From Eddie Murphy to Barack Obama
Written by Ishmael Ben-Israel
In 1983 Eddie Murphy performed a very popular one-man standup show called “Delirious”. The performance for most viewers was sharp, hilarious and extremely entertaining, but for some individuals and groups it could certainly have been derogative and demeaning. The word “fuck” is said to have been used at least 200 times.
You must by now be asking yourself what this has to do with our project that aims to narrow cultural and linguistic gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel. I’ll get to that in a moment.
At the end of the show, Eddie Murphy mentions the name Marian Anderson, a famous black opera singer. Turns out that 44 years prior to the performance, in 1939, Anderson was prevented from entering that very same theatre in Washington DC, in which she was scheduled to perform; this of course being part of the policy of racial segregation that was prevalent up until the 1970’s and legally enforced until the 50’s.
Now I first saw Delirious in the 90’s and then a second time just a few years back. Something quite unexpected happened in between, a black president was elected. What’s most interesting to me is that Obama didn’t get into the oval office because of black voters that make up less than 15% of the population, but rather to a large extent thanks to white voters, some of them the sons of the generation of segregation and the grandsons of the generations of slavery. Talk about historical baggage on the one hand and monumental change on the other!
It just may be that only in America is it possible to make such a dramatic transformation in such a short period of time, historically speaking; from slavery to segregation and from a 22 year old black comedian being paid 10 thousand dollars for every time he says the word “fuck”, to a black president, all in 150 years! Wow! At the end of his performance, Eddie Murphy himself gave voice not only to the irony and hypocrisy, but also to the hope and inspiration that can be drawn from all this by saying “God bless America”. That could have been one of those rare instances when such a phrase could be said with an equal amount of cynicism and seriousness.
What does that have to do with us?
There’s a lot we can learn from modern American history that’s very relevant to our circumstances in this part of the world. When I reflect on the comparison between Israel and US societies and history, I’m at times overcome with despair and frustration and at other times encouraged and optimistic; Frustration, because I see where they are and where we are and how much we have to catch up. They have black cultural icons, countless inter-racial couples and a black president. Israeli Arabs represent a bigger portion of Israeli society than do black Americans in American society; however, Israeli Arabs are fiercely underrepresented in all spheres, especially when it comes to pop culture. Who are Israeli youngsters (or for that matter adults) more familiar with, Fairuz or Nasrallah? Jubran Khalil Jubran or Bin Laden?
But at the same time, I’m optimistic, for the American story teaches us that even from the lowest rung on the moral ladder a people can and eventually will transcend. There is a limit on how long a social system can turn a blind eye and indifferent heart on social injustices, inequality, discrimination and intentional stereotyping. Such phenomena always carry their very own expiration date. We either clean up the mess we’ve created in time, or we reap the fruit of our own transgressions.
One way of beating the clock and the odds, is to intentionally confront those who think stereotypically (all of us) with the object of their hate and/or fear. The truth that must be uncovered under layers of hostility and mistrust is that at the end of the day, we’re not that different!
In The States, blacks have fought side by side with whites for universal civil rights. In fact, as a minority themselves, American Jews have always been vocal supporters of equality for all religions, ethnicities and races. Following their example, Israeli Jews and Arabs that are fed up paying the price of previous generations’ mistakes have the responsibility to join hands in building a more tolerant and pluralistic society for the coming generations.
The question is, how can we counterbalance the destructive cumulative effects of things that are the root cause of prejudice and stereotypes? What we see on TV may not be balanced, but it’s certainly effective in fanning the flames of hatred. So how can we reach out to those who can’t or simply won’t listen? Can we offer an alternative narrative to the commonly accepted equation that says Arabic=Arabs=terrorists?
Our project, AMAL (Hebrew acronym for Spoken Arabic for All) was founded with the goal of providing young Israeli Arab students with a platform and the tools to “cross the lines” and take on the role of agents of social change, in the “holy of holies” of Jewish society-in our schools. While in many Jewish schools across the country, Arabic marches into classrooms in army uniform, we try to penetrate schools and communities and families and hearts and minds in civilian clothes; our weapons of choice being dialog and our deep-rooted belief in the ability of human beings to fundamentally change collective prejudice through personal caring and nurturing relationships. The trusting relationships between Arab students and Jewish pupils isn’t just a means to a goal (to make learning Arabic easier), but a goal within itself.
For the third consecutive year, hundreds of Jewish elementary school pupils will have the opportunity to experience something that is unfortunately truly unique for most Israeli children – a direct, stable and caring relationship with a positive Arab role model. Not a Jewish teacher teaching pupils about Ramadan from a text book, but rather Arab youth telling their own personal family story of how they observe the fast. Instead of talking about “they” we can now talk in terms of “we”. Our goal is not just to teach vocabulary and grammar, but first and foremost to create a fun and safe environment in which Arabic can finally be identified with positive experiences.
Can there be an Arab prime minister in Israel?
It would be interesting to see what the reactions to that question would be at the beginning of the school year and once again after a year in which pupils participated in our project. Would the answers change? Would it be more difficult to respond after meeting a neighbor they didn’t even know existed? I truthfully do not know, but one thing is crystal clear, and that is that children will be braver and more honest than adults in tackling that question. And that’s exactly why we want to work with them, get to know them and let them get to know us, not vis-à-vis the TV screen, but rather face to face, as equals and friends.