Palestinian-American comedian Aron Kader and Jewish-Israeli actress/philanthropist Naomi Ackerman shed some light on what you may have missed in the latest episode of "Arab Labor."
Memorial Day is a sacred and somber holiday in Israel.
Israel has known many wars in its short existence and there has been a tremendous loss of young life. Because the country is so small, everyone has been touched by tragedy and everyone knows someone who had died in war so the collective mourning is sincere and profound.
There are two sirens that ring on Memorial Day: one at 8 p.m. the night before and the other at 11 a.m. the day of when many people are paying respect at fallen soldiers' graves.
When the siren goes off, everyone must stop and take a moment of silence. There's no talking or moving and heads are bowed down in memory of the dead. Cars stop, even if they're on the highway, and people exit to mourn.
Memorial Day is correlated directly with Israel's Independence Day. Memorial Day starts at 8 p.m. the night before and Israelis go straight from bereavement to celebration at 8 p.m. the following day. The rationale behind this is that we can't celebrate without commemorating and remembering those who made the biggest sacrifice off all.
Obviously, all of this is extremely complicated and difficult for Palestinians. This holiday is dedicated to remembering soldiers, who most Palestinians consider the enemy. Israeli Independence Day is Nakba Day, "Day of the Catastrophe," for Palestinians. It's an annual day of commemoration for the displacement that preceded and followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
So while Israelis are celebrating the independence of their land, Palestinians are mourning the loss of theirs. This episode shows the complexity, thorniness, and problematic existence of people on this land.
Every year, Memorial Day ends with a torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl (Herzl formed the World Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish migration to Israel in an effort to form a Jewish state). This ceremony applauds and rejoices the Jewish State. Twelve torches are lit that symbolize Israeli accomplishments.
There has been an alternative ceremony to the one on Mount Herzl in the last few years. The controversial event includes Arabs and takes into consideration their loss. Amjad is invited to light a torch at what he thinks is the alternative Independence Day celebration, only to find out that it's the national one, which he clearly cannot be part of.
This episode is really about belonging. How do we belong in a place that doesn't accept us? How can we celebrate an independence that displaced our people? Do we just pretend and try to blend in? Do we speak a different language? (Amjad's mother surprises him when she suddenly speaks German). Amjad wants to just be, but this is an almost impossible task for an Arab in Israel, especially on Independence Day.
There is such controversy over the land because both sides love it. When lighting the torch for Amjad, Meir talks about love in his speech. And although he's directing it to Amal, this is a speech Arabs and Jews alike could say. "I love the country, you are my home, and I'll do everything for our land."
Amjad's mom explains to Amjad's daughter Maya what happened to the Palestinian people on Israel's independence. As the episode ends, you see and hear Maya singing a popular song that is sung for fallen soldiers. She sings in Hebrew with a heavy Arab accent in a particularly chilling moment. The words relate to both the Jewish and Arab experience. There is a sense of the unreasonableness of the conflict, displacement, and pain.
Naomi Ackerman is a Jewish-Israeli American. She is the founder and executive director of The Advot Project -- a non-profit organization that uses theater for transformation with incarcerated youth. Naomi draws upon her vast experience as an actress in theater, musicals, films, and television to develop programs that promote peace, change, and encourage self-empowerment.
I defer to Naomi, who is from Israel, to explain Israel's Memorial and Independence Day traditions, and the "alternative ceremony" as I've never experienced the holidays in Israel for myself. What I can try to address is the Nakba and what it means to Palestinians.
The Nakba and Israel's Independence Day is effectively the same thing from differing sides. "Nakba" means "catastrophe" in Arabic. The Nakba describes the 711,000 Palestinians and others that became refugees following the war of 1948. Nakba Day, which is commemorated annually on May 15 by Palestinians around the globe, is a day of memorial for the displacement that preceded the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
Nakba is a universally known word that describes historic events composed of several disasters. Palestinians use the Nakba to describe the events that caused the exodus of Palestinians from their homeland. Like "9/11," "Shoa," or "Holocaust," it is one word that encompasses a series of events. I'm not equating these events with each other, but simply illustrating the way in which societies have used single words to sum up and reference significant events in history. They describe days in which countries and their people have experienced disaster, persecutions, or permanent change.
The Nakba changed the trajectory of the Palestinian people in terms of where they lived, how they lived, and how they viewed themselves.
The "Right of Return" is also a sticking point in peace negotiations in this conflict and usually refers to the 1948 refugees. As a matter of fact, nearly 75 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza are 1948 refugees that were pushed south in the Nakba. Many others are no longer on the land -- not the West Bank, Gaza, or Israel -- but living around the region or around the world due to the annexing of Palestine. The issue is a non-starter in negotiations. The Israelis have said they will never allow them to return, but it still comes up almost every time the two sides talk about a compromise.
Many more Palestinians became refugees following the 1967 or Six-Day War. There are reportedly 5 million descendants from the 700,000-plus refugees from 1948 and 300,000 from 1967. Most of them were never able to return to the land their parents and grandparents came from. American passport holders can visit as tourists, but have no right to live in the land they lost.
This episode opens with Bushra and Amjad arguing about what Maya is being taught in school. Amjad is helping her with history homework using Israeli textbooks, which basically ignore the Palestinian narrative. Bushra thinks this is detrimental to her daughter's identity, heritage, and self-esteem. The Israeli government's funding of public schools is predicated on the condition that they use Israeli textbooks. Because Arab schools don't want to teach a history that ignores them, this can result in their schools being underdeveloped and poorly funded.
Although there are many successful Palestinian businesses and individuals in Israel and the Palestinian territories, it's not enough to support a demographic where nearly 40 percent of the population is under 18 and unemployment is high. Not to mention that Israel will regularly freeze assets during this ongoing conflict and monitor funds going into Arab areas to ensure that it doesn't fund anything threatening. The kids suffer the most.
Maya not being invited to sing with her school choir is sad; she clearly doesn't have a world view or a political position. She's just a kid. Going to a Jewish school makes her different and probably makes the contrast stark and clear.
Bushra says, "you send your daughter to a Jewish Zionist school and you don't think it will effect her identity?" Amjad has a tough time defending his position when Bushra says it's "selling out her identity and dignity so her friends will like her."
Amjad clumsily tries to explain to his daughter Maya why Israel's Independence day is so hard to deal with. "We're Arabs and these holidays have nothing to do with us. ... We don't exist in these ceremonies, we just don't exist." Nobody should ever have to explain to kids in a truly free society how they are not included.
Meanwhile, Amal and Meir's love story is heating up. Before Meir is cut off by the Memorial Day sirens, he was saying "Is this a Jewish/Arab thing? I don't give a damn about that. ... I don't give a damn about Nakba and don't give a damn about 1948." If you expand on his train of thought and fill in the blanks, he's saying he doesn't care about politics or ethnicity or religion. He puts that all aside. I love that. As an American, I could never imagine my parents or my children not being able to love someone because of their culture.
In the end Maya gets a lesson from her grandmother during a very touching and sad moment. She opens an old photo album and begins to tell a story, "Once upon a time there was a village." Again, you will need to fill in the blanks when the scene fades out and can add any one of thousands of stories about a family living in a village being pushed out never to return.
Amjad says, "Fitting in doesn't mean betraying our values." That is the essence of the challenge for Arab Israelis. This episode personifies the social struggle of fitting in as a Palestinian living in Israel.
Aron Kader is a Palestinian-American comedian and founding member of The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour that debuted on Comedy Central in 2007. He performs regularly in Hollywood at his home club, The World Famous Comedy Store.
Click here to watch the full episode, and Kader and Ackerman recapping the ep.