A Feminist and a Communist, This Arab Lawmaker Is Fighting for Palestinians and Jewish Women

Arab lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman, 54, freely admits she isn't in the Israeli parliament to make friends, but is willing to work with her biggest enemy if it advances causes such as women’s and workers’ rights

Aida Touma-Sliman at her Hadash party headquarters in Haifa, February 6, 2019.
Rami Shllush

Taking stock of her first term in office as an Israeli lawmaker, Aida Touma-Sliman has one key takeaway: “The Knesset is not where you go to start a revolution.”

Coming from a lifelong communist, it is a sobering observation. But between making revolutions and advancing important legislation and initiatives, the Arab Knesset member has discovered there’s quite a wide spectrum in which to leave your mark.

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Recently reelected in second spot for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (the far-left party better known by its Hebrew acronym, Hadash), Touma-Sliman, 54, is among a not-so-large group of outgoing parliamentarians who are pretty much guaranteed a place in the next Knesset after the April 9 election.

She’s a tough-minded feminist with a no-nonsense attitude, and is the first to admit she hasn’t made many friends in her Jerusalem workplace. “I didn’t go there for that purpose,” she says. But neither has she sparked animosity and controversy like so many of her fellow Arab lawmakers – preferring, in her first stint in office, to avoid the line of fire.

That might not be the case for much longer, though.

Touma-Sliman made history four years ago when she became the first Arab woman to head a parliamentary committee, serving as head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is also the first Arab member of a non-Zionist party to fill such a role. (Raleb Majadele, of the Labor Party, had previously headed the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee.)

If there’s another important lesson Touma-Sliman has learned in her four years in the Knesset, she says, it’s that you sometimes have to put your political ideology aside if you want to have an impact.

“Someone like me is clearly not going to make many allies on the big political issues,” she says. “So I’ve learned that I need to find allies for the small concrete issues I’m trying to promote. Today it’s this person. Tomorrow it’s another. I’m not there to make friendships. I’m there to promote alliances that can help the people who elected me and people in general – even those who hate me.”

Aida Touma-Sliman sitting next to then-Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich at a Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality meeting, March 2016.
Emil Salman

That can explain the unusual alliance she struck up, for example, with Shuli Moalem-Refaeli – a member of the Orthodox, settler-aligned Habayit Hayehudi who recently left to form a new right-wing party, Hayamin Hehadash – who sat on her committee. Moalem-Refaeli, like Touma-Sliman, dedicates a considerable amount of her parliamentary work to issues pertaining to women. “Shuli’s a real fighter, and if she’s into a bill or an issue she will really work hard to push it,” says her counterpart from the opposite end of the political spectrum. “So yes, there are big gaps between us. But there were also issues we could discuss.”

Both Touma-Sliman and Moalem-Refaeli were the driving forces, for instance, behind a recently passed law that allows victims of sexual abuse to reveal their names and show their faces in the media.

She also developed a good working relationship with Benny Begin, the veteran Likud lawmaker (and son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin) who just announced his retirement from politics. Begin Jr. was an active member of her committee – in fact, the only male lawmaker who regularly showed up. Working together over the past four years, they both gained a great deal of mutual respect and admiration for one another.

Arye Dery, head of the ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi Shas party, was another unlikely ally. During his stint as minister responsible for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, Touma-Sliman recounts how she convinced Dery to allocate millions of shekels to day-care programs in Arab communities. And she didn’t have to work too hard to win him over to the cause, she says. “Let’s not forget that he’s a representative of Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] society, so when you talk to him about marginalized groups, he gets it.”

But when it comes to going about her business in the Knesset, she says, there are “red lines” she refuses to cross. Asked to elaborate, she says: “I’m not going to stop expressing my political views just so people like me.”

Sense of schadenfreude

In 1992, Touma-Sliman founded the Arab feminist group Women Against Violence and served as its executive director until she was elected to the Knesset. After joining Hadash in the early 1990s, she was appointed editor-in-chief of its Arabic-language newspaper, Al-Ittihad, in 2011. Born in Nazareth to an Arab-Christian family, she lives today in the mixed Jewish-Arab coastal city of Acre, just north of Haifa. She has two grown daughters and two young grandchildren. Her husband, Jiris, died of cancer eight years ago.

On a recent morning, she was holding court – as she usually does when the Knesset is on recess – at a popular café beneath Hadash headquarters in Haifa. Dressed in an olive-colored sweater with matching booties, she laughs off a suggestion about her apparent penchant for military colors. “Me wear khaki?” she says. “Absolutely not.”

“This is green,” she insists, “green like the flag of the Islamic Movement of Israel.”

Aida Touma-Sliman with Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh at an event marking international support for Israeli-Arab rights, in Shfaram, January 2016.
Rami Shllush

Ayman Odeh, Hadash’s leader and chairman of the Joint List of Arab factions in the Knesset, stops by to chat about the latest election news. He is followed by a few other party comrades. Easily recognizable with her wild mop of salt-and-pepper curls, Touma-Sliman draws considerable attention from passersby.

As the latest results from the Likud primary pour in, she pauses to receive live updates from her aides. The fact that some of her fiercest political foes won’t be around in the next Knesset, she admits, gives her a sense of schadenfreude.

“I know this sounds evil, but there’s a video out there of me predicting that I’d be back in the Knesset but Anat Berko would not,” she says – referring to the Likud lawmaker known for her anti-Arab statements, such as when she said that if there is no letter P in Arabic, there can be no country of Palestine. “I’d love to replay it now,” adds Touma-Sliman.

This tough politician undergoes a complete transformation, however, when another topic comes up: her grandkids. In mid-sentence, she suddenly remembers there’s an adorable new photo of them she hasn’t yet shared with her aides. Apologizing, she begins swiping through her smartphone to find it. It’s a photo of them sitting among piles of clothes they’ve just pulled out of their dresser drawers. Breaking into a huge smile, Touma-Sliman passes the phone around the table for all to see.

A doting grandmother, she spends the early hours of each morning with these twin toddlers – a boy and a girl. Her routine, she says, includes feeding them breakfast, getting them dressed and taking them for a stroll on the beach before settling down at her favorite café for her morning coffee. “This is what allows me to deal with all the horrible people I meet in my life,” she says.

‘All in the same boat’

With church and state deeply intertwined in Israel, battles pertaining to women’s rights here invariably involve the religious establishment. Serving as head of the Knesset committee that addresses women’s issues has, therefore, provided Touma-Sliman with a crash course of sorts in Judaism.

The committee she heads has addressed, among other issues, the plight of agunahs (women refused divorces by their husbands and find themselves as the mercy of rabbinical courts) and regulations governing the use of mikvehs (Jewish ritual purification baths).

Aida Touma-Sliman listening to a Jewish woman during a fact-finding visit to Beit Shemesh, December 2017. The city has become a key battlefield in Israel’s religious wars.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Just over a year ago, she brought her entire committee on a fact-finding trip to Beit Shemesh – a city that has become a key battlefield in the country’s religious wars. It was her first-ever trip to the central Israeli city, where a growing ultra-Orthodox community has tried to impose its will on the larger population. The purpose of the visit was to ascertain why the city had not complied with court rulings ordering it to remove controversial “modesty signs” that target women.

Cheered on by local activists, Touma-Sliman led a protest march through the Haredi section of the city. In scenes that bordered on the surreal, on several occasions this Arab lawmaker had to force herself between Jews going at each other’s throats.

She doesn’t think it strange that she would involve herself in this war among Jews. “It’s not a religious issue but a women’s issue,” she says. “What is at stake is preserving what the feminist movement has struggled so hard to achieve. It’s not only a struggle for Jewish women but for all women, because religion is one of the mechanisms for controlling women. In that sense, we’re all in the same boat.”

Although women’s issues are dear to her heart, she says she wants to span out in other directions in the next Knesset. “I want to have more influence,” she says. “Workers’ rights and welfare, I want to go there. And I also want to be involved in some of the bigger political issues, like achieving peace and fighting the occupation. After all, as long as basic human rights are being trampled on, there’s not much progress you can make in advancing women’s rights. All these things are connected.”

Neither Bibi or Benny

With 13 seats, the Joint List was the third-largest party in the outgoing Knesset. It clearly won’t win as many in the upcoming election, since at least one faction – Ta’al, headed by Ahmad Tibi – will be running independently. Touma-Sliman is furious about that.

“As Palestinian citizens of Israel and as members of the Palestinian people, we have never been so vulnerable,” she says. “I think that whoever splits the Arab representation in the Knesset now is putting us in even greater jeopardy. He’s playing with fire – and he will pay for it.”

Aida Touma-Sliman in Haifa, February 6, 2019. “I’m not going to stop expressing my political views just so people like me.”
rami shllush

Asked whom she would rather see as Israel’s next prime minister – the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu or his main challenger, the former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz – Touma-Sliman says she has no real preference.

In other words, for her, one is as bad as the other. “If I wanted to be a populist, I’d tell you anyone is better than Bibi,” she says, calling the prime minister by his nickname. “I will never say it though, because Gantz was chief of staff during the Gaza war and now he’s trying to make political capital out of that,” she adds, referring to the video released by Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael party boasting about the number of Palestinians killed in the 2014 war.

Despite growing pessimism among both Israelis and Palestinians about the viability of a two-state solution, Touma-Sliman believes it can still happen. “Yitzhak Rabin, when he was prime minister, closed the door on the settlers’ vision of a Greater Land of Israel, but then Netanyahu came along and revived it,” she says. “Can we go back? I think there is still a window of opportunity. Otherwise, we are condemning the two people on this land to another 70 years of fighting.”

But all the parties “that call themselves center and left” and are trying to oust Netanyahu, she warns, “are not an alternative if they don’t understand that the fight isn’t about moving Netanyahu, but about what kind of future we are going to have here.”