Arab Leader of Workers' Party: Israel Is No Longer State of Jews, but of Wealthy

Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka: Arabs, Jews both suffer from the privatization of their right to live with dignity.

Like everything else about Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka's race for the Knesset, her party's televised campaign advertisements are unusual - as was the experience of watching them with her.

Agbarieh-Zahalka is number one on the Da'am slate, and apart from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, she is the only woman heading an Israeli political party. Her baby son Adam, two weeks old, had just fallen asleep when her husband, actor and renovator Musa Zahalka, came home from work and woke him because he missed him so much.

Even the ad by Yisrael Beiteinu, which strongly questioned the loyalty of Israeli Arabs, did not annoy them. The couple watched it as though it were a science fiction film. The only thing that concerned Agbarieh-Zahalka was the Balad ad, which did not even bother offering a Hebrew translation of its all-Arabic content.

Her own ad was unusual not only because of its modest cost, or because it clearly showed her in the advanced stages of pregnancy, but also because of the party's utopian self-definition, exceptional in the Israeli political landscape of 2009: "We are Da'am, a workers' party."

Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka was born in Jaffa 35 years ago. Her maternal grandfather stayed there in 1948, when all his siblings fled to the Gaza Strip.

"We had good relations with our relatives in Gaza until the closures began," she said. "Since then, the connection has been cut off. I don't even know whether any of them were killed in the recent war."

Her father, a renovations contractor, came from a large family in Umm al-Fahm. He died when she was 18. She has three sisters and two brothers, all of whom lead traditional though not extremely pious Muslim lives.

It was in this context that her first rebellion took place. As a teenager, she became more and more devout, to the extent of joining the Islamic Movement. "I wanted to be close to God," she said, "and I thought this was the way. I didn't understand that the movement has political implications. I thought that religion contained elements of justice and meaning with respect to questions like 'why are we here and where should we be going.' As a girl who never left Jaffa until she went to university, I didn't have many options apart from the religious one."

But when she started studying in the humanities faculty at Tel Aviv University, another change took place. "This turned my world around in a very difficult and painful way. Suddenly I realized that there are different truths and different cultures. This confused me and brought the questions back much more forcefully, but this time there was no answer. Descartes dismantled everything for me, but he didn't manage to put it all back together again."

It was around that time, in 1995, that Da'am (which means "support" in Arabic) was founded by Jewish and Arab activists who had left the Derekh Hanitsotz organization. The party's first branch opened in Jaffa and got involved in trying to solve the housing problems of the city's Arabs residents. An activist who knew Agbarieh-Zahalka offered her a job as a copy editor at the party's newspaper.

"I came to the opening of the branch and they talked about politics, and I didn't understand a thing," she recalled. "There I met Michal Schwartz, who spoke to me in Arabic. It amazed me to meet an Ashkenazi Jewish woman who knew Arabic. That was the first time I had been able to feel that the two of us were the same."

Working at the newspaper, she said, opened her eyes. "I began to understand what was happening around me and to believe that it is possible to change the situation - in contrast to my previous outlook that life is just a corridor through which one must pass as quickly as possible, because the important thing is life after death. After a few months, I joined the party. This wasn't easy. I entered an opposition politics that aims to change the way the world works, and this is something that frightens the population I come from, which is a minority guided by fear and survival instinct. From their perspective, the evil that is known is better than the evil that is unknown. It was hard for my family to accept this. I also had to fight for my right as a woman to follow this path. Only in the 2006 elections were they finally persuaded, and for the first time, my mother and brothers voted for me."

Suspicion and despair

A few days before she gave birth to her first child, Adam - during the height of the war in Gaza - Agbarieh-Zahalka was still answering intentionally provocative questions from potential voters at a parlor meeting in Tel Aviv. One of them wanted to know whether she condemned Hamas and Hezbollah terror in the same way when she spoke in Arab locales. "How do you say that in Arabic?" he asked again and again.

Agbarieh-Zahalka did not lose her composure. She is familiar with the suspicion of Arabs that even many leftists feel, and she is also familiar with suspicions about her party. Da'am sees itself as a party whose members are united by their class affiliation, not their national identity. For now, however, there seems to be little class affiliation between Da'am's Arab agricultural and construction workers and its Jewish university lecturers. Jewish employees of manpower agencies from Yeruham and Dimona have not yet joined this workers' society, or the labor unions it is trying to establish.

"Most of our activity began in the Arab sector," said Agbarieh-Zahalka, "because this is the weakest population, and is therefore prepared to accept our party's ideas - peace and equality. Arabs have no problem accepting this. The side that has been deprived of equality is the one that wants equality back, whereas the side that thinks it is rightly enjoying its privileges - the Jews - clearly won't want to relinquish them. But the state of the Jews is no longer the state of the Jews - it is the state of the wealthy. And therefore, in reality, even Jews no longer have privileges. Arabs and Jews are suffering from the same situation, from the privatization of their right to live with dignity.

"I would like to think it will not be very long before Jewish workers, unemployed people and laborers understand that they have nothing more to lose, that it is worth their while to join forces with the Arabs. We have branches in Tel Aviv and we are helping people who need our help. At the moment, those who are contacting us are those who are naturally more open to accepting aid from a nonprofit organization in which Jews and Arabs work together."

But the Arab masses are not voting for Da'am either.

"Our greatest enemy in Arab society is despair. More than 50 percent of the Arab public will not vote at all. They have lost all faith in the parties and in politics, and this is a faith that is hard to restore. And in any case, in recent years, Arab society has not been voting ideologically but rather by clans, and therefore, it is impossible to learn anything from the vote in the Arab street about political trends in this population. To my great regret, the establishment reinforces the clan structure of Arab society by not strengthening the economy of Arab society. When the extended family becomes the economic bulwark, anyone dependent on the family has to pay the price politically, and his vote is determined by the head of the clan. Therefore, the same people can vote for the Islamists in one election and for the communists in the next.

"The clans to which I belong - Agbarieh from Umm al-Fahm and Zahalka from Kfar Qara on my husband's side - put the Triangle [region] at my disposal and could bring in tens of thousands of votes. But I want to create a different electoral culture, one in which you vote for the party that represents your ideas."

For Da'am members, the Knesset race is only the tip of the iceberg of the party's activities. Mainly, these are carried out through the Ma'an nonprofit organization and other nonprofits affiliated with the party, which are supported by donations from workers' organizations abroad and dues paid by party members. Agbarieh-Zahalka - like the second person on the slate, Nir Nader, and other employees of Ma'an - is paid minimum wage for her work. The fact that the party has not yet won enough votes to enter the Knesset, and is apparently far from doing so this time as well, does not discourage them, nor has it caused them to seek shelter under the wing of another party with a similar ideology, such as Hadash.

"We draw hope from our day-to-day work, from the palpable change that occurs when you succeed in arranging a permanent job or a pension for someone," Agbarieh-Zahalka said. "My aim isn't to take shortcuts to the Knesset. If there were a party that was at all close to my opinions, I would vote for it. But since workers don't have any representation in the Knesset, from my perspective, the need is great. We are creating a change in consciousness and in the political culture and waiting for the moment when conditions are ripe. When that will happen doesn't concern me. "The progress of the workers' movement will also depend on the situation of workers' movements in the rest of the world. Even in Egypt, a dictatorship, we have seen a workers' movement that is beginning to build a different left. I want to believe that this can happen here, too. Today I know that this is my purpose in life, that I have found the answer I sought when I was young. Now, this has also become a personal issue, because I am doing this so that my son will grow up in a healthier society. We named him Adam [which means human being] because this is a universal name, and I hope the love of mankind will be a supreme value for him."