Mideast Tensions Force Arab-Israeli Writer To Leave Jerusalem

Sayed Kashua had assimilated into Israeli society as much as any Arab could. But last month, the Arab-Israeli writer packed up and left Israel. He tells Steve Inskeep why he left Jerusalem.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Next, we'll report on a casualty of war. The war was the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And this particular casualty is not one of the many killed and injured. Instead, he is a man who feels like he is losing his country. His name is Sayed Kashua. He is an Arab, a Palestinian who has lived all his life within the borders of Israel but doesn't think he can do it anymore.

SAYED KASHUA: I would like very much to find a different place, at least for now. I need to be very far away, and I need - I need to be a little bit more protected.

INSKEEP: He was already planning to spend a school year at the University of Illinois. And now says he might be leaving Israel for good. It's significant because this Arab man is a prominent writer in the Jewish state. He writes novels in Hebrew. He is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the creator of an Israeli sitcom. Until recently, he lived with his family in an overwhelmingly Jewish section of Jerusalem.

What was it that happened in the last weeks that changed your plans?

KASHUA: The major thing that changed my plan was extremists in the streets of Jerusalem, the place that we live. I think that we were the only Arab family in our neighborhood in western Jerusalem. And there were groups of Jewish, extreme right-wing people beating Arabs in the streets of Jerusalem and just because they are Arabs. And when Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the young Palestinian teenager, was kidnapped and executed, I felt that I cannot really let my daughter take the buses in the streets of Jerusalem. But I think that more than anything else, it was this very strong feeling that I lost my world, in my case - because it's true. I was writing, and my writing, the novels and the TV shows and the movies, were doing huge success. But that was not the major reason that I started writing in Hebrew. It was because I wanted to create one story that both Palestinians and Israelis, Jewish Israelis sharing that land, can relate to or can live in peace with one story, not two stories, not two narratives that cannot live together.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that Americans understand the group of people of whom you are a part, or of whom you could identify. People are, of course, familiar with Israelis and Palestinians. People are familiar with Muslims and Jews. You are an Israeli Arab. Would you describe who the Israeli Arabs are?

KASHUA: Sometimes, we are called to Israeli Arabs - sometimes, the Palestinian citizens of Israel. We're talking about 20 percent of the population of Israel, people that became citizens of Israel after '48. Our villages and towns were occupied, and we were forced, actually, to carry the Israeli citizenship. So we are Palestinian citizens of Israel. We are carrying Israeli passports and Israeli ID. But still, we are considered not equal citizens, and there is no way to compare between our situation and the Jewish people, citizens, inside Israel.

INSKEEP: How are you not equal? Do you not have the same voting rights, for example?

KASHUA: Yes, we do have - we have the right to vote. But we are discriminated in everything that you can imagine. It's the investment per person; if you are Jewish and Arab, it's completely different. And there's this very strong feeling that we are a threat, that we are a national threat, that we are considered still, in Israel, like, fifth column, like a mistake. So it's - we have the right to vote, and I'm not sure for how long we are going to practice it because sometimes it looks like a fig leaf for the fake Israeli democracy. And we cannot really talk about Israel as a democracy, and even Israeli sociologists would call it ethnocracy. It's a democratic country only if you belong to the Jewish people.

INSKEEP: You said that one frustrating thing was that Palestinian citizens of Israel are regarded as a fifth column, as a threat.

KASHUA: Yes.

INSKEEP: Is there a way in which people like you actually are a threat? Not a terrorist threat, but in a sense that there are Jews who would like Israel to remain a Jewish state, and they want it to be a majority Jewish state where Jews can make decisions for themselves and control their destiny as a people. And Arabs threaten that in some way, demographically threaten it,

KASHUA: So yes. So if people - yes. I think that there are a lot of Israelis who do not agree with my opinions and with my writings. But, you know, we are talking here about religions. Can you imagine a democratic state in Europe that Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism is the religion and the only religion of the state? It's a problem. I can understand the history of the Jewish people and the sad history of the Jewish people. And they can understand the fact that maybe because, as a result of the history, the Jewish people might need a shelter, a state like a shelter - of course. But also, the Palestinians, who used to have that land, have to have the same shelter. It's not enough to be born for a Jewish mother in California in order to become a citizen of Israel and to be more citizen than me. Of course, if you are under a threat and you are under - and you are persecuted because of your Judaism, you should maybe be a citizen of that state. But also, if you are a Palestinian persecuted because of being Palestinian, you should also find the shelter in that state. Of course, it's a dream. But that's the only dream I have meanwhile.

INSKEEP: Sayed Kashua, thank you very much.

KASHUA: Thank you, thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Arab Israeli writer Sayed Kashua on his recent decision to leave Israel.

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