Yuval Gal’s formative political experience came in 1996, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. Gal was then a member of Meretz's youth movement, he recalls, and was assisting homeless people in the rundown Jaffa C neighborhood. There, at age 16, he encountered the grimmest face of poverty in Israel and discovered, to his consternation, how its most severe victims were treated by the state.
“They erected a tent camp and slept on the grass,” he recalls. “People came from [Tel Aviv] City Hall and told them, ‘You don’t have a permit to put up tents on the grass,’ and confiscated everything in one day. The inspectors stole toys from them. The Housing Ministry of course refused to rehabilitate them. I remember being absolutely dumbfounded. I saw the state’s attitude toward people who barely had anything to eat – as if they were its worst enemies.”
Twenty-four years later, Gal lives in the Netherlands, but he is still infected by the political bug. And, in an unlikely development, he’s in the 11th slot of the BIJ1 (Together 1) party ahead of the next parliamentary election, slated for March 21, 2021. Founded at the end of 2016 by Sylvana Simons, a media personality, the party (originally called Article 1) is situated on the far left of the political map and is considered the standard-bearer of the country’s minorities: nonwhites, migrants and their families, the LGBT community, the disabled – in a political arena that is almost totally male-dominated, straight and white.
As befits a party that espouses global decolonization, BIJ1 identifies with the Palestinian struggle, supports the BDS movement and calls for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which everyone living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will be given an equal voice in shaping the political system that rules their life. How did a former Israeli become a candidate in this Dutch party?
Gal became a father shortly before he turned 30, and his partner said that they should move to The Hague.
Gal: “She’d lived in the Netherlands before, and had friends and a career here. I was studying film editing at the time, and I remember seeing a documentary about kids playing on tanks on Independence Day. The first thing that entered my mind was, ‘That’s shocking,’ and then, ‘Wait a minute, I used to play on tanks, too.’ The third stage was to tell my partner, ‘Hey, let’s move to the Netherlands.’”
Their relocation, in 2010, proved a wrenching experience. “In Tel Aviv I could easily find jobs in kitchens [as a cook]. But in the Netherlands no one cared that I once worked at Orna and Ella” – a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant, now closed. On top of job difficulties, he was surprised to discover that the racism he’d seen directed against other groups in Israel, now targeted him in the Hague.
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“The police here are very racist,” he tells Haaretz in a Zoom conversation, “and they don’t really hide their racism. There are sections of the city where, if you hang out for five minutes with three friends and smoke a cigarette, police officers will get on your case only because you have a beard and you’re in a certain neighborhood. I had run-ins like that with the police.”
As the emigration crisis gradually faded, Gal established a catering business. However, it wasn’t for another few years – after he opened a hummus place with a Palestinian friend, Muawiya Shehadeh, who was born in the West Bank – that he felt he was truly starting to fit in. The story of the hummusiya called Love and Peas that two friends, an Israeli and a Palestinian, opened in The Hague in 2015 got enthusiastic coverage in the local media and generated interest in Israel, too.
“We very much wanted to sell hummus,” Gal relates, “but we didn’t deny the fact that this was also a story about an Israeli and a Palestinian. We were able to shatter stereotypes, to reach people. From all sides. But there were some, including journalists, who still pigeonholed us” as a typical Israeli and a typical Palestinian.
For example, a year after he left the business in 2018, Shehadeh called to ask if Gal would be willing to do a joint interview on the anniversary of the Nakba (the Palestinian “catastrophe”). This was at the height of the March of Return demonstrations in the Gaza Strip.
“It was on a day when 60 to 70 demonstrators were murdered in Gaza [in clashes with Israeli security forces, on May 14, 2018, Nakba Day, and in protest of the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem],” Gal recalls.” In a pre-interview conversation, we both told the reporter that we didn’t want an item about hummus, but about the shahids who were murdered the day before. About war crimes. He said, ‘Yes, we will respect your wish.’”
Still, in the interview by a Dutch media outlet they were asked whether they thought hummus could bring about peace. “We said explicitly no. We talked about the Palestinian people’s demands for equality and freedom. But in the editing they cut our answer – only the question remained.”
Political frustration was not the only reason Gal left the hummus trade; personal reasons also played a part. At the time, he was living with his second partner, also a former Israeli. “I was bored by then. And we also wanted to have children. So I thought I would leave while I was riding high. My wife found a job in high-tech, and now I take care of the children and she’s the provider. That’s more like it, that suits me better.”
Since then, Gal also created a culinary theater show, now discontinued due to the coronavirus crisis, titled “The Jewish Kitchen,” in which he would tell the audience stories about Judaism and Jews, serving a dish that matches each story. The purpose of the show, he says, is to deconstruct the term “Judaism” for the Dutch public. “In the Netherlands they think all Jews are white. They’ve never heard of Black Jews [of African descent,]” he explains. “There are all sorts of weird, dumb stereotypes about being Jewish.”
Antisemitism in the Netherlands manifests in different aspects of culture, sometimes tacitly, he observes. “I went to a soccer game with my son. He said, ‘Let’s not speak Hebrew now, let’s not tell them who we are and what we are.’ I can’t forget that,” he says ruefully.
On top of job difficulties, he was surprised to discover that the racism he’d seen directed against other groups in Israel, now targeted him in the Hague.
Gal’s renewed entry into politics is partly linked with the pandemic, which ruined his plans to mount the Jewish kitchen show again. He joined BIJ1, which is not represented in parliament, more than two years ago, but didn’t have the courage to enter politics full time and put his name forward. “You want to protect your children, but you’re afraid to do something that will threaten your life. And then along comes the coronavirus and shows you the frailty of life.”
With a January 2021 deadline for parties to draw up their lists for the next election, some of Gal’s friends began to press him to submit his candidacy.
“I went through interviews,” he relates. “It’s completely different from what happens in Israel. You apply for a certificate of good conduct. You need to tell about all your past colleagues, about all the people you know. To declare whether there are criminals in your social or family milieu. I didn’t think I’d pass the first interview, and then I didn’t think I’d pass the second one, and then I didn’t think I’d be accepted.”
(According to the system in the Netherlands, each party selects its own slate without primaries and members vote for their preferred candidate – typically, the party’s leader – during the election itself, after which, depending on the overall results, the winners are determined.)
After three interviews, Gal was placed in the 11th slot on the slate and weeks later he says he’s still flabbergasted at the developments. “I’ve been here 10-11 years. It’s insane for an immigrant. You have to understand it in the context of Dutch politics. There’s been one nonwhite cabinet minister here in the country’s whole history. There’s a huge majority of white men in parliament – people whose life followed a very particular trajectory, who were lawyers and suchlike. I’ve only had a Dutch passport for the past two and a half or three years.”
Though none of the candidates ahead of him on the slate is an immigrant, the ace in the hole of BJI1 is still its human diversity. The only two white people higher than him, Gal says, represent weak minority groups in Dutch society – one is transgender, the other a leading activist for the rights of women in prostitution. Both Gal and the party emphasize that the main reason he should be in parliament is that he’s an immigrant.
“One of the things that politics needs,” explains BIJ1 leader Sylvana Simons, in a Zoom conversation with Haaretz, “is people who know what they are talking about. Not only from the theory, but also because of their own experience.” She adds that it’s important to show the Dutch public that representation is meaningful, so that other migrants will see that they can be “full partners” in their society.
The principal tenets of the party’s current platform (which hasn’t yet been finalized) assert the need for items from the socialist toolbox, such as nationalization of the education and health systems. “Feminism is linked to the struggle against poverty,” Simons says, and “anti-racism is linked to fighting for LGBTQI rights.” Thus it’s impossible to address those rights without addressing economic issues.
The Palestine issue, Simons and Gal explain, dovetails with BIJ1’s support for worldwide decolonization – a tenet that’s not surprising for a party whose leader was born in Suriname in 1971, when it was still under the rule of the Dutch monarchy. The Zionist project, Simons replies unhesitatingly to a question, is a colonialist one, “because the moment those who are affected by policy and action are not included in the conversation, this becomes hostile action,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, the party supports BDS. Simons explains that boycott is a tool resorted to everywhere in order to generate awareness of oppression and support for the oppressed, but also to demonstrate solidarity with a population that is “limited in how they can export, can trade, can get means to support themselves.”
The BIJ1 leader also refuses to condemn other means that serve the Palestinians in their struggle against oppression. “We will never support, condone and encourage violence. At the same time, everybody has the right to defend themselves,” Simons says, adding that it is one thing to say “we support violence and advocate it,” but another to say, “we understand the need for people to react in a way that they feel is efficient for them. Plus, we should not forget what being powerless does to people. I think that we have two sources of violence in general. We have the perpetrator, and we have the person responding.”
Both Gal and the party emphasize that the main reason he should be in parliament is that he’s an immigrant.
“I will never be the instigator of violence,” she says. “But if someone uses violence against me, I cannot promise I will not retaliate. This is only human” – which is why context is crucial.
In contrast to many parties of the European left, BIJ1 does not advocate a two-state solution for the conflict. According to Simons, that is not a relevant solution at this time. However, the principal reason is that the party makes a point of not adopting the usual European approach of telling the “natives” what to do. “That is not our role. The most important thing we need to do is to respect the right of all who are involved to control their destiny.”
Or, as Gal phrases it: “One person, one vote.” “In 2020, there is no place – and in fact there never was – for countries that posit ethnicity as the basis for affiliation. Like, I feel totally a Netherlander,” he says. The choice of that term is also a political act: Holland is the name of a certain region in the territory subject to the Dutch royal house. The use of the name “Netherlander,” he explains, is intended to encompass all the country’s inhabitants, including those in the periphery. “My children are Netherlanders. And I am not a Christian and I don’t belong to the majority group ethnically. That’s how it should be in Israel. In Palestine. Everywhere.”
If he’s elected, which is a long shot, Gal says, he will focus on furthering immigrants’ human rights and combating racism. “As someone who came from outside, I have insights about Dutch culture and racism. The whole process of migration in the Netherlands is based on the notion that ‘If you want to be with me, you have to be like me,’” he says. “Their point of departure is that if you come from a different country, you are intolerant, beat your children and think that two and two are five.”
What are his chances of being elected? The established media in Holland is not currently dealing with polls, which are generally conducted only after the party lists are submitted in a few months’ time. The party itself, which had an unsuccessful run for parliament in 2017, has also not conducted its own in-depth surveys, but its members say they are encountering considerable support on the stump. Simons terms it a “wonderful adventure” for everyone who’s involved. She believes they will be successful – and the question is whether theirs will be a major success. “I don’t believe we will fail. What we are doing is history in the Dutch context.”
Gal himself is convinced that the party will do well in the election, but isn’t sure that it will get enough votes for him to enter parliament. But even so, Gal intends to try to go on developing his political career in BIJ1, whether it’s in the province’s parliament or in municipal politics in The Hague.
“If I get five votes, I’ll understand that I failed,” he says. “If I get 10,000 votes, we’ll move forward full-steam.”