2645. That’s the number of votes the Daam Party received in the previous elections. But since the outbreak of social unrest, the socialist Daam party has become a hot trend in Tel Aviv. Party leader Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka explains why poverty is no less an evil than the Occupation, why she wouldn’t have sailed on the Marmara, and why there is still hope in the Middle East.
Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka is ecstatic. For the first time she sees clearly that the way to the Knesset in Jerusalem is shorter than ever. She is convinced that this time the Daam Workers Party, which she chairs, will cross the threshold, despite the fact that tens of thousands of votes stand between success and the 2645 votes received by the party in the 2009 elections. In an interview I conducted with her before the last elections four years ago, she seemed more introverted, more serious, working diligently yet without hope. But something has changed in four years, something that even she never envisioned would happen so quickly, although she had been waiting impatiently.
This change has filled her sails with a wind that she herself defines as "wild". Today it’s hard to actually stop the flow of her words and enthusiasm, regardless of agreement or disagreement with her positions. It is impossible not to be impressed by her conviction. "In 2009," she says, "we talked about social justice. It was our vision, but it wasn’t relevant to the public’s consciousness at the time, and this was also reflected at the polls. Yet the protest of Summer 2011 brought a change. As long as people here were not really suffering, they were not looking for solutions. But when the shock waves started in Europe and the Arab world, they arrived in Israel too. A lot of people got courage to speak out; each one’s private problem became a collective issue of social justice.
"When social ills became a political question, Daam became relevant, and for the first time we were there as a political party because we knew this was the place to build strength. Fundamental social, economic and political change requires a movement that wants it. As long as there was no movement, Daam was a fish out of water. But now it’s harvest time. In the summer of 2011 we narrowed the gap between reality and the prevailing political consciousness."
You didn’t expect this?
"I didn’t know it would happen so fast. It’s very exciting. I’m glad to be part of it. I’m part of this and happy that I made the right investment in social justice. The role of the party that wants to lead this is to look ahead. I have a vision and it wasn’t clear to people—to talk about Jews and Arabs, about socialism, social justice. They thought I was dreaming, that all Arabs hate Jews and all Jews hate Arabs. And I know that’s not true. At a certain point, because reality is crushing you, because it empties your pockets and kills your children, you start to think. When Muhammad Boazizi set fire to himself, the flame burnt down all the barriers and walls after 40 years of deadly silence in the Arab world.
"40 years of Gaddafi, 40 years of the Assad family. For too many decades people were silent. Arabic poetry and literature deal with how this people amounts to zero. Nizar Qabbani has a poem that says, ’We created the zero and remained zeros.’ We grew up on disappointment, on ’Naksa’ [the ’setback’ of the 1967 War], on defeat, on impotence. And suddenly a resurrected people demands to live. They do not want to die in violent resistance. They do not want to go to paradise. A new historical era has opened. It was natural that it would open on Rothschild as well."
The Marmara was a mistake
There were moments when it seemed like things were going to turn into a catastrophe. On the one hand, Agbarieh-Zahalka describes feelings of elation as she walked through a crowd of demonstrators who marched in unison for a social cause. On the other hand, there were moments when bitter reality slapped her in the face. In June 2012 at Tel Aviv Museum Square, during a demonstration commemorating the first anniversary of the social protest, the rally organizers refused to allow Wafah Tayara, No. 4 on the Daam list, to mount the stage to speak, although this had been agreed upon in advance. Agbarieh-Zahalka experienced the refusal as a racist act that came from a completely unexpected place. Her outcry appears in a video clip circulated on the internet; it is a kind of spontaneous speech delivered not on stage but among the demonstrators. She recalls, "On the one hand, we have created a new group of people here, the people of the protest. That’s where I felt most at home. I felt I was in Tahrir Square. But when Wafah was prevented from speaking at the demonstration, I felt it was the end. All the time we’d been saying that Jews and Arabs could work together, and now she wasn’t allowed to speak. Then, when the video clip was shown, we were flooded with views and comments. Many people came as a result of the clip. It was the first time people had heard of us. That was the day that Daam was born in the eyes of the public, precisely because of the rejection."
Agbarieh-Zahalka was born in Jaffa 39 years ago, the scion on her father’s side of a large family from Umm al-Fahm. During adolescence her religious faith grew and she joined the Islamic Movement. In 1995, while she was studying at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Humanities, the Daam party offered her a job as editor of the Arabic newspaper, Al-Sabar. When she got to meet the party activists, she was surprised to hear Jews speaking fluent Arabic; gradually she underwent a change, joining the party and eventually becoming its leader. In 2006 she was the only woman who headed a party for the Knesset. In 2009, she was joined in this respect by Tzipi Livni; in 2013, she stands beside Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Zahava Galon, four women leading political parties. For Asma, however, this fact does not create solidarity or identification, just as she rejects any attempt to find similarities between herself and Hanin Zoabi, Balad MK.
"The Arab party Balad is nationalistic and bourgeois; it’s not a political party that espouses social justice. I do not compete with Hanin Zoabi. Hers is not the public I seek. I appeal to the 50% of the Arab population that is tired by the political options the Arab parties offer. Arab parties advocate a nationalist discourse, dealing only with the national question, neglecting the socioeconomic questions and the hardships suffered by the Arab public. Gaza and Tel Aviv amount to one issue. The political has to go along with the social. There is 50% poverty in the Arab street; 80% of women in the Arab sector don’t work. That is a catastrophe. Is this a people that can think about freeing Palestine? This is a people that must first free itself. And the point is not expressed by anyone.
"No political party does real work in the field, organizing the public and fighting against contracted jobs. I go to Knesset committee meetings and don’t see any Arab representatives there, even when the issues dealt with are of great concern to the Arab public, such as on-the-job safety. What is this concern for the Nakba [the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948] all day long? They forget that today in every house there is a Nakba. When a woman doesn’t have work,that’s a Nakba. A young man who works through a contractor and doesn’t get his rights is a Nakba. And without denying the importance of the Nakba, what about today’s Nakba? You have to change the reality of today; you can’t change past history."
The fact that you and Zoabi are Arab women going against the current doesn’t seem to you like a thing that can bring your agendas closer together?
"It’s not enough to be a woman. Shelly Yachimovich is a woman too. So is Tzipi Livni. Being a woman is good, but it’s not enough. It is also not enough to be an Arab. Bashar al-Assad is an Arab too. I want to turn cultural diversity into a force, and Zoabi makes it into a wall separating people. I do not want people to vote for me because I am an Arab. That’s not the ticket I want. The question is, ’What kind of Arab are you?’ I stand for class identity. I think that class identity is much more correct in places like Israel, which are saturated with different sectors and with an ingathering of exiles, including Arabs. What could connect and advance people, I think, is the daring to get out of sectarianism, to get out of the ghetto. And Zoabi is stuck in the ghetto, isolated and differentiating.
"Today, the issue that connects everyone is the issue of socioeconomic justice. It is the natural right of all people whoever they are. We are equal; together we can build a third way; the third way that the Arab Spring offered. Do not give in to the United States and Israel’s decrees against the Palestinians, but do not succumb either to the verbiage of the nationalist, fundamentalist opposition of which Zoabi is a part. I cannot call for death. The way of violent resistance, which Hamas walked in and which Hezbollah walks in, we see what that has led to today—to the massacre of the Syrian people. I can’t be part of it. I’ve never been a part of it, and for this reason I wasn’t relevant to the Arab public, because of this unpopular position. An Arab has to be democratic, to give people freedom of speech and the chance to work with dignity; if you do not do this, the fact that you’re an Arab doesn’t interest me."
What do you think about Zoabi’s boarding the Marmara?
"I would not have boarded the Marmara. I do not think she’ll board the Marmara again. Beyond the issue of isolation and differentiation and representing yourself as ’against’ and ’anti,’ I think that to board the Marmara was to give Hamas power against Abu Mazen. I am not for Abu Mazen and not for Hamas; what I am for is that the Palestinian left should build a third way. Once you support one side against the other, the Palestinian rift deepens. And I do not think it’s in the interest of the Palestinian people to deepen the schism while it stands against Israel and against the Occupation. This strategy was wrong for Palestinians."
Hanin Zoabi’s response: "I do not want to address these things. They are no different from the things said against me by the right and by the Zionist left. The only significant contribution of Ms. Asma Agbarieh is burning about 3000 votes in each election and it certainly does not help the Arab public and does not benefit the poor in general."
Reality will win
You say that there is readiness to accept your ideas in relation to class consciousness, but what about racism on both sides? Do you think that today Jews or Arabs are ready to vote for an Arab-Jewish party?
"I probably will not be Prime Minister. Not all of the public will vote for me. As for the public that insists on racism—I’ll wait for them. I will continue to believe, just as I believed that the time of social justice would arrive, that understanding would ripen, so I believe that the time will come when people will outgrow racism. I also believe that some will follow racism to the end, to fascism. I’m not naive. But racism is a form of false consciousness in which you think you have privileges as a Jew in Israel, but actually you don’t. Today this country is a state of the rich, not a Jewish state. To whoever understands this and experiences it in their pockets, in their refrigerator, in the cost of living, in their ability to make ends meet, to whoever has experienced it in everyday life, I suggest that they stop blaming the situation on the Arab, but rather blame the policy that is made in their name as a Jew, and they should simply change the diskette.
"I know that the whole country will not vote Daam. It also presents a challenge to the Jewish public to vote for an Arab woman, although we are an Arab-Jewish party, not just Arab, and it is a challenge to Arab society to vote for a party headed by a woman. Every day we have discussion groups all over the country. I’ve met with Russians and Mizrahis. In all these meetings I’ve found that our message is received like water on dry ground. People can’t get enough. It’s a golden opportunity, and I’m going with it to the Arab street, which has not budged, which did not take part in the protests. I tell them, look at how the Jewish community accepts us. Look how they accept an Arab woman who tells them to their face how to deal with the Occupation, with racism and the economics of privatization. They are shocked, because Arabs have long since stopped talking with Jews and Jews with Arabs."
You really think you can make them think otherwise?
"It’s not me that will succeed. Reality will."
At least wouldn’t it be better to change the name to something that didn’t sound like an Arab political party?
"Balad is Hebrew – the National Democratic Alliance. Hadash is a word in Hebrew. Did it help anyone? Most of their voters are Arabs. Daam started out in the Arab sector with the position that the Occupation must end. That was in the years when we did not experience the power of privatization and globalization. Two decades have passed since then and the reality in Israel has changed dramatically. Daam found that it also meets the needs of a growing segment of the Jewish public. We changed from a party on the nationalist side of the political map to a party on the socialist, class side. We have not changed the name and I think it is right because the Arab name is a type of connection, a link; it is a uniting factor. It connects with leftist movements in Arab countries, and it also reminds Israelis that there are Arabs who face a political issue and that there is an existential problem. The name is like a litmus test to the Jewish people who come and say, ’I want to connect with the Arabs, to leave the ghetto, to connect with the Palestinians.’ The word is an acronym for the original name in Arabic, which means support and solidarity. Originally the name was ’Organization for Democratic Action.’ The name is a challenge we do not want to conceal. We live in the Middle East."
It seems that you have no separation between politics and your personal life.
Agbarieh-Zahalka laughs. "Yes, someone pays a price, my son Adam and my spouse Musa. But there’s nothing I can do about it. At the age of 22, I decided that I would not live well while people around me were sinking. I could have, but I chose not to. One cannot survive without the people around one. So I am drawn to this matter. My child will not grow up in a society that exploits its workers and destroys the people within it. That’s not why I brought him into the world. I accept the fact that I brought him into a world where I would prepare a normal environment for him to live in. I’m not doing it for me, but for him.
"There’s no political career here. Of course I am a mother who hugs her child. I do not feed him Marxism. I play with him in the playground. We even ate at McDonald’s. Right now it does not happen a lot, because of the elections, but Musa makes up for it. I see him three hours a day at best, and I tell him that Mom is going to talk to people who care about giving toys to all the children. He said he wants some too, and I promised him he would get them."