Israel’s Arabs, living a paradox
Ethnic minority resent Judaism but value nation’s economic opportunities
Can Arabs, who make up one-fifth of Israel’s population, be loyal citizens of the Jewish state? With this question in mind, I recently visited several Arab-inhabited regions of Israel (Jaffa, Baqa al-gharbiya, Umm al-fahm, Haifa, Acre, Nazareth, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem) and talked with mainstream Arab and Jewish Israelis.
I found most Arabic-speaking citizens to be intensely conflicted about living in a Jewish polity. On the one hand, they resent Judaism as the country’s privileged religion, the Law of Return that permits only Jews to immigrate at will, Hebrew as the primary language of state, the Star of David in the flag, and mention of the “Jewish soul” in the anthem. On the other hand, they appreciate the country’s economic success, standard of health care, rule of law and functioning democracy.
These conflicts find many expressions. The small, uneducated and defeated Israeli Arab population of 1949 has grown tenfold, acquired modern skills and recovered its confidence. Some from this community have acquired positions of prestige and responsibility, including Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, former ambassador Ali Yahya, former government minister Raleb Majadele and journalist Khaled Abu Toameh.
But these assimilated few pale beside the discontented masses who identify with Land Day, Nakba Day and the Future Vision report. Revealingly, most Israeli-arab parliamentarians, such as Ahmed Tibi and Haneen Zuabi, are hotheads spewing rank anti-zionism. Israeli Arabs have increasingly resorted to violence against their Jewish co-nationals.
Indeed, Israeli Arabs live two paradoxes. Although they suffer discrimination within Israel, they enjoy more rights and greater stability than any Arab populace living in their own sovereign countries (think Egypt or Syria). Second, they hold citizenship in a country that their fellow Arabs malign and threaten with annihilation.
My conversations in Israel led me to conclude that these complexities impede robust discussion, by Jews and Arabs alike, of the full implications of Israeli Arabs’ anomalous existence. Extremist parliamentarians and violent youth get dismissed as an unrepresentative fringe. Instead, one hears that if only Israeli Arabs received more respect and more municipal aid from the central government, current discontents would be eased; that one must distinguish between the “good” Arabs of Israel and the “bad” Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza; and a warning that Israeli Arabs will metastasize into Palestinians unless Israel treats them better.
My interlocutors generally brushed aside questions about Islam. It almost felt impolite to mention the Islamic imperative that Muslims (who make up 84 percent of the Israeli Arab population) rule themselves. Discussing the Islamic drive for application of Islamic law drew blank looks and a shift to more immediate topics.
This avoidance reminded me of Turkey before 2002, when mainstream Turks assumed that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s revolution was permanent and assumed Islamists would remain a fringe phenomenon. They proved very wrong. In the decade after Islamists democratically rode to power in late 2002, the elected government steadily applied more Islamic laws and built a neo-ottoman regional power.
I predict a similar evolution in Israel, as Israeli-arab paradoxes grow more acute. Muslim citizens of Israel will continue to grow in numbers, skills and confidence, becoming simultaneously more integral to the country’s life and more ambitious to throw off Jewish sovereignty. This suggests that as Israel overcomes external threats, Israeli Arabs will emerge as an ever-greater concern. Indeed, I predict they represent the ultimate obstacle to establishing the Jewish homeland anticipated by Theodor Herzl and Lord Balfour.
What can be done? Lebanon’s Christians lost power because they incorporated too many Muslims and became too small a proportion of the country’s population to rule it. Recalling this lesson, Israel’s identity and security require minimizing the number of Arab citizens — not by reducing their democratic rights, much less by deporting them, but by such steps as adjusting Israel’s borders, building fences along the frontiers, implementing stringent family reunification policies, changing pronatalist policies, and carefully scrutinizing refugee applications.
Ironically, the greatest impediment to these actions will be that most Israeli Arabs emphatically wish to remain disloyal citizens of the Jewish state (as opposed to loyal citizens of a Palestinian state). Furthermore, many other Middle Eastern Muslims aspire to become Israelis. These preferences, I predict, will stymie the government of Israel, which will not develop adequate responses, thereby turning today’s relative quiet into tomorrow’s crisis.
As author Kathleen Riley makes clear in her well-researched and captivating dual biography, the book’s title may say “Fred & Adele,” but it is Adele Astaire’s name that should come first. Yes, during their dancing partnership Fred was never anything less than marvelous. He received well-deserved accolades not only for his inspired dancing, but for his fine singing (“with a mere semblance of a voice” said one admiring critic) and comedic acting as well. But ever since childhood, when they first formed the act that would someday make them a theatrical phenomenon, it was big sister Adele (two years, eight months older than Fred) who was the star, the one audiences paid to see and critics were eager to praise.
She was cute, and her dancing was easily as good as Fred’s, but it was her indefinable but undeniable star quality, her “dare-devil spontaneity,” “careless exuberance” and “intuitive” and “improvisatory” artistry, that made her a sensation. Fred was a workhorse, practicing routines for long hours, always thinking of how the act could be improved.
Adele learned the routine, cracked a joke, went onstage and just did it. She gave the audience savvy, sassy, show-biz pizzazz and they ate it up. We all know how great a performer Fred was because we have seen his movies. But since Adele never made a movie, it might be useful to quote some of her adoring critics:
“[She is] a figure come out of Degas to a galloping ragtime tune . . . [she] has willfully wandered into the absurd world of musical comedy, but you feel it is not her natural element. She should be dancing by glowworm light under entranced trees on a midsummer eve with a rout of elves, after drinking rose-dew.”
Ah, they don’t write reviews like that any more. Although Ms. Riley does not say so, Adele must have been like Louis Armstrong, another embodiment of the Jazz Age. Both figures entertained not only by great virtuosity but with an infectious spirit of pure joy.
If there is anything Ms. Riley, an Oxford-educated classical scholar and modern theater historian, does not know about the Astaires, it is probably not worth knowing. They were born in Omaha to Fritz Austerlitz, an Austrian immigrant who had unfulfilled dreams of success, and his wife, Johanna, known as Anna, an independentminded woman whose love and guidance helped her children over many career rough spots. (She also chose their stage name.)
The book follows their progress: precocious talent, enhanced by good dance teachers, leading to a child’s act in vaudeville (but not as headliners), Broadway, and then, from 1923 to 1933, an unprecedented series of theatrical triumphs, including three hit shows written for them by their friends George and Ira Gershwin.
Broadway audiences admired them, and London audiences positively adored them with irrational exuberance. They became friends with the Prince of Wales, hobnobbed with the upper crust, and enjoyed every aristocratic minute of it. They had a few setbacks along the way, but their career was one in which every theatrical cliche applied: They were the toast of two continents, they were a class act, they stole the show, and they made it all look easy.
This is usually the point in a review in which the critic goes into the “and yet” mode. It goes something like this: “And yet, despite their success, there was a dark side to their relationship, with bitter sibling rivalry and terrible family secrets tormenting them.” But nothing of the sort happened. They had spats, especially about Fred’s choice of women, but they loved each other, believed in each other, worked well together, enjoyed their success with undisguised glee, and were, in the slang of the 1920s, as happy as clams.
In 1933, Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and left show business. Some critics felt that Fred, without Adele, would be less than great. They were, as we know, wrong. He brought with him to the movies that same spirit of joy that his sister fairly radiated onstage.
Speaking of joy, entertainment today, in every medium, has many qualities to commend it: excitement, creativity, shock value (if that is what you like), high standards of professionalism, trenchant criticism of social ills and a variety of outlets for artistic endeavors. But what is lacking is the sense of joy the Astaires brought to their work, that fine, careless rapture that blesses us with its presence, a secular form of grace.
Today, we are offered a superabundance of anger and seriousness of purpose, and many of our entertainers have talent to burn. But if you want sheer joy these days, you have to rent or buy a DVD of, say, “Top Hat” or “Shall We Dance” or “Swing Time,” watch Fred and Ginger dance, and once again, find you are surprised by joy, as audiences once were by Adele and Fred.