Un­de­terred: Ha­neen Zoabi, the Joint List and new po­lit­i­cal strug­gles

The out­spo­ken and con­tro­ver­sial Knes­set mem­ber talks about BDS, the Arab Spring and how she hopes the Joint List will strug­gle harder against right-lean­ing pol­i­tics in Is­rael

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By SETH J. FRANTZ­MAN

Ha­neen Zoabi was busy in mid-July. As the Knes­set de­bated a cav­al­cade of bills she had to run back and forth to vote. Be­tween the votes on sev­eral con­tro­ver­sial bills, such as one which would re­strict the abil­ity of or­ga­ni­za­tions crit­i­cal of Is­rael to ac­cess public schools, she spoke about what she sees as the rise of the Is­raeli right wing and the un­mask­ing of Is­raeli democ­racy.

“Be­fore the con­trol of the right wing in 2009 [the state] felt more self-con­fi­dence to pre­tend this fake and dem­a­gogue ‘bal­ance’ be­tween be­ing demo­cratic and Jewish, ac­tu­ally Zion­ist.” In a real democ­racy the cit­i­zens have the free­dom to make a real change she says.

Un­der­stand­ing Zoabi is im­por­tant to un­der­stand­ing Is­raeli pol­i­tics and par­tic­u­larly the mostly Arab vot­ers of the Joint List which Balad is a part of. In 2012 Balad got al­most 100,000 votes in the elec­tion and in 2015 the Joint List re­ceived 446,000, the third largest party in the Knes­set.

The new bills passed by the Knes­set which many on the Left de­cried in July, were also con­cern­ing to Zoabi. She points to the “Break­ing the Si­lence” bill that would pre­vent groups that dele­git­imize Is­rael from ac­cess­ing public schools. It pre­vents de­bate, cen­sors and si­lences, she says. That means that part of the ed­u­ca­tion val­ues will “force the vi­o­lence and co­er­cive val­ues of the army upon the ‘open’, ‘crit­i­cal’ and ‘plu­ral­is­tic’ minds of the pupils, some­thing which sounds to­tally against the ‘val­ues of ed­u­ca­tion.’”

Zoabi puts quotes around a lot of things in Is­raeli so­ci­ety be­cause she sees many of them as merely be­ing a ve­neer. Democ­racy is “so-called” here, she says. Much of this cri­tique in an­other con­text, say by left­ist philoso­phers dis­cussing France, or Jeremy Cor­byn when he was a younger rad­i­cal an­gry at Bri­tish pol­icy in North­ern Ire­land, might seem nor­mal. But in Is­rael it is not and Zoabi has been a light­ning rod since she was first elected in 2009. She has also be­come a sym­bol, ini­tially as the first Arab wo­man from an Arab party in the Knes­set and later be­cause of her ac­tive and vo­cal op­po­si­tion to Is­rael’s poli­cies. In 2013 Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said he would not be in a coali­tion with “a bunch of Zoabis.”

She gained no­to­ri­ety for many Is­raelis for join­ing the Gaza flotilla’s Mavi Mar­mara in 2010. She’s al­ways been out­spo­ken on her views on Is­rael, telling The New States­man in 2010 that “I was not elected in or­der to keep silent or to sit at the ta­ble and clap.” The Cen­tral Elec­tions Com­mit­tee tried to ban her from run­ning in 2012 and other MKs tried to dis­qual­ify her in 2015. Banned for six months by the Ethics Com­mit­tee, she has been up­braided for call­ing IDF sol­diers “mur­der­ers” in 2016. Eighty-nine per­cent of Jewish Is­raelis even sup­ported re­vok­ing her cit­i­zen­ship. At the UN in April this year she said that mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans should march on Jerusalem to end the siege of Gaza.

Born in 1969 and first elected as part of the Na­tional Demo­cratic As­sem­bly (Balad) to the 18th Knes­set, she was re­elected in 2013 and again in 2015. In the cur­rent Knes­set Balad serves to­gether with the Joint List which com­bines sev­eral mostly Arab par­ties and is led by Hadash leader Ay­man Odeh. She has sat on com­mit­tees re­lat­ing to the Sta­tus of Women and Gen­der Equal­ity, the Rights of the Child and Ed­u­ca­tion, Cul­ture and Sports. She is also a mem­ber of Knes­set lob­bies that fo­cus on the ad­vance­ment of ed­u­ca­tion in the Arab sec­tor, the strug­gle against vi­o­lence, and sup­port­ing the econ­omy for Arab cit­i­zens.

Today she thinks that as the Is­raeli Right feels more con­fi­dence it is pass­ing laws that is turn­ing Is­rael into a copy of ex­treme right-wing ide­ol­ogy. One of those laws is the Nation-State Law that passed this month. “Colo­nial­ism and apartheid were a pol­icy and a DNA [of Is­rael] be­fore this ba­sic law. Now it’s an identity. Be­cause colo­nial­ism, apartheid and racism were a pos­si­bil­ity, today it’s an obli­ga­tion.”

Zoabi sits on a couch not far from the Knes­set mem­bers’ din­ing room. We have a cof­fee and some wa­ter. She’s pas­sion­ate and straight­for­ward, but she chooses her words and crit­i­cisms care­fully. It’s not just the right wing that angers her, it’s the Zion­ist left, which for her is not re­ally left wing ei­ther. She points out that Shelly Yaci­movich op­posed the nation state law and the Break­ing the Si­lence bill, but only be­cause Yaci­movich thinks the army is eth­i­cal and can with­stand crit­i­cism. No need for a Nation-State Law, says the Zion­ist Left; Zoabi points out that they say “it our right to pro­mote Jewish set­tle­ments even with­out this bill.” Zoabi’s point is that the Zion­ist Left in Is­rael doesn’t re­ally cri­tique the “colo­nial­ism and apartheid”; it just says “this is our land” and no new laws are needed. This rep­re­sents a kind of “im­mu­nity

against facts,” on the “so-called Left.”

In a kind of odd irony, Zoabi points out that the right wing in Is­rael seems to agree with Balad. “Balad says Is­rael can­not be a Zion­ist and Demo­cratic state, while we [Balad] choose democ­racy, they choose Zion­ism.” Then Zoabi re­turns to the prob­lem with the Zion­ist Union party. “It is not a real op­po­si­tion, they are not loyal to the con­cept of op­po­si­tion, they can wear masks all the time, be­hav­ing as colo­nial­ists and hav­ing a self-image of lib­er­als and demo­cratic.”

And what about Meretz, it’s more left-wing than Zion­ist Union claims to be, so does that mean it’s time for the op­po­si­tion to break with the state? “Meretz does not reach this con­clu­sion. Its new leader Ta­mar Zand­berg, she doesn’t say ‘now it is so clear we have noth­ing to do, we must re-think Zion­ism, it seems that Zion­ism can­not co­ex­ist or rec­on­cile with democ­racy.’ On the con­trary she said that she could even be part of a coali­tion with [Avig­dor] Liber­man.” Zoabi is dis­ap­pointed by the move­ment of Meretz in this “op­po­site di­rec­tion.” The proof of Meretz’s fail­ure to be an op­po­si­tion in Zoabi’s view is that MK Ilan Gilon said Zion­ism is like cous­cous. “If you put in some­thing good then it will be good. No, I’m sorry, Zion­ism is not about how we cook it. It’s not about the in­gre­di­ents. It’s a colo­nial­ist project how­ever you ‘cooked’ it. It will be poi­son.”

I won­dered though, as a mem­ber of Knes­set for nine years in what she sees as a state mov­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion, isn’t it get­ting bor­ing? You can only be sus­pended so many times. “Un­for­tu­nately, it’s not bor­ing at all, the amuse­ment is ac­tu­ally very bad in this sense,” she says. “With the shift to­wards more fas­cist laws in the state, the in­cite­ment doesn’t de­crease. I have been ex­pelled by the ethics com­mit­tee, there is even an ‘ex­pul­sion of MKs law’ which they call the Zoabi law.”

In fact the three Balad MKs were sus­pended in 2016 for meet­ing fam­i­lies in Jerusalem. For many in Is­rael it was seen as meet­ing “ter­ror­ists’ fam­i­lies” whose bod­ies the po­lice had not re­turned dur­ing the spate of stab­bings that year. In June Balad MK Basel Ghat­tas was sent to prison for smug­gling phones into prison to Pales­tinian se­cu­rity de­tainees.

She says that Balad is fac­ing the right-wing po­lit­i­cal cul­ture and seek­ing to be vo­cal for peo­ple’s rights. Vot­ers, how­ever, are be­com­ing more cyn­i­cal and less con­fi­dent in the Knes­set to make changes for them. This means that “clas­si­cal ways of po­lit­i­cal ac­tion” may be chang­ing, since vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly Arab vot­ers, have less con­fi­dence in Is­raeli pol­i­tics. “This has two im­pacts. One is to be more pas­sive and one is to be more rad­i­cal. I think that as po­lit­i­cal lead­ers we are be­hind the ex­pec­ta­tions of our peo­ple and in that mean­ing our peo­ple ask us to be more strong and de­ter­mined in op­pos­ing Is­raeli poli­cies.” It’s time for a stop and re­think, she says. Time to look for “new ways of po­lit­i­cal strug­gle, like civil dis­obe­di­ence, and first of all to en­gage our peo­ple more in our re­think­ing the aims and the tools of strug­gle.” New ways of “pop­u­lar re­sis­tance.” With the emer­gence of a stronger mid­dle class and ed­u­cated peo­ple among vot­ers who choose Balad, peo­ple will want to take part in pol­i­tics, she says, but not within the “clas­si­cal tools.”

What are these new tools? “More dra­matic tools which can break the nor­mal­ity of Is­raeli so­ci­ety’s life. You as an Is­raeli in Haifa, Her­zliya, on the kibb­butz, liv­ing upon my con­fis­cated land or in­side my stolen house, you should not for­get these ‘sim­ple’ facts.” She says Is­raelis must not dis­en­gage from this re­al­ity. “You should not live a nor­mal life as long as you don’t al­low me to live a nor­mal life.” And what might this strug­gle look like? She men­tions the in­ter­na­tional level. “In­creas­ing sym­pa­thy and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion from youth in Europe and Amer­ica, the vot­ers of [Bernie] San­ders is a new phe­nom­e­non we should in­ten­sify.” Af­ter Alexandria Oca­sio-Cortez won her pri­mary in

‘If you put in some­thing good then it will be good. No, I’m sorry, Zion­ism is not about how we cook it. It’s not about the in­gre­di­ents. It’s a colo­nial­ist project how­ever you “cook” it. It will be poi­son.’

the Bronx, Zoabi says the crit­i­cism of Is­rael in those sec­tors re­veals that “it is more and more ob­vi­ous that Zion­ism is a way of racism.”

Once again Zoabi sees a sil­ver lin­ing in the new raft of bills in the Knes­set. This “fas­cist po­lit­i­cal cul­ture” is an op­por­tu­nity to show the world that one can­not con­tinue the old frame­works. For in­stance “the 20 years since the Oslo [Ac­cords], the aban­don­ment of defin­ing Is­rael as an op­pres­sor and oc­cu­pier. this dis­course en­cour­ages Is­rael to shift from il­lib­eral-colo­nial­ism/racism to fas­cism.”

Decades af­ter Oslo the two-state so­lu­tion is go­ing nowhere. Zoabi has been crit­i­cal of the two-state con­cept in the past, now she notes that wait­ing for “in­ter­nal dy­nam­ics” to change Is­rael will not work. “Change must come from out­side, it must be forced from out­side.” The prob­lem, in her view, is that the Pales­tinian strug­gle is not strug­gling enough. The Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity is ‘co­or­di­nat­ing’ with the col­o­niz­ers, the PA is fa­cil­i­tat­ing oc­cu­pa­tion. For the last 10 years it was the op­ti­mal help to Is­rael. Is­rael couldn’t dream of such a PA.” She has hope for the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment and Sanc­tions move­ment and the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court and other pres­sures on Is­rael. She sees suc­cess in in­ci­dents such as the Ar­gentina na­tional soc­cer team not coming to Is­rael.

But hasn’t US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pro­vided Is­rael wind in its sails as a pro-Is­rael pres­i­dent? “I don’t see a dra­matic change, re­mem­ber be­fore Trump… Obama… he didn’t even suc­ceed in stop­ping ex­pand­ing set­tle­ments; let’s not ac­cept any il­lu­sions about that.” So Is­rael has un­lim­ited sup­port un­der Obama in terms of things like bud­getary sup­port, and it does today, she notes. Here Zoabi pauses and men­tions Gaza and protests there against Is­rael. “I didn’t men­tion Ha­mas, but Ha­mas are part of the peo­ple, they are part of my peo­ple and no one has the right to de­ter­mine to me or to my peo­ple who is our leader,” she says. Then she pauses again. “This shouldn’t hide my crit­i­cism [of what goes on in Gaza] re­gard­ing women’s is­sues, cen­sor­ship, po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion, clos­ing NGOs and cof­fee­ships, per­se­cu­tion of ac­tivists [in Gaza].”

But she notes that if one cri­tiques Ha­mas, Is­rael should also look in the mir­ror about its friends in the re­gion, “dic­ta­tors in Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE and Egypt and with those who are ho­mo­pho­bic and Isalmo­pho­bic, and an­ti­semitic.”

As we spoke and the Knes­set, voted the Syr­ian regime was deal­ing a crush­ing blow to Syr­ian rebels in south­ern Syria. Like with the hopes some had for Oslo bring­ing a new era of peace, many thought the Arab Spring in 2011 would bring a new era in the Mid­dle East. But it didn’t. “We are in a new his­tor­i­cal pe­riod in the Arab world, his­tory can­not go back. I don’t see the Arab Spring as an act of change, I see it as the be­gin­ning of a process of change,” she ar­gues. It’s not a ques­tion of whether the Arab Spring brought democ­racy, but whether there is a process of change. “For me, the an­swer is yes be­cause it changed the minds and souls of the young gen­er­a­tion in the Arab world.” So young peo­ple in the re­gion see new pos­si­bil­i­ties and po­ten­tial.

Zoabi in some way em­bod­ies this drive to­wards new pos­si­bil­i­ties. She says she does not be­lieve in heroes. “Ev­ery­body can be a hero, it’s a new re­al­ity in which the or­di­nary peo­ple are true heroes.

The prob­lem for her and Balad is that the Joint list must wres­tle with what to do in the fu­ture. It ran in 2015 largely be­cause the smaller mostly Arab par­ties had to join hands or risk be­ing pushed from the Knes­set by a new thresh­old. Com­mu­nists, Arab na­tion­al­ists, sec­u­lar­ists, re­li­gious, all were thrown to­gether.

Zoabi sees the fu­ture of the Joint List as one of two sce­nar­ios. Ei­ther a min­i­mal­ist Joint List sur­vives and con­tin­ues “but with a lot of power con­flicts and with­out a po­lit­i­cal strat­egy,” or un­der a max­i­mal­ist sce­nario with unity in po­lit­i­cal vi­sion. “This is the sce­nario I be­lieve in. I didn’t per­ceive it [the List] as a tool for po­lit­i­cal sur­vival,” she says. Rather it could be a way to em­power the Arab par­ties at the po­lit­i­cal level. “The only real de­col­o­niza­tion and demo­cratic power in­side and out­side the Knes­set. By pre­sent­ing a very uni­fied anti-Zion­ist dis­course and chal­leng­ing the sys­tem and cut­ting and block­ing the gov­ern­ment’s at­tempts to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween mod­er­ate and ac­cepted and rad­i­cals, to raise our­selves up, so if Liber­man rais­es­the vot­ing thresh­old we will raise the po­lit­i­cal thresh­old.” In a sense: If they thought they could get rid of us, it will only make us stronger to­gether. Zoabi dashes off to vote. She greets a few peo­ple in the Knes­set.

To pass the time while wait­ing, I or­dered some medi­ocre food from the Knes­set cafe­te­ria. The sun was shin­ing. Is­raeli flags flapped in the wind. It’s a hot sum­mer. A wo­man was giv­ing a loud in­ter­view nearby ex­plain­ing why groups like Break­ing the Si­lence should be kept from schools. It’s the con­sen­sus, she said. Is­raeli so­ci­ety sup­ports it.

(Photos: Am­mar Awad/Reuters)

MK Ha­neen Zoabi speaks at a news con­fer­ence an­nounc­ing the Joint List po­lit­i­cal slate of all the Arab par­ties, in Nazareth in 2015.

MK Ha­neen Zoabi speaks to the me­dia as she en­ters a hear­ing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem in 2012.

(Marc Is­rael Sellem)

MK HA­NEEN Zoabi speaks at the Knes­set Plenum in 2012.

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