-growing Russian population works well. Not as well as Russian would have of course.

With the Arab population, it depends a lot on who I speak to. But there’s no way it’d tug at heartstrings as Arabic would.

Choosing Arabic, however, is transformative with the Arab population. Random people go out of their way to help us, walking out of buildings to point and give directions to obscure places.

People give suggestions on how to do things for our obscure problems like printing tickets or catching up to a bus we missed. They bargain and smile and eventually ask me where [the hell] I’m from.

The thing is, I don’t look Arab. Nothing like how (Persian) Israeli I look. Speaking Arabic, I use Egyptian words. I dress like a khawaaga. No wonder it’s confusing.

Choosing Farsi was something I didn’t expect I’d get to do. But in a few niche situations near Tel Aviv’s Persian bazaar I got to speak Farsi. Now that was awesome! Persians chatted with me until I was late for appointments, and shared stories of their times in the west, or before the Ayatollahs in Iran.

The most touching thing I encountered was an Israeli woman intent on learning spoken Arabic, because “it’s the language of the people who live here”. Honestly, when she told me that, I teared up slightly. She even told me it was becoming more and more a common view among her friends.

But not common enough.

Together but Separate: Racism and Prejudice Within Israel

Israel has a lot of racial tension internally between its own people. One colleague told me “Israel is the most racist country in the world.” A bit superlative, because racism is everywhere, and plus it’s totally subjective and not something I want to put on a scale. But he got the message across: there’s tension.

The surprising thing to me is between whom Israel’s racism is. There are many cultural groups in the country. Here’s a quick overview of the different racial groups in Israel.

1. The Mizrachim (מזרחים). The largest population in Israel, numbering 3.2M.

The Misrachim are from communities in the Middle East — Iraq, Yemen, Iran/Persia, Yemen and other regional countries. Some of those populations have been in the area for over a thousand years, and some migrated from the Iberian area.

Most Mizrachim migrants came to Israel relatively recently though, since the 1950s. Historically, they adopted (through migration and cultural integration) a lot of the practices of the Sephardic, and many consider them (and many of them consider themselves) the same.

The major distinguishing characteristic of the Mizrachim is language — traditionally, the Mizrachim spoke Arabic, or Farsi if from Iran (there are around 200K Persian Jews in Israel, and people assumed I was one of them.)

The Ashkenazi (אשכנזים, ashkenazim). The Ashkenazi are originally from northern Europe. They form second majority in Israel, with 2.8M people.

Even though they’re lesser in number, they the Ashkenazi are the most influential in modern Jewish culture in Israel because they were the first settlers in 19th century Palestine, and were the vast majority of the population (over 90%) when Israel was formed in 1948.

The Ashkenazi are perceived in Israel as being the “ruling elite”, politically and economically.

Around the world, around three-quarters of the world’s Jewish population are Ashkenazi, and most of these live in the United States. If you are familiar with any Jewish culture (which is referred to in Yiddish as being yiddishkeit, literally “Jewishness”), you’re probably familiar with Ashkenazi Jewish culture, mannerisms, ways of speaking, comedy, names, and so on.

Arab Israelis/Palestinian Israeli Citizens: Numbering 1.6M. (Note: This is citizens only, and excludes the 3M+ Palestinians/Arabs in the occupied territories in the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights).

“Palestinian” can mean many things: tracing ethnic lineage back to Roman/Ottoman/British Palestine, for example, or highlighting that they’re Arab citizens of the region. Or it can mean people who don’t acknowledge Israel.

Roughly 80% of Arab Israelis and Palestinian-Israeli citizens are Muslim, with roughly 10% Christian and 10% Druze.

The Sephardic Jews (ספרדים, sefardim). Numbering 1.4M. From the Iberian Peninsula, mostly.

The Sephardic Jews historically spoke Ladino, which was Spanish influenced by Hebrew. Many also know standard Spanish, which I’ve spoken with them.

The definition of Sephardic varies due to centuries of migration, and a lot of mixing in the Middle East and modern Israel.

Russian Jews: Not mutually exclusive with the above, but including people from other groups (including a lot of Ashkenazi), and numbering around 900K.

Most of the modern-day Russians emigrated since the 1980s. You can hear a lot of Russian spoken in Israel, especially in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Ethiopians Jews: The Ethiopians came through many waves of migration, some assisted by the Israeli military, and continues to today. They number about 130K.

Ethiopian Jews have faced difficulties being accepted into modern Israeli society, because of education and linguistic barriers of migrants. Tel Aviv is a place where you can get great Ethiopian food (and great Ethiopian vegetarian food, too).

North African Migrants: There are a lot of migrants from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and other countries. Some are granted asylum, and some are illegal immigrants fleeing harsh economic and living conditions.

Other migrant workers: There are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from China, the Philippines and other countries as well.

Apart from work and university, most Israelis don’t mix much socially between religions, beyond university and work situations. The vast majority of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze say all or most of their close friends belong to their own religious community. (Yes, some do mix, especially younger people in Tel Aviv, and you guys are cool, but you are the minority in the country overall.)

Socially, there’s more mixing between cultures within a religion. If you go to your average modern workplace, you’ll see a mix of Jews of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi background. They’ll be friends outside, too, especially in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, while they might work with Russian and Ethiopian Jews, and get along fine at work, it’s less likely they’ll hang out after work together.

Finally, while Arabs and Sudanese might be in the mix in a workplace, it’s unlikely they’ll keep hanging out together or with others once they clock out.

Politically, within those who identify as Jewish (roughly three-quarters of the Israeli population), things get messier. There’s a divide between the Ashkenazi, typically perceived as being the wealthy elite, and the Mizrachim, who historically been marginalised by the Ashkenazi.

Every election (including in the most recent one), politicians draw on and exaggerate this old cultural divide. The Likud party, led by Netanyahu for seemingly forever, counts the Mizrachim as one of its strongest bases — even though Netanyahu himself is of Ashkenazi background.

The most telling thing, to me, of how false these divisions are, is how united Jewish communities are outside Israel, in the diaspora. From what I’ve seen, people of major Jewish backgrounds mingle freely socially. And Israelis who’ve spent time in the West fondly recall those times.

“In LA, I hung out with everyone.” one friend told me, a Persian Jew. “Russians, Armenians, Ashkenazim, Christians, Bachaim (Baha’is)…” He loved it, clearly, and it was a contrast to his current social circles.

Hopefully, that’ll change with time.

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