A new book, and its excellent accompanying exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, are destined to initiate dialog and raise questions about ongoing tensions in Israel between its Arab citizens and the Jewish majority.

For this project, photographer Iris Hassid, who is Jewish, spent six years getting to know four young Arabic women trying to live daily life while they were studying at universities in Hassid’s neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

Hassid worked hard to earn the trust of her subjects — Samar, Saja, Majdoleen, and Aya — and they finally found common ground in ideas around identity, feminism, and political discussions, among other things. The mutual trust helped all of them through difficult times over the course of the project: the war in Gaza, the bitter and hateful election campaign in 2015, and the 2018 ‘Jewish Nation State’ law, which, among other things, removed Arabic as an official language of Israel, furthering the sense of the students feeling unwelcome and unwanted in their own country.

Quotes from their discussions about these social and political issues pepper the exhibition and the book, adding weight and nuance to the photographs that often look quite normal (at first glance) to people from outside Israel.

From “A Place of Our Own”: Samar, Aya, Saja, and Manar, on a bench in Haim Lebanon Street, (University Street), Ramat Aviv © Iris Hassid

Her project presents photos, videos, and quotes in 4 languages — English, Dutch, Arabic and Hebrew — and depicts the culture clashes experienced by the women over six years.

Initially, the focus is on the expected transitions moving from family homes (often very protective environments in conservative communities) to experiencing independence as proud, ambitious university students living in ‘mixed’ urban environments, while confronting hostilities and prejudice that feel shockingly new to these young people.

Over the years, we follow them as they move from being students into the beginnings of adulthood and professional careers — as an architect, an actor, a psychologist, a social worker — and continuing to navigate cultural differences, including marriage, property ownership, politics, and more.

“All the time people say to me: You don’t look like an Arab. Even this Arab guy we talked to said it. I really don’t get what they expect to see! In Tel Aviv, when I talk on my mobile phone in Arabic, on the street or in the bus or with friends, people stare at us. Arabic is an official language in this country — why is it so strange to hear Arabic on the streets? We are Palestinian Arabs, and we are also citizens of Israel. Whether we want to or not, we have Israeli ID cards and passports.” — Samar © Iris Hassid

The book includes an insightful essay, “There Are Many Ways Not To See,” written by Gilad Melzer that identifies many of the thorny complexities for Arabs living in Israel today. He writes:

“All individuals and societies have their blind spots. In Israel, the name of the largest blind spot is “The Arabs.” The presence of Arabs in the Israeli public sphere has led to an insistence — conscious at times, and unconscious at others — not to see them, or to see them only partially. […]

“What does it mean to identify somebody as belonging to a specific community, group, or culture? What does one see? Who reads certain political codes, and who misses them? There are photographs in which signs of Arab identity are clearly visible, and others from which it is absent; in most of them, it is merely part of the composition and wealth of information, and has to be actively sought out.”

It seems worthwhile to spend some time with this work and these ideas. Visit the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam June 24, 2022 - January 29, 2023, and read the book.


A Place of Our Own
by Iris Hassid
Publisher: Schilt Publishing
ISBN: 9789053309438