In an Arab Woman, a New Hope for Israel's Left

Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka is creating a new political discourse in Israel: revolutionary on one hand but non-radical on the other.

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

Something fascinating, innovative, authentic and hopeful is happening on the Israeli left and it has happened almost overnight. Though this something is still embryonic, a small bud not yet on the opinion poll radar, those following the left's dire situation can't miss it. For the first time since perhaps the death of Jewish-Arab communism of the 1950s, a new Israeli left has been born here, a left that carries hope and a new kind of vision.

This new left has a name and a voice and, to be precise, it's the voice of an Arab woman. Her name is Asma Aghbarieh-Zahalka and she is the leader of the Da’am Workers' Party. Da’am (Arabic for "solidarity") is unique both for its joint Jewish-Arab slate of candidates and for a platform that isn't sectarian or ethnically specific but integrates and embraces many diverse communities. These dual characteristics are something the old Israeli left lost ages ago.

Until a few weeks ago, the upcoming election lacked any spark of hope. Mostly, this stemmed from the expected victory of the right, which would give a democratic seal of approval to the transformation of Israel into a racist-fascist state, a benighted and bullying ghetto state fulminating against the world and ensuring its continued existence by the sword alone.

The election looked like a requiem for the little that was left of the Israeli enlightenment of the past. The insufferable political conduct of Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich – for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insoluble and social justice stops at the separation fence – only increased the left's despair. Even Meretz, the standard-bearer of the old Israeli Zionist left and a kind of default choice, looks pathetic in its weakness. Case in point: Hatnuah and its head, Tzipi Livni, for whom social justice means nothing but opportunism, are grabbing all the leftist votes that Yacimovich has lost by ignoring the diplomatic issues.

But then, at the beginning of December, I discovered Aghbarieh-Zahalka and the Da’am party via Facebook and YouTube. I found a new breed of Israeli leader. Aghbarieh-Zahalka was one of the authentic leaders of the 2011 social-justice protests and one of the few who understood that if a protest aims to be effective, it has to be political. Aghbarieh-Zahalka was also perhaps the first to understand that a mass social protest has to extricate itself from the binary pattern of the old Israeli political identities (Arabs vs. Jews, Ashkenazim vs. Mizrahim) since social justice must be built on what unites, not on what divides.

I discovered a courageous, intelligent and eloquent Israeli leader, unlike anyone else on the political stage today. Aghbarieh-Zahalka is creating a new political discourse: revolutionary on one hand but non-radical on the other (no, these are not contradictory). If the prevailing Israeli political discourse works in the spirit of divide and conquer, Da’am’s political discourse is built on the desire to connect and lead and the ability to empathize and be relevant to nearly every constituent of Israeli society.

In the darkness of contemporary Israel, Aghbarieh-Zahalka's enlightened voice may be the last spark of Israeli hope. Those who are not prepared to stay sheltered in the Tel Aviv bubble and forgo the struggle for the country’s image, those who still believe in the possibility of a better, fairer and more just society, and those who believe in the possibility of Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation in our lifetime should vote for the candidate that best expresses the values of Israeli enlightenment: Aghbarieh-Zahalka.

To those who say a vote for Da’am is a wasted vote (because of the risk the party won’t cross the electoral threshold), I say any ballot that is cast must reflect one's political conscience. And if Aghbarieh-Zahalka and Da’am become better known in the short time left until the election, they will make it into the Knesset. The Knesset – and Israel – needs leaders like them.

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