The dilemma of Palestinian artists in Israel
Haifa - When curator Fadwa Naamna started preparations for a photo exhibition in the Mediterranean port city of Haifa, she felt a common pressure faced by her peers: sensitivities over Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship and living in Israel.
Palestinians, who remained in their homes in the May 1948 war that created the state of Israel in British-mandate Palestine, were given Israeli citizenship. However, those commonly known as “Arab- Israelis” or “1948 Palestinians” cry out discrimination and accuse Israel of treating them like second-class citizens in a country that labels itself the “Jewish state” in line with its religious dogma.
As Israel shifted towards the right wing recently, forming its hardest line cabinet ever, its Arab inhabitants feel that the noose is tightening on their ability to express themselves or tell their narrative.
Some Arabs consider the participation of 1948 Palestinians in Israeli activities as an act of normalisation, loathed by many who regard Israel an enemy bent on evicting the remaining Arabs to make room for Jewish newcomers from the West.
Observers say that the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s exclusion of the 1948 Palestinians from the signed agreements with Israel and from a shared future of all Palestinians left this minority out in the cold.
The exhibition, called Journal View, opened May 8th in the Beit Hagefen Jewish-Arab Cultural Centre in Haifa. It is to run through July 30th. Beit Hagefan was established in 1963 to bring Arabs and Israelis together.
On display are photographs by Palestinian photojournalists Akram Darawsheh, Isam Telhami, who live in Israel, and Ali Ali, a Gaza Strip artist who lives in Berlin, Germany. The photos show dramatic images, including one of Darawsheh as he was shot in the back with an Israeli rubber bullet while he was covering a protest in the Arab city of Um el-Fahem in eastern Israel.
Naamna said Ali had initially declined to take part in the exhibition because it is hosted by a centre that receives Israeli state funding. But he later accepted under endless efforts to persuade him, she said.
“I told him I had no choice. I was born here. This is the reality. I’m living here, and the audience deserve to see the work from Gaza and the West Bank to encourage communication between us,” Naamna, 29, said.
She said the exhibition faced more pressure when an Israeli state committee visited to inspect the photos on display but found no violations since the exposition tackles realities on the ground.
Naamna insists such actions limit freedom of expression.
There are other government pressures. Artist Norman Issa, a 1948 Palestinian who is married to a Jew, said Israel’s hard-line Culture Minister Miri Regev is “blackmailing” him.
Issa explained that Regev threatened to reconsider government financing to Al-Mina theatre, which he heads. The threat followed Issa’s refusal to participate in a theatre production in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Observers argue that Haifa is one of the most harmonious cities in Israel in regards to the relatively cordial relationship between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. Over the years, the communities coexisted with little trouble between them.
However, tensions exist. For instance, Arab artists are having difficulty conveying their messages, such as peace with Israel or its excessive use of force against Palestinians. When they do, they are accused of radicalism and condoning violence.
Regev also threatened to cut off funding to Al-Midan, the largest Arab theatre in Israel, over a play called The Parallel Time by 22-year-old Palestinian playwright Bashar Murkus.
Based on years of research, the play depicts the true story of a Palestinian man convicted of killing an Israeli soldier. Israeli politicians argued that the play glorified the killer and encouraged violence against Israel’s army.
“These are taboos for the Israeli public,” said Naamna, pointing out that the Israeli public is free to depict its historic leaders as heroes despite their enmity towards Palestinians, including some with Palestinian blood on their hands.
Israeli state funding has put Arab artists in Israel in a dilemma. Whereas some see the funding appropriate for Arabs who pay taxes to Israel, others don’t want to be “stained” by a state prejudiced against its own Arab population.
Insisting that they don’t want to participate in perpetuating the image of Israel as democratic, some Arab artists say that the lack of resources has cost them business.
Others, however, would rather sit home than take part in business that has an Israeli hallmark to it, Naamna said.
For Naamna, the centre she works for has allowed her to “express myself as a Palestinian who was raised here, in Beit Hagafen”, she said.
For Antwan Shalhat, a 1948 Palestinian researcher, the status of people like him is complicated.
“We’re neither fully Palestinian, nor fully Arabs or Israelis,” Shalhat said. He said the basis of the contradiction the artists live revolves around identity.
“We’re talking about a nation that was turned into a minority in its original homeland, and lives now in a state that was established on the rubble of Palestine.”
In Haifa, Palestinians went from being equal in number to Jews who lived there prior to 1948 — estimated at 77,000 each — to nearly 4,000. Many Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948 and afterwards.
Shalhat said the younger generation is articulating bolder positions than its ancestors.
“Many theatrical shows are displaying a daring generation voicing a clear message: The1948 Palestinians are part and parcel of the bigger Palestinian-Israeli conflict and that their status can be tackled under a comprehensive solution to the conflict,” he said.