'I Speak Both Cultures - Hebrew and Arabic'

Just before giving up his Knesset seat, MK Mohammed Barakeh, head of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, explains why both the left and right are distancing Israel from realizing the two-state vision.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Mohammed Barakeh.
Mohammed Barakeh.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

The pictures and other objects of art in the home of MK Mohammed Barakeh, leader of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, reflect his inner world and the trajectory of his life. For example, there’s a map of Israel from 1948, with the names of all the Arab towns and villages that were erased after the War of Independence. He lives in the Galilee city of Shfaram, a mostly Muslim town of some 40,000, with sizable Christian and Druze minorities. At the entrance to his home is a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., along with a passage from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as a bust of Lenin. “I’m still a Communist, of course,” Barakeh tells me in his living room, “and if I hadn’t been one until now, I would need to become one because of the insane privatization and neoliberalism rampant here.”

There are also two photographs of Yasser Arafat (in two separate rooms) – one taken when the Palestinian leader returned to Gaza in 1994; the other with the Barakeh family. Another photograph shows Barakeh with his father and his firstborn son, against the backdrop of a spring in the Galilee village of Saffuriya, whose residents fled or were expelled after fighting for their homes in 1948. A year later, a cooperative village, Tzippori, and a kibbutz, Hasolelim, were established on Saffuriya’s ruins. Barakeh’s parents and forebears were born in Saffuriya. “I took all three of my children after they were born, straight from the hospital to the spring in Saffuriya. We are Muslims, not Christians, but I baptized them. And if I know my children, they will do the same with their children.”

Barakeh, who spoke with Haaretz shortly before an election was called in Israel, was born in Shfaram in 1955, but as far back as he can remember, he was taken for frequent visits to the farmlands of Saffuriya, which his uncles continued to work for the new landlords. The stories he heard as a child about the place he still calls “my home” are etched deeply in his memory. Barakeh’s father – his neighbor in Shfaram – still has the key to the family’s house. “There are hair-raising stories about what happened in the Nakba [“the catastrophe,” the Palestinian term for the establishment of Israel], stories my mother told me,” Barakeh says. “About massacres, killings, rapes. Some are true, others aren’t.”

One such story is about a group of people who hid in a cave in Saffuriya during the 1948 war. “There was a baby girl there, a few months old, who kept crying,” Barakeh relates. “Her mother – my grandmother – tried to breastfeed her but had no milk, and there was no water in the cave. One of the older women told her, ‘If the baby keeps crying, we will be discovered. Suffocate her.’ My grandmother replied, ‘How can I do such a thing?’ And the woman said, ‘Do you want us all to die?’ Finally, my mother, who was 10 at the time, crawled to the house from the cave to get water.”

So your ideal is to recreate Saffuriya?

Barakeh at the spring in Suffariya, whose Arab residents fled or were expelled in 1948.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

Barakeh: “Yes, to build it on the original lands and restore its eradicated name to life.”

In place of Tzippori and Hasolelim?

“I am definitely not urging that one wrong be righted by another wrong.”

Will you forgo the right of return?

“No, that is a right that has to remain intact. I understand that the Nakba cannot be undone by fomenting a Nakba. But in my mind’s eye, I definitely see my relations, who are scattered in refugee camps in Lebanon and other places, coming to the spring in Saffuriya.”

The Nakba, he says, “is not a subject for negotiation. The Nakba is a collective story and a personal experience.”

I remind Barakeh that the later Meir Vilner, a longtime leader of his party, was a signatory to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Would you have signed it, I ask him?

“No,” he replies.

Why not?

“Because the first sentence talks about the Bible-based historical rights of the Jewish people. I would also not have named the country ‘Israel.’ That’s a biblical name, not a civic one.”

Would you change the national anthem?

“[The Hebrew poet] Shaul Tchernichovsky’s ‘I Believe’ [known by its opening words in Hebrew, ‘Sahaki, sahaki’] is fitting as an anthem. It’s a beautiful poem and song, very human and universal.”

Another leading member of your party, the late Tawfik Toubi, urged David Ben-Gurion to draft Israel’s Arabs into the army to promote integration and equality. Would you ask the same of Benjamin Netanyahu?


Did Toubi make a mistake?

“Late in his life, Toubi told me he had been mistaken about this. He was 27 or 28, and wanted to cultivate a process of equality. The history of Meir Vilner and Tawfik Toubi is one of two distinguished fighters for equality, democracy and two states. This notion [of drafting Israeli Arabs] isn’t part of their CV, because”

Are you saying that this issue is still present in today’s discourse?

“Yes. The issue of doing army service is an attempt to do to the Arabs what the Zionists did to the Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent], with one difference – we are a different nation. It’s an attempt to place them in a framework of training pets. Come what may, the day will never come when we will fight members of our nation with the Zionist sword.”

Do you consider the commander of the Golani Brigade, Col. Ghassan Alian – a Druze – a traitor to his people, a collaborator?

“He is mainly hurting himself and his language, culture and history. People like him have undergone the harshest form of oppression, so much so that they look in the mirror and don’t see their face. The draft was forced on the Druze, who are one of the pillars of the Palestinian people. There are many young Druze who refuse to serve by various means – I don’t want to elaborate. Through the army, Zionism is trying to distort the identities of both the Mizrahim and the Druze, and now they are playing this game with the [Israeli Arab] Christians.”

Army service has become an entry ticket. Do you feel you belong to this place more than, say, Avigdor Lieberman?

“What is Lieberman’s connection to this place? What does he know? I look at the clouds and know whether it is going to rain or not. I look at the waves and know whether it will be a good day for fishing. When I go to the hills after the rain, I know which herb will bud first. Lieberman doesn’t know. He says Barakeh should leave? Let him go back to Moldova – he has a Russian passport.”

Children’s shoes

Earlier this month, Barakeh was the only Israeli invited to speak at a ceremony in Ramallah, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the death of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.

What’s your attitude toward Arafat?

“Like your attitude toward [David] Ben-Gurion.”

Can you be more specific?

“I admire him.”

Barakeh’s remarks drew loud, rhythmic applause from the audience. “We are the natives of this land, the infant who was forgotten in the cradle when his mother was forced into exile from her home, and he grew up to rely on himself,” Barakeh told the crowd. “No one who took part in Arafat’s assassination will escape,” he added. I asked him afterward whether he believes Arafat was assassinated. “Yes,” he replied, “unequivocally. With American consent.”

On the way back to Jerusalem, he lashed out at the Hamas leadership, whose intimidation forced the cancellation of a memorial event for Arafat in the Gaza Strip. If elections were held today in the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority, Barakeh says, Hamas would lose badly.

Did you support Hamas’ armed struggle last summer – the rocket attacks on Israeli locales?

“How could I support that? I believe that civilians – Israelis and Palestinians alike – must be completely removed from the circle of the confrontation.”

Is Hamas’ armed struggle harmful to the Palestinian interest?

“There are people who want to reach paradise, but on the way they are sending a whole nation to hell.”

Is there violent resistance that you find acceptable?


Attacks on soldiers and settlers?

“I am not talking about my scale of values. There is a recognized international scale of values, in which resistance to occupation is legitimate by every means. Resistance to occupation is never terrorism, and attacking civilians is not resistance to occupation.”

Aren’t settlers civilians, too?

“Every expression of the occupation is one of aggression, even if it assumes a civilian character. The settlement project is an ongoing act of aggression.”

A few weeks ago, Hadash MKs planned to visit the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, a recent flashpoint of violence. But the visit did not take place. Barakeh knew that the visit would require a condolence call at the mourners’ tent erected for Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi, who killed two Israelis when he drove a car into passengers at a light-rail stop in Jerusalem, and was shot to death by a policeman when he tried to escape. He also knew that making the condolence call would be like a punch in the soft belly to those he lives alongside. This is the labyrinth of contradictions in which he’s condemned to maneuver.

A few years ago, he and his Knesset faction attended the funeral of an Ashkelon woman who was killed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip. At the funeral he was reviled and cursed by Jews, and afterward he was reviled and cursed by Arabs. “If you say you are against attacks on civilians, you have to be consistent to the end,” he explains.

Barakeh and the leaders of the other Arab parties in the Knesset, MKs Jamal Zahalka (Balad) and Ibrahim Sarsur (United Arab List-Ta’al), recently released a statement condemning last month’s attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, in which five people were killed. “I am against attacks on civilians in all cases, and an attack on a synagogue, aimed at Jews as Jews, is far more serious,” Barakeh says. He adds, “I don’t like the term ‘third intifada’ – it’s Zionist terminology aimed at terrifying people. But the recent events could lead to that.

“The overriding problem,” he continues, “is that nothing is being done to end the occupation. Netanyahu is pushing Israel into a dark corner, isolating the country. The head of the Shin Bet [security service], whom no one suspects of drawing his views from the shallow Zionist left, understands which way the wind is blowing. Netanyahu is ready to set the region on fire to hold on to his chair, in his silly competition with [Likud MK] Danny Danon.”

Four years ago, Barakeh’s good friend, President Reuven Rivlin – then Knesset Speaker – invited him to join a Knesset delegation to Auschwitz. Barakeh was inclined to accept but said he wanted to consult with others first. Leading Palestinian authors Samih al-Qasim and Taha Muhammad Ali wrote articles encouraging Barakeh to go. Before setting out, Rivlin cautioned the members of the delegation not to embarrass Barakeh – “such as by standing next to me and waving an Israeli flag,” he says. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas instructed the Palestinian ambassador in Poland to accompany Barakeh during the visit.

Asked what jolted him most at Auschwitz, his eyes fill with tears and he replies, “The children’s shoes. I couldn’t contain myself. That devastated me.”

Did that visit help you understand the Jews’ psychosis, their need for a state?

“I understood three things: the fear; the commercialization of the fear; and the price my nation, which did no wrong, is paying because of that fear. Zionism makes manipulative use of the victim to justify its crimes. I went to Auschwitz because I am not a hypocrite. When I ask people to identify with my pain, I do the same for others. And don’t forget that I belong to the communist movement, which played a crucial role in stamping out the Nazi beast.”

Back of the bus

The first time Barakeh saw his father – a member of the Israeli Communist Party – cry was when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died, in 1970. “For us, Nasser represented the proud Arab, the opposite of the bootlicking Arab,” Barakeh says. After the Six-Day War of 1967, he also felt the tension between the Shin Bet-supervised education system in the Arab locales and “the narrative we were raised on at home.” I ask him whether the Shin Bet is still omnipresent in the lives of the Israeli Arabs, especially in the schools. “The Shin Bet is here with us at every moment,” he says, “listening to every word.”

At 19, he moved to Tel Aviv to study math at university. He lived there in rented apartments for eight years, befriending Jews and dating Jewish women. “Those were my formative years in terms of understanding the need for Jewish-Arab partnership,” he notes, contrary to isolationists like MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) and former MK Azmi Bishara (the founder of Balad).

“If there’s one thing that irks me about Arab politics,” he says, “it’s people who say, ‘We are Arabs, we have to be alone.’ People who think like that are criminals. There’s no difference between them and Lieberman.”

In 1983, he moved to Haifa, where he was an editor of Al-Ittihad, the newspaper of the Israeli Communist Party. At the age of 33 he married Amal, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry. They have three children: Said, a veterinarian; Nada, a medical student; and Yazid, who is studying law and accountancy. Barakeh became secretary general of Hadash in 1992, and has led the party since 1999. Next March he will resign from the Knesset and be replaced by Nabila Espanioly, fulfilling his promise to heighten women’s representation in the parliament.

Barakeh will stay on as leader of Hadash, a party that in all its varied incarnations has tried to achieve Jewish-Arab political and class partnership, has preferred the struggle for equality and integration over Arab isolationism and nationalism, and that since 1967 has advocated the two-state solution.

In Barakeh’s view, it is essential to understand that the Arabs in Israel “are part of the Palestinian people and at the same time are citizens of Israel.” A local Arab leader who “upsets the balance between the civil aspect and the national aspect is committing a crime against his people.” Still, he notes, though the Arabs are citizens, they are the butt of discrimination.

“At first, discrimination was a concrete reality in all areas of life, but today it’s also become legislation and has insinuated itself into the judicial system,” he says. “In a situation where there is incitement by the Jewish leadership and public against the Arabs, you always have to find ways not to give extremists in the Israeli establishment excuses to attack the Arabs.” Therefore, he says, in a not-so-veiled reference to MK Zoabi and others, “my philosophy as a leader is to prevent the isolation of the Arab population within the general Israeli context, which is what the right wing wants. Nor will I furnish the right wing with ammunition because of stupidity or thoughtlessness or unnecessary comments.”

Do you really still believe in the idea of two states for two nations based on the 1967 borders?

“There is no other solution. I’m against the one-state idea – that’s what we have today, an apartheid state. I heard Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon state in the Knesset that he didn’t issue an order forbidding Palestinians to ride buses with settlers [in the territories], but adding that when there are 20 Arabs on a bus, he feels threatened. Let him go to blazes, the miserable wretch. He is creating the occupation, he is creating the fear, he is creating the oppression, and then he wants to justify the apartheid. In the United States, the blacks were at least allowed to sit at the back of the bus.”

Catastrophe first

Barakeh supports the strategy of Abbas – with whom he speaks several times a month – who prefers diplomacy to terrorism. By the same token, he believes the methods of the second intifada were “one of the most tragic mistakes of the Palestinian people in the history of the struggle against the occupation.”

He explains: “The first intifada, which was unarmed, was a struggle that showed the Palestinians as a people fighting for its freedom. In the second intifada, the Israeli chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, talked about ‘a cease-fire between the sides,’ as though there were two armies – and some Palestinians believed that they were an equal force.”

Was there a time in the past decade when a breakthrough was imminent?

“Yes. During Ehud Olmert’s term as prime minister. In his negotiations with Abu Mazen [Abbas], the two nations took the greatest strides toward peace – more so than under Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. I know this because of what I heard personally, in real time, from both Olmert and Abu Mazen, each separately. If they had reached agreement on the percentage of a territorial swap, and if the Olmert government had been able to survive and push through an agreement, I think we would be in a different situation today: a situation of two states with open questions that need to be discussed.”

According to Barakeh, “Olmert did not take an ‘all or nothing’ approach.” He recalls meeting with Olmert about “the racist legislation in the Knesset and related matters. We spoke, for example, about reopening the criminal cases in regard to the 13 civilians [12 of them Israeli-Arab citizens] who were murdered [during clashes with the police] in October 2000. He said, ‘If those who were killed had been Jews, it wouldn’t have ended the way it did.’ I think that is a very meaningful statement. But Olmert’s good deeds in trying to advance the peace process cannot stand him in good stead in the matters for which he has been convicted.”

Does a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look remote?

“It looks distant, and I’m afraid that it will take a catastrophe.”

What catastrophe?

“Netanyahu will go off the deep end and go after Iran. Israel will strike with 10 blows, Iran will retaliate with one blow. The Iranians’ ability to absorb punishment is 10, Israel’s is less than one. The Israeli belly is softer.”

As Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah observed in 2000, with his “spiderweb theory” [saying that despite its country’s nuclear bombs and military might, Israeli society itself was weak].

“Everyone knows the situation. I don’t take inspiration from Nasrallah, I know the Israeli reality better than him. My advantage is that I speak both Hebrew and Arabic, and I don’t mean that I’m fluent in the two languages but something deeper: I speak both cultures.”



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