Of God and Country
Kassem Zaid has had a connection to the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement for decades, but has meanwhile become a devout Muslim. How does he reconcile such contrasting elements in his personality?
By Alit Karp, Haâ€™aretz
Zaid: â€˜There is no room for extremism.â€™
Photo by: Yaron Kaminsky
We met 35 years ago. At the time Kassem Zaid was a correspondent for Al Hamishmar, the newspaper affiliated with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. He was also teaching Arabic at educational institutions affiliated with the movement on its kibbutzim (I attended one such school ) and he had close ties with Israeli leftist circles. He wore jeans and checkered shirts and spoke a poetic Hebrew. A short while before Al Hamishmar closed its doors permanently, in early 1995, Zaid lost his job. Subsequently he made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and became a devout Muslim.
Before we met about a month ago, I was expecting to see my 74-year-old former teacher bearded and dressed in a galabiya. But he arrived for the interview dressed in a suit and tie, and was clean-shaven. â€œIslam is a moderate, forgiving religion and it has no ritual clothing,â€ he explained in Hebrew.
Umm al-Fahm, the city of some 45,000, one of the countryâ€™s largest Arab towns, southeast of Haifa, has no sidewalks. Pedestrians, most of whom are youngsters (who wear Western attire, although girls do cover their hair ), walk down the cityâ€™s alleys where dumpsters overflow with refuse. Here and there one can see a stream of sewage. Any efforts at gardening are the result of private initiatives by local residents, and can only be seen tucked away in peopleâ€™s yards.
â€œRelatively speaking, our situation is not bad,â€ my host, Zaid, told me, â€œbecause [municipal] taxes are collected here. The situation in other communities is much more difficult.â€ He pointed out that there are many fine Arab physicians and talented high-tech personnel in Israel. â€œActually, the lack of equality,â€ he said, â€œforces us to excel, but that is a real shame. Discrimination is bad for the country; the human landscape here will never be complete without the Arabs.â€
Arenâ€™t some Israeli Jews afraid the Arabs will outnumber them and will drive them out by democratic means?
Zaid: â€œThe Jews have a lot of unjustified fears. As someone who believes in coexistence, I cannot understand this fear. For 63 years, and in five wars, Israeli Arabs displayed loyalty at the highest level. I would like to allay the Jewsâ€™ fears: The birth rate among the Arabs has plummeted and there is no apparent danger that the Jews will be outnumbered. That fear would be justified only if the Jews do not return the territories. Then there would be a binational state here and Kassem Zaid would be prime minister.â€
What is worrisome is the possibility that Muslim fundamentalists, like Islamic Movement leader Sheikh Raâ€™ad Salah, will come to power.
â€œThat will never happen. Even in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has declared that it will not field any candidate for the premiership or presidency. They are not interested in ruling the country. There is not the slightest chance that an Arab, whether he is Sheikh Raâ€™ad Salah or Kassem Zaid, will ever be prime minister. That is not at the top of the list of our priorities.â€
So what is at the top of the list?
â€œWe want equality. We want the Jews to look us straight in the eye, not look down on us. What is happening here now never happened even in South Africa. [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman has pushed for a â€˜citizenship loyaltyâ€™ law, but how can any of us know what another person is thinking or feeling? Even before Lieberman, we were unhappy. We were accused of being responsible for all the ills of Israeli society. There are even some expressions, like â€˜Arab work,â€™ that articulate this feeling of contempt.
â€œI want Israel to be a â€˜state of all its citizens,â€™â€ declares Zaid. â€œAlthough I also do not like to open up old wounds, I will state here that my familyâ€™s lands are located in the place where Moshav Hayogev was established [northeast of Umm al-Fahm]. I am not arguing that the kibbutzim and moshavim founded on those lands should be torn down, but nonetheless, we should receive compensation.â€
Donâ€™t you feel you belong in the State of Israel? In the kibbutz dining hall years ago, you looked as if you did.
â€œI still belong, but the country does not give me that feeling. I belong, despite all those who want to deny me the right to have that feeling. My sense of belonging is a result of my ability to cope with our situation.â€
On the night of May 14, 1948, when Israeli independence was declared, you were 11 years old. What do you remember from that period?
â€œNothing much happened that night because Israel received the â€˜Triangleâ€™ area of Arab villages after the countryâ€™s establishment, in accordance with the Rhodes Agreement. Before that agreement, we were Jordanian subjects. The agreement led us to feel that King Abdullah [I of Jordan] had betrayed us. After we came under Israeli administration, the Jews announced, using loudspeakers, that all those who had weapons in their possession must hand them over to the mukhtar [village headman]; the Jews also asked us to ensure that law and order be maintained in our communities.
â€œPeople were afraid of change. Obviously, I would have preferred seeing a Palestinian state established; however, people made peace with the new situation and, besides, there are a lot of advantages to living in Israel. On the personal level, Arab individuals can lead their lives in dignity, there is a senior citizens allowance, there is a guaranteed income allowance and no one suffers from abject hunger. My personal dignity is not trampled upon. But man does not live by bread alone. I am concerned about the relationship between Jews and Arabs in this country. Prior to the 1990s, that relationship was better than it is today. It is steadily deteriorating now.â€
Who is responsible for this?
â€œIn this struggle, the Jews fired both the first shot and the last one. Although there are some Arabs who undermine Arab-Jewish coexistence in this country, the Jews are the majority and they are the ones who run the government.â€
To what extent will recent events in the Middle East have an influence on Israeli Arabs?
â€œThey will have no influence whatsoever. I want to state here categorically that these events will not produce extremism among Israeli Arabs. All of you can relax: These events stem not from pan-Arabism or Islamization, but rather from the fact that the public in those states is fed up with their leadersâ€™ corruption. Muslim circles in the Middle East have no ambitions with regard to seizing control. They want to field candidates in general elections [for parliament], but not for positions of leadership. Even if they had such ambitions, it should be recalled here that those who generated the revolution in Egypt are secular Muslims who use Facebook and Google. They will not allow any party with a religious character to take control of the country in which they live. It is important that leaders in the Middle East remember that people are interested first of all in having their dignity respected and that only afterward are they interested in bread.â€
For years, you embraced the State of Israel and maintained close ties with Hashomer Hatzairâ€™s kibbutzim. You were a communist and now you have become someone else, someone who prays five times a day. What happened?
â€œI was not a communist. I did not turn into someone else and I am still close to Hashomer Hatzairâ€™s kibbutzim.â€
The alarm clock rang, reminding Zaid that it was time for prayer, but he rejected our suggestion that we join him in the mosque. â€œPreviously, I observed three of Islamâ€™s commandments,â€ he explains, referring to accepting the faith of Islam, fasting during Ramadan and giving alms to the needy. â€œThen I added the commandments of prayer and the hajj.â€
How do you resolve the paradox between religion and the aspiration for national equality?
â€œIslam is a religion that preaches equality between men and women, and God sent the Prophet Muhammad (s) to all humanity. If there is a reason why Islam sees itself as a religion that is preferable to other faiths, it is because Muhammad (s) was the last of the prophets. God sent him in order to complete what is missing in the other religions, not to invalidate them.â€
And what about jihad?
â€œJihad is not one of Islamâ€™s basic principles. Jihad is the struggle that each person wages against himself or herself, in the metaphoric sense; it is not necessarily an actual war against some external enemy. The great jihad that Muhammad (s) refers to is an ongoing, daily war, not a war against infidels per se. However, even if we agree that jihad is holy war, all the peace agreements that Arab states have signed with Israel are being honored, and if the Palestinians receive their rights, there will no war in this land. The future depends on the intellectuals, not the religious leaders.â€
There was a case here of an intellectual who headed an Israeli political party and who, when accused of collaboration with Hezbollah, fled the country in order not to stand trial.
â€œAzmi Bishara [of the Balad, or National Democratic Alliance, party] is a very intelligent person, but I do not agree with him and his approach. There is no room for extremism and if he did help Hezbollah, I reject him totally. I also call upon [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah, who is trying to recruit collaborators among Israeli Arabs, to leave us alone. We have more important tasks to pursue, concerning our citizenship in the State of Israel. Despite the discrimination, I am against the idea of anyone committing treason against this country. We feel that this is a state of all its citizens and that we are among those citizens.â€
The term â€œa state of all its citizensâ€ arouses considerable anxiety in the hearts of many Israeli Jews.
â€œI am not saying this to irritate the Jews, but this is a fact: Two nations live in this land and I want to be a citizen here with equal rights.â€
Did this feeling lead you to seek refuge in Islam?
â€œI do not consider Islam a refuge. After all, I am a member of one of the oldest Muslim families in the world. My family belongs to the Prophet Muhammad (s)â€™s dynasty.â€
But what happened when you suddenly became a devout Muslim?
â€œThere is no such thing as an atheist Muslim. Anyone who refuses to recognize the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad (s) is simply not a Muslim, but a person who does not observe one of Islamâ€™s commandments is not necessarily severing ties with Islam.â€
When did you start praying daily?
â€œIt did not happen on any specific date. I had planned this for a long time. Perhaps I did not have the time to do it, or perhaps I was just lazy, but 20 years ago, I began to pray five times a day. If I have the time, I go to a mosque; if I do not, I pray at home. The prayer lasts less than five minutes and a Muslim can pray anywhere.â€
In 2004, Zaid performed the Muslim commandment of the hajj, along with his wife Salwa. As he circled the Kaaba – the most sacred site in Islam, in Mecca – he was deeply moved.
â€œWhen I saw millions of people all wearing the same attire, beggars alongside princes and tycoons, all wearing the same robe and praying to the same God, I had a feeling that was simply indescribable. There, and only there,â€ he said, â€œI felt that everyone was truly equal.â€
Sociologist Prof. Aziz Haidar is a senior researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalemâ€™s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, says Kassem Zaid is not a unique case, in terms of his acquired religious identity.
â€œThe phenomenon of the newly observant in the Israeli Arab community is a trend that began back in the 1970s, in the wake of the [Arab] defeat in the 1967 war, and due to disillusionment with pan-Arabism. The trend became more prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the factors that contributed to it was the possibility that was provided in the early 1980s for making the hajj to Mecca. Two other factors were the collapse of communism and disenchantment with the Palestinian national movement.
â€œA prominent aspect of the phenomenon in the â€™90s,â€ Haidar continues, â€œwas the fact that it was not connected to religious extremism. Quite the contrary. And the vast majority of newly observant Muslims today are people with moderate views. In the â€™70s, on the other hand, the first wave of newly observant Muslims was characterized by such extremism. Today these pious Muslims accept the â€˜otherâ€™ and do not necessarily use external symbols such as attire in order to draw attention to their religiosity. It is hard to pick them out in a crowd âˆ’ and I am referring here to those who have performed the commandment of making the pilgrimage to Mecca: They enjoy the good life, take vacations and engage in sports.
â€œMost young Muslim women who cover their heads dress like their secular counterparts and sometimes even provocatively. Even women who dress according to the Muslim religious code generally choose colorful attire, rather than the drab shades that one sees in other countries. Some of these young women do not even cover their heads. A relatively new trend is the phenomenon of women praying in the mosques. Prior to the â€™90s, Muslim women in Israel did not pray in mosques, but today they do so during the month of Ramadan and on Fridays. There are even those who pray daily. This is modern, or postmodern, Islam, which is quite unlike what was observed in the past.
â€œOne of the results of the national and democratic awakening in Arab states today may be the weakening of the Islamic movements, and even perhaps … newly observant Muslims… Ha`aretz