At first, the young man’s story sounds familiar: Tall, green-eyed, he walks the corridors of his university and his peers often shout at him, “Jew, go back to where you came from!” But we are not in Eastern Europe in 1881, and the student, Mohand, is not Jewish — he is an Arab Israeli studying in Jordan. His story is not exceptional. Although most, if not all, Arab Israelis in the country face some sort of hostility because of their nationality, the reaction of students like Mohand is unexpected: “Coming to Jordan” he told me, “not only did I not embrace the anti-Israeli attitude people freely express here, but being here actually strengthens my pride of being Israeli.” Yet the reality Mohand reveals is more complex than this one sentence might convey.
In recent years, Jordan has become a magnet for Arab Israelis who want to study abroad. This past decade, their number has quadrupled to more than 6,000. The students I spoke with testify that being in Jordan has helped shape their identity — strengthening its Israeli component. Here they acquire a new and more complex perspective on life in the Arab world. Whether at the university or on the street, they often face hostility that isolates them. Comparing their lives in Israel with their lives in Jordan, they suddenly feel more connected to the land lying west of the Jordan River than they did before.
“The first difficulty we come across,” said Saleh Ghanem, a round-faced and kind-looking student from a village near Akko, “is when presenting ourselves. One must not say ‘Israel’ here,” he explained. When asked, he answered that he is a “48er,” a neutral term meaning that his family was in Israeli territory since its beginning and that his family members are citizens.
“Once, while riding in a cab,” he continued, “I mentioned Tel Aviv by mistake. The driver, who overheard me, started screaming, telling me never to say Tel Aviv, only Yaffo.” But even when presenting themselves as 48ers they do not feel accepted, and it is difficult for them to blend in with the Jordanians of Palestinian descent, who make up the majority of Amman’s population.
As a response, they create their own exclusive culture. They live, party, eat and study almost entirely with other Arab Israelis; very few of them mingle with students from other Arab countries. In Ghanem’s building, for instance, almost all the apartments are occupied by students from Sakhnin, Haifa or Nazareth.
Mohand tried to explain the cultural barrier between Israelis and Arabs: “On many levels we are much alike; at the same, time their way of thinking is almost foreign to us.” When asked to articulate this difference, however, he struggled with his words, admitting, “I do not have Jordanian friends. They are not as free as we are.”
“Freedom” is a leitmotif in conversations with Arab Israelis here; many of them mention it as the reason for preferring Israel to Jordan. Although relatively modern, life in the Jordanian monarchy requires one to be careful; one can get arrested for using the king’s name in an offensive way. Coming from a country in which it is more common to criticize the government than to talk about the weather, they feel oppressed. But these Arab Israelis outsmart the system: They use Hebrew words that no one else understands, or code names; the king, for instance, they call “Tamer,” a common name for a male. Why Tamer? If there was ever a reason it was long forgotten.
Universities in Jordan are appreciated in the Arab and Muslim world and draw students from Bahrain to Pakistan. For Yusuf, a Christian dentistry student from Nazareth, meeting people from all over the Arab world is the most interesting part of living here. “Did that strengthen your sense of belonging to the larger Arab world?” I asked him. “No,” he answered firmly. “If anything, it shows me how distant we are.”
The rejection and isolation that 48ers feel, and their comparison of Jordan with Israel, leads them to feel more Israeli, but it also helps them shape their unique Arab-Israeli identity. In Israel they all come from different places, south and north. Some are Christian, some are Muslim. These differences, important in Israel, are much less significant here: They have an opportunity to make region- and religion-crossing friendships.