Galilee Diary: Free to Be You and Me
Rabbi Huna in the name of Bar Kappara said that Israel deserved to be redeemed from Egypt for four reasons: They never changed their names, they never changed their language, they never engaged in gossip, and they never engaged in sexual immorality.
-- Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 4:12
Recently I went on a tour sponsored by the local Hebrew-Arabic webzine Dugrinet, to visit examples of Bedouin and Jewish communities living in close proximity. We first visited Kamaneh, a large Bedouin village, and Kamun, a rural Jewish community of a few hundred families. The two, which share a mountaintop east of Karmiel, have been struggling to find a modus vivendi for years, and both sides have invested much effort. On the whole the project has been successful, but there are still issues and incidents, as the cultures are so very different, and everyone has historical baggage as well as a bundle of fears both rational and irrational.
Then we drove to a much smaller Bedouin community – just a dozen families – Hamdun, adjacent to Kibbutz Lotem. We met with M., a charming and articulate Bedouin man of about 35, who speaks unaccented, colloquial Hebrew. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, he showed us around the village, proudly pointing out all the fruit trees he has planted, and discussing his building plans. Even though the villagers had somehow received building permits years ago, so they live in houses (not tents or shanties), they were unrecognized as a community, meaning they were “off the grid” for water, electricity, and roads until the mid-1990s. By then, many families had left for nearby large Arab villages. But M.’s family and some others refused to trade in their rural independence, leading to, among other hardships, a long trek to school every day. Though initially, when the kibbutz was established in the ’80s, it was fenced in (and the village fenced out), eventually relations developed, and M. was taken under the wing of a kibbutznik who apparently recognized his talents. The kibbutz employed him, and encouraged him to pursue his education. Today he commutes to his job as manager of the industrial poultry farm on a much larger kibbutz. And the aid that Kibbutz Lotem gave to the village over the years has now moved to a new phase, as plans are underway for the village to be annexed into the master plan of the kibbutz.
About 10 years ago, as he was studying, and advancing in his effort to become integrated into Israeli society, M. became frustrated by the responses he got when giving his name. Therefore, he legally changed it from a very obviously Arab-sounding name (first and last) to a name that sounds quintessentially Jewish-Israeli, the kind that evokes the image of a fighter pilot in the Israeli army. This revelation left many of us a bit nonplussed. But then, why not? Many in my grandparents’ and parents’ generations in the United States changed their Eastern European “Jewish-sounding” names to try to escape anti-Semitism or just to fit in. Many immigrants to Israel Hebraized their European or North African names; for years this practice was actually a requirement for anyone wishing to join the diplomatic corps. Indeed, in today’s cultural climate, changing one’s name seems trivial compared to the more radical changes in identity that we almost take for granted; for example: gender, ethnicity, even race.
So, is M. “passing for Jewish?” He is definitely proud of his Bedouin heritage, and not interested in full assimilation. Is he tricking the bureaucrats and service providers he calls? Or is he simply gaming a racist system? Is he denying part of his heritage? Or is he helping to reduce the oppressive division of Israeli society along lines of ethnic identity?
M.’s biography casts into sharp relief the great challenge facing us here: to build the nation-state of the Jewish people that is at the same time a state that treats all of its citizens with fairness and dignity.