A glimmer of hope against incitement and racism

Jamal Zahalka promises that the Joint List will remain together for a long time, Dov Khenin tugs at our heart strings, the head of the Islamic Movement speaks of the men and women who make history, and Ayman Odeh, who heads the slate, calls on Arabs members of the Zionist parties to come back home.

(Translated from Hebrew by Sol Salbe)

Joint List head Ayman Odeh speaks at the List's Arabic launch event, Nazareth. (Photo courtesy of the Joint List)
Joint List head Ayman Odeh speaks at the List’s Arabic launch event, Nazareth. (Photo courtesy of the Joint List)

Holding the Joint List’s Arabic-language campaign launch after sundown on a Saturday evening made it seem as if the Arabs were observing the Jewish Shabbat. The location was Nazareth, which once again earned the title of being the Arab community’s capital. The hall was filled with activists from towns and villages from north to south. Already in the parking lot, I saw dozens of people milling about and I thought they were leaving, but soon enough I saw that the hall was simply packed to the rafters.

I pushed myself forward and got in, passing through the pillar of cloud emanating from men smoking in the doorway. At least they were outside. There used to be a time when one could only dream of asking Arab men to step outside to smoke. In some places such a request is considered to be offensive and disrespectful of the guests. And how do these Jews dare say that we are not progressing or that we are not civilized?

On my way to the event I heard a report that Taleb a-Sana, whose own Arab list is not part of the Joint List, had addressed the gathering by phone. I couldn’t quite figure out why he was speaking at his competitors’ event, but it’s probably a good sign, a sign that he found his way back after wandering in the Negev Desert for 40 days.

Friends and comrades, men and women, brothers and sisters

I arrived late, toward the end of a moving speech by Jewish Knesset (and Hadash) member Dov Khenin. He ended with the most Jewish-Arab poem imaginable, one which Culture Minister Limor Livant hasn’t yet declared to be anti-Zionist. “Me and you will change the world! Me and you. And then everyone else will join in.” It was too romantic for the old man sitting next to me, who couldn’t understand just where Dov Khenin was planning on dragging him, but he applauded enthusiastically when the MC thanked Dov for his speech. Then Abbas Mansour, who represents the Islamic Movement, proceeded to introduce the next speaker. He called on the women and men of the audience, his brothers and sisters, to welcome the speaker. There he was on stage, replete with a beard and the Islamic green scarf, using the gender specific terms to call on his women comrades. It was a novel experience for me, and he too noticed that the secular language of the Arab-Jewish Hadash had permeated his Islamic speech. He joked about rumors of Hadash activists addressing each other as “my brother,” a more traditionally religious form of address.

Every time anyone came on stage, they opened with thanks to the founding generation and past leaders — Mohammad Barakeh, Afu Agbaria, Abu This and Abu That. But before I had a chance to let those feminist theories about paternal societies and patriarchal control over public space spoil the positive energies hovering over the event hall, I decided to look for Aida Touma and Haneen Zoabi, the Joint List’s two female candidates. I found them and was greatly relieved; they counterbalanced the dosage of gray masculinity that dominated the first row of candidates.

And then Ahmad Tibi took to podium and got those attending all excited with his sharp and eloquent speech, which was nicely spiced with beautiful vignettes of classical erudite Arabic. He had a message to Avigdor Liberman and others of his ilk: “We are not destroying the state, you are doing a much better job at it on your own.” His message to the young people and the activists on the ground was one of unity and cooperation in the interest of us all. He even took time to respond to former Walla News editor and Jewish Home candidate Yinon “I’m an Israeli before I’m a journalist” Magal. Earlier in the week Magal, who was parachuted into a winnable position on the Jewish Home list, told Arab citizens to “say thank you to the State of Israel.” So Tibi asked: “What should we say thank you for? For the Nakba? The expropriation of land? The wiping out of 500 villages? The demolishing of homes? For what? You need to ask, Samah!!” At the mention of my name I listened much more carefully. To ask “Samah” is to seek forgiveness. And Israel needs to seek forgiveness from each and every Arab for what it has done.

Tibi then made an appeal to those young Palestinians who are enlisting in Da’esh [ISIL], which I thought was smart and exciting “We need you here alive with us, rather than as corpses on foreign soil. Do you really want to fight? Join us in the struggle here for this place, for this land and for our right to live here.”

Dar Dar, Zenga Zenga

Tibi got down and it was Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka’s turn to take to the stage. After the obligatory acknowledgements and thanks, he took pride in the Joint List’s historic agreement, which everyone had derided beforehand. He assured the audience that there were no differences of opinion between the activists working on the campaign; he said that he was actually surprised that they had no quarrels. “This Joint List was only born a few weeks ago, but we are staying together for the long haul,” he promised. “All over the world people are excited about this achievement. They will slowly recognize us as one bloc, the media has already been regarding us as a single entity and the inter-party boundaries have been blurred.” He forgot for a moment that the whole world had already seen us as a single bloc, it’s just that it’s official now.

“We have proved in the fight against the Prawer Plan that we can stick together, and we tore down the [new Knesset election threshold bill] with our unity. I ask you to go from house to house, through every village and every neighborhood and bring people to the polls,” Zahalka summonsed the troops. A female voice chuckled behind me: “Dar Dar, Zenga Zenga…” Gaddafi’s famous quote that he was searching for the rebels in Libya house by house, alleyway by alleyway. Zahalka was more optimistic and beaming wider than ever before. It’s been a long time since we have seen him with such a positive outlook.

The next speaker was introduced at length as someone who made great sacrifices en route to the Joint List, Masud Ganaim. I sat and listened to the speech; a five-year-old kid ran around on the stage, stealing all the attention. Ganaim spoke with a big smile on his face pointing out that it was his fiftieth birthday. Yes, the leader of the Islamic Movement was born on the international day of love, Valentine’s Day. He promised that on judgment day he’ll be able to tell his father in heaven that he had lived through the epoch of unification, “the epoch of great men who have fulfilled the dream of their people.” A female voice cried out, “men and women,” and Ganaim quickly corrected himself in a way that sounded a bit funny coming from him: “men and women who made history.” He’ll get used to it, and I can envision that in the following elections it will be the Islamic Movement’s woman candidate who will garner the top spot in terms of grabbing headlines.

‘We are the future’

Finally it was lead Candidate Ayman Odeh’s turn to come on stage, accompanied by a lots of passion, music and applause. He also reiterated the mantra, acknowledging all those who made way by dropping out and retiring, along with the nation’s great leaders, and finally saluting his predecessor in Hadash, Mohammad Barakeh who handed over the baton at the last possible moment. Odeh devoted a fair bit of his time countering the charges against MK Haneen Zoabi and tore them apart one by one. “There are enough words in our language to describe and condemn the murder of innocent people. We have never called for an armed struggle. In his day the legendary communist MK Tawfik Toubi encountered demands to use the term ‘terrorists’ and now there are demands for us to say likewise. They called Arafat a ‘terrorist’ like they called Nelson Mandela and other leaders who wanted justice and peace. We will express ourselves using our language reflecting our beliefs and our values. Our people’s struggle is a just struggle and those who murdered 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza will pay the price.” A Hadash activist dressed all in red whispered in my ear, “What happened to Ayman? Did he come here to speak about Haneen Zoabi?” Flashing my biggest-ever smile, I told her that this is what real leadership is about.

Joint List head Ayman Odeh speaks at the List's Arabic launch event, Nazareth. (Photo courtesy of the Joint List)
Joint List head Ayman Odeh speaks at the List’s Arabic launch event, Nazareth. (Photo courtesy of the Joint List)

Up until then, everyone had said more or less the same thing; they spoke about persecution and overplayed Liberman’s role. The national content was uniform and everyone agreed on everything. It’s easy to speak about racism and incitement. But Ayman Odeh chose not to tread the safe path. Odeh was the only one who chose to surprise his audience, step outside the established boundaries, and challenge the limits of tolerance and the conformist thinking of those present in the hall. He also called on Arab members of Zionist parties to come back home. He called for cooperation with other parties and insisted on remaining realistic: “one party cannot deal with and solve all the social issues.” He added, “we don’t want to limit ourselves to playing in our own backyard in Doha stadium [in the Arab town of Sakhnin]. We want to play in the big leagues in Bloomfield Stadium [in Jaffa, where Tel Aviv’s popular teams play]. And we want to win there as well. “

Odeh called on those assembled to open their hearts and minds. “We are a real ethical alternative. The elderly woman in triage, the ordinary Mizrahi, and the poor Ethiopian will not vote for us. Maybe they haven’t heard us. But we’ll have 15 MKs who will be unequivocally in favor of peace, fraternity, justice, and democracy. We are the true alternative. We are the future.”

I am aware that this entire event was a kind of an overdose of optimism. It was inexplicable and totally divorced from the harsh reality outside. But given all the campaigns of intimidation and incitement and rising racism, I saw a glimmer of hope in the eyes those present. Who knows, maybe the dream of a true partnership of Arab and Jewish citizens could actually come about?

My Hadash friend grabbed my arm and dragged me to say hello to Aida Touma and Mohammad Barakeh. I agreed on condition that we say hello to everyone and, “no kissing please, I don’t do kissing.” All right, all right, she nodded. “Those fellows from the Islamic Movement don’t do hand shaking either,” I warned her. “I have to take photos for Local Call (+972’s Hebrew-language sister site),” I screamed in her ear. She dragged me between the chairs and moved through the crowd to reach the stage. “We haven’t discussed yet what you are going to write. Where did this notion of you writing a piece spring up from? Are you short of work, you crazy woman?” No, I don’t know what happened to me. I must be missing something in my life, and this is not paid work, you know.

Samah Salaime Egbariya is a social worker, a director of AWC (Arab Women in the Center) in Lod and a graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew hereTranslated by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, Melbourne, Australia.

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