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The Party Will Go On Without Us | Jinan Abu Shtiha

August 3, 2016

Reflections on the Jewish-Arab space in the University after the students' Law ball

During my first days as a student, I used to walk down the hallways at the university and look at people around me. I felt then that it was a model for an almost utopian Israeli society:  A young woman wearing a hijab, from East Jerusalem, next to a religious Jewish woman, who is talking with the Arab guy who has just sold her a cup of coffee, while an ultra-Orthodox young student walks around, a man who probably had to break through many barriers in order to get there. My description seems to reflect a diverse, multicultural society. But more recently, in light of the events surrounding the party that will take place at the Faculty of Law this week, my feelings have been very different.

The party at the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University is scheduled for this coming Tuesday. The event will take place on one of the first days of the month of Ramadan, so that the Muslim students, who will be fasting, will not be able to participate. Two months ago, immediately following the publication of the date of the party, a group of students contacted the Association to let them know that it falls on the first day of Ramadan. At first, the Association looked into the possibility of changing the date, and change was not possible. After a month, the same group of students posted on Facebook, saying there was another group that was also hurt by setting the party on that particular date. At that point, the Association started diligently looking into ways of solving the problem. A serious attempt was made this time to change the date, but unsuccessfully. The Muslim students were offered cabs to make it possible for them to arrive at the party after the time of breaking the fast. This alternative was deemed irrelevant, due to the late hour of ending the fast and the understanding that for the Muslim students the difficulty lies in the party atmosphere, which is inappropriate for a day of fasting. One could, of course, draw a parallel to Yom Kippur, in order to illustrate the difficulty in coming to the party (assuming that the Muslims' subjective arguments so far are not convincing).

The attempts to change the date have therefore failed. The result is that students who fast on Ramadan will not come to the party, although the university will hold an event to mark Ramadan next month. The events I described here raise a series of questions: Why was there a delay in taking significant steps to address the problem until the issue was raised on Facebook and reached the administration? Why has the offense to the Muslims result in much less publicity than what happened around the issue of mechitza (gender separating screens in religious Jewish events)? I believe at this point we have to ask a different kind of question: What is the reason for the silence at the Faculty following the failed attempts to address the problem, despite the recognition by both the administration and the Association that this constitutes a significant offense to the Muslim students? I would like to assert that an Arab female student is only part of the multicultural scene described above, and that she does not exist de-facto anywhere other than in those realms pre-assigned to her.  I am going to present my argument through my point of view on Israeli society.

As a student in the ninth grade, our Hebrew Language teacher would ask us to watch the news on television once a week, as something that (in his opinion) would help us improve our Hebrew skills. Thus I and my classmates had to watch one of the Hebrew language Israeli TV channels, so that we could tell our teacher the next day about the news in the country. Now, many years after performing the teacher's weekly assignment, I am convinced that watching Israeli TV caused me to speak a different language: It made me speak Israeli. The language I was exposed to on Israeli media was made up of many conflicting elements: Mizrachi-Ashkenazi, religious-secular, right wing-left wing. But I, "the Arab"' was missing from all of that, except for appearing on pre-defined stages. Arabs were never part of prime-time Israeli media, except for occasional interviews with some Arab Knesset Members following the utterance of a statement deemed "dangerous" in the  Israeli sphere, or the TV series "Arab Job" (Avoda Aravit), which wasn't watched by two thirds of the public, and most of its viewers didn't understand it as a painful comedy ("Israeli media doesn't like Arab women", ). This is how nobody is talking about the need to establish academic institutions in Arab towns, about expanding and improving municipal infrastructure, about building even one new Arab town, or even about internal social problems. This is how nobody talks about the initiative of a woman from Sakhnin to open a restaurant for women only (, and nobody reports the murder of Arab women on the evening news.

The result is that the Israeli public is only exposed to Israeli media, which is supposedly multicultural (the series Arab Job was broadcast on prime-time, and the reality show Big Brother features an Arab participant!), and to Civics textbooks in the Jewish schools that talk about equality and group rights. This is how I, the Arab, have never been a part of Israeli discourse, and never appeared as someone claiming a legitimate right and receiving it, but almost always portrayed as someone who whines and receives nothing (or too little).

Israeli language, whose meaning I tried to illustrate through a look at Israeli media, has taught all sides in Israeli society to become fixated in their places, so that the above "status quo" means that my defined place as an Arab is one where I claim my rights (from time to time) and receive offers to soften the blow, along with the (sometimes) recognition of said blow by the system. And so the prevailing silence in Israeli society continues time and time again, following a report on discrimination in the employment of Arabs or the murder of an Arab woman. This way, the hegemonic majority in the country can be satisfied with the mere presence (poor, in my view) of the Arab population on the scene, and continue denying the fact that this presence is inappropriate and unreal.

The Faculty of Law is going to hold the end-of-the-year party next week, without us. Moreover, next week the Hebrew University will hold its annual Student Day, without the presence of Arab students, in the big end-of-the-year event which is supposed to be for everybody. The reason is that Student Day is held every year on Jerusalem Day, which is considered a joyful day for a large part of the Jewish public, while it is a day of mourning for the Arab public. As "compensation" for the absence, the political groups hold an alternative event for Arab students. But, in my opinion, separate is not equal, and this event only increases the feeling of alienation and estrangement among Arab students and makes them feel that they are not really part of the multicultural scene. The initial lack of awareness on the part of the Law students to the existence of Ramadan, and the claims about "ignorance" regarding the month's rituals, in addition to holding Student Day without the presence of the Arab students, all pose many questions for those claiming the existence of a multicultural society. In my view, they serve to prove my claim regarding the lack of the real presence of the Arab minority in Israeli society in general, and at the university in particular.