Redefining chutzpah: The monumentally inappropriate treatment of Ayman Odeh

The Jewish American establishment clearly cannot handle an Arab non-Zionist with the chutzpah to assert his right to be treated respectfully and equally in his own country.

MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Atlanta. (Photo by Joint List spokesperson)
MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Atlanta. (Photo by Joint List spokesperson)

Ayman Odeh’s decision to visit the United States and meet with Jewish community leaders cannot have been an easy one. The burden of scrutiny has been heavy indeed, from all sides. His own constituents, the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, were ambivalent at best about what many perceived as a mission that would either be co-opted to soften the perception of Israel’s policies toward its Arab citizens, or twisted to undermine both Odeh and the credibility of his party’s platform.

With Jewish community leaders so firmly supportive of the Netanyahu government, and the United States so committed to its unbreakable alliance with Israel that it had not undertaken a single step to end the occupation in over two decades, many worried that Odeh’s bridge building mission would be misinterpreted as asking for favors.

To a certain extent, these concerns were borne out by events on December 10, when Odeh backed out of a meeting with the Conference of Presidents, a major Jewish NGO umbrella group, because the chairman insisted on holding the meeting in the same office as the Jewish Agency. This is the same Jewish Agency that has been directly involved in hundreds of initiatives to establish new residential communities for Jewish Israelis on land that was expropriated from Palestinians.

Rather than show some sensitivity to Odeh’s point of view, the president of the Conference of Presidents, Malcolm Hoenlein, refused not only to hold the meeting in another room but also immediately released a statement in which he accused Odeh of canceling the meeting.

Later, Hoenlein told the Forward that he saw no reason to “succumb” to Odeh’s request that the meeting be moved to another room (even though it was Hoenlein who had asked for the meeting and Odeh was his guest). Hoenlein also told the Forward, “It’s outrageous that a member of Knesset would say that I can’t go into a place because it has Zionist associations.” Hoenlein added: “He doesn’t have a problem taking [his Knesset] paycheck.”

Hoenlein’s response is, to be kind, monumentally inappropriate. Not to mention: arrogant and entitled beyond belief. Hoenlein is a Jewish citizen of the United States who is the unelected head of an NGO that espouses political opinions far to the right of those held by the majority of Jewish Americans. Yet he believes that he has the right to comment on whether or not a citizen of the state of Israel, a man who heads the third largest party in the Knesset, who was elected by democratic vote to sit in his country’s legislature, should receive a salary.

The Knesset is not a “Zionist institution.” It is the legislature of the state of Israel. A political party need not espouse Zionist ideology in order to be eligible to sit in the Knesset. The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism is not, for example, a Zionist party. It is headed by a Ger Hasid; and the Ger, along with several other Hasidic groups, are ideologically opposed to Zionism.  I would love to see Hoenlein refuse to move the location of a meeting with a Hasidic group because they didn’t want to sit in a Jewish Agency office.

The point for Hoenlein and for Rick Jacobs, the Reform rabbi who also released a “shocked-and-appalled” statement about Odeh’s “refusal” to sit in the Jewish Agency office, is, obviously, that Ayman Odeh is an Arab non Zionist. Worse, he is an Arab non Zionist who has the chutzpah to assert his right to be treated respectfully and as a fully equal citizen of the state in which he was born.

The reaction of these Jewish community leaders is disgraceful. It is rather reminiscent of the master of the big house who tells the serf to wipe his feet and take off his hat if he wants to visit — making sure he enters via the tradesmen’s entrance.

It’s so commonplace to hear Israeli and Jewish “leaders” bemoan the absence of moderate Palestinian leaders. And here we have this man who reaches out his hand and speaks passionately to Jewish audiences about building a shared society of economic and social equality for Arabs and Jews. Who quotes Hebrew poetry and emphasizes his knowledge of the Jewish narrative.

If Ayman Odeh were an African American politician running for U.S. Congress, American Jews would be out campaigning for him and his liberal, inclusive values. But instead of embracing Odeh, Jewish leaders here try to undermine him with the suggestion that he rejects the existence of the state in which he lives as a tax-paying citizen — and they do not.