Two Arab-Israelis find their place in Oxford

By Yusuf Abusharif

Saed Bishara and Sonai Kashoa are technically Israeli.

Their passports bare the famous menorah and olive branches, the coat of arms of Israel. They can vote for president, pay their taxes, go the DMV, and claim social services, all for the Israeli government.

Their names are presumably in a large database full of all the rest of Israel’s citizens. But if you ask either of them about their identity or what nationality they identify with, their answer is much different than one would expect.

“Me an Israeli? No.” Bishara said proudly. “I am a Palestinian through and through. I have Israeli citizenship, but that does not change my heritage or my allegiance to my country of origin.”

This creates a huge predicament: How could someone be both Israeli and Palestinian when both countries have been at odds for so long?

Bishara and Kashoa belong to a minority of Arabs living in Israel who overwhelmingly identify as Palestinians. According, to the CIA World Factbook, they make up 20 percent of Israel’s overall population.

They are often referred to in the country as the “1948 Arabs” or “Arab b’seder” in Hebrew. The year attached to their nickname is the year the Israeli militias invaded the British Mandate of Palestine, maintained control of more than half of its territory and declared itself a state.

Most Palestinians decided to leave to surrounding countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The Arabs of Israel decided to stay, surrender their territories and accept Israeli citizenship.

Kashoa shared his perspective.

“Sometimes it’s hard to accept that what used to be your country is not yours anymore, and you have to accept the rule of people who killed your people and stole your land,” he said. “The place your ancestors called home is now a part of a country who hates your very existence.”

Bishara and Kashoa said Arabs in Israel are heavily discriminated against and often feel marginalized by the overwhelming Jewish majority. They said racism is rampant in Israel, and the Arab-Israelis often avoid predominantly Jewish areas, especially those of the Orthodox Hasidic Jews. Even politically, the 1948 Arabs face many challenges.

In November of 2014, 39 members of the Israeli parliament proposed a bill that would declare Israel the “Nation-State of the Jewish people.” It would remove Arabic as an official language of Israel and declare special rights of “self-determination for people of the Jewish faith.” Critics of the bill claim it would further alienate religious and ethnic minorities in Israel and could cause discourse for session from the state.

“If this bill passes, we’re finished as equal citizens of Israel,” Bishara said. “My father said we’d probably apply for American citizenship if it got to that point.”

Bishara and Kashoa said they opted to apply to a university in the United States because Arabs sometimes face difficulties in getting into Israeli universities. Their choice: the University of Mississippi.

Bishara has an uncle who lives close by in Saltillo, so Ole Miss was a good nearby university that had his major. Kashoa first sought out a job in New York City to no avail, but then decided to enroll at Ole Miss and room with his friend Bishara.

“We love it here,” Kashoa said. “Southerners remind us of Arabs in a way. They are very polite and hospitable and always greet you with a smile or at least a nod of the head.”

Kashoa and Bishara say they have made a lot of friends living at the Taylor Bend Apartments and their neighbors come over frequently. They both spoke highly of the Oxford atmosphere, claiming it is a great alternative to going to school in a neighboring Arab country or Eastern Europe.

“I thought maybe coming here would be a repeat of living in Israel,” Bishara said. “Being a minority in a country is a scary feeling. You feel out of place, unfamiliar, like an outsider. But I was really surprised when I came to Ole Miss. Everybody’s friendly, and I’m really happy with my decision to come here.”

Bishara and Kashoa are set to graduate in June of 2016, but say they might consider applying for American citizenship to stay close to their alma mater.

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