Lian Ryanhume and The Arab-Israeli Experience Israel’s First Arab Rhodes Scholar Envisions Her Country’s Future

Jason Fehrnstrom, Opinions Editor

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Students, Faculty, and local organizations involved with Jewish Life gathered this past week to hear Lian Ryanhume, the first Arab-Israeli Rhodes Scholar, speak at length about the unique experience living as a “non-Jew in a Jewish State.”

Ryanhume began her presentation by indicating that it was her intention to shed light upon the internal, domestic politics of race, religion, and ethnicity that characterize the State of Israel.

Indeed, while she recognizes the urgency and pertinence of issues related to Israel’s external relationships with Palestine and Arab neighbors, she believes that there is insufficient attention paid to the internal dynamics of Israeli society. Thus, her talk was largely devoid of references to the much publicized Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ryanhume, who is twenty-four years old, was born in Haifa, Israel to a secularized Muslim family. She was a teenager who spent her time attending a Christian high-school, observing the religion of Islam with her family, and volunteering at Jewish charities.

Her cosmopolitan sensibilities and unique ability to feel at ease with disparate cultures have compelled her to dedicate her energies towards building a “more inclusive Israel”, that actively seeks to develop its burgeoning “multicultural character.”

Ryanhume noted that being born in Israel “was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” Israel, a country with universal healthcare, provided a standard of care for her medical disorders that her relatives in the Palestinian diaspora could only dream of. Moreover, they provided her with access to a social worker who helped her overcome the social obstacles posed by her disorders.

Ryanhume became acutely aware at an early age that many non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel, which constitute approximately a quarter of the population, did not share the “gratitude towards Israel” that felt wholly natural to her.

Her research and scholarship in Comparative Social Policy shows that there are political, economic, and social conditions which contribute to non-Jews in Israel feeling no “sense of belongingness” to Israel and its future.

Indeed, Ryanhume’s experience growing up in a modernized, flourishing metropolis is at odds with the lived experiences of many non-Jewish, Arab residents of Israel. Her story, which she is proud of and grateful towards, is “not the same for all Arabs in Israel.”

There is a palpable “over-representation of Arabs” in “socio-economically impoverished areas” of Israel. Non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel, and especially Arab Muslims, deal with inadequate infrastructure, transportation problems and employment issues.

Ryanhume especially emphasized issues of overpopulation in non-Jewish, Arab areas. Ryan Hume demonstrated that the Israeli government is relatively reluctant and negligent when it comes to issuing permits for new Arab towns. This discrimination in housing policy has led Arabs to live in slum like conditions, suggesting that this is a case where the Israeli government is being discriminatory and unfair towards it’s non-Jewish residents.

Ryanhume believes that these seemingly insurmountable challenges can be tackled if Jews around the world embrace the mission of cultivating inclusivity within Israel. Robust investments in education, jobs and infrastructure coupled with a welcoming attitude towards multiculturalism could redefine the experience of non-Jewish residents in Israel.

According to Ryanhume, it is not enough for Jewish residents and non-Jewish residents to merely “co-exist.” There must be a concerted effort to cultivate a “shared existence” that is emblematic of the democratic values that many in Israel cherish so deeply.

Ryanhume also spoke at length about the obligations that non-Jewish residents of Israel have in mending this socio-political divide. Ryanhume respectfully disagrees with movements such as Boycott, Divest, Sanction Israel. She believes that these movements make hostile, sound-bite, reductive “generalizations” about Israel and its eclectic citizenry.

She laments that many of her contemporaries have come to identify with what she describes as a radical narrative found on the fringe of the political spectrum about the necessity of completely disembedding the State of Israel itself. She is a conciliatory peacemaker that is focused on building a just future, rather than quarreling about a tumultuous past.

Ryanhume believes that her Arab, non-Jewish contemporaries in Israel have an obligation to adopt a positive tone about their shared future in Israel. They should be seek to become active architects of an Israeli future that is strong because of its ethnic, cultural, and religious pluralism.

Next year, Ryanhume will begin studying Comparative Social Policy at Oxford University as part of her Rhodes Scholar experience. If all goes to plan, her impactful research will equip her with a toolset to create a more tolerant, diverse environments in Israel and beyond.