Sunaina Maira, Siliconeer, Mar 13, 2006
This summer, I visited Israel for the first time, and I encountered things that were disturbing as well as inspiring. For two months, I lived in a village that was inhabited entirely by Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship and are living on ancestral land that was occupied by Jewish settlers in 1948 when the state of Israel was created. There are 1.2 million Palestinians who live inside the borders of Israel, comprising 19 percent of the Israeli population, in addition to the 3.25 million Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and whose situation is often not as widely discussed. I had actually visited the West Bank the previous year, in the summer of 2004, to see for myself what life in Palestine was really like. As someone who grew up in India, I had recollections of seeing photographs of Yasser Arafat smiling warmly with Indira Gandhi on his visit to India. India was the first non-Arab state to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians and there was a Palestinian embassy in New Delhi in 1988. I had always recognized Palestine as a nation that was struggling against Western colonization and I wanted to visit the West Bank to learn more about what the reality was like on the ground.
Visiting Palestine was an amazing experience. On the one hand, I knew that there were checkpoints on the roads that Palestinians had to use, that were different from the Israeli settler roads, and that Palestinians trying to go to work or school were held up at the checkpoints or had to take dusty detours through fields if the roads were blocked, missing appointments, exams, or court dates. It was very hot in July, and I had to sit in sweltering heat in the service-taxis with other Palestinians going to Ramallah or Bethlehem or Jerusalem, as people were subjected to frustrating and humiliating searches and interrogation. I was struck by how calm and focused people were on trying to live their daily lives in the face of the checkpoints, road closures, and the ever-expanding Israeli wall slicing through their land. I knew about the wall that was being built to segregate Palestinian villages and towns from Israeli areas, and saw how it had annexed Palestinian land in many areas where it was built not on the 1967 border, but inside Palestinian territory. There are many cases where people are cut off from their farmlands and source of livelihood because of the wall, and travel in and out of towns encircled by the wall, such as Bethlehem or Jenin, is increasingly difficult. The segregation and racism of the Israeli occupation are visible in the West Bank.
But what I didn’t know was that Palestine would be so culturally familiar to me as a South Asian and that the hospitality and warmth of all the people I met would be so overwhelming. Given the conditions of hardship and frustration that Palestinians in the West Bank face daily, their generosity and helpfulness was even more striking. People went out of their way to walk me through checkpoints, to help carry my bags, to invite me to their houses, to share their meals with me in the midst of their daily battles for survival. I think that this is the other face of Palestine that doesn’t often get talked about, and the warm and open welcome I received made me feel right at home.
This past summer, when I visited a Palestinian village inside Israel, I was struck by something else, for I realized that Palestinian Israelis live in a society with invisible walls and checkpoints, in addition to real fences and gates. There was no concrete wall around the village of Kafr Yasif, in Galilee in northern Israel where I was staying. Yet it was clearly a segregated Palestinian village in a segregated society, for the residents were entirely Palestinian — Muslim and Christian — as is the case in other Palestinian towns and villages where there are no Jewish residents. There are towns and cities that have both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, but the Arab quarter is segregated from the Jewish neighborhoods. The Jewish Israeli towns are clean, well-kept, with wide new roads and lovely gardens; in fact, many of them would put American suburbs or gated communities here to shame. Many Jewish towns and kibbutzim are built on confiscated Palestinian land or on destroyed villages, where the original residents are not legally allowed to return. Palestinian villages and towns, in stark contrast, have narrow roads, few social services, and meager recreational facilities for they are underfunded by the central government. Kafr Yasif, to me, was much more similar to poor towns in India than to Jewish towns or settlements next door in Israel. There were no parks, playgrounds, or libraries for young people, who ended up hanging out in the streets.
Palestinians in Israel do not have the same access to housing, employment, education, and social services through policies that discriminate against them directly and indirectly. They also face racism and cultural stereotyping in the media and everyday discourse that perpetuates this state-sanctioned discrimination and inequality, even if there are individual Jews and progressive segments of Israeli society who would like to live in a society based on equality. As an organizer of a leadership training program for Palestinian Israeli youth told me, Palestinian youth are made to feel “not just that they are second-class citizens but they are second-class human beings,” that their lives and dreams and futures do not matter and are worth less than others’ lives.
Apartheid in Israel is not publicly acknowledged so it is a complex issue to describe. However, the basis of apartheid is enshrined in Israeli law, for full citizenship in Israel is only for “Jewish citizens” and Palestinians do not have claims to the rights of full citizenship afforded to Jewish Israelis, even though they are living on their own land. The paradox is that Palestinian Israelis are citizens without citizenship. This is the painful contradiction of apartheid. One young man at a youth center in Nazareth said, he recognized it would be difficult “to change the situation of living with Jews” but that he and others in his generation wanted was to find “national autonomy, culturally and politically, and to control our own destiny.” He said, “I want others to know that I am Palestinian, that my grandfather was Palestinian, the land was Palestinian before they came here, it didn’t belong to them.”
Loving India, Hating Palestinians
I also realized while living and traveling in Israel that the reality of colonization is difficult for Israelis to acknowledge on a daily basis. Most people are not born to hate or dominate, and so the truth of what was done to the native inhabitants of the land and their rich and ancient history is suppressed and denied. Textbooks in the state-run schools present history from the Jewish Israeli perspective. One young Palestinian Israeli woman said, “When we go through education in Israel and we open the textbooks, what we see is nothing about our own identity or our culture.” Here and there, however, one notices the melancholy remains of destroyed Palestinian villages dotting the land, an archway of what was once a home or a lonely minaret or church dome rising above fields and olive trees. These are poignant traces that have not been completely erased of the Palestinians who have lived here for centuries, contrary to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s statement that Israel was a land without people for people without a land. The Palestinians did not simply disappear from the land, as some Zionists had hoped. Their efforts to fight for equality and representation in Israel and their ongoing struggle in the occupied territories expose the myth that Israel is the “only democracy” in the Middle East.
There is also a struggle in
Israel on the cultural terrain of colonization as well. While denying the history and culture of Palestinians, and portraying them as backward, irrational, fanatical, violent, and untrustworthy, Jewish Israelis have adopted Palestinian and Arab food, music, and clothing as their own. Ironically, Israeli restaurants now claim that falafel, a typical Arab dish from the region, is an “Israeli national food.” As a Palestinian woman from Haifa said, “They have stolen our culture, not just our land.” Knowing the history of British colonization in India and elsewhere, I recognized this as a typical practice of the colonizers, who take from the colonized elements of their culture what they find appealing and claim it as their own. There is always cultural exchange and borrowing between communities, of course, but the difference in the case of Israel is that it is a colonial power appropriating the culture of the natives who were displaced and dispossessed. It is also a country that was invented as a home for people who chose not to live with the natives as equals, but to dominate them as a community with special rights and with a presumably superior, “Western” culture.
So it was strange for me to find that while there is a very overtly expressed racism against Palestinians and pervasive denigration of Arabs that is both spoken and unspoken, there also seems to be a popular Israeli fascination with India. Israeli stores were full of Indian clothes, shoes, furnishings, and artifacts. Boutiques had flamboyant kurta-style shirts made in India but sold by Israeli fashion labels for a hundred dollars. Indian culture was trendy. Restaurants carried “masala chai” and bookstores had books on Indian religion and mysticism.
A Jewish-owned store that I visited in Haifa sold colorful curtains, pillowcases, and other home furnishings that they were now producing in Bombay and Delhi. Palestinian-owned cafes and stores were also likely to have an Indian-inspired theme, but they were generally not involved in business or outsourcing ventures themselves because they do not have the financial resources of Israeli entrepreneurs.
Indo-chic in Israel mirrors the fashionability of Indian style in the U.S., and I found that even the street markets that sold discounted clothes and shoes carried exactly the same Indian-inspired items that are being sold in American stores.
But Indo-chic in Israel is also partly due to a confluence of political and cultural currents that are specifically about Israel, and its new friendship with India.
There are two main developments that underlie the emergence of Indo-chic in Israel. One is the Oslo accords of 1993 that led to a normalization of diplomatic and economic ties with Israel for many countries. This facilitated relationships with countries such as India that had opened its markets to foreign trade after economic liberalization, which the Israeli business sector has been quick to capitalize on in its search for cheap commodities and labor. India’s non-military trade with Israel was $1.27 billion in 2002, a six-fold increase over the previous decade, and India is now Israel’s second-largest trading partner in Asia.
The second important historical shift is that India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. The Bharatiya Janata Party government deepened the military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries that had already been in place, but covertly, since the 1950s. By 2004, Israel had become India’s largest arms supplier, and India emerged as Israel’s biggest arms market.
Underlying this new alliance is a deeper issue of ideology and political orientation in the current moment. India and Israel have begun to emphasize a common enemy in their respective “anti-terrorism” operations which were framed by both nations as a battle against “Islamic militants,” a framework that gained global currency with Bush’s launching of the War on Terrorism. India and Israel’s new honeymoon reversed India’s historical stand of support for the Palestinians who were still living under occupation and apartheid and ignored India’s own experience with colonization. Despite some criticism of this new India-Israel axis and symbolic gestures toward the Palestinian Authority, the United Progressive Alliance government has continued the policy of strengthening ties with Israel. This is despite the fact that Israel continues to maintain its military, political, and economic stranglehold on Palestinians who still do not live in a fully sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, or in a truly democratic nation in Israel.
At the same time as the alliance between India-U.S.-Israel formed a new political triangle, a parallel development has occurred in the U.S. Hindu right-wing groups, such as the Indian American Political Action Committee and the Hindu American Foundation, linked to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad America and overseas branches of the RSS, have forged alliances with powerful pro-Israel lobby groups such as the American Israel Political Action Committee and the American Jewish Committee. Hindutva groups are meeting Zionist organizations to learn about strategies to advance religious nationalist agendas and suppress any criticism of their political movements. These U.S.-based groups have helped strengthen India-Israel ties and propagate the notion that Hindu and Jewish Americans are victims of a common enemy defined as “Islamic terrorism,” for example, through organizations such as Democracies against Terror which is an alliance of Zionist and Hindutva activists based in Fremont, Calif.
Yet as these links were being forged in the U.S., Indian Americans, and South Asian Americans more generally, have had similar experiences of racial profiling and anti-immigrant sentiment with Arab Americans and other immigrant groups, especially after 9/11. The “war on terrorism” has targeted South Asian, Muslim, and Arab Americans as automatic suspects and potential terrorists. Experiences of FBI surveillance, detention, deportation, and discrimination in airports, workplaces, schools, and public spaces have persisted well beyond 9/11. As these communities continue to be targeted in the U.S., Indian and South Asian Americans need to find common cause with Arab Americans and other minority groups to fight for our civil rights, instead of embarking on a campaign based on racist and exclusionary ideas. Clearly, there is a need for all communities to live in peace and security, but this will not happen by ignoring or denying the right of people to freedom and human rights.
At the same time as I was grappling with the politics of hate spanning three continents — in the U.S., Israel, and India — I also puzzled at the curious place that India had in the imagination of many Israelis. In many instances, it seemed that India represented a land of spirituality and exoticism, much as it does in the West generally. One Israeli store-owner in Haifa commented, “Israelis love the Eastern style.” But the New Age fascination with India in Israeli culture plays a somewhat different role than it does in the U.S. or Europe. For one thing, Israel is a nation that is in the East, technically, but the culture of the nation created by Jewish settlers is not Eastern. Most of the Jewish settlers in Israel were Ashkenazis from Eastern Europe, and while there have been later arrivals from Russia, Africa, and the Arab world, Israeli Jewish culture remains a blend that is primarily European and American with Arab and African culture remaining marginal,. I wondered if the turn to India is an attempt to create an Eastern culture for a nation that was created by European minds but carved out of Arab soil.
The second, equally ironic but even more troubling, distinction of Israel’s Indo-chic is that it fetishizes an image of pacifism in a cultu
re that is overwhelmingly militarized. I was struck from the moment I stepped out of the Palestinian village at the overwhelming presence of Israeli soldiers. On sidewalks, at bus stops, sitting in cafes, lounging by the beach — everywhere I turned, there were soldiers standing, talking, strolling, and all carrying arms.
I was reminded, however, that even those Israelis not wearing military uniform were would-be soldiers or had-been soldiers, for by law, all Israeli men as well as women have to do two to three years of military service when they turn eighteen.
The distinction between civilians and soldiers is blurred in Israel, and militarism penetrates every corner of public space.
Israelis travel to India to relax after doing their reserve duty since the 1990s when many young Israelis began flocking to Goa to do drugs and dance at raves on the beach. An Indian friend who has traveled and hitchhiked extensively in India said that she saw an increasing numbers of young Israelis traveling and doing drugs in India and Nepal.
The famous camel fair at Pushkar in Rajasthan, already a popular destination for Western tourists seeking experiences of the “exotic,” has become flooded with signs in Hebrew and with marijuana smoke. Many of these Israeli nirvana-seekers overdosed on drugs and the Israeli government set up detoxification programs for them in India, recognizing that this was becoming a serious problem.
On my last trip to India in 2005, I noticed groups of young Israeli tourists dressed in neo-hippie garb. At Delhi airport, an Israeli woman held up a portrait of her son, proudly explaining to other passengers that he was a soldier who was now living and traveling in India.
What does it mean for India to be the place where Israeli soldiers can overdose and detox and find nirvana for cheap? Have we sold out in supporting the Israeli military and economy through trade, arms deals, and intelligence cooperation? It is true, of course, that not all Israelis are going to India to do drugs such as ecstasy or find nirvana after serving in the army and that India cannot, and should not, police motivations for tourism. However, the larger picture is one in which India is now supporting and enabling the Israeli military occupation, directly and indirectly, and where Israeli soldiers are a much more common sight in Delhi than the Palestinian refugee students of yesteryear.
That past era of Indian-Palestinian connection is one that many Palestinian Israelis I spoke to remembered fondly. Everyone in Kafr Yasif, and all the other Palestinians I met whether inside Israel or in the West Bank, were universally thrilled to know that I was Indian. Palestinians expressed a very different relationship to India than the Israelis I met. Some would begin singing riffs from Hindi film songs, while others would murmur reverently, “Amitabh Bachchan,” “Zeenat Aman,” or “Shashi Kapoor.” Indian films were very popular in Palestine, as is commonly the case in the Middle East and North Africa, and many had grown up on a diet of Bollywood movies. They spoke of admiring Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s because they saw him as the common man’s hero, fighting against corruption, injustice, and class inequity. Many also related to the themes of family, loyalty, and honor, and to a cultural and social milieu that was much more recognizable to them than the world portrayed in Hollywood. The cultural recognition between Palestine and India is a mutual one. There was also a generation of Palestinians whose eyes would light up when they heard where I was from, and who would ask me about Indira Gandhi, and particularly, Jawaharlal Nehru. For these older Palestinians, Nehru symbolized Third World solidarity with decolonization struggles, including their own, and the alliance with Egyptian nationalist hero, Gamal Abdul Nasser, during the Non-Aligned Movement of the 1950s. This was a time when countries such as India, Egypt, and Indonesia came together at the Bandung conference of 1955 to oppose Western colonialism and strengthen cultural, economic, and political ties in the face of Cold War polarization.
Back to the U.S.A.
The world of Arafat and Gandhi, Nehru and Amitabh — at least the hero in bellbottoms — no longer exists. It is a different moment in history, and we cannot indulge in nostalgia for a very different political time. The question for me, as I drove to the airport in Tel Aviv on my way back to the U.S., was rather: what kind of role India is hoping to play on the world stage and what principles are we going to represent? Are we going to be a beacon of principled support for sovereignty and democracy, and recognize other anti-colonial struggles in a different time and place as echoing our own fight for independence from colonization? Are we going to publicly oppose Israeli apartheid and try to support Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza or reach out to Palestinians inside Israel through economic, political, or educational exchange? In the U.S., are we going to see in the targeting of South Asian, Arab, and Muslim Americans a common cause for civil rights, or are we going to join forces with movements that want to expand the targeting of communities based on racist cultural assumptions and denial of humanity?
When I returned to the U.S., I was struck by how much it increasingly reminded me of Israel every time I went through security checkpoints at American airports.
But there are also moments when I go to a film about Palestine or Iraq, or to a meeting to discuss immigrant rights in the U.S., and someone from the region will ask me if I have seen the latest Hindi movie or if Indians care about what is happening to the Arabs, here and there. That is when I realize that even though I went to Israel, I discovered Palestine and found India, and that both will hopefully find their way to each other again in a time of war and occupation.
Sunaina Maira is associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Davis and author of ‘Desis in the House:Indian American Youth Culture in New York City.’