A Jew Among Muslims

A new book tells us what it's like to be the only Israeli Jew studying at an Islamic Arab college.

The Al-Qasemi Academic College is an Islamic Sufi college located in Baqa al-Gharbiye, an Arab city in Israel. Most of the students there are Arab Israelis, some of which even identify as Palestinians. Al-Qasemi Diary is a new book containing Avi Shalev’s reflections after studying there. The fact that he, an Israeli Jew, a Lieutenant Colonel (res.) who served for 24 years in the Military Intelligence Directorate Research Division, and in the Israel Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, did this is extremely unusual, and sometimes his presence there was seen as a threat, despite the goodwill.

While reading Al Qasemi Diary, readers experience his discomfort. Time and time again he regrets the misunderstandings he experiences due to having less knowledge of Arabic than the Arab students on the course (almost all of these are female, as he is studying for a teaching degree). This discomfort also stems from not knowing how he will be treated while controversial events are taking place elsewhere in the country, for example, the violent Palestinian protests on the day the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was announced. The common denominator between Avi and the rest of the people he meets at Al-Qasemi is a sort of thin layer of hope and humanity. Once this layer is lifted, one discovers the various attitudes that exist among Israeli Arab students at the college, torn between the need to integrate into Israeli society and their Palestinian identity that often leads to a hostile attitude towards the mere existence of the Jewish State.

For instance, after Avi becomes friends with one of his classmates Mira, a kind student who understands the difficulties he faces in studying at an Islamic Arab university, her husband Tamer tells Avi about his life project – creating websites about Islamic leaders, some of them former leaders of terrorist groups who are currently in jail or were killed by Israel. Tamer, who is part of the Israeli education system, teaches in a school in the Negev. However, before he signs up for an Arab-Jewish study program in Germany recommended by Avi, he asks whether this program has “any ties to the Zionist movement or any Zionist organization.” If it does, he will not be willing to participate. Tamer, like some Israeli Arabs, prioritizes his solidarity with the Palestinian agenda over collaborations that could potentially lead to normalization in the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.

In these and other instances, the author chooses to leave his comfort zone, one he resided in for years as a Jewish Israeli person in the State of Israel, part of the majority. Not only is this a brave, unpredictable and sometimes misunderstood act for both sides, it is also a fascinating social experiment.

On the one hand, Shalev propels himself into a parallel reality to the Jewish-Israeli one he knows well. On the other hand, like in any experiment, once the observer himself observes, it necessarily impacts the validity of the experiment itself. Therefore, any conversation Avi has is subjective, with the book made up of a mixture of anecdotes and quotes. We see the inner Israeli Palestinian world through the eyes of a Jewish Israeli, an external element, at times foreign as well, who curiously examines not only the people he communicates with, but also their ideologies and perspectives. Since this is a personal journal, and not a neutral experiment, Avi not only writes about impressions he gained from talking to people, but also writes about impressions he received by diving deep, unafraid to undermine his fellow students’ words.

More than anything, Al-Qasemi Diary is a story of searching for an identity in this environment. One of the situations described in the book is nightmarish – one day, Avi arrives in class and finds no one there. He searches the entire floor and still does not find anybody, nor on other floors. He tries to remember whether there was a discussion during the last lesson about class being cancelled but cannot remember anything. He fears that the announcement was made, but that he missed it due to his language barrier (they were all in the conference room).

This insecurity our protagonist experiences in this situation, his uncertainty – especially as a person who is generally confident and well aware of his surroundings – makes him think about the similar situation Muslim students commonly find themselves in when they start studying at Jewish universities, finding themselves limited by the language of the material being taught, which is not their native tongue. Moreover, they lack the context, the shared past and mentality most of the Jewish students have. This feeling of foreignness, the search for an identity that can contain this complexity of an Arab minority within a Jewish majority – a majority turned into a minority within the larger perspective of the Arab Middle East – is a detrimental experience that largely defines the lives of the Israeli Arabs. Many of them feel that they are neither fully part of the Arab or Israeli worlds, one foot in each culture.

Thus, Avi, searching for his fellow students that day in Al-Qasemi, reflects the experiences of self-searching shaping the lives of Israeli Arabs. Some of them will become part of the resistance movements that sanctify Palestinian identity. Others will discover that they relate more to the Israeli component of their identity and will live a life very similar to that of the Jews in Israel. Most will end up somewhere in the middle of the identity spectrum.

One of the greatest strengths of Avi Shalev’s book is his attempt to study and converse solely in Arabic. Diglossia is a known problem in the Arabic language, which, even before considering the dozens of different dialects, is split into two languages: the spoken language and the literary language – the language of literature, newspapers and television news. Try watching Arab television shows with Arabic subtitles – you will find that the subtitles differ from the dialogue spoken between actors, due to many parts of spoken Arabic that cannot be written. Additionally, literary Arabic can often sound ridiculous in everyday speech. Avi is not the only one who has to cope with the difficulties of this double language. The readers will be able to acknowledge the difficulty of the Bedouin women from the south who struggle to express themselves in literary Arabic in the classroom, learning about the difficulties embedded in the Arabic language due to this constant duality.

Al-Qasemi Diary allows a peek into the Israeli-Arabic-Palestinian culture through Israeli Jewish eyes. Avi is not a neutral observer, and he does not hide his inner questions provoked by conversations with characters described in his book. The close proximity to the Arab people makes this book the closest thing to a long visit to the Arab culture in Israel you can find without enrolling in an Islamic Arab college as Avi did.

Maybe, though, it is a good idea to follow in his footsteps; Al-Qasemi Diary truly makes studying there sound appealing.

*Avi Shalev, Al-Qasemi Diary [Hebrew], Mendele Publishers, 2021, pp. 364.

Article translated from the Hebrew by Alex Stein. 

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