An insight into the complexity of Israeli society comes from a Masters thesis, prepared by an Israeli who alternately calls himself an Israeli Arab and a Palestinian citizen of Israel. His ambivalence about terminology is one of the issues. The Palestine national movement is an adversary or enemy of Israel, but "Palestinian" is a label that engenders pride. Some Israeli Jews feel their hair bristling when fellow citizens refer to themselves as Palestinians. Labels have political weight, but it seems futile to fight on every front. Israelis who fashion bombs are clearly over the line, and deserve the most forceful efforts of the security forces. Most Israelis who call themselves Palestinians are not fashioning bombs. To sit on their emotions may turn more of them to bomb makers.
The thesis describes the development of Palestinian "civil society" in Israel. That is, the formation of organizations that provide Israeli Palestinians with an identity, social services, and channels to communicate with one another and to other Arabs including Palestinians outside of Israel, and to present their demands to authorities. The student recognizes that there is a limit to Palestinian national expression. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, albeit democratic. Palestinian civil society lives within constraints. They limit individual and group opportunities, although the limits are not entirely clear or inflexible. Israeli Palestinians have learned to operate with state authorities. They know what they can demand, what they are likely to get, and what is likely to generate hostility.
Most open is the judicial system. Suits against state authorities have found reception in supreme and lower courts, and with ranking professionals in the justice ministry responsible for deciding what suits the state will contest, and how it will contest them.
The thesis is less certain about relations within the Palestinian community. Extended families and religious leaders are powerful, and constrain the freedoms of individuals and organizations that are associated with civil society in western democracies. The issue is ambiguous and delicate. Families and Islamic authorities lack the formal structures of a western state that operate according to clear rules as to what is permitted, what is forbidden, and what sanctions will be imposed on those who violate the rules. Parts of a paragraph that comes toward the end of the thesis are worth translating from the Hebrew:
"It is very interesting that . . . the discussion that I opened in this work . . . revealed an ironic and exciting situation that I did not think about earlier. Relations between the Palestinian civil society and the state are clear. . . . (Palestinians) know the addresses of authorities and how to make their approaches. . . Different are relations between the Palestinian civil society and Arab society. Those relations are complicated and marked by a lack of clarity. . . . There is a concern not to damage the delicate social and religious fabrics, that are likely to produce social sanctions. . . This is a paradoxical situation that requires further examination."
The thesis reminds me of a cartoon that achieved classical status by announcing, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Those who wish to see other indications of Arab and Muslim ideas should check out www.memri.org. It provides daily translations of media, and film clips from television. Some of it is the old hatred expressed in blood libel, holocaust denial, and creative updates of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Yet Memri also translates a considerable amount of Arab and Muslim criticism of Arab and Muslim regimes, culture, and elites. The creator of Memri is a former Israeli intelligence operative who sees the grays as well as the blacks and whites in the media that he surveys.
My student's work, and what I read on Memri indicate that the Middle East is complex and interesting, as well as a dangerous place for Jews and Christians, and for Muslims who may be believers, but who chaff at the constraints of family and religion. Israeli Palestinians may not view their state as paradise on earth, but they have learned to find room for themselves within it, and to use its tools in order to expand their opportunities. More problematic is their own Arab society. The most severe limits on them come not from an apartheid imagined by those who do not tolerate Israel, but from social and religious pressures expressed in Arabic.