An Arab Maverick in Israel
Bucking convention in his village, Yousef Juhja sent three sons to the IDF—and one paid the ultimate price
Arabs, like most ultra-Orthodox Jews, are legally exempted from Israel’s mandatory conscription, though almost all male Druze (an Arabic-speaking community following an offshoot of Shia Islam) enlist, and 5 to 10 percent of Bedouin males volunteer, many as scouts and trackers. A memorial exists for fallen Bedouin servicemen and two for the Druze, but until Juhja’s initiative, no similar site existed for other Arab soldiers killed in uniform.
For decades, these wholesale community-based exemptions from military service have rankled mainstream Jewish Israelis. That arrangement, generally known as the Tal Law, expired this summer, and raucous national political debate ensued over whether ultra-Orthodox should be forced to complete IDF or nonmilitary national service. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu have gone further, pushing proposals to include Arabs in mandatory military or civilian service as well.
That prospect is unlikely. Arab citizens of Israel have an equivocal, some would say almost schizophrenic relationship with the state, its symbols, and the majority Jewish population. Israel’s Arabs, some of whom identify as “Palestinians living in Israel” or even “1948 Arabs,” pepper their speech with Hebrew and balk at the prospect of marrying their West Bank brethren. But polls show 40 percent share the view—pervasive in the Arab world—that Holocaust history is fabricated.
A still greater proportion of Israeli Arabs see Zionism as imperialism, or worse, as a latter-day Crusade. Last year, an authoritative annual poll conducted by the University of Haifa’s Sammy Smooha found six in 10 Israeli Arabs said Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, and a similar proportion said Jews are a foreign imprint on the Middle East, destined to be replaced by Palestinians.
This year’s poll painted a slightly less grim picture: Six in 10 Israeli Arabs accept the country as a Jewish and democratic state, but an equivalent number described that situation as unfair. And while seven in 10 said the government treats them as second-class citizens, a similar proportion said they prefer to live in Israel over any other country.
While in the immediate aftermath of Sgt. Juhja’s death, scores of soldiers, ministry officials, and even Israel’s then-president Moshe Katsav paid calls to the house, few of Arara’s residents attended the funeral, and some shop owners refused to give the grieving father service. A number of Knesset members have since visited the memorial—but none have been Arab.
When I ask Juhja how he has the strength to stand his ground in the face of his community’s near-universal hostility, he waves away the question: “I have my own philosophy,” he says. “As for religion, I’m devout in my own way. I thank God he gave me a brain to think, and eyes to see you with. That’s religion to me. Does God want us all to kill each other? I don’t think so.”
But Juhja’s biography is exceptional and may help explain his determination to integrate into Israel’s Jewish mainstream. At 14, after finishing his schooling—Arara had no high school at the time—he left the village to work with his father, a poor farmer, to clear the shrub land near Tel Aviv where Ramat Gan’s Diamond Exchange now sits. Within a few years he had found employment in gardening and maintenance at the home of Ramat Gan’s longtime mayor Avraham Krinitzi, living with the family and being treated, he recalls, as one of its own. When, at 22, Juhja chose to get married, dozens of families from Ramat Gan traveled to Arara for the celebration.
Juhja’s cousin, a man in his 40s who asked to remain nameless, is, like most Arara residents, opposed to Arab enlistment. Unlike them, however, he has not shunned his bereaved relative, and even holds out the possibility of one day fitting out his own sons in green.
“It’s true, Yousef broke new ground. He went against the ‘street’ of Wadi Ara and the whole area. That’s rare courage,” his cousin tells me. “I’m proud that I’m an Israeli citizen and that I live in the state of Israel, but I feel constant discrimination. There are huge gaps between the Jewish and Arab communities on every level.”
“I go to Tel Aviv and hear ‘Death to the Arabs.’ Then I go into the [Palestinian] territories, and I’m treated as if I’m half a Jew,” he says. “If peace comes in another 10 or 15 years, and if I’m given my rights and made to feel like I belong, I’ll be the first to send my sons to enlist.”
Juhja, undeterred, dresses down his younger relative.
“You are a minority. Every minority in the world suffers to a certain extent—some more, others less. But you have to express your frustration in an organized, democratic way,” he says. “For the past year and a half, young people in Tel Aviv have protested over the lack of housing. If you want to protest discrimination, do so within the framework of the law.”
Lighting another smoke, Juhja turns to me and cuts to the heart of the matter. “I’m not a citizen of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, or even the Palestinian Authority,” he says. “I’m a Muslim-Arab Israeli. I received Israeli citizenship the moment I was born.”
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