I'm an Arab Woman Who Broke the Glass Ceiling. I Won't Be Anybody's Token

Ibtisam Mara’ana
Ibtisam Mara'ana
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Ibtisam Mara'ana speaking at a rally against the citizenship law, in Jerusalem, last month.
Ibtisam Mara’ana
Ibtisam Mara'ana

I wasn’t surprised by the uproar from members of the right-wing after my appointment as an alternate member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Nor was I surprised by the attacks in the media. I’m used to them. The racism in those circles makes it hard for them to accept the idea of a female Arab politician discussing security issues in the State of Israel.

But I really was surprised by the opposition expressed here by Odeh Bisharat (“Mara’ana, tell them no,” Haaretz July 21).

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From my acquaintance with Bisharat’s writing, I had no reason to think that he belongs to the Arab society's seperatist stream – Those who accuse Arabs who write in Hebrew of cultural surrender because they are using the language of the Zionist occupier.

It takes a considerable amount of superficiality and cowardice to describe an Arab woman who has breached the glass ceiling of Israeli society as a token. Especially considering the accuser is writing in high-level Hebrew in a Jewish-Zionist newspaper. An Arab man lecturing a female Arab MK, and essentially, asking the Jewish readers to decide who is right.

What about High Court Justice George Kara, who was the sole dissenter when the court rejected the appeals against the racist nation-state law? Why didn’t Bisharat write a finely-honed article calling on him to focus on civilian issues? What’s the difference between him and me?

Perhaps the answer lies in a sentence written by Bisharat: “Does [the Labor] party lack defense experts, to the point that it is forced to use an Arab acquisition, who only a moment earlier was officially declared a second-class citizen?”

Just like that, with a swipe of the keyboard, he reduces an Arab woman – with years of social and cinematic activism behind her, who was elected to the Knesset in a democratic election after having fought against injustices, including the occupation, all her life – to “an Arab acquisition” they are forced to make use of.

Even Arab women can be on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. My job there is first of all to be vigilant and to prevent superfluous wars. We’ve had enough violence, enough lives have been lost.

I would be happy to explain a thing or two to the men who make light and belittle me so easily: Nobody “put” me on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I chose to serve on it.

Over the course of my life, I have learned that the door others want to slam in your face is precisely the door that you have to open. And after spending my life opening one door after another for myself – I have absolutely no intention of closing this door, certainly not because of criticism that reeks of chauvinism.

There are plenty of cowardly men like Bisharat. They want to exclude us from the meeting rooms, as if we could maintain our innocence by not being there. These men have yet to internalize that the rules of the game changed a long time ago. There are Arab women who are unafraid to speak up, to walk into the room where the generals sit and try to make a difference; we aren’t even afraid to make a mistake.

Bisharat begs me to stay away from the darkness of the cellar, to focus on “civilian areas of activity.” How is he any different from the Jews who call on Arab MKs, both men and women, to stop fretting over the occupation? Will the occupation disappear if we ignore it?

I refuse to submit to the patriarchal social conditioning that I have been fighting against for years. I, the female Arab MK who dared break into the closed Jewish club that is the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, will express my firm opinion in favor of reconciliation, from inside this club and not from outside. The world is full of dark cellars. I am heading into this one with a flashlight in my hand, and I invite Bisharat to wait and see the things that I will illuminate.

Ibtisam Mara'ana is a Labor Knesset member.

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