Are There Israeli Palestinians?

On Language

By Philologos

Published March 21, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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We may be through with my columns on “Arab Jews,” but not with some of the issues raised by them. Here’s a letter from Marjorie Stamm Rosenfeld of Carlsbad, Calif.:

“I have another, similar conundrum. A pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel lady with whom I wasted several months in fruitless correspondence referred in one of her communications to ‘Israeli Palestinians.’ I found this term very confusing but finally figured she meant Israeli Arabs and said so in my reply. She chided me, saying that I certainly must know very well what she meant — and of course, what she meant was Israeli Arabs.

“I have since seen the term ‘Israeli Palestinians’ in Alan Dershowitz’s book ‘The Case for Israel.’ Am I wrong in feeling that this is simply a confusing way of describing Israeli Arabs? After all, before 1948 everyone who lived in Palestine was a Palestinian, including Jews. I would think that one could now properly speak of ‘Israelis who were once Palestinians’ and ‘Palestinians who have not become Israelis,’ but to combine the two in the term ‘Israeli Palestinian’ makes me say, ‘Huh?’ I’d appreciate hearing your opinion on this.”

I must say that the question of “Arab Jews” seems to me simple compared with that of “Israeli Arabs” vs. “Israeli Palestinians.” In part, this is because these are only two of numerous terms currently competing for the designation of Israel’s Arab population. Some of the others are “Arab Israelis,” “Arab-Israelis,” “Arabs in Israel,” “Palestinians in Israel” and “Arab citizens of Israel,” as well as various combinations and permutations of the above. Each has its own political and sociological nuances. Here is a brief guide to them:

“Israeli Arabs.” The term preferred by Ms. Rosenfeld, this is also the term generally used by the media, the Israeli establishment and most Israeli Jews. Complicating its use in English, however, is the fact that “Israeli Arabs” in Hebrew can be either aravim yisra’elim or arvi’yei yisra’el, and that the second of these is also translatable as “the Arabs of Israel.”

“Arab Israelis.” The difference between this and “Israeli Arabs” is much like the difference between “American Jews” and “Jewish Americans.” In both cases, the noun carries more weight than the adjective, so that just as “American Jew” suggests someone a bit more Jewish and less American than does “Jewish American,” so “Israeli Arab” puts greater stress on the Arab component of one’s identity than does “Arab Israeli.” For this reason, “Arab Israeli” is not a very popular term with either Israeli Jews or Israeli Arabs, since it emphasizes the Israeli-ness of Israel’s Arab population more than either side feels is justified by the reality.

“Arab-Israelis.” A recent coinage, this is an attempt to create a balanced, hyphenated identity, halfway between “Israeli Arabs” and “Arab Israelis,” on the model of “African-American.” So far, it has not been adopted widely.

“Israeli Palestinians.” This is a term that has been gaining increasing currency among Israel’s Arab citizens. It emphasizes that they are part of the same Palestinian people as are Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens, and thus it is expressive of Palestinian nationalist feelings. For this reason, Israeli Jews tend to dislike it.

“Arabs in Israel,” “Palestinians in Israel,” “Arab citizens of Israel,” etc. These are still more extreme formulations favored by the most radical, anti-Israel elements in Israeli Arab society. All imply that Israel’s Arab population does not identify with Israel in any way and that it has no other connection to Israel other than living in it. When, last December, the Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel published a manifesto calling for Israel’s formal de-Judaization, the work’s title, “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” was in line with its approach. Until Israel ceases to define itself as a Jewish state, this title conveyed, its Arabs will never feel part of it.

I quite agree with Ms. Rosenfeld that all this is confusing, especially since none of these terms, as far as I can make out, is used entirely consistently even by those espousing the nuance expressed by it: I have come across “Israeli Arabs” in extreme anti-Israel statements, and I have heard “Arabs in Israel” in perfectly moderate contexts. But be that as it may, I don’t share the aversion of Ms. Rosenfeld and others to “Israeli Palestinians.” It is true that Jews born or living in British Mandate Palestine sometimes referred to themselves as Palestinians too, but this stopped on the day that the State of Israel was declared, and if the Arabs living in Israel today feel that they are part of the Palestinian Arab people and wish to be called “Israeli Palestinians,” I see no reason to object. It’s no different from “Turkish Kurds” (as opposed to the Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan) or “French Basques” (as opposed to the Basques living in the Basque country of Spain). True, it can be interpreted as having separatist implications, but you can’t fight separatism with terminology. Whether Israeli Palestinians will one day come to feel that they are Palestinian Israelis will depend on a lot more than the words they’re called by.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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