Overall, the street is happy
In Baka al-Garbiyeh, the hometown of Ghaleb Majadele, opinions are mixed about the qualities of Israel's first Arab Muslim cabinet minister. But most agree the appointment is a positive step.
The day Labor Knesset Member Ghaleb Majadele made history, when he was sworn in as the first Arab Muslim minister in an Israeli government, members of his extended family were busy doing something quite different. Well, not so different. They were keeping their end of the bargain, of which the appointment was only one component. During Majadele's swearing-in ceremony, his relatives scoured Baka al-Garbiyeh, the minister's hometown, just east of Hadera, signing up new members and renewing old memberships for the Labor Party, that is, for its leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz. With no time to lose, they were doing everything they could to repay him for the appointment. The recruiters, who included friends and several of Majadele's 13 siblings, reported good progress in their membership drive.
"In overall terms, the 'street' is happy," noted one of the field workers, Khaled Majadele, who dropped in for a moment at his brother's parliamentary office in downtown Baka al-Garbiyeh. "That's going to be felt in the elections."
It's a little sad that the appointment of the Israel's first Muslim cabinet minister is being reduced to the question of how many votes it will gain for Peretz among the country's Arab community. Perhaps, in another decade, the background to the appointment will be forgotten and only the historical precedent will be remembered; in the meantime, though, the appointment leaves a sour aftertaste.
'It's all hypocrisy'
"Let's hope for the best," is the prevalent mood in Baka al-Garbiyeh. Sometimes the phrase expresses hope, sometimes despair. The appointment has divided Israel's Arab citizens into three groups: the indifferent and the skeptical; the opponents, whether for personal or ideological reasons; and those who believe Majadele can make a difference.
His political adviser, Salem Sharkiyeh, undoubtedly belongs to the last group. Although he's only 23, his resume contains enough public activities to keep him going for years. Sharkiyeh himself made history when he was appointed the first Arab chairperson of the students' organization at Jerusalem's David Yellin College of Education.
One reaction to that was a "We Don't Want Arabs" poster that was hung on his door. That did not frighten Sharkiyeh then; nor is he deterred today by reactions to Majadele's appointment. "It's all hypocrisy," he says, disparaging the Arab MKs' opposition to the appointment. "Why is it OK for Azmi Bishara [Balad, the National Democratic Alliance] to present his candidacy for the premiership? And isn't Knesset deputy speaker a 'Zionist' role?"
With dizzying speed, he fires off a volley of counter-arguments to the naysayers: "I don't need an MK who's going to fly off to Syria, I need a representative who'll do something for us. My generation is fed up with slogans. We want integration, we want to move up in society. I have heard the talk about Majadele being a 'collaborator.' That's garbage. Like the rest of us, he was a member of Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed [a left-wing Zionist youth movement]. Even then we knew how to make our demands heard; however, unlike the others, we know what to demand, when and in what language. That's why our demands will be met. This doesn't make young people like me a humbler generation. Majadele will surprise a lot of people, you'll see."
Muhammad Anbousi, 25, a mechanical engineering graduate of the College of Judea and Samaria, in Ariel, joins our conversation in a local restaurant. During his studies, he was not allowed to participate in educational tours of "sensitive" institutions such as Israel Aircraft Industries and the Israel Electric Corporation. The Jewish students were allowed in, but not their Arab classmate. Since graduating, he has not found work.
"Israeli Arabs have two options," says Anbousi. "They can sit on the sidelines and say 'no' to everything, or they can work for the realization of their basic civil rights. Whom do the Arab MKs scare with their who-knows-how-many parliamentary seats? What are they doing for me? A cabinet minister who is 'one of us' can change the situation."
In public, people now talk glowingly about Majadele; only in private do they voice criticism of him. His supporters describe him as a resolute "doer"; his opponents consider him arrogant and aggressive. Some depict him as a gray, small-time politician who knew how to navigate his course and exploit opportunities, while others swear that he has a well-defined agenda, although they cannot really outline it.
"Just as we discovered there are two Moshe Katsavs, you will eventually learn there are two Ghaleb Majadeles," warns someone who knows the new minister well (but wishes to remain anonymous). "And, in general, how can a person without a high-school matriculation certificate be a science and culture minister?"
In his office, at Al-Qassami College's attractive, new building in Baka al-Garbiyeh, Dr. Farouk Mouassi, a writer and a lecturer in Arab language and literature, argues that Majadele does have a matriculation certificate.
'I was his teacher'
"I should know - I was his teacher," points out Mouassi. "Besides, is it better to buy an undergraduate degree? If you were to conduct a survey, you would find that most cabinet ministers do not have even the basic skills needed for their job."
Mouassi is not bothered by the criticism that an Arab minister will be replacing Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), who resigned from the cabinet when Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu) joined it. "Lieberman does not interest me," he says contentiously. "There are worse racists in the government; however, nobody talks about that. Anyway, from my standpoint, Ghaleb is not in the same cabinet as Lieberman; instead, Lieberman is in the same cabinet as Ghaleb."
Mouassi estimates that Majadele will not limit himself to advancing the interests of Israeli Arabs: "He has something to say about every issue. For example, I am certain that he will also represent the Mizrahi [Jews of Middle Eastern descent] community. Everything about his outlook opposes injustice. Look at his attitude toward Katsav. He supports the idea of Katsav staying in office because he believes that the anger directed against him is partly due to his being a Mizrahi. We have talked about this. He says that there must be full equality before the law, and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. That's the way Majadele sees things."
The new minister has many years of public activity to his credit. He served as secretary of Hano'ar Ha'oved in Baka al-Garbiyeh, and as secretary of the regional labor council; was twice elected director of the Histadrut labor federation's education and sports department; has sat on a myriad of Knesset committees since becoming a member in 2004; was a member of the environmental-social lobby; and has chaired the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee.
Nonetheless, Majadele is not a well-known public figure. Sharkiyeh claims that this is part of the problem: "If he had expressed extremist positions, he would have won headlines. A moderate Arab is not front-page news."
'Labor destroyed us'
As fate would have it, Majadele's appointment, which is supposed to be a clear expression of integration, coincides with the publication of a document outlining the vision of Israeli Arabs. Professor Aziz Haidar, a sociologist with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, collaborated on this document, which has sparked an important public discourse. Haidar started our conversation this past week on a sarcastic note: "I can hear that you're already talking differently to me. As of today, I have a new status. I have my own minister."
However, Haidar is primarily angry: "The whole point of the 'vision' is that we should decide for ourselves who represents us. Majadele's appointment represents Amir Peretz's interests, not even those of the Labor Party." Haidar believes that the very idea of an alliance between Majadele and Labor is problematic. "There is no overlap between our interests and those of the party that destroyed us," he observes.
"Under the rubric 'leftist,' Labor demolished our pride, confiscated our resources and determined our fate for generations to come - on racist foundations. Peretz used us cynically, just like [Israel's first prime minister] David Ben-Gurion did, when he utilized the military government to bring in Arab votes. On the other hand, this is unquestionably a precedent that provides future legitimacy. If there is now an Arab cabinet minister, it might one day be legitimate to have a minister who represents an Arab political party."
Asked why all the Arab MKs voted against Majadele's appointment, he replies tersely, "Because they would love to be where he is now."
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