Dan Rabinowitz, Khawla Abu-Baker, Coffins on our Shoulders: The Experience of the Palestinian Citizens of Israel, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 2005
"Standing tall I march
My head held high.
An olive branch held in my palm,
A coffin on my shoulder,
On I walk"…
These shivering words of the Palestinian poet from the Galilee Samih al-Qasem gave the book its somewhat irritating title. Three years ago the book was first published in Hebrew and Arabic under the name The Stand-Tall Generation – again taken from al-Qasem's poetry. In both cases the authors refer to the young generation of the Palestinian-Arab citizens in Israel, a generation that went through the al-Aqsa intifada of 2000 and had been shaped by this experience. The book deals profoundly with the characteristics of this generation and the gaps and differences between it and its fathers' and forefathers' generations – the 'warn-out' and 'surviving' generations respectively. The term in Hebrew ha'dor ha'zakuf has immediately become a common adjective for this group of Arab university and high-school students, a group that is very much aware and proud of its national Palestinian identity and at the same time is unhesitant and very blunt when it comes to its struggle to achieve full civil equality inside the Jewish state.
Rabinowitz and Abu Baker base much of their analysis on interviews with class mates of the late Asil 'Aslah, a shahid (martyr) of the October 2000 bloody events that resulted with 13 young Arabs dead by the Israeli police forces. In between the survey of political events and the reactions of their interviewees, they wave personal stories of 3 generations of their own families with much sincerity and compassion.
The accounts of the Abu Baker and Rabinowitz families, who had lived in Haifa not far from each other and yet in two cultural and mental worlds apart, give the book a unique flavor which combines anthropology, psychology, history, political study and autobiography in one volume. On top of that, Abu Baker and Rabinowitz know how to tell a story – and the result is an academic book that reads like a fascinating novel.
The "Stand-Tall generation" had been born around the time of the first Land Day of 1976, and "came of political age" in the shadow of the disillusionment and frustration of their parents' struggle for integration and equality in Israel and the fast developments of the Palestinian national movement along the 90's. The 2000 tragedy turned to be "an urgent, highly personal matter" for them. "Asil 's class mates described his murder as a turning point in their political consciousness, that brought them to redefine themselves as Palestinians. Khulud Badawi, a prominent students' leader at the time argues that the events "triggered a widespread process of soul-searching and reevaluation on the part of the Palestinian youngsters", thus, the authors themselves describe the eruption of al-Aqsa intifada as "an event of historic proportion" (p. 99). Five years have passed and on the surface it seems like those ten days in October are gone and won't come back. But the relative calm and kind of 'ceasefire' in the internal relations between Arabs and Jews, should not deceive us and must not mislead to the assumption that all is well in this front. The authors warn that this is "a forced silence, one that conceals bitter suffering and deep shock… the Palestinian citizens themselves… are frightened of the Israeli iron fist that so brutally crushed their protest". I would add that reason overcame emotions and the fear of a complete split from the state and its possible consequences is playing a role here as well.
The book analyses in depth the Israeli policy towards its Arab citizens prior to the October events and the way it has been excluding them and pushing them to the margins. The hope of the previous generation for integration and "coexistence" has failed and the stand-tall generation is now demanding more from the state then their parents did. They seek genuine equality, including recognition of their collective rights as Palestinians and rectification of past wrongs. They are also asking for an arrangement that allows them legitimate expression of solidarity with Palestine without giving up their Israeli citizenship, which they see as a natural right. Until this is achieved, "they see the state as a mere provider of services, not a locus of true affiliation".
Obviously, no generation is monolithic, nor is the generation under discussion. Since October 2000 and its aftermath, young Arabs in Israel took different paths. Many preferred individualism to national and public involvement, others are absorbed in the world of consumerism like their Jewish and international counterparts, or they merely wish "to get along and find safe heaven in middle ground" (ibid). Some would argue that the stand-tall generation has disappeared and that its influence had been limited, while the reality of the Palestinians inside and outside Israel has become harsher. But the authors suggest that "the Mannheimian test of generations is first and foremost their sense of unified experience, common awareness and sameness of interpretation of reality as it unfolds around them, not necessarily their ability to shape it, as Generation X of the 1980's amply illustrates". This is an interesting insight that may 'comfort' the activists of this generation, and legitimize their temporary (?) withdrawal from political militancy.
The authors put all responsibility for the hardships and alienation of the Palestinian citizens in Israel exclusively on the state and its Jewish majority, and criticize in particular the liberal "peace camp" in Israel who "champions equal individual rights [and] consistently refuses to recognize the Palestinian citizens of Israel as holders of collective rights"…. They include in chapter 6 parts of the "emergency report by an inter-university research team" submitted in November 2000 to the then Prime Minister Ehud Barak right after the bloody events of October. Rabinowitz was one of the initiators of that report and Abu Baker took an active part in writing it. The report addresses 6 topics that stand between the state and its Palestinian citizens and suggests practical ways of coping with them. They specify the urgent need for a deep change in the way the Arabs are seen as enemy and treated as "security and demographic risk", rather then as partners and fellow citizens. The report presents different recommendations "for new directions for government policy towards the Arab population in Israel". Unfortunately this report had been added to many similar documents that were written before and after, including the important Orr Commission report – and was put away on history's shelves.
The authors argue that the predicament of the Palestinian citizens cannot be solved by looking only at the present and the future: "finding a genuine solution will require tackling the injustices of the past" like New Zealand and Australia did. Recognition of the Palestinian nakbah, changing land laws, allowing autonomy in education and culture, recognizing their collective rights as a national minority and also – changing the national symbols of the state, are only a few of their demands. They themselves admit that "administratively and financially these primarily symbolic changes will be easy. Emotionally and politically, however, none could be more costly and complicated for the Israeli mainstream" (p. 178).
It is not until the last paragraph of the book that Abu Baker and Rabinowitz openly say that "the practical conclusion of this book is categorically post-Zionist… if Israel seeks a future of prosperity and peace, sooner or later it will have to replace the ethnoterritorial dictum that engendered Zionism with an alternative inclusive approach to history and destiny".
I guess this is the wick point of this bright and illuminating analysis. Rabinowitz and Abu Baker succeed to identify, describe and analyze the present sociological generation of Palestinians in Israel. The way they identify the process of transferring experience and frustration and learning the lessons from one generation to its next is unique and innovating, and so is the form this book is composed. Their personal stories and anecdotes of daily life demonstrate the theories and the history-telling and give the book its strength and authenticity. But despite the deep a-symmetry between the majority and minority I cannot agree with their categorical conclusion, that the solution lies exclusively in the hands of the State authorities and the Jewish majority, and that it is their ultimate responsibility to change. What they imply is that the Jews of Israel must give up their beliefs, their narratives of the past and their aspirations for the future in order to satisfy the demands of the Palestinian citizens. This is a road that leads to a dead end, and there are only a handful of people in to-days' Jewish Israel who may adopt these recommendations. It may work perhaps in an ideal post-national peaceful world, but in the current reality of international and regional politics, the notion of stripping the Israeli Jews from their national identity and right for self-determination, while asking them to recognize a national Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and a national Palestinian minority group inside the green Line will not do.
Assuming that a final just and satisfactory solution for all is not at sight in our generation – alternative intermediate mechanisms should be created to ease the tensions and constantly improve the status and conditions of the Palestinian citizens in Israel. A sincere dialogue that does not blame only one side and tries to reach a compromise should be established in the highest levels. It should look for a clear definition and understanding of the meaning and long-term implications of "collective rights", "a state of all its citizens" and "autonomy". It is certainly the responsibility of the powerful side and the strong majority to initiate confidence-building measures and start a sincere process of change, but an equal demand from the minority to respect and recognize the majority's rights and aspirations is needed as well.