Toddlers not immune from discrimination in Israel

Arafat Wahidi

After Fathi’s son had been attending a child daycare center for several days, the daycare worker telephoned him and said: “We have a problem with your son … and after the other parents found out, some of them have removed their children from the center.” She continued: “One of the daycare workers opened your son’s bag and found out that he is called Arafat. She spoke about it with her relatives, who also have children in the center, and in response they removed their children from the center because there is an Arab child there.”

The boy in question is indeed called Arafat. He is sixteen months old, and is the only child of Fathi Wahidi, a resident of the city of Ramle. Arafat does not have pneumonia, influenza or any other infectious disease, we are pleased to report. His only problem is that he is an Arab boy living in Israel.

His father Fathi is a single parent who works two separate jobs six days a week. He comes home for just three hours a day, after completing his shift as a nurse in a hospital and before going on to work as the foreman of a team of painters working for the Public Works Department. “There is no child daycare center for children of his age (approximately one year old) in my neighborhood. There are only centers for children from the age of two and above. I had to put him in a center because I work in two jobs. My mother lives with us but she cannot look after him because she is too old and frail. I want him to develop and explore the world. There are Arab centers in Ramle itself, but there is no transport arrangement to my neighborhood, neither public nor private. That’s why I had to put him in a Jewish center.”

Ramle is a city situated between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The city was occupied in the 1948 war by the Israeli army. Ramle was founded in the year 716 by the Islamic dynasty that ruled the country at the time. The city became an important economic, social and administrative center due to its position between Jaffa and Jerusalem and between Egypt and Syria. During the Nakba in 1948, 93 percent of the Arab residents of the city were expelled, and only some 1,300 Arabs remained.

By 2006, Ramle had become a mixed Jewish-Arab city with a total population of approximately 64,100, including 47,900 Jews, 14,200 Arabs, and 2,000 residents belonging to other groups. The majority of the Arabs who live in Ramle live in the Jawarish neighborhood, and most of them have a particularly low socioeconomic status (the average per capita income in Jawarish is NIS 848 a month, compared to the national average of NIS 1,846). A simple car journey from the center of Ramle to Jawarish, which lies on the outskirts of the city, is sufficient to see the gulf in the standard of living between the Jewish and Arab residents of the city. On one side there are high-rise buildings and commercial centers; on the other, makeshift homes of asbestos and tin. The roads and sidewalks in Jawarish are not painted. Fathi comments on this subject: “I personally volunteered to paint the main road in Jawarish, since I am familiar with this field from my work [in the Public Works Department]. One day I work up to hear a painting contractor shouting at his workers because they had come into the neighborhood and were painting the main road.” Fathi laughs and continues: “The painting team was repainting the main roads. When they reached the neighborhood and saw the road was painted [because I had done the job], they began to refresh the paint. They didn’t realize that no one had planned for the painting job to include Jawarish.”

A humiliating search

Fathi’s son Arafat has lived without his mother from the age of four months after his parents divorced. Since there are no child daycare centers for children of his age in the Jawarish neighborhood, his father tried to find a center elsewhere in the city that provides transportation to and from the neighborhood. This, too, proved unsuccessful. The Arab daycare centers in Ramle do not provide any transportation services, while the transportation provided by Jewish centers is limited to the Jewish areas. Accordingly, Fathi was willing to pay an additional sum to a Jewish child daycare center in return for transportation to and from Jawarish.

As he searched for a facility that would be suitable for his son, Fathi encountered discrimination from Jewish staff members and parents due to his national origin. Commenting on his feelings, he said: “It struck me like lightening. Firstly as a parent, and secondly as an Arab.”

In the first child daycare center he went to, the daycare worker offered to show him around the facility. When she asked where he lived, he replied naively and without hesitation: “Jawarish.” A few hours later on the same day, the woman telephone him and told him that she was very sorry, but due to a mix-up another worker at the facility had accepted another child on the same day without her knowledge, so that there was no vacant place at the facility.

As opposed to the “mix-up” in the first daycare center, Fathi related his experiences with the second place he visited: “When she realized that I am Arab, she told me: I’m sorry, we do not have a place for your son, because we have 32 children in each class and they are all full. As she leafed through the lists of names, I noticed that the list for one class included just 23 children. When I asked her about this, her tone become hostile: ‘I don’t have a place for your son, and that’s the end of the matter.’” Fathi was shocked by the care worker’s reply, but insisted on knowing the true reason for the refusal to accept Arafat. A couple of hours later, he went to see his aunt and asked her to pretend to be Jewish and call the same daycare center. “As I expected, the care worker told her that there was no problem — she could bring her child whenever she liked. The worker emphasized several times that there was a vacant place in the center,” Fathi relates.

A young child or an obstacle to someone’s livelihood?

After a humiliating search, Fathi finally found a Jewish daycare center that was willing to accept his Arab son. Ironically, the facility was called “Reut,” a poetic Hebrew word for friendship and fellowship. However, it emerged that Fathi would have to conceal his true identity and that of his son. The owner of the child daycare center told Fathi that he would only accept Arafat if the boy went by the Jewish name Adam in the center. Fathi himself was to be known as Arik. Another condition was that Fathi (or Arik?!) was to be the only person in contact with the center. Since he had no other alternative, Fathi agreed to these conditions. This situation was concealed from the care workers in the center.

One day, some two weeks after Arafat began to go to the daycare center, Fathi’s sister telephoned the creche and asked to speak to “Arafat.” The care worker on the other side of the call had no idea of “Adam’s” true identity. When the terrible secret was revealed, the director of the facility telephoned Fathi and told him: “One of the daycare workers opened your son’s bag and saw that he is called Arafat and he is an Arab. She spoke about this with a relative who also has children in the center, and in response they removed their children from the center because there is an Arab child there.” Two days later, she called Fathi again: “A third couple came to see me today and asked me if I have an Arab child in the daycare center who is called Arafat. This is my livelihood and I can’t lose the children I have here. I will let him stay in the center until Thursday, which is the end of the month, so that you can pay me on a regular basis until you find another place for Arafat.”

An interesting exchange ensued between Fathi and the director of the child daycare center.

Fathi said, “I am coming right now to get him, and he won’t stay in the center a day longer.” The director asked why Fathi had to do this now. He replied angrily, “I wouldn’t want him to give the other children a disease or to start teaching them how to make bombs.” The director tried to placate him, but he interrupted: “How can you try to calm me down on the one hand, while on the other hand you humiliate me and belittle me as an Arab? My son’s leaving now, and that’s all there is to it.”

As Fathi relates the events, he displays a photograph of Arafat. “How can they behave like this toward a sixteen-month-old child? Where is these people’s conscience? Is it because of his name?”

Fathi called his son Arafat because that was also his own father’s name. It is an Arab tradition that the first son in the family is given the same name as his paternal grandfather. “I didn’t call him Arafat because of Yasser Arafat or for any other political reason. It was the name of my late father, who used to call me ‘Abu Arafat’ ” (in keeping with Arab tradition, a man is often referred to as the father of his child according to the name he is expected to give his son, even before the child has actually been born). “There is no way that I am going to change my son’s name just to please a state official or a registrar in the hospital.”

When asked about the other Arafat — Yasser Arafat — Fathi replied without hesitation: “He is my president and your president, and the president of all the Arabs in Israel. Abu Amar [Arafat], not Peres or the late Rabin. Even Jews should tell us this as Arabs. After all, apart from the identity card that has been imposed on me, we are Palestinians. If they take the identity card away, I am sure the Israeli government will treat us just as they treat the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank.” Fathi added, “Even demonstrators in the Western countries used to carry photographs of Arafat as a symbol of struggle and resistance. Who am I to change that as a part of my people?”

“I vote for Lieberman”

As part of the Palestinian people, the Arab citizens of Israel see themselves unreservedly as Palestinians. Although most of the Arabs live in their own cities and villages, separate from the Jewish communities, the state of Israel has always boasted of the coexistence that supposedly exists in mixed cities such as Haifa, Akka, Jaffa, Ramle, and Lod. Under the surface, however, this coexistence is an illusion.

Fathi’s story is by no means the first time that a Jewish institution has refused to accept an Arab child. The same thing has happened in schools. Indeed, the same principle applies even in the sale of land.

In this context it is interesting to note that as early as 1954 a court ruling was given in the United States in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The ruling stated that a policy of separation in education between whites and blacks was “inherently unequal.” Today, this ruling serves as the basis for a far-reaching re-examination of separation between different groups in society in all areas of life, both in the United States and in other countries.

In Israel, however, racial discrimination between Jewish and Arab citizens is found in everyday life, from the smallest details to strategic long-term government plans. In addition to the territorial separation between the Jewish and Arab populations, recent years have seen the establishment of walls and other physical divides between Arab and Jewish communities and between neighborhoods within the same city. The purpose of these walls and fences is apparent: to separate the Arab and Jewish populations, and to prevent physical or even eye contact between the two groups. One of these separation walls is situated in Fathi’s home town, Ramle, dividing the poor neighborhood of Jawarish from the surrounding prosperous Jewish neighborhoods.

Fathi comments on this subject: “As an Arab, I do not want them to separate us from the Jews. You can’t separate us anyway. Let’s say that my son goes to an all-Arab creche, and then on to an Arab high school and he lives only among Arabs all his life. In the end he will have to go to a Jewish university that teaches in Hebrew, and he will have to work among Jews who hold all the key positions in the economy. However you look at it, an Arab in Israel will always end up coming to the Jews. Arabs lose out now by studying and living separately, because the establishment and the official bodies everyone needs in their daily lives are held by the Jews.” Fathi continues: “We are living on our own land in a country that does not belong to us. If I want the smallest thing from the municipality or from a hospital or from income tax or the Ministry of the Interior, I have to go to a Jewish source.”

Despite the everyday contacts and integration between the two populations, however, recent opinion polls show a dramatic rise in racism toward the Arab population among the Jewish public in Israel. A report by the Center Against Racism published in March 2007 showed an increase of 26 percent in racist incidents directed against Arab citizens by comparison to the previous year. Furthermore, surveys show an increase of 100 percent in feelings of hatred toward Arabs among the Jewish population. A report published by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Annual Report 2006/7) included the findings of an annual survey monitoring the “racism index” in Israeli society. The survey shows that 49.9 percent of the Jewish public is afraid when they hear people speaking Arabic in the street; 31.3 percent feel revulsion; 43.6 percent feel uncomfortable; and 30.7 percent feel hatred. Another finding that underlines the stereotypical thought and racist behavior that have become endemic among wide circles of Israeli Jews shows that 75.3 percent of the respondents in the survey stated that they would not agree to live in the same building as Arabs.

Anyone who walks around Ramle can see discrimination at every turn, eroding Israeli democracy. As a mixed town, it might have been expected that the two populations in Ramle would live together. Instead Jewish residents impose a reality of rejection, separation and alienation. When Fathi was asked whether he feels that the Jews do not want him in Ramle, he responded without hesitation: “Sure. I see this all the time. Even during small talk with my Jewish colleagues in the dining room, they do not say that they are in favor of the transfer of Arab citizens from Israel, but they say, ‘I vote for Lieberman’!” [1]

“Let them go screw themselves”

The story of little Arafat is not the first racist incident faced by Arabs in Israel, and it will not be the last. The phenomenon is particularly powerful since it finds strong support among members of the establishment and influential individuals. An example of this is the racist comments by the mayor of Ramle, Yoel Lavi. Ron Feinreich, as reported in the local newspaper Ayalon, called Lavi and asked him to comment on a request from an Arab organization to change the street names in the old city of Ramle, where the population is mainly Arab, to names that relate to Arab heritage. Lavi responded: “I’m not going to change any name because of some Jamal or Mohammed. Let them change their God. Let them go screw themselves … Who care about this? In Jawarish they gave Arab street names. We are not going to damage the heritage of the Zionist movement because someone moves into Hama’apilim St. If someone doesn’t like it, let them move to Jaljuliya. That’s an Arab name.” [2]

In the meantime, Fathi has found a creche for his son in Ramle. It is worth noting that this is also a Jewish creche, and Fathi is very happy with it. “Why did I have to go through all this humiliation? God knows. But I am happy that despite everything there are still decent people with humane values who have met my son’s needs.”

If there is no fellowship, equality, and justice between children in Israel, how can there be any fellowship, equality, or justice among adults?

This report is the first in a series of Discrimination Diaries by the Arab Association for Human Rights, shedding light on the rights situation of Palestinians in Israel.

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Endnotes
[1] Avigdor Lieberman is a Member of Knesset and head of the National Union faction. Until his resignation in January 2008, he served as deputy prime minister and minister for strategic threats. Throughout his political life Lieberman has incited against the Arab citizens, attacked their national leadership, and advocated transfer for all those who do not see Israel as a “Jewish-Zionist state” and do not see the Israeli national anthem Hatikva as their own anthem. He believes that the Zionist vision is to maintain Israeli as a mononational state. The mere presence of a large Arab minority in the state contradicts this objective and contradicts his desire to maintain the “clean” Jewish state. Lieberman demands that Arab citizens must declare their allegiance to the State of Israel and must perform national service. He has threatened to transfer anyone who opposes this to the Palestinian Authority areas.
[2] The Hebrew name refers to illegal Jewish immigrants who arrived in Palestine before 1948.