From satellite TV to contraband texts, media has played a critical role for Palestinians in Israel.
Flip through some of the eight hundred or so Arabic satellite television stations available today, and you’ll find many programs that would look quite familiar to American audiences. On the popular MBC 1 station, you can watch Good Morning Arabs and Arab Idol, both of which are produced and hosted in Arabic, but have formats nearly identical to those of their American counterparts. Programming on MBC 4 would look even more familiar, with popular American shows like Project Runway and CBS’s The Talk broadcast in English with Arabic subtitles. The programs’ sidestepping of political sensitivities and frequent product placement exemplify the commercialized, corporatized global media that has come to the Arab world in recent decades.
But there is another type of global media, one with a longer and more interesting history. Long before satellite television and the internet became the primary modes of communication and entertainment in the region, written texts, especially books, newspapers, and journals, were being hand-copied, printed, sold, mailed, and smuggled across geographic and political divides. Far from being commercialized entertainment, this written media was utilized by political organizers and intellectuals to subvert official state narratives, challenge government policies, and connect otherwise isolated peoples to one another.
In my book, Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World, I uncover the story of how globally circulated written media helped Palestinian citizens of Israel overcome their deep isolation during the 1950s and ’60s. Relegated to a second-class status in the newly established Jewish state, for nearly two decades they were controlled by a military regime that restricted their movement, limited their political expression, and cut them off from friends and relatives on the other side of the 1949 Armistice Line (also known as the Green Line).
In this environment, intellectuals, party organizers, and writers sought to connect to the Arab region and the decolonizing world through poetry, journalism, fiction, and nonfiction. Members of the Israeli Communist Party, for example, drew on their contacts abroad to access English translations of socialist humanist discourses, including the works of such well-known international leftist writers as Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Nazim Hikmet, and Langston Hughes. Party members then translated these works into Arabic and published them in their party’s local newspaper and journal, extending the reach of these writings to other Palestinians (and Arabic-speaking Jews) in Israel.
While the joint Arab-Jewish make-up of the Israeli Communist Party helped facilitate access to global leftist writings, achieving even a basic connection to the Arab world proved to be much more difficult. Citing their potential for “incitement,” Israeli military officials deemed the unauthorized possession of Arabic publications by Palestinian citizens to be subversive. That, coupled with the official Arab boycott of Israel, meant that Palestinian intellectuals in Israel had to go to great lengths to obtain newspapers, journals, poetry collections and other contemporary writings from the Arab world. Some asked friends in Europe to mail them copies of back issues of Arabic periodicals. University students took advantage of their library’s Arabic collections, which they then copied by hand and shared with friends and colleagues. Their determination to connect to Arab intellectual, political and cultural discourses belied the widespread belief in the region at the time that they were content “Arab Israelis” who had turned their backs on their people’s struggles.
But Palestinians in Israel were not just consuming these discourses, they were drawing on them for inspiration. Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Emile Habibi, and many others wrote literary and journalistic pieces in the local Arabic press in which they condemned the discrimination they faced at home and displayed a thorough engagement with topics related to cultural and political decolonization. Their published works played a key role in fostering a shared national consciousness among Palestinians in Israel that linked them to the region and to the decolonizing world.
Palestinian intellectuals in exile utilized written media to alert Arabs to the defiance of their fellow Palestinians inside the Green Line.
At the same time, Palestinian intellectuals in exile also utilized written media to alert Arabs to the defiance of their fellow Palestinians inside the Green Line. They smuggled Arabic newspapers and journals out of Israel into their countries of residence, and they wrote about the moving and defiant poetry being composed behind the barbed wire. Their calls initially fell on deaf ears, but the massive Arab defeat of the June 1967 War forced intellectuals in the region to reassess their previously held assumptions, especially about Israel. As a result, they revisited—and republished—the literary and journalistic works by Palestinians in Israel that they had previously ignored. The raised profile of these works also led them to be translated into multiple languages, furthering their reach even more. Thus, written media also served as a central means of alerting the world to the conditions—and to the resistance—of this otherwise sequestered community.
Since then Palestinians in Israel have become much more integrated into the collective Palestinian national consciousness, and their visibility in the Arab world has gradually increased as well. Darwish is one of the most lauded poets of the Arab world and has received widespread international acclaim, while other Palestinian poets and novelists from inside the Green Line have likewise received much regional and international praise.
Palestinians in Israel are also taking advantage of the more recent developments in global media platforms to share their stories and experiences with the world. In June 2015, the Musawa channel was launched, making it the first Arabic satellite channel dedicated to giving a voice to this community. As part of the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation, Musawa (which means “equality” in Arabic) is beamed—and streamed—to millions of homes in the region and around the world. Aware of their potential reach, Musawa’s hosts are keen to draw attention to the ongoing discrimination the Palestinian minority faces while also highlighting the many grassroots efforts aimed at empowering their community and fostering pride in their Palestinian culture and heritage.
Palestinians in Israel are also taking advantage of the more recent developments in global media platforms to share their stories and experiences with the world.
Even the commercialized global media outlet MBC has provided an opportunity for some Palestinians in Israel to reach a broader audience. Several of them have competed in the massively popular Arab Idol singing competition over the past few years, and one of them, Ameer Dandan, was a finalist in the latest season.
In an era where satellite dishes and internet feeds provide endless viewing options, and where written texts can be tweeted, posted and shared around the world at lightning-speed, it is tempting to take for granted the ease with which we access global media outlets today. But we would do well to appreciate the lengths that earlier generations of intellectuals and activists had to go to in order to access news and views beyond their borders. And at a time in which Arabs are often dismissed in Western circles as being out of touch with the rest of the world, we would also do well to remember that they know much more about our media landscape than we know about theirs.