For many years, I have come to Yafa Café and bookstore trying to find, what the certificate on the door amplifies– a place that is not racist, not tribal. Last month, the owner and visionary of Yafa café, Michel El-Rahab, shared his views on how the occupation inside the Green Line is insidious, impacting Palestinian and Arab identity in ways that are corrosive to individual and collective identity for children and youth: El-Rahab, who has been involved with a program for teenagers in Ramle, fears that Palestinian youth who are citizens of Israel do not know who they are: “They do not know they are Arab: There’s an Arab identity. There’s a Palestinian identity. There is a religious identity.”
Our conversation began when I mistakenly referred to Yafa Café as a ‘haven of peace,’ to which El-Rahab quickly responded: This is not about peace; You cannot escape the occupation which permeates every encounter and soul: “The oppression here is everywhere. People on the streets. The man who cleans the sidewalks oppresses you. You know they are oppressing you..…They always need to know who you are, ‘Are you Christian or Muslim?’ You see what I mean? I go to China, and Moscow. and Europe a lot and my stress goes away.”
“There are so many problems around here with identity. Palestinians living inside Israel need to know who they are. To fight the oppression you have to know where you come from. But so many don’t know and so have this sickness, they don’t their identity…
Palestinian educators and psychologists should go into schools and teach kids who they are, because a person who knows has solved a lot of his problems.
“The education here is oriented around being “נגד”—“against” —against everything that is not Jewish, against the Goy, against anything not-Ashkenazi, against the Arab countries, against the Ethiopians. All the time “נגד—-against”. It is all about one group oppressing the next group, like historical dominoes. We need therapy for the nation.
“The occupation bears down all the time by making Palestinians work much harder than the Jewish Israelis. In my café everyone says they like, it but often I’m here alone. Why is there not more business? It’s a question of habit. Israeli Jews go to what they know or to where everyone else goes.
“I opened this café and bookstore to represent my own culture. In Arab culture there are many authors. Poets. I wanted to show Jewish Israelis that there are other cultures here, and they should know them because when people know other cultures, it’s easier to accept them. When I know other cultures I can be softer with them. If I put food and water, it’s softer. If you learn something about Arab culture you might accept them. And I do bring people closer to the Arab center.” (Yafa Cafe also offers classes in Arabic at all levels https://www.facebook.com/YafaCafe)