More Than Just a Tel Aviv Trend? Da'am Workers Party Aims to Unite Jews and Arabs Over Welfare

Leader Asma Aghbarieh explains why she thinks economic hardship can erase conflicts.

Shany Littman
Shany Littman
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Shany Littman
Shany Littman

These are heady days for Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka. For the first time, the road to the Knesset building in Jerusalem looms large, more reachable than ever. This time, she is convinced that the Da’am Workers Party, which she heads, will get enough votes to enter the Israeli parliament, despite the tens of thousands of votes she will need beyond the 2,645 the party gleaned in 2009 to cross the threshold of 2 percent of the ballots cast. I first interviewed her four years ago, in the previous election campaign. Back then she seemed more introverted and solemn, like an industrious worker, but without hope. But in the past four years something changed, something she herself did not expect would happen so fast, however avidly she longed for it.

The transformation has also filled her with a spirit she describes as “insane.” It’s almost impossible to stop the torrential flow of her speech, and whether or not you agree with her views, you cannot help being impressed by the intensity of her inner conviction.

“In 2009, we talked about social justice,” she says. “That was the vision we offered. But it was not germane to the public’s consciousness at the time, as we saw in the final results. The protest movement in the summer of 2011 fomented the change. As long as things weren’t actually terrible for people here, no one looked for solutions. But the shockwaves that struck Europe and the Arab world were felt in Israel, too. People plucked up courage: each person’s private problem became a collective, societal problem.

“When the social hardships assumed a political cast, Da’am became relevant,” she continues. “From the very outset we were there as a political party, because we knew that this was the ground on which to build. Bedrock change social, economic and political requires a movement that wants such change. As long as there was no movement, Da’am was a fish out of water. But now the time has come to swim with the current. In the summer of 2011 we reduced the gap between reality and the dominant political consciousness.”

Didn’t you expect this turn of events?

“I had no idea it would happen so fast. It’s very exciting. I am happy to be part of it, happy I invested in the right social-welfare share. A party that wants to lead has to be able to see ahead. I have a vision, but it was not obvious to people: to talk about Jews and Arabs, about socialism, about social justice. People thought I was dreaming, that all the Arabs hate the Jews and all the Jews hate the Arabs. I know that’s not true. In a situation that grinds you down, empties your pockets and kills your children, there inevitably arrives a point at which you start to think. The flames of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation [in Tunisia] burned down all the walls and barriers after 40 years of lethal muteness in the Arab world.

“Forty years of Gadhafi, 40 years of the Assad family: too many decades in which people kept silent. All of Arab poetry and literature deals with how much of a cipher the Arab nation is. Nizar Qabbani has a poem that says, ‘We invented the zero and we remained zeros.’ We were raised on disappointment, on nakhsa [defeat], impotence. And suddenly the nation springs back to life, demands to live. It doesn’t want to die amid violent resistance and it doesn’t want paradise. A new historical era is ushered in. It was only natural for this to happen on [Tel Aviv’s] Rothschild Boulevard, too.”

Domestic Nakba

At times, disaster seemed to loom. On the one hand, Aghbarieh-Zahalka talks about feelings of transcendence as she marched among the mass of demonstrators for the sake of social justice. But there were also moments of grim reality. Last June in Tel Aviv, the organizers of a demonstration marking the first anniversary of the social protest movement refused to allow Wafah Tayara, number four on Da’am’s list of candidates for the Knesset, to speak, even though this had previously been agreed. Aghbarieh-Zahalka took this as an act of racism from an unexpected source. Her outcry can be seen in a video clip posted on the Web, which captures a spontaneous speech she delivered at the event among the demonstrators, not on the platform.

“What I saw there was a new type of nation, a nation of protesters, among whom I felt most at home,” she recalls. “I felt as though I were in Tahrir Square. But when Wafah was prevented from speaking, it felt like the end. We said all along that Jews and Arabs can work together, yet now she was not being allowed to speak. The video clip generated a flood of views and reactions. The clip prompted many people to come to us people who had never heard of us before. That was the day Da’am was born in the public’s eyes, from that very rejection.”

Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka was born in Jaffa 39 years ago, descended on her father’s side from a large family in Umm al-Fahm, in the Galilee. As an adolescent she experienced a surge of religious belief and joined the Islamic Movement. In 1995, while a student in the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, she was offered a position as language editor with Da’am’s newspaper in Arabic. At a meeting with party activists, she was surprised to encounter Jews who spoke fluent Arabic. She underwent a gradual transformation, joined the party and eventually became its leader. In the 2006 elections she was the only woman at the head of a party running for the Knesset. In 2009, she was joined in that category by Tzipi Livni (Kadima), and in 2013 she is one of four women to head political parties, along with Livni (Hatnuah), Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and Zahava Gal-On (Meretz). But for Aghbarieh-Zahalka, that fact in itself does not forge a shared destiny or identification. By the same token, she declines to find similarities between herself and MK Hanin Zuabi, the woman who is second on the list of Balad’s Knesset candidates.

“Balad,” she says, “is a nationalist, bourgeois Arab party. It does not advocate social justice. I am not in competition with Hanin Zuabi. That is not the public I am appealing to. My constituency is the 50 percent of the Arab public that is fed up with the political options represented by the Arab parties. The Arab parties espouse a nationalist discourse and address only the national question, neglecting the socioeconomic issues and the hardships endured by the Arab public. Gaza and Tel Aviv are one and the same. But the national question is inseparable from the issue of social justice.

“The poverty rate among the Arab population in Israel is 50 percent; 80 percent of the country’s Arab women do not work. The situation is catastrophic. Is this a people that can think about liberating Palestine? It must first liberate itself. But there is no sign of that.

“Not one [Arab] party is bent on doing genuine work, organizing the public, fighting the conditions of the contract workers. I come to Knesset committees and don’t see a single Arab representative, even in discussions of issues that are very relevant for the Arab public, such as work safety. Why this daily preoccupation only with the Nakba? They forget that nowadays there is a Nakba in every home. Nakba is a woman who doesn’t have a job. Nakba is a young man who does contract work without social-security rights. Without detracting from the importance of the Nakba, what about the Nakba of our time? You can’t change history it’s the present situation you have to change.”

Don’t you think the fact that both you and Zuabi are Arab women who are swimming against the tide is a theme that will draw your agendas closer together?

“Being a woman is not sufficient. Shelly Yacimovich is a woman, Tzipi Livni too. Being a woman is good but insufficient. Nor is it sufficient to be an Arab. Bashar Assad is an Arab, too. I want to transform the cultural differentiation into strength, whereas Zuabi is turning it into a wall that separates people. I don’t want people to vote for me because I am an Arab. That is not the ticket I am running on. The question is what kind of Arab you are. My ticket is class identity. I think class identity is the most appropriate theme in places like Israel, which are replete with a variety of population groups and an ingathering of exiles, including the Arabs. I think what can connect people and allow them to move forward is to shed sectarianism. To leave the ghetto. Whereas she [Zuabi] is stuck in the ghetto, isolated and segregating.

“Socioeconomic justice is the universally connecting issue today. I am talking about the demands of every person everywhere. We are equal, and together we are carving out a third way – the same third way that was put forward by the Arab Spring. Not to give in to the United States or to Israel’s dictates to the Palestinians; not to give in to the privatizations; to the nationalist rhetoric; to the fundamentalist resistance of which Zuabi is a part. I cannot call for death. We see where this violent resistance the path followed by Hamas and Hezbollah leads: to the massacre of the Syrian people. I cannot be part of that and I was never part of it. That is why I was not relevant to the Arab public because of that unpopular stance. Arabs need to be democratic: the nation must be given freedom of expression, the possibility of honorable work. If you don’t go that route, the fact that you are an Arab is of no interest to me.”

What do you think about Zuabi’s participation in the Free Gaza flotilla, aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara?

“I would not have boarded the Marmara. I also don’t think she will do it again. Above and beyond the whole issue of isolation and separation and presenting yourself as ‘against’ and as ‘anti,’ I think that to board the Marmara was to empower Hamas against Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]. I am not for Abu Mazen and not for Hamas; I am for the Palestinian left carving out a third way. If you favor one side over the other, you deepen the Palestinian rift. And I don’t think it’s in the interest of the Palestinian people to deepen the rift in terms of opposing Israel and the occupation. From the Palestinian point of view, that was the wrong strategy.”

Reality triumphant

You say that from the perspective of class consciousness, there is a readiness to accept your ideas. But what about the racism on both sides? Do you think the Jews or the Arabs have reached a stage where they are more inclined to vote for a Jewish-Arab party?

“I will probably not become prime minister. Not everyone will vote for me. But I will wait for those who persist in being racists. I will continue to believe as I believed that the time of social justice would come that the time will come when people will snap out of racism. I also believe that others will take racism to its far limits, to fascism. I am not naive. Racism is a type of false consciousness: you think you have privileges as a Jew in this country, but really you don’t. At present this is not the Jewish state, but the state of the rich. As for those who understand and experience this in their pocket, in their refrigerator, in the cost of living, in the inability to pay for life’s expenses, those who endure this, day in and day out, I suggest they consider the fact that it’s not because of the Arabs that they are in this situation; it is because of the policy that is carried out in their name as Jews. They simply have to reset their minds.

“I know that not everyone will vote for Da’am. It’s a challenge to the Jewish public to vote for an Arab woman, even though we are a Jewish-Arab party not only an Arab one and it is a challenge to Arab society to vote for a party headed by a woman. Every day we hold parlor meetings across the country. I met with Russians and with Mizrahim [Jews of Middle East and North African origin]. What I discovered in these encounters is that our message is received like water on parched land. People want more and more. It’s a golden opportunity, and I am taking it to the Arab street, which has not budged, which did not take part in the protest movement. I say to them: Look how the Jewish public is accepting us. Look how they are accepting an Arab woman who tells them to their face how they should deal with the occupation, with racism and with the privatization economy. They are stunned, because the Arabs have long since stopped speaking with the Jews, and the Jews with the Arabs.”

Do you really think you will succeed in getting them to think differently?

“It’s not I who will succeed, it is reality.”

Wouldn’t it at least be a good idea to change the name so it doesn’t sound like an Arab party?

“Balad stands for Democratic National Alliance in Hebrew; Hadash [Democratic Front for Peace and Equality] is a Hebrew word. Did that do anyone any good? Their voters are mostly Arabs. Da’am started out in the Arab community, based on the conception of ending the occupation. This was in the years when we had not yet experienced the hard hand of privatization and globalization. Since then 20 years have passed, and the Israeli reality has changed beyond recognition. Da’am found itself also responding to the needs of a constantly growing segment of the Jewish public. We went from being a party on the more nationalist side of the map to being a party with a greater class orientation, on the socialist side of the map. We did not change the name and I think that was the right decision, because the Arab name is a type of connection, a link, a unifying element.

“It’s also a connection with left-wing parties in Arab countries and it reminds Israelis that there are Arabs, that there is a national question, that an existential problem exists. The name is like a litmus test for the Jewish public that says, ‘I want to hook up with the Arabs, leave the ghetto, connect with the Palestinians.’ The word itself is an acronym of the original Arabic name: da’am is support, solidarity. The name was originally the Organization for Democratic Action. That name is a challenge that does not want to conceal itself. We are living within the Middle East.”

You seem to make no separation between politics and personal life.

She laughs. “Yes, someone pays a price for it: my son, Adam, and my partner, Musa. But there is no way around that. I decided at the age of 22 that I would not live well while people around me were sinking. I could have, but chose not to. One cannot live as an island. That is why I am committed to this path. My child will not grow up into a society that exploits its workers and kills the people within it. That was not why I brought him into the world. To complete my having brought him into the world, I am bringing into being an environment of normality in which he can live. I am not doing this for myself, I am doing it for him.

“I am not engaged in a political career. Of course I am also a hugging mom I don’t feed my son Marxism. I play with him in the playground. We even went to McDonald’s together. That isn’t happening much right now, because of the election. But Musa makes up for it. I am with Adam for three hours a day at best, and tell him that mommy is going to talk to people who will see to it that all the children get toys. He said he wants toys, too, and I promised he would get some.”

Zuabi: Burning votes

MK Hanin Zuabi said in response: “I don’t want to comment on these remarks. They are no different from what the right-wing and the Zionist left say against me. Ms. Asma Aghrabieh-Zahalka’s only contribution is to burn about 3,000 votes in every election, and that definitely does not help the Arab public or the weak population groups.”

Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka. Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka with her young boy, Adam.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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