By PHILIPE ASSOULINE, TIMES OF ISRAEL—
I first met Boshra Khalaila in the Spring of 2010, at the Ministry of Public Diplomacy’s offices in Jerusalem. She was 24 at the time. Like me, she’d been alarmed by the public relations debacle that followed the Gaza flotilla incident and had somehow found her way to the Ministry’s hastily set-up Potemkin village of a situation room, to volunteer her time and do damage control, in Arabic.
I next saw her last January at the first preparatory meeting for the Faces of Israel program, which I have previously written about. She had again volunteered to defend her country and taken time off work to drive from Jerusalem, where she lives, to Tel Aviv for the preparatory sessions, a ritual she would have to repeat often. I was sent to California as part of that program. Boshra’s destination was South Africa — during Israel Apartheid Week.
In South Africa, she traveled to both Johannesburg and Cape Town, lecturing at four large university events that included a serious round of follow-up work — public discussions, five radio interviews, and a host of newspaper interviews.
Boshra, a secular, independent and patriotic Israeli Arab woman, defies stereotypes. She grew up in a liberal home in the Arab village of Deir Hana, in the Galilee. Her first contact with Jewish Israelis came at the age of 18, when she enrolled in Haifa University. There, she had to speak Hebrew for the first time. And it is there that she started to develop her political conscience and her attachment to the State of Israel.
“I am married and doing a master’s degree [in Tel Aviv]. I am a liberal, free woman, with all the rights that I could enjoy. I compare myself to other women my age in Jordan, the territories, Egypt, any Arab country. They don’t have the rights that I have: freedom of expression, the right to vote. They are forced into marriage at a young age, and religious head covering, despite their own convictions. With me it’s the opposite; I have everything.”
After returning from our mission, we sat down for an interview in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel. My first question was why she feels the need to speak up for Israel so publicly — something that most Jews don’t even feel compelled to do. She answered me in perfect Hebrew:
“To sacrifice from myself for the country that I live in and that gives me rights, that’s a natural price.”
Boshra was part of a team of five people, including another Israeli Arab and a Druze, who were sent to South Africa with Faces of Israel during Israel Apartheid Week. Like us, Boshra and her team had to deal with widespread ignorance about Israel, compounded by a campaign of demonization waged by pro-Palestinian students. Unlike us, she could counter the anti-Israel Middle Eastern students as an Arab herself, in Arabic.
“[The pro Palestinian students in Johannesburg] had built fake barriers and put up all kinds of slogans demonizing Israel and accusing it of Apartheid, of being a child murderer and the like. There were awful pictures, pictures with dead children, [it was] really terrible.”
Boshra and her team were generally not welcome. “They didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Israeli Arabs. They accused us of being Jews. Some people were hostile, they told us ‘get out,’ ‘we don’t want to hear from you.’ [Some] were even more unwilling to talk to me because I am Arab and was seen as a traitor, but this was only a small part of their group. Others, thankfully, came to listen; they were open-minded about it.”
Boshra and her team delivered a number of lectures, told their personal stories, dialogued with students and gave interviews. “You want to defend yourself from people that tell the world that [Jews and Arabs] travel on different buses and study at different schools and that there is segregation,” she said. “That just isn’t true: I study in same educational institutions, ride the same buses, shop in the same supermarkets. Everything that they say is absolutely false. And I do feel that I belong to my country.”
Hoping to give South Africans a glimpse of her everyday life as an Arab citizen of Israel, Boshra instead found herself publicly debating politics with a Palestinian PhD student from Gaza, in Arabic.
“This is what I told him in front of everyone; I spoke in Arabic, and I was translated: ‘I don’t enjoy it when soldiers attack and mothers and babies end up getting killed or injured. It’s hard. But the same is true for Netivot and Sderot, when Kassam rockets hit and, God forbid, someone is killed, it is very hard. On both sides there are mothers and it is hard. I want the Palestinian people to have a country. It’s a natural right. That said, there are all kinds of conflicts within the Palestinian authority, mainly with Hamas, that prevent progress toward a peaceful settlement for the state of Israel and that is unfortunate.”
She added, “If there is any Apartheid — in the sense of a flagrant injustice — in the world, it is what is happening in Syria. Thousands of people murdered…the number of dead doesn’t even come close here.”
Thinking back to my experience in California, I assumed that her message would fall on deaf ears. But she surprised me:
“Most of the talks ended with a handshake and a hug. To me this says it all. I have to say that it was important that I wasn’t there representing the government of Israel. It was surprising for them to see that I was a simple person, defending my country for the rights that I have and not speaking on behalf of the government. It came across as very genuine. For them, this was huge — to be able to listen to someone who is not from the government, including for the pro-Palestinian students. When you tell them you are a student and not a government spokesman, they no longer see you as an enemy.”
Making international waves
Boshra’s appearances on campus made waves, and, among her many radio appearances, she was interviewed by an Islamic, Arabic-language radio station in Johannesburg. The interviewer, a religious Saudi man, asked her questions which revealed a disheartening level of ignorance about Israel, the most over-scrutinized and documented country in the world — an ignorance that is unfortunately all too common.
“He asked why Israel doesn’t let Muslims pray or go to Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem; why only Jews are allowed to pray [in the State of Israel]. I told them that in my own small village in the Galilee there are not only one but two mosques and two imams who both get a monthly salary from the state. The interviewer was in shock. I added that I could go pray at Al Aqsa mosque at will, freely. Sure, sometimes there are security concerns and they limit entrance temporarily, but that’s it.”
The host was receptive to Boshra’s story and as the conversation turned to the rights of Arabs in Israel, her assertiveness grew.
“I said to him: ‘In Saudi Arabia, can a woman drive a car?’ He said no. I said: ‘I can.’ And he was silent. I asked: ‘Can a woman in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia meet a man and get to know him before getting married or is she just forced into marriage at a young age?’ He said no, she can’t. I said: ‘I can.’ And I would answer his questions with my own questions…and each time he would be stunned silent.”
Boshra went on to correct other popular misconceptions that the host had, including ideas about the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. She informed him of the supplies that Israel provides to the strip on a monthly basis, and she reminded him that Egypt also enforces the embargo. She asked him why it was Israel and not Egypt, an Arab county, that provided for the territory’s necessities. “He was speechless. He was often speechless during our interview.”
The host’s silence, and the reception she got from many if not all of the Arab students that she met, stood in stark contrast to my experience at Berkeley. Boshra’s interviewer, a religious Saudi, was more receptive to new facts than the “liberal” Ivy league students that I faced. “He saw me; I spoke Arabic, I was liberal and secular. This made him quite open-minded, actually.”
Her tale begs the question of why, if a religious Muslim from a hyper-conservative state in the Middle East is willing to shed preconceived notions about Israel — even temporarily — the state is still faced with such disastrous public relations. Boshra’s diagnosis: “Every media outlet pushes this narrative painting Israel as an evil aggressor. It’s enough that a popular prime-time show plays, a few times, a clip of the IDF bombing a target in Gaza where a baby was killed, for people to be convinced that Israel is an evil state. It’s hard for people to see tragedies like that.”
“And our public diplomacy here in Israel,” she went on, underlining why people are not told the rest of the story, “is catastrophic. I can tell you first hand, it’s catastrophic.” She uses the Hebrew slang expression “all hapanim” — flat on its face — to describe Israel’s public relations apparatus.
Sadly, the hostility and suspicion that Boshra initially encountered in Johannesburg were but a taste of what she’d face upon returning home.
“There were a number of articles in Israel, the international press and the Arab press even outside of Israel. They described me as a Zionist who sold out her people.” Others accused her of taking bribes to support the country. The media exposure led to real trouble. In Deir Hana, where she grew up, activists from Hadash and Balad, Arab Israeli political parties represented in parliament, “published flyers and articles saying that I sold out my people, that I was brainwashed.” Like the rest of us, Boshra didn’t get paid a cent for her troubles. “They wanted to banish me and my family –- all kinds of bad things.” The rancor eventually turned to threats. “I got many hostile phone calls and threatening Facebook messages. A Facebook group attacking me was started. At one point, even my husband was threatened and told that if I didn’t ‘calm down’ I’d pay a heavy price.”
Boshra told me this almost matter-of-factly, undeterred. And yet, she admitted that facing such hostility was not easy. “I cried for hours every day.” But although she felt alone, she found the strength to persevere. “I am very proud of what I did because these are my opinions. I will not and am not able to change my opinions to please anyone. And the essential, most important thing is that I got full support from my family and my husband.” She also got support from a number of people in her home village. “People understood my actions and opinions and expressed this to my family in the kfar too,” she says, referring to her village. “It was mostly Hadash activists that caused problems.”
But why put herself through it all? The hostility one faces when defending Israel -– the intimidation, the isolation, the constant bickering, the justifications of terrorism under the guise of concern for human rights, the slander that one inevitably faces — is, at times, enough to make you want to give it all up and move to Mexico. I couldn’t imagine having to deal with the same hostility at home as well as abroad. I doubt I would have had Boshra’s fortitude.
“It was important to me that people know that there are Arabs that live in the state of Israel, and on this trip there were [people] from all backgrounds…that didn’t know that there were Arabs in Israel. They thought Israel was a country exclusively of Jews. It was very important to me to correct this misconception.”
Boshra also wanted to challenge herself and break some barriers in the process.
“Second, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this as a woman in our community, where women are weak. And what I experienced, the negative comments, the slander that I was bribed, revealed that they just couldn’t accept that a woman could get ahead. Had a man been in my position, they would have related to him differently, I am sure, but because I am a woman they rejected my actions…as if to abuse me. It is also a resentment of success. When people get ahead there is a tendency in the Arab community to bring them down, to infer that they should stop. This is particularly true with respect to women.”
But though she is definitely not stopping, she doesn’t advocate that everyone follow her lead. “You need a lot of strength and perseverance. As a woman from an Arab town it is more difficult to stand up and it takes a lot of courage. Not everyone is capable of doing it. In our community, the woman is the weaker sex. You need even more strength and courage [than the men].”
“But to be accused of treason is the price you have to pay to make a difference,” Boshra said, summarizing her ordeal. “Bottom line: you need to believe in your way and what you are doing.”
I asked if she’s ever encountered discrimination in Israel, by Jewish Israelis. It’s a scary question whose answer I was afraid to hear.
“I can’t say that I enjoy 100% of the rights that I get under law, but I don’t deny that I have rights, like others in my community might claim. That’s not true. I work for the office of social insurance in Israel, so I can tell you confidently that Arabs have the same legal rights. That said, as an Arab I can’t get certain jobs for which military service is required, for example, because Arabs are exempt from military service. I can’t always live where I want.”
We discussed military service for a while, and the growing trend among Arabs — which she supports — to volunteer for the military or national service. Nonetheless, I was bothered that a person such as her is not universally greeted as a hero in this country. And I told her.
“Listen, it’s not pleasant. I am looking for an apartment to rent in Jerusalem right now. And when they ask me my name — Boshra — they then ask if I am an Arab. When I ask if there is a problem with that, there’s always some embarrassment, some evasion. One woman told me, ‘I don’t have a problem with you, but others tenants mind, so we can’t rent to you. I looked for a place to live in Adam [a settlement in the West Bank] and I wasn’t accepted.”
While I typed up her words, embarrassed by those stories, she added: “Jerusalem is becoming ultra-Orthodox ” — she actually uses a play on the Hebrew word “Haredi,” (i.e., “anxious”) and tells me that Jerusalem is becoming ‘anxiety-ridden’ — “Who gets to rent what and where is an issue for everyone these days. The ultra-Orthodox have their areas, and if someone Jewish is not religious they won’t rent to them, either.”
Still, I kept digging, feeling it my duty to expose and condemn whatever unpleasantness she may have encountered at the hands of Israelis on account of her background. But there isn’t much.
“I don’t feel racism on a daily basis. I don’t look for an apartment every day. At the supermarket everyone is nice to me and they know that I am Arab. But I won’t say there is none – it’s just not a frequent thing. If it were, I couldn’t stand to live here. And I know that for each woman who won’t rent me an apartment there are tens of others who will. And when I was in Haifa, I never once experienced any racism. I didn’t know what racism was. It was only when I arrived to Jerusalem – because the city is in conflict – that I felt something.”
In search of ‘the common good’
What of the Arab members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and their constant, public complaints about the state? Boshra’s answer was decidedly Israeli. “Everything is politics and everything is dirty. Everyone is looking out for his own interests and the narrow interests of his constituency — religious, Arab, whatever. No one looks out for the common good. And it is often in their interest to incite, to be inflammatory.”
“[The Saudi interviewer] asked me about the Arab members of Knesset who are always against the Jews,” she continued, “I answered him that those members of Knesset should thank Israel for giving them rights, including freedom of expression, which they would not enjoy in any Arab country. Second, those Arab Knesset members do not represent me.”
This is something Boshra first explained to me back in 2010 about Hanin Zoabi, an Arab-Israeli member of Knesset who participated in the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza and viciously criticized Israel in the press. “They [the Arab Members of Knesset] serve only their own interests.” She added that many Arab Israelis agree and feel that the Arab Members of Knesset even hold Israeli Arabs back, but that tradition still held much sway in dictating how people voted. “The truth is that awareness of the possibility to vote and whom to vote for is still not very high in the Israeli Arab community. It is very much a family thing; you follow what your family loyalties dictate. This is not my case because I was lucky to have been born in a very liberal, open home in favor of co-existence and higher education. I was able to get married relatively late, at the age of 25, because I am pursuing a master’s degree. But others are not that fortunate.”
And although she supports them, Boshra does not identify with the Palestinians, nor would she move to a Palestinian state were it ever to arise.
“Israel is my country, my home. Why would I leave to Jordan or Egypt? This is where my roots are. Here my grandfather and grandmother were born, all my family is here. This is my home,” she told me unequivocally. Her logic is rooted in optimism: “I am in favor of coexistence, I am in favor of peace and I very much believe that when younger people start to speak for us, instead of the older generation now in power, there will be more joie de vivre. Many problems stem from the older mentalities and hatreds. They don’t want Jews in this land, they want to kick them out, treat them as enemies, or vice versa.”
Unlike many young Israeli-Arabs, she doesn’t consider herself Palestinian.
“No. I just want them to have a state. Because — hallas — enough already. I am for a Palestinian state. But I don’t think that I am pro-Palestinian. Because I am not Palestinian. I identify insofar as I think that they should have their rights, that the Saudi millionaires should help them out a little…but that is it. I am not for a One State solution, either. I am for two states for two people…and I would stay here. Israel is my home.”
I compared her willingness to speak out to the hesitation of some other Arab participants on the Faces of Israel to defend Israel abroad, for fear of upsetting their kin back home. This outraged Boshra: ”Why!? They didn’t study!? They didn’t get all their rights and dues? That kind of ingratitude could get one killed in an Arab country.”
That led me to ask her about her place as an Israeli Arab within the Arab world. Her answer tells of the isolation of a community struggling to define itself between two clashing identities.
“There is a problem. To the Jews we are Palestinian Arabs and to Arabs in the Middle East we are Jews. And we want to both identify with Arabs and be Israeli and connect with Jews. It is a problem.” But she makes no apologies and expects understanding from the Arabs around Israel. “Just as I accept that someone from, say, Lebanon has his own identity, he needs to accept that I was born in Israel. The Palestinians born in Lebanon are still stuck in camps on the border. They are not recognized by Lebanon; they are not even considered residents; even to marry a Lebanese, to get a Lebanese ID card down the line is impossible. There is no family reunification. It’s simple: You need to appreciate that everyone has their own reality.” And Boshra’s reality is being an engaged, active Israeli.
But she is not interested in a political career. Here again, her rejection of Israeli politics sounds exactly like what she is — purely, unmistakably Israeli. “I won’t go into politics,” she states. “It’s a dirty game.”
She wants to make an enduring difference, to unite people and build bridges to the Arab world with a better, more timely idea, one that, in my opinion, the politicians playing their “dirty game” should quickly heed:
“I want to work for peace between people. I want to do this through the media… to speak to the world. Why isn’t there an Israeli channel that speaks to the world, like the French have or the BBC, for instance? I would like to be involved in such a thing.”