Lian Najami – A Unique Perspective: Arab-Israeli Relations
On the 22nd of February 2019, Lian Najami was invited by Warwick’s International Relations Society and the Jewish Israel Society to talk about Arab-Israeli relations within Israel. Her passion for the subject stems from her childhood in a neighbourhood in the city of Haifa, which, along with her outstanding education, led her to become the first ever Arab-Israeli Rhodes Scholar. Her truly captivating speech allowed us to jump into the life of an Arab citizen of Israel, permitting us to experience a first-hand account of what it effectively means to be treated as what is in the eyes of Ms Najami, a significant cultural minority.
She initiated by describing the differences which exist in the quality of life between Arabs and Israelis. The substantial divergences are seen in transport, in the welfare systems, education and infrastructure. Across the use of photographs, she explained that Israelis are more likely to live in thriving and expanding cities, whilst the Arab population is restricted to villages since the 1948 expansion permits. These poor conditions over the years have led to a shared feeling of neglection amongst the Arab people. Statistical data serves to justify her claims: 44% of Arabs are amongst the poorest sector of the society, and 25% are unemployed. Moreover, 83% of Jewish women are employed in Israel whilst less than half – 36% – of Arab women are given this same opportunity.
Given these staggering, however accurate figures, Ms Najami discussed the need for change as imperative. When asked what she believed to be the most effective measure of bringing about this much-needed transformation, her first proposal was a reform in the education system. The Arab minority must be educated in order to make them want to be a proud part of the Israeli community, allowing them to recognise the goals they share with the Israeli people. When they reach university-level education, the Palestinian people are usually shied away from pursuing their studies as almost all universities are taught in Hebrew. Whilst this is a language which they learn for about twelve years, it is one which they rarely practice and are thus most inclined to lose enthusiasm in regards to education. Ms Najami also explicitly emphasised the importance of history as an academic subject, and explained the advantages of reforming Arab schools to allow them to learn about Israel’s past rather than just their own. This would serve to create a sense of belonging to the territory in which they live, helping the Palestinian population to develop their sense of identity in line with the history of Israel. An important point which was stressed in regards to the needed reform in the academic system, was that it must begin at an early stage – when children are younger, they are more prone to challenge their preconceptions and presumptions, and therefore it is easier to alter their beliefs. At further stages, this process becomes harder – adults are less willing to change their mind and will tend to be more stubborn in regards to these topics.
The question of territory was also a discussed topic. As previously mentioned, the significant differences in physical development which exist between Arabs and Israelis contribute to creating a psychological divergence between the two. Lian Najami explained that swapping lands should not even be considered as a viable option – both parties possess and have over time developed a strong sense of belonging towards their own neighbourhoods. Rather, it is a question of dealing with the settlements and respecting the International law to allow Palestinians to have their legitimate land. Moreover, as the Arab neighbourhoods are not allowed to expand, they are likely to build in height rather than laterally, therefore creating structurally defective buildings which host multiple generations of the same family. Ms Najami explained that this not only leads to overcrowding but also builds strong ties amongst their own people, therefore merely serving to perpetuate their isolation.
Lastly, the speaker briefly mentioned that the rule of a right-wing government in Israel would not be able to bring about these changes. This is as they tend to promote “Us versus Them” campaigns which only serve to widen the existing gap between the two parties. Israel must look to leadership which promotes the importance of multiculturalism and of Arabs in Israel, not one which creates or even promotes stereotypes. As wisely stated by Ms Najami: “Generalisations and ignorance are the main threats to society”.
A humble and passionate speaker – Lian Najami allowed us to explore the existing social relations between Palestinians and Israelis throughout her own eyes. A life filled not only with remarkable academic rewards, but also with the powerful inner strength which allowed her to pursue her dreams despite being part of a significant ethnic minority in her own home. She empowered her audience with the ability to pick up a microscope and look into the intimate social relations between the people, a subject which is frequently neglected and overwhelmed by the Arab-Israeli conflict in the news.