Red Flags and Headscarfs

Clinging to Communist Past, Hadash Party Hopes to Reunite Israeli Arabs Behind It

The party’s new Jewish representative Ofer Cassif is a radical firebrand sure to become the right’s favorite punching bag

Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh in Shfaram, February 1, 2019
Rami Shllush

Attending a meeting of the governing Council of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, the far left party known by its Hebrew acronym Hadash, is like visiting a land that time forgot. The walls of the spacious wedding hall in the northern Arab city of Shfaram where the meeting was held were draped with massive red posters imprinted with solemn slogans; the leadership stood shoulder to shoulder on the dais to wild applause from the audience; and the speeches were marked by a rhetorical style that consists of loud, dramatic exhortations, even on the most trivial technicalities, and despite the presence of a well-functioning public address system.

The only clear indication that the meeting was not a reenactment of a Communist rally in Moscow or Tashkent in the mid-20th century was the opulent Middle Eastern feast that Hadash had prepared for its 1000 plus council members. Alluding to the quality of hummus in a report about an Arab political party is a worn cliché usually considered condescending, but this case merits an exemption: By Israeli standards, the scrumptious stuffed chicken and accompanying salads crowns it as the undisputed queen of Knesset culinary. If hummus and babaganoush could be converted into Knesset seats, Hadash would get 40, while Benny Gantz, who offered tiny sandwiches and vegetables in a cup at his campaign launch last week, would barely make it into the Knesset.

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The good food added to the good mood at the council meeting called to select the Hadash list in the upcoming election. Ayman Odeh, who headed the 13-member Joint List union of all the Arab parties in the outgoing Knesset, was reelected as head of the Hadash list by acclimation, after his two rivals made do with speeches before dropping out.

The pattern held true in the battle for second spot, to which the popular Hadash MK and feminist activist Aida Touma-Sliman was reelected by show of hand. Political junkies may have yearned for the drama and excitement of the tough battles that both faced four years ago, when they were first elected, but most council members seemed satisfied with the domestic bliss in Hadash, if not in the general Joint List alliance.

Odeh speaking at the Hadash party meeting in Shfaram, February 1, 2019
Rami Shllush

That is what really troubles them: The decision made by Ahmad Tibi of the rival Ta’al party to dissemble the Joint List and to run independently in the April 9 elections. Hadash activists I spoke to still believe that Tibi, who is widely known and often liked by Israeli Jews, will catch cold feet at the last minute and return to the fold, thus enabling the Joint List - an amalgamation of Hadash. Ta’al and the uber-nationalist Balad party - to unite the Arab electorate once again. His leadership of the Joint List enabled Odeh to emerge as the recognized spokesperson of the entire Arab community, a fifth of Israel’s population, and the delegates are naturally disinclined to see his stature cut down to Hadash’s true size.

The result of the race for third place on the list, traditionally reserved for what is widely perceived as the token Jewish politician on the list, was also no surprise, though it promises to spark sensational headlines in the future. In place of the outgoing Dov Khenin, who was given a warm and emotional farewell for his dozen years of service in the Knesset, Hadash chose Hebrew University Dr. Ofer Cassif, whose radical statements make him the ideal candidate to replace the retiring Haneen Zoabi, of the rival Balad Party, as the favored punching bags of Jewish politicians, from Meretz to the extreme right.

Cassif comes with an impressive record of provocations that inflamed the right, including comparisons between Nazi Germany and Israel in the days of Benjamin Netanyahu: He recently sparked an uproar by describing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as a “neo-Nazi scum.”

In his speech to the Hadash Council, Cassif reveled in his past as a conscientious objector to army service in the occupied territories, and called for the implementation of the Palestinian right of return. If the earnest and amiable Khenin was a rival that even fierce rivals respected and liked, Cassif, assuming he is elected, is sure to make their blood boil.

Other speakers also slammed the “extreme” right, “fascist” Netanyahu, the occupation and the ongoing discrimination against the Arab minority, though the last cries out from the moment one turns from modern Highway 70 to the barely-maintained pot-holed streets of Shfaram, a city of 40,000 supposedly equal Israeli citizens. And despite the harsh rhetoric, one must note that Hadash is the only political party that champions a partnership between Jews and Arabs, even though its Jewish section is but a pale reflection of its size and impact in the good old days of the Israeli Communist Party, which created Hadash in 1977 in order to incorporate other left-leaning splinter groups.

In fact, this year Hadash marks what it views as its centennial anniversary, marking the 1919 establishment of the Palestine Communist Party, known to most Jewish Israelis as the PKP, initials of Palestinishe Komunistishe Partei, the name given to it by its Jewish founders, who preferred Yiddish in order to differentiate themselves from Hebrew-speaking Zionists. It took only a small effort to imagine the great debates that wracked Communist parties in the West about Lenin and Trotsky, the only and only Stalin and Gorbachev’s glasnost, good or bad, being held on a similar stage, with similar slogans and identical rhetorical hyperbole.

One must also note the presence of the large contingent of female delegates, on stage and in the hall, which puts other Israeli political parties, both secular and Orthodox, to shame. Unlike the prevailing custom today in most Arab gatherings, the majority of the women were bareheaded, as befits an unabashedly secular party like Hadash, but many nonetheless covered their hair with traditional veils. But even those who concealed their hair made sure to broadcast the compatibility between their religious beliefs and their party loyalty: Their veils were colored in bright red, which could be seen from far away.