FIVE DAYS INTO ISRAEL'S WAR WITH HEZBOLLAH, I VISITED THE UMM EL-FAHM Gallery in the town whose name it bore. Umm El-Fahm, the largest Muslim community in Israel, with a population of 43,000, anchors the largely Arab Triangle area on the coastal plain just south of Haifa. Outside the gallery, Israeli planes were bombing Lebanon and Hezbollah rockets were detonating nearby. Inside the gallery, Yehudit Bar-Shalom, a ceramicist from nearby Kibbutz Magal, was speaking.
"I felt I was in a dream due to the hospitality of the gallery," she told me. "In all this chaos we are living in, you can do it differently," she told Said Abu-Shakra, a respected artist and the gallery's co-founder. Bar-Shalom reached across the table to Abu-Shakra. "I love you," she said.
Abu-Shakra runs the gallery with the assistance of town leaders and Arab and Jewish arts professionals from across Israel. About one-third of its funding comes from outside the town, including grants from the Israeli and British governments and American Jewish philanthropists. The gallery is known across Israel for exhibiting the work of Jewish and Arab artists--and Yoko Ono. Abu-Shakra also directs a program of arts instruction for 5,000 children--both Arab and Jewish--annually.
Recently, the Northern Islamic Movement, headquartered in Umm El-Fahm, gave the gallery about six acres so it could expand into a museum. "Before the gallery," says Abu-Shakra, who is the cousin of Umm El-Fahm's previous mayor, Sheihk Raed Salah--leader of the Northern Islamic Movement and recently imprisoned by Israel--"religious life was the prominent activity. It still is, but the gallery brings a different thought. It is connected to everything in Umm El-Fahm."
Which is a lot to be connected to. Though the town was run by Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party, until the late 1980s, since then it has been a stronghold of Raed Salah's Northern Islamic Movement. Before Israel built its separation fence, suicide bombers came from neighboring Jenin (under control of the Palestinian Authority) through Umm El-Fahm regularly, killing Jews and Arabs alike. In 2000, the town was at the heart of civil unrest that led to the deaths of 13 Arab Israelis by Israeli policemen. This past summer, Sheik Raed led the annual get-together of his Northern Islamic Movement there, proclaiming before 50,000 people that, "The Israeli occupation will leave Jerusalem soon and Jerusalem will be the capital of the Islamic caliphate."
A small community that is home both to calls for the caliphate and exhibits of Yoko Ono's art, Um El-Fahm embodies the complexities of existence for the Arab citizens of Israel. Just under 20 percent of Israelis are Arab--or Palestinian citizens of Israel, as most prefer to be called. They comprise about 1 million people, coming largely from families that remained inside Israel after the state was founded in 1948.
With its terraced terrain and more than 20 freshwater springs, Umm El-Fahm could be an oasis. But it's not. Its unofficial poverty rate is nearly 30 percent, and the Israeli government has long favored the neighboring, though smaller, Jewish towns over Um El-Fahm when providing municipal services.
Today, even the town's right to remain part of Israel is under assault. In the 2006 national election, ultra-right-winger Avigdor Lieberman of the Russian emigre Israel Beiteinu Party called for the transfer of Umm El-Fahm and adjacent territory, complete with its Arab population, to the future Palestine. Now Lieberman has joined Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. He's supposed to keep hands off of domestic issues, but he was in government no more than a week when he gave interviews reiterating his support for transfer of Arabs outside of Israel, arguing for "exchanges of populations and territory, in order to create the most homogenously Jewish state."
You might think Umm El-Fahm would be happy to be gerrymandered into the new Palestine. …