/ articles for review

Rawnak Natour: Arab Identity in Israel (2016 HART Talk)

Ask me what my identity is, and you will receive a multifaceted answer: I am a Palestinian, I am an Arab, I am a woman. I am a citizen of Israel, a member of the minority, a native of this land - my homeland.

(Adapted from Rawnak Natour’s July 4, 2016, “HART Talk,” to the Community Leadership Program Summer Retreat). Watch the video below


Rawnak Natour is co-executive director of Sikkuy , the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality. She was born in Kalanswa and received a BA in community social work and an MA in early childhood education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Ask me what my identity is, and you will receive a multifaceted answer: I am a Palestinian, I am an Arab, I am a woman. I am a citizen of Israel, a member of the minority, a native of this land – my homeland. And I was for 12 years an immigrant in Denmark, until a year ago, when I decided to return.

I came back to take a leading role in the effort to promote equality for the Arab citizens of Israel, and to build a shared society with our fellow Jewish citizens. Being Arab is about speaking Arabic, a language that despite its official status in Israel, has been pushed to a small corner. Not only for me, but also for the Jews who have immigrated from Arab speaking countries.

Arabic is marked as the language of the enemy. It is studied in the Jewish sector as part of the preparation for an IDF service in the intelligence force. Its existence in the public sphere is a constant struggle, erased by vandalism, marginalized, and hidden by the authorities.

Being Arab also means being part of the Arab world. But growing up in Israel, this was a challenge: the sources of information about the Arab world in a pre-internet era, were very limited, and controlled by the state: Israeli Radio in Arabic – Kol Israel B’Aravit – and Friday afternoon Egyptian movies. At school we studied about the Arab world, but through the eyes of Jewish-Israelis, where Arab countries are perceived as our enemies, defeated time and time again at wars.

The message that came across was that this is not an identity worth having.

I am part of the largest minority in Israel – nearly 20% of the citizens. We, the Arabs citizens of Israel, are not only a minority, we are a minority that has been discriminated against, and that too is part of who I am.

I grew up in the village of Kalanswa, only 16 kilometers from Netanya. I remember that even as a child I began noticing the gaps: the dirty streets in Kalanswa, the lack of infrastructure and services, compared to Netanya, which was clean, and modern, and had all the facilities.

In retrospect, I know that these memories have had an impact on my professional choices: working for social change and advocating for closing the gaps between the Arab society and the Jewish one.

I am a Palestinian; I am part of the Palestinian people.

We lived here prior to 1948, and my family had close ties with the city of Tul Karem. In fact, I still have relatives there today. Only five kilometers away from Kalanswa, the border that was put in place after the 1948 war, was artificial in our eyes, and tore apart families and communities that couldn’t meet or unite for decades.

My Palestinian identity developed as part of my political awakening. As a student at the Hebrew University, I began putting together the pieces of the larger picture, the context in which we live. The origins of the discrimination, the military regime my parents lived under from 1948 to 1966, the occupation my family members across the Green Line live under to this day.

My Palestinian identity is first and foremost my connection to my people who lived in historic Palestine. But this identity comes with a price: punishment for identifying with the enemy. In the words of Member of Knesset Ayman Odeh, the Chair of the Arab Joint List: “My country is at war with my people.”

Yes, my identity includes an Israeli component. When I first moved to Europe, people would try to guess where I am from, based on my accent. Often they would guess Israel, and they were correct. Walking down the streets of Tel Aviv, I can easily blend in. But this aspect of my identity is always undermined, and I feel like I am forced to choose: Israeli or Palestinian.

If I choose to identify as a Palestinian, I am immediately perceived as an outsider to the Israeli collective, ousted and delegitimized. If I choose to identify as an Israeli, this choice is always looked at with a magnifying glass, always conditioned by the mainstream Jewish majority.

Am I loyal enough? Have I condoned every single one of the Palestinian acts of violence? Do I stand while the National Anthem is played? In other words, which parts of my Palestinian identity am I willing to give up, in order to be accepted as an Israeli, because in the current reality, the two are mutually exclusive.

I and my colleagues at Sikkuy do not accept these premises. We work together in a joint organization, managed and run by Jews and Arabs, to change these realities, which have become a burden on my personal identity, our community, and a barrier to society in Israel.

We work to advance civic equality for the Arab citizens of Israel, looking at two aspects. The first is equal distribution of material resources, focusing on the allocation of State budgets, provision of government services, and fair representation of Arabs in decision-making bodies.

We identify the barriers that stand in the way of equality, and make policy recommendations to remove those. We work with Arab local authorities and leadership to create bridges of collaboration with government ministries and change budgeting mechanisms, with the goal of closing the gaps created by years of discrimination.

The road is long and winding, but I’m pleased to report that this past December, on the next-to-last last day of 2015, the government voted in favor of what is known as the Economic Plan for the Arab Sector, or in its official name: Decision 922 .

In this groundbreaking decision, the government is working to change 15 budgeting mechanisms in a way which will ensure fair, and even affirmative action budgeting, to close the gaps in public transportation, housing and planning, welfare services and more. The motivation behind this decision is the understanding that without closing these gaps, the Arab citizens of Israel cannot integrate in the workforce, a reality that if continued will cause an economic crisis in the future.

The other aspect of our work relates closer to the topic of this talk: shared society. Equality is not only a matter of equal access or equal distribution of material resources. It is not only an issue of the individual rights of members of the minority. It is also about collective rights, and the ability of both communities Jewish and Arab to live here together in this shared homeland.

President Rivlin says that we are bound to live here together, and I say if so, we must build this shared society as a place where both identities can dwell side by side, safely. Where Arabic, my mother tongue, is present in the public sphere, my heritage and history are taught in schools, my culture and religion are acknowledged, and my narrative is respected.

Yes, even when this narrative conflicts or contradicts the narrative of the Jewish majority.

A shared society is where both communities feel at home, both communities feel that they are the ba’alei bayit (owners) of the public sphere, and both accept each other’s ownership of our home. This is my work, but it is not for me and my Jewish and Arab partners only. Your insight and partnership have a role in making this happen.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics