Despite being flagrantly politically incorrect — or perhaps because of it — Ziyad (aka “Zi”) is one of the best-liked employees in the Key Food supermarket where I shop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. His transgressions include engaging customers in inappropriately edgy ethno-political debates and hitting on the female ones, two activities that with me he rolls into one.
Every Sunday, as he pushes my shopping cart home (that’s how deliveries are made to the nearby blocks), Zi, who grew up in an Arab village in the Galilee, playfully grills me on my thoughts regarding the latest Bibi/Abu Mazen/Trump headlines. As an Arab Israeli-American, his own thoughts are often of the us-vs.-them variety, though he’s usually referring to us — me and him, the Israelis — vs. them, the Americans, which even after 19 years here he “just doesn’t get.” “Habibti, we’re the same, you and I, from the same land,” he says using an Arabic term of endearment. “I understand you [wink, nudge, suggestive smile] like they never will.”
This past weekend, though, I was “you people.”
“This time you went too far,” he told me, and for once he wasn’t smiling. “You people, you will never let us live our lives in peace, will you?”
Several weeks ago, Israel passed into law its controversial “nation-state bill”; it reasserts that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and adds that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It establishes “[the] unified and complete [city of] Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital, Hebrew as its official language (Arabic was downgraded to a language with “special status”) and “the development of Jewish settlements” as a national value. The legislation has the status of a “basic law,” which carries the weight of a constitutional amendment, legally superseding the Declaration of Independence.
Critics claim that by strengthening the state’s Jewish character, while never mentioning its democratic one, the law violates the intended balance between the two. Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, named Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, and in the same breath called for “complete equality of social and political rights” for “all its inhabitants,” no matter their religion, race or gender.
Proponents say the bill corrects, rather than distorts, the balance between Jewish and democratic, being that Israel already has basic laws and amendments protecting its democratic values, but none protecting its Jewish ones. One of the major drives to pass the legislation has been the perceived bias of Israel’s Supreme Court towards the “democratic” side of the equation.
Abraham, an Israeli-American Hebrew-school teacher and Key Food shopper, feels that the law might “not be nice for Americans to hear about,” but is necessary “for our survival. In [the balance between] Jewish and democratic, Jewish comes first, it has to,” he told me. “It’s only a matter of time till we won’t be a majority in our own country. And then what, we hand it over? Because it’s a democracy? No, and I’m glad they finally made that clear: it’s our democracy.”
Abraham and Zi seem to like each other: I’ve seen them bantering near the cashiers, Zi in his broken Hebrew and Abraham retorting in an even more broken Arabic, which he learned during his years in the IDF. Asked if the law is fair toward Zi, Abraham tells me that “there is a difference between the way things are supposed to be, and the way they have to be. Americans might find that hard to swallow, but we [Israelis] get it. He [Zi] gets it, too.”
I’ve been in the U.S. for 12 years now, long enough to understand how shrill Abraham’s statement would sound to most American Jews. To people who are fed the line about mankind’s inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with their mother’s milk, the idea that for the only democracy in the Middle East this may simply be a line — well, it’s upsetting. But I haven’t been here long enough to forget how it feels to live, day in and day out, in a war. When everybody is a soldier and the sense of an impending takeover is always in the air, the American credo seems misguided. Inalienable is the fight for control and survival; rights are a luxury.
This mindset is second nature to Zi, just as it is to me. We both get it, hate it and luckily don’t have to take it. “I’m an American citizen, Habibti,” he tells me, “and here I’m just like you.”
Orli Santo’s column appears the first week of the month.