“You have to pick those lemons right away. Otherwise the Arabs will get them!”
That urgent warning came from my neighbor across the fence here in Rehovot, a city in central Israel. It’s her lemon tree, but since half of it extends over my property, the lemons on that part are mine. Across the alley, a new house is going up, and the construction workers are mostly Palestinians from the Ramallah area in the West Bank.
Hence the warning.
That’s part of the reality of Israel today—Jewish mistrust and hatred toward Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular, and Arab and Palestinian mistrust toward Jews in general and Israelis in particular.
About 2 million of Israel’s nearly 9 million citizens are Arabs. So are about 4 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza, the ones known as Palestinians. It’s an artificial but real distinction. Israeli Arabs are the ones who live within the area that’s been Israel since 1948. Palestinians live in the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war (Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005).
The two groups are culturally the same. Most families have members on both sides of the old cease-fire line that marks off the West Bank. My neighbor doesn’t distinguish, either—to her, they’re all Arabs.
Indeed, there are tensions between the two peoples who make up almost all the population. That’s evident from my neighbor’s warning.
There’s also evidence that these tensions don’t mean as much as we think. Not that there’s deep, heartfelt cross-cultural friendship—people just get along when they casually interact.
Take that building going up across the alley. The Palestinian workers are friendly guys, ranging in age from about 20 to 50. All of them speak some Hebrew, some of them are fluent. They’re using electricity and water from my house, since they don’t have utility hookups over there yet (the owner, who’s Jewish, is paying me for the water and electricity, don’t worry).
So we’re in frequent contact. Beyond the usual “Good morning, how are you,” sometimes we talk because they shorted something out over there, and I have to go turn my circuit breaker back on. Sometimes they block the entrance to my house and I have to ask them to move their vehicles. I lend them tools from time to time, and once I lent a worker a charger for his phone.
Once when their cement truck was blocking our entrance, a worker jumped down from the building and helped my wife carry her groceries into our house. Another time a worker carried our 4-year-old granddaughter over a pile of construction materials.
The workers are amused and surprised when I try out my limited Arabic on them. I lived and worked in Cairo for two years during Arab Spring, and I remember a bit—but by and large, their Hebrew is much better than my Arabic.
So these are the Arabs I’m supposed to protect my lemons from. It’s a regrettable attitude, and it’s fairly common among Israelis whose family origins are in the Arab world. Their parents suffered there, and most escaped or were expelled.
So does the fact that I have an easy relationship with the guys across the alley make me some kind of special case, a hero of coexistence? Not at all.
The more we Jews and Arabs interact, the less the tension. One example of such a setting is the Ramla shuk.
Ramla is a working class town about 15 minutes up the highway from my house. I’ve been going to the open-air market, the shuk, in Ramla every week for more than 20 years—except for the two years I was in Cairo, of course. And just as parts of Cairo reminded me of the Ramla shuk, so now the Ramla shuk gives me warm memories of Cairo.
Ramla is a mixed Arab-Jewish town. There are Jewish areas and Arab areas, and some mixing along the informal neighborhood lines. And everybody goes to the shuk.
You’ll hear Arabic and Hebrew from stall to stall, among the shopkeepers and customers alike. A woman in a black headscarf asks how much the tomatoes cost, but the shopkeeper doesn’t hear her, so I answer her in Arabic, and nobody bats an eyelash. I’m buying cucumbers at a stand where the shopkeeper is speaking to a woman in Arabic, so I try my hand at it, too—he’s delighted, answers me in Arabic, and then switches to Hebrew to say with a smile, “I’m a Jew, you know.”
Everybody gets along at the Ramla shuk. It’s not a demonstration, it’s not a highly organized meeting of Jewish and Arab peacemakers hugging each other for the cameras. It’s just everyday life.
I’m not going to pretend that everything is rosy in Ramla. Ramla is a poor town, and the Arab residents, Israeli citizens like their Jewish counterparts, are measurably worse off economically. A rundown Arab neighborhood, Jawarish, is known for drugs and weapons. A new neighborhood with shiny apartment buildings just across the highway from Jawarish is, as far as I know, entirely Jewish.
So the seeds of tension that often boil over into violence in the nearby West Bank should theoretically be present in Ramla—but I know of only one terrorist-related incident there in the two decades I’ve been in and out of Ramla—last year a young Arab girl tried to stab someone with a knife. She was captured, no one was hurt. That’s it.
So what’s the difference? Easy. Israeli Arabs have a state. It might not be their state, but it’s a functioning state. They have a welfare safety net, municipal services, education—perhaps not on the same level as their Jewish neighbors, but they have them. Their Palestinian relatives a few miles away in the West Bank can’t count on any of those things, despite the billions of dollars in foreign aid their leadership has received over the past 25 years, much of it aimed at infrastructure projects that often seem to progress only as far as the pilot stage.
But even Palestinians are not all militants, much less terrorists. Most of them just want to make a living, just like most Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Egyptians. Important as they are, political goals and dreams are not the top priority for most.
That’s not to say that Israel has solved the problems of its Arab citizens. My first radio feature in Israel, in 1972, was about Israeli Arabs. Their municipalities got less government funding than Jewish cities, their standard of living was lower, they were unable to build enough housing to keep up with demand. I said it was a powder keg waiting for a match. And sure enough, it has exploded a couple of times.
Things are better today, but not much. Arab towns are still at the top of the list when it comes to unemployment, and at the bottom of the lists when it comes to income and education. So this is not the time for us Jewish Israelis to sit back and smirk with satisfaction.
And it is undeniable that many Israelis share the animosity expressed so graphically by my neighbor. She learned it from her parents, who were refugees from Arab countries. My parents were refugees, too, and I have as little as possible to do with Germans as a result. So I get it.
But we don’t have to live with Germans here. We do have to live with Arabs. So while I chose not to argue with my Israeli neighbor, I did tell the Palestinian foreman across the alley that the kumquat tree on my property, right across from their construction project, is all theirs for the picking. He lit up. “We make jam from kumquats,” he said, after I helped him with the word for “jam” in Hebrew.
I hope they’ll harvest all of the kumquats. And I hope I don’t get a hysterical call from my neighbor, warning that “the Arabs are taking your kumquats.” Because then I’ll have no choice but to set her straight.
Mark Lavie has been covering Israel and the Mideast for major news outlets since 1972. His second book– “Why Are We Still Afraid?”– is nearing completion