MK Dov Khenin Can Putt From the Political Rough

The Hadash party member is an unabashed communist, a far-left radical, an outspoken anti-Zionist – and the best MK in the outgoing Knesset.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

So let's get this out of the way first: Dov Khenin is the best!

No, seriously. It’s really tough to find something bad to say about the Hadash party Knesset member, try as you might.

Just ask his detractors. Sure, they might point out that he's a communist, which is true. They could claim he belongs to the radical left, which he does. They could snarl that he's anti-Zionist, and he probably wouldn't deny it.

But then they'd have to explain why he is the No.1 legislator in the 18th Knesset, proposing no less than 529 bills in the last four years, of which 27 were approved. They would also have to ignore the awards and honors he’s received, among them the Knight of Quality Government Award from the Movement for Quality Government in Israel and the Parliamentary Excellence award from the Israeli institute for Democracy. They'd also have to admit that he is the most socially and environmentally conscious Member of Knesset there is.

And then they'd have to explain why they cooperated with him on so many bills. Khenin is such an enigma that even his most ardent enemies have a hard time demonizing him. So they just leave him alone.

The point is you can say what you want about Khenin, but you can't deny he's probably the most committed, hard-working MK in Israel in recent memory. That's why unlike his peers, such as Balad's Hanin Zuabi, Meretz's Zehava Gal-On or even Labor's Shelly Yacimovich – it's hard for the right wing to attack him.

Yes, he is unashamedly communist. He supports nationalizing the banks, the profits from the Tamar and Leviathan deep-water gas prospects and the mineral wealth of the Dead Sea. What of it?

Khenin is so open about his communistic world view that it’s hard to accuse him of being covert. And he speaks just as much about social and environmental issues as he does about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not more, so it is hard to stamp him with the "leftist" label that in Israel dooms you to the fringes of society.

Khenin is already in the fringiest fringe anyway. And he is destined to stay there. And he knows it. And that’s fine. He has learned to make the best of it. In July 2012, Kadima MK (and Hatnuah party candidate) Meir Sheetrit said in a televised interview: "Dov Khenin comes from a small party, but his influence is far greater than all of Kadima."

Kadima, with 28 seats, was the biggest party within the 18th Knesset. Hadash, with three seats, was one of the smallest.

‘I think I can, I think I can’

It's not so much that Khenin seems resigned to his marginal status, as that he seems cool with it.

A lot of politicians in Israel would despair of being stuck in third place on the list of a small far-left Arab-Jewish party that has never exceeded three seats in the Knesset and probably won't this time either (according to recent polls). Many would give up. Many did. But like The Little Engine That Could, Khenin is always forging ahead. It is easy to imagine him telling himself in moments of self-doubt: "I think I can, I think I can."

The tenacity with which Khenin, married with three children, has engaged the margins of the political debate, and his ability to make lemonade out of some really tart lemons, can be explained by his background. He was born into the political fringes in 1958, his father being David Khenin, a leader of Maki, the Israeli communist party. Khenin is a member of the Maki central committee himself.

His mother, also a communist activist, was a preschool teacher. Young Dov developed a keen interest in politics from an early age, earning his first stripes in Banki, Maki's communist youth movement, and other left wing youth organizations. Being a communist in Israel, even in socialist Israel, was akin to being a social pariah. In some circles, it still is. Yet he hung on, and stuck to the family tradition. When it came time for him to enter the Israel Defense Forces, he did, but he refused to serve in the Occupied Territories, foreshadowing a lifelong support for conscientious objectors. "I have never tried to hide any detail of my past. I am at peace with everything I've ever done," he told the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon in 2006.

In 1982, he completed an undergraduate law degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has described his university days as a time of intense social and political activity. One of his activities was pushing for combined Arab-Jewish political activities and agendas. In 1984, he began working as a lawyer at the firm of Amnon Zichroni, famous for being one of the first conscientious objectors in the history of Israel – declaring himself a pacifist in 1954 – and for being the lawyer of Israeli nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu.

During his first years as a lawyer, an occupation he continued practicing until 2004, Khenin led some influential human rights cases, including that of five left-wing conscientious objectors, known as Mishpat Hasarvanim ("The Trial of the Refuseniks"). During this period, he also received a PhD. in political science from Tel Aviv University, completed post-doctoral work at Oxford, writing about the relationship between environmentalism and social issues, taught at Tel Aviv University, wrote two books and edited various other books and articles and continued with his political and environmental activism. In 2002 he became the chairman of Haim VeSviva ("Life and Environment"), an umbrella organization comprised of more than 100 environmental organizations and causes in Israel.

Since 1990, Khenin has been a member of Maki's leadership. In 2003, he made his first foray into parliamentary politics, running in the fourth spot on the Hadash-Taal party list. He had originally been in third place on the Hadash list, a slot held before him by the much-admired (and strikingly similar in gaining admiration from all ends of the political spectrum) Tamar Gozansky. But Hadash, a Jewish-Arab socialist party and the de facto political arm of Maki, banded with the Arab Taal party for the elections, winning just three seats and leaving Khenin less than 1,000 votes short of qualifying. It was the first time Hadash had not sent a Jewish party member to the Knesset.

The partnership between Hadash and Taal did not last long, and in the 2006 elections for the 17th Knesset Khenin was placed third on the Hadash list, finally making it to the Knesset and becoming a MK. He was quick to become one of the most active Members of Knesset, becoming the head of the social-environmental lobby, the biggest lobby group in the Knesset, together with the Rabbi Michael Melchior of Memad.

Darling of cats and the coolth of Tel Aviv

Khenin was especially active on social and environmental issues, writing dozens of bills relating to human rights, workers' rights and women's rights, as well as animal, environmental and child protection laws. Together with Labor MK Eitan Cabel, he was responsible among other things for the prohibition of declawing cats, which won him the support of, well, the entire freaking Internet.

Then, in 2008, he really made his mark with the Israeli public, going from an anonymous MK from a small party hardly anyone knew to the total darling of Tel Aviv leftists and hipster wannabe-leftists. The event that upgraded his status was his decision to run against Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai in the municipal elections. Khenin, who was not perceived as particularly charismatic then, ran as the mayoral candidate of Ir Lekulanu, a non-partisan Arab-Jewish-Green municipal party established in 2008 and composed of social and environmental, as well as Hadash, activists. Khenin did not have an easy time running against the incumbent Huldai, who was popular and established and enjoyed the endorsement of the Labor party. Plus, the voting rate in the municipal elections in Israel is patently low.

Still, Ir Lekulano gave one hell of a fight, running a viral Facebook (in the relatively early days of Facebook in Israel) and Youtube campaign, directed specifically at young people living in Tel Aviv, most of them in their 20s and early 30s, leaning to the left, riding bicycles and having a hard time dealing with the rise in rental prices that was effectively forcing them out of the city. The campaign recruited many celebrities and created a political, activist climate in Tel Aviv that would contribute to emergence of the social protest movement three years later.

But still, Khenin lost. He gained 34.3 percent of the vote, compared to Huldai’s 50.6 percent. Ir Lekulani, despite losing the mayoral race, still gained the most votes in the municipal elections and won five seats in the city council. To this day, it remains a viable political force in the Tel Aviv political scene, struggling for affordable housing and better public transportation.

After the mayoral elections, Khenin went back to the Knesset, having lost the race but won the affection and admiration of Tel Aviv's young adults. In the elections for the 18th Knesset, he was placed again in the third place in Hadash. Upon entering the Knesset, he again headed the social-environmental lobby, this time alongside Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz. During his second term as MK Khenin sustained his energetic style, remaining highly involved in issues relating to social and environmental issues, winning the title of 'most social MK' twice in a row by the HaMishmar HaHevrati (“The Social Guard”), a nongovernmental organization established following the social protests of 2011 to keep track of the activity in the Knesset and report it to the public.

Singlehandedly, he elevated Hadash's image with the Israeli left, projecting an agenda that could be mistaken for social democracy if it wasn't for his candid, outspoken style.

"The market cannot be the universal mediator between us and our lives. Our lives, our health, our education, cannot be controlled by the market," he recently explained in an interview with TheMarker, adding that he is supportive of nationalization of Israel's natural resources and increasing corporate taxes, as well as income tax for the rich. Sometimes, he was and is overshadowed by his other party members, none of them as popular, active or diligent as him.

During the social protests, Khenin again upgraded his public status, getting involved in the movement from the beginning, showing up on Rothschild Boulevard from the very first moments and actively supporting the leaders of the protest behind the scenes. Khenin has long seemed to appear at practically every demonstration in Israel – to the point that it’s almost funny. A viral video supporting Khenin released in December claimed he must be using doubles, as there is no other reasonable explanation for his ability to be a two or three rallies almost simultaneously.

Khenin, together with Nitzan Horowitz and Labor's Nino Abesadze, was the most supportive of the protest among the MKs and was supposed to be its great benefactor. After all, a significant number of the protest's leaders were former activists within Ir Lekulanu. One of them, Alon-Lee Green, was even his parliamentary assistant at the time. You could see more Hadash signs proclaiming "People before Profits" in the Rothschild tent camp and the big protest rallies than signs from any other party, organization or movement. Even right wingers held up Hadash signs during the protests, ripping off the party's symbol and keeping the slogan alone. "Hadash will win 7 to 8 mandates in the next elections, guaranteed," people prophesized in July and August 2011, at the height of the protest, on the power of Khenin's personality alone.

So what happened? How did Khenin move back to the fringe? The answer is he never left. It is not easy being a left-wing politician in Israel. It is even harder when you're a communist, a conscientious objector whose son is also a conscientious objector and a proclaimed anti-Zionist. During the current campaign, he was attacked by an unexpected foe, Labor leader Yachimovich, an outspoken Hadash supporter years ago, who lambasted him for being anti-Zionist and allegedly not standing up when the national anthem is sung. When the left attacks you for being too left, you know you're forever banished from the mainstream.

Khenin knows how to make lemonade out of the lemons, but to his credit, he has never tried to replace the lemons he was given with, say, oranges. In the next Knesset, Hadash is still expected to win three seats, no more that it has today, no less. And Khenin will be in one of them, probably thinking to himself: "I know I can, I know I can.”

Khenin isn't so much resigned to the political fringe as he is cool with it.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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