The outsider — Baghdad-born writer Sami Michael a living conduit between Israel’s Arabs, Jewsby
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From the window in Sami Michael’s Haifa flat, you can see three countries: Syria, Lebanon and, of course, Israel. Quite a fitting abode for a man who has spent his life straddling the borders of Israeli society.
Michael, 77, one of Israel’s most prominent authors, fled his native Iraq in 1948 after governmental authorities uncovered his underground leftist activism. He made his way to Israel by 1949, and, though Jewish, settled in Haifa’s heavily Arab Wadi al-Nisnas neighborhood. He found work as a writer at the local Arabic-language newspaper, often defending the rights of the Arab minority.
He also worked as a surveyor for 25 years, and in 1973 published the first of a dozen books. His best-known is the 1987 Arab-Jewish love story “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” which was adapted into a successful Israeli movie last year and played at area Jewish film festivals.
“It is as if, sometimes, I feel I am two persons. One is an Arab Iraqi, the other an Israeli Jew,” said Michael, a tall, olive-skinned and extremely soft-spoken man. Michael was in the Bay Area last week for a number of speaking engagements, including the “Israel at 55” lecture series, co-sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel and the Israel Center of the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation.
He was recently named president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a natural position for a man who spent his youth as an oppressed minority and his adulthood as something of an outsider.
“Even when I write about Arab characters, I do so as if I were an Arab writer describing Arab characters. And when I am writing about Israeli characters, I do so as an Israeli Jew describing Jewish characters,” he said.
In living his mixed existence, Michael sees himself as resembling baklava — “each layer does not touch the other layers.”
Michael’s lifetime as a human conduit between Israel’s Arabic and Jewish population made him a natural choice to head the nation’s civil rights association. Though he is the first non-judge to serve as president, he feels his position as
“a popular figure who is not defined in a party” will help with the organization’s mission.
“I’m getting only abuse from the right wing of Israeli society, but I’m proud to do my share defending the innocent ones: the civil rights of the Palestinians, the Arab minority and the poor,” said Michael. “The workers who come to Israel have nearly no rights there. When they are arrested because they came with no passport, they sit there in custody with no ability to have a lawyer come and defend them, so we do that.”
After a lifetime of circulating between Arabs and Jews, Michael is disappointed that each still views the other as “a beast, a killer.” He worries that both Israeli and Palestinian society have grown “more fanatic. ...Some kind of despotic public opinion has become so against talking about peace and for demanding revenge.”
Vengeance-driven public opinion stems from a lack of leadership on all sides, in Michael’s opinion. Both Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lack “the courage of a[n Anwar] Sadat or a [Yitzhak] Rabin.”
Michael also became emotional when discussing the state of affairs in his birthplace. During the war on Iraq, he felt as if “they were bombing my childhood.”
His prognosis for a civil Iraqi society was not a positive one, however. “The problem is that never, never in Iraq have they even for one year had a taste of democracy. There is no chance that Iraq will be a democratic state in the near future,” he said.
It may take 30 or 40 years for democracy to take hold in Iraq, if then, he said.
Looking to Israel’s future, Michael is unsure what it will resemble in 30 to 40 years. But whatever the case, he stresses that it must remain a Jewish state.
“If we lose a Jewish state, for what were all the sacrifices? For what were nearly 30,000 boys killed in the wars? We’d have to close everything and go back to our tradition of being scattered all over the world,” he said. “The Middle East is not a healthy place for minorities. I don’t want to be a minority in the Middle East again.”
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