Blood has been pretty bad between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens since the riots in the Arab sector in October 2000, one month after the start of the second intifada. In the time that has passed, Arab members of parliament have become increasingly hostile to the Jewish state, openly declaring their affection for Israel’s enemies and expressly condoning violence against Israelis. (For a detailed account, see Dan Schueftan’s important essay in Azure.) And many Israelis who once preached coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens have given up on that dream, now looking into a bleak future of permanent internal strife, alongside battles that rage against Palestinian terror.
No surprise, then, that all Israel is astir about Arab Labor, a new television series created by Sayed Kashua, a noted Arab-Israeli journalist and writer. The series, the first episode of which appeared November 24, depicts the life of an Arab journalist, Amjad, and his family as they live their lives as Israelis while trying to maintain their identity. It is funny, deeply ironic, and remarkably brave.
In one scene, Amjad’s father complains about how his son embarrasses him by wearing a seatbelt when driving in their village. “Nobody wears seatbelts in our town!” Amjad is later shown appearing on an Israeli talkshow insisting that the high traffic fatalities in the Arab sector have nothing to do with bad driving, and everything to do with the state’s failure to invest in roads for Arab towns. In another scene, Amjad expresses his frustration that he keeps getting pulled over by cops. “How do they know?” he wails. “I spend so much money on clothes, on deodorant, on fancy glasses—do they have special radar?” “It’s your car,” his friend answers. “Old Subarus are driven only by Arabs and settlers. And the settlers have bumper stickers.” Amjad quickly buys a 2000 Rover, and the police instantly begin waving him through.
In a third scene, Amjad feigns offense when a Jewish colleague asks him for help in acquiring illegal auto parts (“Do you think that just because I’m an Arab I deal in these things?”)—but then quickly tracks down the part through his friends in the village.
What is incredible about Arab Labor, therefore, is its ability to say two contradictory things at once. First, that Jewish racism against Arabs is rampant, painful, and dictates the course of the average Arab’s life, as he whittles away his days trying to look, act, and even smell Jewish, trying to avoid police roadblocks, distrust, and humiliation. And second, that most of the stereotypes Israeli Jews harbor about Arabs are actually true. According to focus groups, this show is being well received by Arab-Israeli viewers, who feel that it truthfully expresses both the suffering and the failings of their own community.
In other words, Arab Labor is stunning precisely because of the kind of humor it employs: self-deprecating humor. Unlike most of the self-aggrandizing and self-justifying propaganda that comes out of the Arab world, Arab Labor indulges in the same sad irony that has made Jewish humor unique. Even as Israel’s Arabs struggle to reject the Jewish state, they are irrevocably part of it.