In the stereotypically derogatory depictions of them, Israel’s Arab lawmakers spend most of their time sloganeering about the occupation while neglecting the day-to-day needs of their constituents. But Heba Yazbak, the 34-year-old rising star of the hard-line Balad party, could shatter that stereotype.
Yazbak, number four on the Balad-United Arab List slate, will enter the Knesset on April 9 if her Arab alliance passes the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. During a 90-minute interview with her in the modest Balad offices overlooking garages and repair shops in Nazareth’s industrial zone, Yazbak makes clear that her focus as a lawmaker would be the very real daily problems faced by the country’s marginalized and discriminated-against Arab minority.
Rather than elaborate on the Palestinian cause as a whole, though, her prime concern during the interview is focused firmly within the pre-1967 borders where her voters live. Yazbak stresses she will seek to work on an array of societal issues — ranging from the surge in murders of Arab women, for which she largely blames inaction by the authorities, to combating poverty and drug addiction.
Yazbak says that working in the Knesset is vital to improving the living conditions for Israel’s Arab citizens, noting that “even though it has limitations, we can and must influence the issues of Palestinians in the state.” As far as Arab citizens are concerned, she charges, the state has failed to fulfill its role in education, employment, housing and women’s rights. “We have to handle these issues and take responsibility into our hands. In order to improve conditions, even basic ones, you go to the Knesset.”
The Nazareth native speaks passionately about the social welfare issues she will try to address, labeling them “existential issues.”
“There are many issues related to social welfare I want to advance that affect every Arab household,” she says, citing issues such as poverty, family violence, care for the elderly, at-risk youth and those with special needs.
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No provocative statements
In contrast to the controversial Haneen Zoabi, who decided not to run again this time around after a decade as a Balad legislator, Yazbak avoids making provocative statements during our interview. While Zoabi famously sailed on the 2010 Turkish flotilla to break the Gaza blockade, appeared to exonerate those who kidnapped three settler teens in 2014 and equated Israel Air Force pilots with Islamic State terrorists, Yazbak does not mention the occupation or Gaza until 70 minutes of the interview have elapsed.
But make no mistake, she shares Zoabi’s goal of ending Zionism, terminating the country’s Jewish character and turning it, she says, into a “state of all its citizens” — something she sees as the very epitome of Western democracy. Rejecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s charge that Balad and other Arab parties aim to “destroy” the country, Yazbak asks: “How do we want to destroy it? With a political platform of equality for everyone, a state for all its citizens, with social justice? Does this destroy it? Bibi is the one destroying the country,” she says, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
If elected, she vows to set her sights on boosting the role of Arab women in the workplace. “Employment strengthens women economically and socially, in the immediate family and the extended family, and this empowers them in society,” she explains.
Yazbak will also press for more transportation routes between Arab communities, so that women can get to work easier, and push for the creation of more job opportunities in the Galilee, which is home to many of the country’s Arab communities.
She also plans to work on health issues — for example, raising awareness of breast cancer among the Arab population.
The Knesset candidate also wants to redress the severe shortage of housing for young Arab couples, which stems in large part from well-documented discriminatory planning practices. “Expanding the areas of permitted building and rooting out violence will be central to the agenda,” she says. “There is no shortage of issues, and you have to make the effort to address them.”
Heba Yazbak was born into a Muslim family in Nazareth and went to the city’s Salvatorian Sisters Catholic high school. She does not like to be labeled according to religion, though. When asked whether she believes in God, she answers in the affirmative but immediately adds, in relation to the April 9 election: “Now is not the time to give a different answer.”
Balad’s partner on its election slate, United Arab List, is dominated by the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, and it remains to be seen how compatible the secularist party will be with the Islamists. Yazbak insists this will not limit her in any way, nor will it impinge on her advocacy.
Yazbak’s father, Mahmoud, a Middle East historian at the University of Haifa, has been a key influence on her life and encouraged her to pursue a doctorate and to be politically active, she says. She first participated in Balad activities at age 15, then formally joined the party while attending the University of Haifa, where she became chairperson of the Balad group.
Mother to a 7-month-old son, Yazbak recently submitted her doctoral dissertation to the sociology and anthropology department at Tel Aviv University, having spent eight years working as chair of an advocacy group for Arab women. She played a role in increasing the legal marriage age in Israel from 17 to 18, which she explains was vital for enabling young women to finish high school before potentially getting wed.
Topping her agenda is the spiraling number of murders against Arab women, whom she says often go unprotected by the authorities even if they are known to be at risk.
Yazbak says both the police and state need “to collect weapons from Palestinian society, enforce the law, catch murderers and see to it that they are punished, and protect women who turn to them.” Arab society, meanwhile, must “raise awareness about equality between men and women.” But without a major push from the state it will be impossible to combat the phenomenon, she says. (About half of all Israeli women who were murdered over the past decade were Arab, according to the state.)
Her doctoral thesis, done under the supervision of sociologist and critical theorist Prof. Yehouda Shenhav, is about Palestinians who were internally displaced during the War of Independence in 1948-49 (the event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe).
“In my research, I focused on the uprooted Palestinians inside Israel. I researched oral history, gender and space, and settler colonialism,” Yazbak says, adding that her main idea was to “go back to the people and write the history anew as the people experienced it. These are voices that were cast aside for decades and not heard. It was important for me to empower them through oral history.”
She says her doctorate adheres to all academic criteria but is also muqawama, or resistance. “It is resistance to the Zionist hegemony and male hegemony,” says Yazbak. “You bring voices that are in opposition to the ruling narrative; it’s bringing the counter-memory.”
She believes that her academic background can help make her a better lawmaker. “In parliamentary work, you also have to come with insights that are backed up. When you build a program, it can’t be based on slogans; it has to be supported.”
Samah Salaime, a blogger and founder of Na’am/Arab Women in the Center, says she has been impressed by Yazbak. “She’s been there on women’s issues. She knows what she’s talking about on them, but also knows about house demolitions. She’s a very intelligent person who understands things,” she says. “No doubt she will be among those with the highest IQs in the Knesset.”
However, Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, cautions that Yazbak still has to prove herself and determine where she stands on working with potential Jewish partners. In particular, he says, it remains to be seen whether she will actually depart from Balad’s stress on nationalism and shift to a focus on civic issues such as job equality. “For this, you have to reach out to the Jewish community and build coalitions,” he notes.
Yazbak herself recognizes that cooperation with Jewish lawmakers is necessary to improve the standing of Arab women and Arabs in general. “I’m talking about specific cooperation on specific issues, not [broader] political cooperation,” she says.
Despite his cautionary tone, Abu Rass remains optimistic about Yazbak’s potential. “She raises hope, she represents new blood,” he says. “She’s an energetic woman whom we would like to see prove herself as a member of the Knesset.”
But Salaime worries that Yazbak could become the latest Arab lawmaker to be demonized by a hostile chamber and media. “I hope they will let her speak — because she has something to say,” she says.