Arab-Israeli teens seeking to define their own identity

The struggle for identity is common to teenagers regardless of where they live. But these struggles take on an entirely different layer in Israel, especially if you are what is commonly referred to as an Israeli Arab.

On a trip to what is known as the Triangle in Israel, I had the opportunity to meet Duaa Anabosi, a 16-year-old girl working as a clerk at Al-Qasame College in the town of Kafr Qasim. The college has more than 3,000 Arab boys and girls studying a range of subjects, from math and science to liberal arts.

The Triangle is the area of high Arab concentration in eastern Israel, with the Green Line, the 1967 boundary, to the east in the Samarian foothills.

Duaa expressed a not-uncommon problem of Arabs in Israel, that of identity. For me, a Muslim born in Pakistan and reared in Canada — with parents originally from Hyderabad, India — I could relate. I am certain many kids of immigrant parents growing up in North America can understand the difficulty of self-identification, standing on shifting sands during our formative years. In a place as complicated as Israel, this struggle for identity is further complicated by the real-world impact on Arab kids who are often lost in this political struggle.

Duaa tried to describe how she sees herself. “I am an Arab girl living in Israel” she said. When pressed, she said, “I am so jealous of those people of who have a flag, who have a strong sense of belonging to a country. I know it’s stupid, but I really feel sad when I see others who have a flag.

“I just want one that I can wave, that belongs to me. … I do not feel like Israel wants me and I do not feel a part of the Palestinians.”

Like many of the students at Al-Qasame, Duaa is not talking about borders and bombs when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They speak in terms of being the other, the minority, the enemy within. They were born and raised as a minority in Israel, cut off from the changing Palestinian community over the wall. Many expressed a feeling of being hated by their own country, referring to Israel.

But a few seemed comfortable to be Israeli and did not seem to relate to the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza in a way that shows a personal investment in that community.

When we think of the conflict, it is important not to forget these kids. They and their families are about 20 percent of the Israeli population, and growing. Duaa and others made clear they were excited about voting in national elections when eligible. The three main Arab parties in Israel are likely to announce a historic joint election slate for the March election.

The Israeli Democracy Index, a public-opinion project conducted by the Guttman Center for Surveys and the Israel Democratic Institute, finds that 65 percent of Israeli-Arabs are proud to be a part of Israel, even while being critical of Israeli policy toward Arabs within its borders and the Palestinians over the wall.

How vigorously this demographic will participate in elections might be tempered by the fact the same poll says 46 percent of Israeli’s believe harsh criticism of Israel should be forbidden. The burgeoning population of Arab voters, if it coalesces as a unified bloc, is likely to play a factor in future policies that Israel adopts toward the Palestinians.

What these teenagers want and how they view themselves is going to play a role in whatever solutions are eventually crafted for the region.

Khurrum Wahid, chair of Emerge USA, a nonprofit focused on voter engagement of American minorities, is a criminal defense attorney and human-rights advocate based in Miami.

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