In-depth Analysis
Art - Undercover exhibition, Tamir Zadok, 2017

The Arabists’ Jungle: An Israeli-Arab Affair

As long as the general Israeli attitude to the Arab world persists and the Israeli mediators of the Middle East are cast in the current mold; as long as the mixture of suspicion and secrecy, heroism and masculinity, militarism and hostility, exoticization and romanticization is present in every meeting of Jew and Arab — we will remain under the curse of the Mistaʿaravim

A while ago, after hopping from a basketball match to the radiology department at Tel Aviv Sourasky Hospital, I found myself in the plaster-casting waiting room. The doctor said I had a torn Achilles tendon and told me to wait for someone to come and cast my foot. It was the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan, and two young Palestinian men, one of them limping like me, entered the room. We began speaking in Hebrew before switching to Arabic.

They immediately asked the usual question “how come you speak Arabic?” and I — well versed — quickly enumerated all the question’s positive contexts: “I translate from Arabic, write about teaching Arabic in Israeli schools and the history of Arabic in the country, initiate projects in Arabic, work with Arab friends, and in the past even worked with human rights organizations in the Occupied Territories. I threw in everything, except my former army service in the Intelligence Corp, back in the 1990s.

The injured man was from Nablus — “but had a work permit” — as his cousin from the Triangle village said repeatedly, emphasizing, without having to spell it out, that as a Jewish-Israeli, and especially a speaker of Arabic I am regarded as a representative of the Establishment with which to proceed with caution. They smiled bitterly when speaking of how they were bound to spend the holiday. A few days earlier, a cement mixer had fallen on the Palestinian from Nablus at the Israeli construction site where he works, and he’ll need a lot more than a cast. In any event, he decided to use this chance encounter with a representative of the Israelis to ask me what he should do about his injury — and also about his brother, who is trying to obtain a work permit. I gave him the telephone numbers of Physicians for Human Rights, and Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. He then asked for my phone number. I gave it to him, and he rang and hung-up. I now had his number and he mine.

The male nurse, who watched this interaction from the corner of the waiting room, didn’t understand much of what was going on. What he saw was a Jewish-Israeli Ashkenazi man having a conversation in Arabic with a West Bank resident, at the end of which phone numbers were exchanged and hands shaken. The nurse then called the Palestinian for another X-ray. He said a last goodbye and I wished the two a happy holiday. I remained alone with the nurse. He came toward me, sat on the edge of my bed and got straight to it: “So, did you recruit him?”

The “Life Cycle” of the Israeli Arabist

This question is perhaps crude and direct, but nothing about it is unusual. Zionism, and subsequently the State of Israel, constructed a system of relations between the country’s Jewish residents and the Middle East, between Israel and the Arab world, between Israeli-Jews and Arabs — be they Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians or Syrians — in which varying doses of a mixture of suspicion and secrecy, heroism and masculinity, militarism and hostility, exoticization and romanticization is found in every encounter between the “Jew” and the “Arab”. This mixture is especially prevalent among the general public — citizens with no background in Middle Eastern studies — who grew up with the images presented in Rough Neighborhood, Villa in the Jungle, Arab Labor, and That Which Has Been Is That Which Shall Be.

It is also common among Israelis who “know Arabs” — those “guild” members who studied Arabic or hold degrees in Middle Eastern studies and are commentators on the Arab world, or who work for the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defense, who roam around Palestinian cities, sometimes reaching as far as Amman, who follow Arab media, have jobs related to “Arab affairs”, serve in the Intelligence Corp and the Israel Security Agency, and also among those who serve as “Mistaʿaravim” — the people who love and hate Arabs, who concocted and prepared Rough Neighborhood, Villa in the Jungle, Arab Labor, and That Which Has Been Is That Which Shall Be for us. [1] 

The Jewish population in Israel has learned to accept the ultimate characteristics of this community of mediators — the “experts” on Arabs — a community whose course of instruction tends to be uniform and official: Arabic studies at high-school, army service with the Intelligence Corp, B.A. from the Department for Middle Eastern Studies or Arabic Language and Literature, and then “dispersion” into different fields — be it in the service of the Foreign or Defense ministries, the media, in semi-academic semi-strategic research centers, or as part of a new generation of “Arabists” who teach in high-schools.

In 1956, the year of the establishment of the “Oriental Study” Program — the advanced program of Arabic studies in the Hebrew education system, itself the product of collaboration between security-education-army, and in whose framework pupils were taken to Arab villages to see “Arab life and culture” firsthand — its logic was conceptualized by the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Arab Affairs:


The Oriental Study Program was established due to the acute and growing shortage of Arabic speaking staff in Government offices and the army. […] We intend to continue training young pupils of the Oriental programs after their high-school graduation. […] During their mandatory army service, these youngsters will receive additional training in Arab issues in the form of courses, and in addition, their practical specialization in roles related to Arab affairs will be made possible. After the army service suitable graduates will continue their training at the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at the University.[2]


This course became both the “life cycle” of the average Israeli Arabist, and the route through which Jewish-Israeli society came to recognize the preeminent expert — level-headed and official — for “Arab affairs”. Thus the Jewish-Israeli population learned to accept, for example, the fact that all the “experts” in the field are Jewish. Imagine an Israeli television channel with an Arab commentator on “Arab affairs”; or an Arab lecturer who specializes in the study of a particular Middle Eastern country.

A Man in Suit, Art-Undercover Exhibition, Tamir Zadok, 2017


Apart from having to be Jewish, the Israeli public learned to treat these mediators as know-it-all oracles; heroes capable of entering the “Arab mind” and solving the “riddle”; able to give single-sentence explanations about Arab history, as well as social realities, political aspirations, psychological states and the future of their subject matter and object of research. Another characteristic of the community of mediators/experts is that to Israeli eyes they seem “impartial”; hence they are perceived as unbiased especially because they do not link the situations they describe to Israeli politics, and, particularly, because they aren’t Arabs.

In other words, the Jewish-Israeli public and the mediators of “Arab affairs” have formed a gentleman’s agreement of sorts according to which popular media channels accept only that type of information that can be easily classified into familiar categories: the mutual goal is a flow of information framed by the Israeli discourse, and to maintain a safe distance — in the spirit of Edward Said’s binary oriental gap — between “Jews” and “Arabs”, “good” and “bad”, “rational” and “unpredictable”, and between those who want to live and those who do not mind to die.

Mistaʿaravim, Zionism, Israeliness

In this respect, the Mistaʿaravim have become the essential embodiment of the situation: in their capacity as soldiers, men, heroes, Jewish, familiar with Arabs and Arab areas, from which they return with mysterious tales, gazing at us with bright eyes from beneath a kaffiyeh; as close to Arabs as can be, but at the same time their exact opposite — the essence of Israeliness. The Mistaʿaravim didn’t invent this image. The Zionist movement, at its inception sought to shed its eastern-European ghetto skin by localizing the Jewish immigrant in the Land.

The Palestinian peasant was the source of inspiration for the Bilu pioneers, seen in late-19th century photos sitting on the field earth eating their meal. The gallabiyas and swords with which the members of Hashomer are photographed were not a fashion imported from Russia. The members of the Palmach, who fought the Arabs, were no different: they spiced their language with Arabic words; the better command they had of the language, the more “asli” (authentic) the kaffiyeh they wore around their neck, and the more “baladi” (local) their food stuff, the more Palmach they were held to be. That is to say, the more “Arab” they were — the more fit to replace the Arabs and become, with due honor, the landlords.

Palmach fighter, Netiva Ben Yehuda, recalls the prevailing attitude toward Arabs in the 1940s:

We considered them quintessential natives, and we…we wanted to seem Arab. […] Anyone who could chat in Arabic we held very worthy and anyone with Arab friends — a king, a real king. Even one Bedouin [friend] is enough, even one poor scruffy, porter from Jaffa port. And the more one of us knew about Arab customs, knew how to be among them, how to behave like them and form a common language with them — the more of a god he was in our eyes.[3]


This is the story of the Palmach. This is the same Palmach that shaped the spirit of the Israel Defense Forces and the spirit of the country into which most of the Jews in Israel were born. 

The Palmach had Mistaʿaravim who were very different from the Israeli contemporary version — those who learn to speak Arabic in a few months, who are videotaped during a demonstration revealing a concealed weapon, who feel at home in the midst of violent disruptions, and who are known mostly for the fierceness of the arrests they carry out.

In contrast to the current situation — in which Mistaʿaravim for the most part learn Arabic in the Army, where their preparation to “become Arab” is linked to physical training, and in whose first encounter with Palestinians are carrying a concealed weapon — the Mistaʿaravim of the Palmach were Arab-Jews, native Arabic speakers who had grown up with Arabs in Arab countries. Precisely because of that, in light of the Jewish-Arab conflict, they were ceaselessly asked to prove their essentiality and loyalty. Ultimately they acted within a framework whose rationale, as well as most of its decision makers, as in the Zionist movement in general, was dictated by Ashkenazi Jews.

In his book, The Mistaʿaravim of the Palmach, Tzvika Dror describes the power balance reflected in the “Mizrahi Unit” of the Palmach: “Someone at the time defined the type of character suited for a role in the unit: ‘black without, white within.’”[4] The unit, by the way, was called “Blacks” (Shehorim). Only with the realization that this is a derogatory term, did some of them demand the name be changed, and the unit was renamed “Dawn” (Shahar).


From: Art-Undercover Exhibition, Tamir Zadok, 2017


“You need to know how to sit on the chair when you smoke a nargilah, and how to curse in a backgammon game, how to enter a house, how to call the waiter, how much to pay, how to polish shoes […] The peasants’ terms need to be learned, and also sleeping on the ground and having lice.”[5] 


The Mistaʿaravim of the Palmach were Arab-Jews from the region, born and raised in places such as Sanaʿa, Damascus, Hebron and Baghdad. Therefore, the knowledge they received in their training in the unit had to do with behaving in the adult Arab world, touching upon matters of religion (how Arab Muslims and Christians pray), culture (popular Palestinian national songs), and current affairs.

However, one cannot ignore the fact that the act of disguising taught in the unit course was also a death blow to who they could have been; inasmuch as their pre-military unit experiences — their native tongue, having grown up with Arabs and Arab values, culture, friends and neighbors — also presented a chance for Jewish-Arab coexistence, with its potential to maintain that hyphen connecting Jewish and Arab cultures in the country. From the moment they were recruited and sent by the Zionist movement to immerse in Arab society — but under fabricated identities and with cover stories — this hyphen was forever lost.

In other words, the very act of dressing-up as “Arabs” seems like a definite internalization of the dominant European Zionist perception that distinguishes and separates Jews and Arabs. The Arab-Jews’ need to disguise as an Arab is evidence enough that he is not, in essence, an Arab. And so the unit’s Mistaʿaravim were given the opportunity to promote a truly unholy trinity: to get close to Arabs, to hurt Arabs, and not to be Arabs. In time this would be noted in their entry passes into “Sabra” (native) Israeliness.

Histaʿaravut as Worldview

The term “Mistaʿaravim” comes from a number of sources. There is of course “Mustaʿribun”, the word used to denote ancient Jewish communities (اليهود المستعربة, Al-Yahūd al-Mustaʿribah) who lived in the Middle East, including in Palestine/Israel, who spoke Arabic and were part of the dominant Arab culture. A similar term, “Mozárabes” denoted Christian communities living under Muslim rule in Andalusia.

This origin links the modern Hebrew term with Arabic on the basis of their similarity to adopt Arab customs in the sense of the verb “istaʿraba” (استعرب) ) in the sense of “to adopt Arab customs” or “Arabilate” (hishtaʿrev) as in, to assimilate into Arab society. Two additional hypotheses originate in Hebrew compounds. One joins the Hebrew word for “attacked” (histaʿer) with the word “Arab”, thus emphasizing the act of “attacking”, usually in the heart of the Occupied Territories. The other combines the word “Arab” with the Hebrew word for “disguised” (histava), with the emphasis now on the act of camouflaging and successfully managing to “pass” as an Arab.

One way or another, it seems that the Mistaʿaravim in the modern Hebrew sense became part of the Israeli DNA, on both the level of national security and civilian life. On the level of national security, Israeli Mistaʿaravim units that operated in the past and the present can be listed to include, Shaked commando (Gaza Strip, 1970s), Shimshon division (Gaza Strip, 1980s and 1990s), Hermesh unit (West Bank, 1990s), Duvdevan (currently the main IDF Mistaʿaravim unit), Yamas (the Israeli Border Guard Mistaʿaravim unit), Gideonim (Israel Police Mistaʿaravim unit), Masada (the Israel Prison Service Mistaʿaravim unit) and other units in the Mossad and the General Security Services, whose undercover actions involve concealing and disguising.

From: Art-Undercover Exhibition, Tamir Zadok, 2017


The creeping of Histaʿaravut into Israeli civilian life however, provides a more illuminating aspect. The popularity of the television series about Mistaʿaravim — Fauda — does not seem coincidental. Not to mention the moment in which the series’ titular heroes sing an Arabic song معاك تملي (“Tamalī Maʿāk”, “Always with You”): here they are, our finest sons, singing a poignant song, strumming the guitar, their expressions all morality and martyred sanctity, managing to make Arabic seem so human, almost “saving” it from the Barbarians in whose hands it is currently held. For good reason the Mistaʿaravim version of the song was viewed over half a million times on YouTube, with more people hearing the Israeli, “Mistaʿaravim” version than the original recording by Egyptian singer, Amr Diab.[6] 

What the Egyptian creators of the song think about this turn of events, and how copyrights and payments were arranged is unknown. However, the popularity of this form of Mistaʿarev Arabism already contains an aspect of modern Israeliness: the motif of the hand extended in peace, the coming toward the Arab enemy, all the while maintaining the physical, political, and mental boundary.

Israelis love their Mistaʿaravim heroes. TV channel 10 understands this very well following the success of Zvi Yehezkeli’s series in which he used his own take on Histaʿaravut. It is hard to ascertain how many of Yehezkeli’s interviewees really believe him to be a Palestinian refugee from this or that refugee camp. However, his shows are not meant to hear the Arab as much as they are meant to make the Jew hear. And all those “scary” moments in which an Israeli man sits on a plane next to a hijab-wearing woman, or ties a kaffiyeh around his neck when traveling “undercover” to, wait for it, Turkey — bear witness to us as a society, to the ways in which we are mediated into the Middle East, and to what we chose to see and to do.

On the fertile land of Villa in the Jungle it can be claimed therefore that the Mistaʿaravim and the act of Histaʿaravut — whether in a military capacity or as a thing of admiration — have transgressed the boundaries of the various security units long ago. Not only are they found at the roots of Zionism, and the military doctrine formed following the 1929 Arab riots, and the tall tales of the Mistaʿaravim of the Palmach, or in Mistaʿaravim units since that time, as also in popular literature, TV series and sad songs accompanied by guitar – but also in the everyday life of most Israeli Jews.

For example, at the security questioning stage of the IDF recruitment process, during which potential soldiers know the correct answer to the question of whether they have any Arab friends: they usually have none, and if they do — know better than to say so. This is another kind of Histaʿaravut. In another case, a civilian who studied Arabic in a military or national security capacity will avoid answering the question of his knowledge of Arabic when asked by an Arab. Here too, are the traces of Histaʿaravut.

There is also exotic Histaʿaravut, which used to be going to see the red rocks of Petra and returning in one piece. This later became the Peace dream of “eating Humus in Damascus”; a metaphor so strong that in 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not hesitate before opening the package sent to him from the palace of Bashar al-Assad: fresh Humus from Damascus, a takeaway personally delivered by the American envoy. Without missing a beat Olmert stated: “I instructed that the parcel be brought to my office without a security check.” 

But not only the former Prime Minister: it seems that the further away the Arab village (not to mention a Palestinian city to which Israelis are forbidden entry) from which our Humus comes, the better. It is, after all, only Humus, but of the kind that makes Israeli souls — miniscule Mistaʿaravim — quiver.

Remove the kaffiyeh from Your Eyes

As long as the general Israeli attitude to the Arab world persists and the Israeli mediators of the Middle East are cast in the current mold; as long as we continue to thwart the Eastern option in the name of Zionism and Israeliness; as long as we keep teaching and learning Arabic as an elective program for those intending to serve the Intelligence Corp; and as long as the mixture of suspicion and secrecy, heroism and masculinity, militarism and hostility, exoticization and romanticization is present in every meeting of Jew and Arab — we will remain under the curse of the Mistaʿaravim.

It sometimes seems as if those who “know” Arabs in a professional capacity in Israel are precisely those who are burying our last chance of living here. They signal to the Arabs to beware of all Jews and to Jews to be afraid of all Arabs. The only world they endow us with is one that sustains their value as mediators, a world in which Israel and Israelis are conceived as a foreign body within an Arab world. The alienation lenses they place on our eyes prevent us from seeing other possibilities: instead of seeing an Arab-Jew we see a potential agent or spy; instead of seeing an Arabic-speaking Jew we see a potential recruiter of Arab collaborators; instead of a shuck or a museum we see a hair-raising adventure; instead of people, we see an existential threat. We are left, therefore, with two options: to be Mistaʿaravim or to live.

Translation: Sivan Raveh

This article was published also in "The Guide to the Arab World" ("الدليل للعالم العربي") that accompanies the Art - Undercover exhibition by the artist Tamir Zadok (curator: Noa Rosenberg)


[1] In the modern Israeli context, the word “Mistaʿaravim” denotes men disguised as Arab-Palestinians, usually in military or security-related contexts. The term is based on a historical-cultural concept of Jews who have been Arabised due to their shared life experience with neighboring Arabs in the Middle East.

[2] Mentioned in a letter from the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Arab Affairs, Shmuel Divon (formerly the head of the Haganah Information Service Arab division) to the general director of the Ministry of Education, 2.9.1956; IDF and Israeli Security Forces Archive, 18-86/1960. 

[3] Netiva Ben Yehuda, 1948 — Between Calendars (Jerusalem: Keter, 1981), p. 176 [Hebrew].

[4] Tzvika Dror, The Mistaʿaravim of the Palmach (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1986), p. 74 [Hebrew].

[5] Ibid. 

[6] “Tamalī Maʿāk”: Words: Ahmad Ali Moussa, composition: Sherif Tag, musical arrangement: Tarek Madkour.

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