Meet the Palestinian Feminist Fighting for Arab-Jewish Cooperation in Israel

Maisam Jaljuli has had shots fired at her home because of her battle for women’s equality, but that hasn’t intimidated the activist who believes in bringing joint social battles to the forefront of Israel's political discourse

Feminist and social activist Maisam Jaljuli.
Tomer Appelbaum

The morning of my interview with feminist and political activist Maisam Jaljuli, I saw a campaign video clip for Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party in which a diverse group of women presented feminism as superfluous and even as a source of hostility between the sexes. It’s been a while now that I have repeatedly found myself standing helpless in the face of a distorted view of reality, but this particular one really drove me crazy. And then I spoke with Jaljuli.

As clichéd as it may sound, talking with her inspired hope. It was reassuring to hear a woman, who has battled all her life and still believes in the possibility of change in the patriarchal society, Jewish and Palestinian. Jaljuli, 46, was a recipient this week of the Walking Man award for activism, for her work to promote equality for women in the workplace and her efforts to fight violence against women in Israel, illegal possession of weapons and gendercide.

>> Read more: A feminist and a communist, this Arab lawmaker is fighting for Palestinians and Jewish women >> Only Five Arab Women Have Ever Served in Israel's Knesset. And It's Not Getting Any Better 

“Actually, my day started pessimistically,” says Jaljuli, who was born, grew up and still lives in the Arab city of Tira in central Israel. “To understand that we need [Israeli Jewish model and TV anchor] Rotem Sela to say that I am a human being, means that what we have been doing until now is not sinking in,” she says referring to Sela’s recent Instagram defense of the political rights of Arab citizens of Israel. “But I believe in the ability of people to change. The world is not static. It can change in all sorts of directions and we need to have our finger on the pulse to ensure that the changes will be in the direction of justice, solidarity, equality, feminism and also the end of the occupation and living together, Jews and Arabs,” she says.

Jaljuli is the chairwoman of the Hadash party – part of the predominantly Arab Joint List alliance – in the Na’amat women’s organization and chairwoman of Na’amat in the southern Triangle region of Arab towns. Na’amat is the largest women’s movement in Israel and a part of the Histadrut, the country’s biggest labor federation.

She took on the Histadrut

But Jaljuli’s political path actually began in a struggle against the Histadrut. It unfolded in her hometown of Tira when the municipality presented a restructuring plan in 2005 which would have cut the positions of many of the women workers.

Marketplace in Tira.
Nir Keidar

“The male union in the municipality voted in favor and the Histadrut approved the plan, whose victims were women from the lower classes,” says Jaljuli. “And then we organized a group of women and we says: ‘Enough.’ For me, the peak was when in the talks on firings they told us we were secondary breadwinners.

“I suffered in this struggle – they shot at my house twice to intimidate me. But we continued without fear. And today I work in the Histadrut,” she says with a smile.

In Na’amat, Jaljuli is leading a change in the six Arab towns she is responsible for. “We began a revolution in workers’ rights in the southern Triangle region,” she says, referring to the area east of the Sharon plain made up of several Arab towns. “In Kalansua city hall we found 200 female employees who were employed by contractors without rights. We convinced women to run for the union [leadership]: In five communities there are women in the union [leadership] and they are conducting a revolution.

“It is not easy to be an Arab Palestinian woman in Na’amat,” says Jaljuli. “If my friends and I are not there to pound on the table, then who will do it? Sixty five percent of the Arab students in Israeli universities are women. There is greater diversity in the subjects that women study; more women enter the workforce and Arab women are the leaders in civil society – but we are not succeeding in translating all these changes into power in decision-making centers. This shows how strong the barriers are. Many young women think the glass ceiling no longer exists, that feminism is passé. But they are entering an unequal job market and need to be aware of it. As far as I’m concerned, the main struggle is to introduce gender-equality content in the educational system and preschools, so we can deeply change the society for coming generations.”

Jaljuli absorbed her political awareness in her parents’ home. In the early 1990s, she studied criminology and sociology at Bar-Ilan University and was one of the founders of the Arab students union. Over the past few decades, she has witnessed the distancing between Jewish society and Arab Palestinian society, she says.

Hatred in the air

In the 1990s, there was a feeling that we are moving in the direction of reconciliation and people were more willing to speak and listen,” she says. “As an Arab woman in the public sphere, I feel the hatred and exclusion much more today. There is almost no interaction between the groups. No one wants the Arabs and we see that in the election [campaign] today.”

Jaljuli is proud of her Palestinian identity and does not need see that as a barrier to her integration into Israeli society. “My identity is part of me and it cannot keep equal opportunity from me in the society in which I live. I’m a Palestinian in Israel just like one can be a Jewish woman in Europe or in the United States. I have the desire to fit in as a proud Palestinian but the force that pushes me back is enormous. The Jewish Israeli society has moved rightward as has the Palestinian society in the national and nationalist sense,” she adds. “Even when we tried to be Israelis, they didn’t accept us,” continues Jaljuli, pondering the difficulties faced by Arab citizens of Israel. “This is not a process of the last 30 years of the right-wing governments. This is a process that began with the founding of the state. Mapai, which I don’t call the left and I don’t know why they call it left – created the divide and rule approach. They divided the Arabs and Jews into hierarchical groups. If we were living in a normal society, there would be no connection more logical than that of the Arab Jews and the Arabs – we speak the same language and come from the same culture,” she says.

“But a situation was created in which the Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern origin] hate the Arabs the most. The market in Tira on Shabbat is filled with thousands of Jews, most of them Mizrahim, some of whom come every Shabbat and spend hours with us. But if you ask them, they will say they are voting Likud or futher right. What causes this that all this positive day-to-day interaction does not penetrate into people’s political opinions?”

Never despair

Despite the separatism in Israeli society, Jaljuli still believes in linking struggles together. She is part of a joint movement called “Standing Together,” which espouses Jewish-Arab cooperation and leads joint political and social campaigns.

“I think about the battles in 2018: The women’s struggle, the LGBT struggle, the struggle against the nation-state law, the disabled persons’ campaign – all these were joint struggles of Arabs and Jews and they drew thousands of people, but they were not translated into politics. In the election campaign, everyone returned to the same mantras. A lot of women, who saw how many concessions it demanded from their personal and family lives, gave up on their ability to have an impact in the public arena. But I will never despair. I will continue with my fight,” says Jaljuli, adding in Arabic and then, in Hebrew: “The voice of the woman heralds a revolution.”

The Walking Man award is a joint project of Beit Ha’ir, Timeout magazine and urban activists Eitan Bartal and Ilan Goldstein. This is the second year the prize for social activism has been awarded. Jaljuli is one of this year’s crop of 12 winners, among them artist Zeev Engelmayer, better known as Shoska, Beit System Ali, a musical NGO, and journalist Sharon Shpurer, a former Haaretz reporter. The ceremony took place on Wednesday at Beit Ha’ir, a cultural center that once served as Tel Aviv’s City Hall.