Mohamed Fahili is Director of the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre in Akko, north Israel. He talks to Cartoon Kippah about education, security, the refugee crisis, Jewish friends, and the complexity of Arab-Israeli citizenship.
Like most Israelis, Mohamed Fahili doesn’t shy away from discussing the reality of the things that come with citizenship. “If I say I’m a Palestinian, that means I let go of the Israeli state. When I say I’m an Israeli Arab that means I’m an Israeli citizen. That’s real. I have my identification. I was born and still live in Israel. It’s my home. It’s my land. And it’s Israel.”
While most of Fahili’s relatives fled to Syria in 1948, his father stayed in Israel to guard the family’s property, eventually settling in Akko. “My father never said he’s a Syrian. He’d say he’s a Palestinian who has left his village, and that the Israeli government had given him one of the houses in Akko. He had to take it because he had nowhere else to go. So my parents started a new life.”
When his father past away his mother, now 104-years-old, was left with eight children and financially very little. Though herself illiterate, she has been a strong inspiration behind Fahili’s work. “My mother always used to say education is the best way for her children to make it in Israel.”
So if Arab-Israelis had greater access to education and socioeconomic security today, does he feel there might be less of a perceived threat of rising Arab demography and state disaffection?
“Yes. People – Jews and Palestinians – want a good life, and peace. But when you enclose people in a jail, like in West Bank and Gaza, with no jobs, poor education, no health services – then it’s going to be difficult. As Arab-Israelis we have everything we need. We travel freely, we have an Israeli passport, we can just buy a ticket and go. But the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot. There’s a wall and checkpoints. It’s not a way to live.”
As a child Fahili was unusually sponsored by a kibbutz, where he even participated in Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. “I never told my family about the movement. But the Kibbutz liked me and understood my situation. Every Friday they’d send food to my family. It was unusual to help a Muslim family in Akko at the time.”
He went on to study in the US where he was given work by a Jewish hotelier. Then in 1978 he returned to the Jewish-Arab neigbourhood of Wolfson in Akko where he made his dream of an Arab-Jewish community centre into a reality with a financial gift from the same hotelier to whose children he had taught Hebrew. “After that I realised Jewish families had changed my life twice.”
In 1990 the centre, originally housed in two bunkers, received a donation from the Sir Charles Clore family towards the construction of a 825 square metre purpose-built building. It now provides programs for 2,000 Arab and Jewish children and adults each week, fostering childhood development, Arab-Jewish youth empowerment, leadership and co-existence, women’s issues, sexual equality, and community cohesion, all the while aiming to reverse school dropout rates, crime, violence and unemployment.
Considering his experience, it is perhaps unsurprising to hear Fahili talk about citizenship as synonymous with civil rights, security, education, community, freedom to travel, and prosperity – regardless of religious background. “If you give me all the Arab countries, I still wouldn’t move there. Israel is not 100% democratic, but it’s still a democratic country. We don’t have homeless citizens. The government and healthcare system takes care of everyone. Widows and the elderly are financially assisted. Nobody’s starving. Not everything is ok – we still have some racism, but again that’s the same everywhere – in Britain, in America. So why is everyone asking Israel to be 100 percent perfect? It’s a small country, and it’s just 62-years-old. Yet everybody asks Israel to behave differently – when their own countries are behaving the same.”
He now regularly attends conflict resolution and civil society courses abroad, but admits people still react towards his Arab-Israeli identity. “Many people don’t understand. They want me to be a Palestinian. So I say no, I’m Israeli. The same way people here say I’m British. After that, one can say I’m Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim etc. So why do I need to say I’m a Palestinian living under the Israeli occupation? That’s not my reality, and we are dealing with reality now.”
Despite international polarization over the 2009 Gaza conflict and 2010 flotilla incident, Fahili, like many, still looks towards a pro-Israel pro-Palestine future. “I look upon the two states for human beings, both with the right to live in peace. My vision is to have one state for all citizens. But it’s hard to make that now. And if we have two states, the big problems are Jerusalem and the refugee crisis. In my opinion, Jerusalem has to be international for all three faiths – Jewish, Christian and Muslim.”
So as an Arab-Israeli, how does he perceive the refugee crisis?
“Over the past couple of years I’ve argued with Arab students here in London. Some were from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. So I said to them ok, if you are so angry about what Israel is doing with the Palestinian refugees, just tell me about what they are doing about the Palestinian refugees in your own home countries? Why are they still refugees? They’ve been living for 62 years in camps there too. If you aren’t going to give them a national identity, at least give them a house, access to education, a good life.
“If you don’t give people education, they will stay behind. And that’s what they’re doing to the Palestinians by keeping them in refugee camps. Israel didn’t put all us Arabs in refugee camps and treat us differently. We now have citizenship, we can go to university, we own our houses, we have jobs, we have a normal life.”
“I cannot foresee the Palestinian refugees coming back to Israel. But they could choose to live in a new Palestinian state. And the same goes for the Jewish settlers – if they want to stay then they have to live under the Palestinian authority, with Palestinian citizenship. If they don’t want it, then they can go back to Israel. Both must pay a price.”
And finally, there’s the controversial issue of state loyalty. While Arab-Israelis can volunteer in the army, Fahili explains it is more a question of respect for the Arab predicament over any perceived fear of disaffection as to why Arab-Israelis are not obliged to serve. “If we had war with Arab countries, that would mean fighting our families. I cannot ask Jewish people to fight Jewish people. But let’s say if Israel were to one day have war with a non-Arab country, we would also defend it, for sure.”
“I understand the Jewish fear inside Israel, and its security situation,” He adds. “Because they are surrounded. And yet they’re still doing better than other countries. During the Lebanon war Hezbollah didn’t choose between Arabs and Jews – they bombed Arab villages and Arab cities too, especially in the north of Israel. So the fear was there for everybody. The Iraq war just appeared to us on TV. But when war comes to your home, your door, your neighbour, it’s different. People were so afraid, so I asked them why, you were happy before? – Because now you can feel what the Jews feel.”
To find out more about the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre, visit http://ajcenter.org/