At a cafe near her home in Jaffa, Nadia Hilou sips sage tea with sugar. In the tiny eatery adorned with literary books in Arabic and Hebrew, Hilou, one of four Arab women running for a seat on Tuesday, is enthusiastic but not overconfident as she speaks about her bid for the Knesset on the Labor Party list. 

Hilou, 59, was the first Arab Christian woman to be elected to the Knesset and the second Arab woman to serve as an MK, after Hussniya Jubara. She comes from a progressive family in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. In an early sign of her character, Hilou was the first person in her community to get a driver’s license, “even before my father,” she laughs. “People used to say to him, ‘Aren’t you ashamed to be driven around by your daughter?’ And he’d answer, “No. I’m proud!’” His reaction, Hilou said, encapsulates her family’s open attitude, which was the foundation for her progressive worldview. “They instilled in me at a very early age that boys and girls are the same.”

Less a politician than a community activist who views the government as a means of bringing change, Hilou was always a groundbreaker. She was the first Arab woman from Jaffa to enroll in the social work program at Tel Aviv University in 1972. Later, she got a master’s from the same school at a time when the concept of a pregnant woman studying was a bit weird. “At that time, women usually either had a family or studied, not both,” she said.

Nadia Hilou at a campaign event in January (photo credit: Labor/Courtesy)

Nadia Hilou at a campaign event in January (photo credit: Courtesy Labor)

One of her pet projects developed after she gave birth to her second daughter (she has four), when she felt a desire to go back to work but couldn’t find any daycare in Jaffa. So Hilou and four friends started the first informal nursery in their community. “We hired a nanny and rented a place, and brought our own toys from home,” she said. “After two years we had 160 children at the nursery.” The plan gave mothers an opportunity to work and better themselves, their families, and their society, she said.

She joined Labor after Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister and party leader, was assassinated in 1995. “He was the first prime minister who advanced the peace process with Palestinians… and the first to put on the table a very clear strategy for social equality and advancement for minorities and Arab society,” Hilou said. That’s what made her go with Labor, despite objections from Arab-Israeli critics angered that she was working with a Zionist party over an Arab one, she said. 

As with previous crossings in her life, Hilou decided to go “her own road” when it came to being elected. Ahead of the 16th Knesset, she participated in the Labor party’s general primaries, opting to compete against the entire party rather than vie for a seat designated for an Arab member, which would have been a far easier race. ”I couldn’t just be a representative for the Arabs,” she said, “I needed to be a representative of everyone, Jews and Arabs. That was the coexistence I believed in.”

Her decision cost her; she failed to make it into the 16th Knesset in 2003 by one seat. But, by sticking to her “values and truths,” Hilou said, she was elected to the 17th Knesset in 2006. Now, as she’s poised, possibly, to enter another Knesset, Hilou reflects on her journey. “I didn’t decide to enter politics overnight — it wasn’t easy for me — but I feel that I must be here to fight for my community,” she said.

A landmark achievement, possibly

Three more notable Arab-Israeli women are running in the same race: Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, the head of Daam; Nabila Espanioly from Hadash; and Hanin Zoabi from Balad. That four Arab women are running for Knesset isn’t a landmark achievement, but the fact that three of them have good chances of getting into the Knesset is.

There has been a total of three Arab-Israeli females in the Knesset to date, starting in the year 1999, and never more than one at the same time. Zoabi, the sole Arab female in the 18th Knesset, is the third to have served in that role. She is also the only one who stands sure to be elected again, having survived efforts led by Likud’s Ofir Akunis to have her banned from the elections for participating in the Mavi Marmara flotilla that tried to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. (Zoabi’s campaign did not grant an interview in time for this article). 

Hilou, number 18 on the Labor list, has a decent chance of making it in, according to a recent poll by The Times of Israel that estimated that Labor could get 21 seats; other polls have shown Labor at 17-18, however.

Espanioly is assured a seat even if she isn’t elected outright thanks to a party agreement in which Jamal Zahalka and Hannah Swaid, first and second on Hadash’s list, respectively, vowed to step down halfway through their terms (in two years) to give the next candidates on the list who didn’t make it into the Knesset an opportunity to serve.

Nabila Espanioly, the 5th spot on Hadash's list for Tuesday's elections. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Nabila Espanioly, the 5th spot on Hadash’s list for Tuesday’s elections. (photo credit: Courtesy/Hadash)

Although analysts speculate that Aghbaria-Zahalka will not cross the electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset, her campaign has garnered a lot of attention and buzz. She is the only Arab woman heading a party, remarkably one of six women currently heading parties running for Knesset.

Although women are about half of the population in Israel — in 2009, there were 3.8 million women and 3.7 men in Israel — less than one in five MKs in the outgoing Knesset are female. Moreover, several parties in Israel don’t have any female participation, including United Torah Judaism, Shas, and the joint Arab list, Ra’am-Ta’al.

Like Arab political candidates in general in Israel, female Israeli-Arab politicians walk fine lines, both between the sexes and between the Arab and Jewish populations. Scorned by some within their own populations for participating in the Zionist political system yet mistrusted by many among the Jewish majority, the few Arab-Israeli females in Knesset face numerous challenges.

Galit Dehesh, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, said Israeli-Arab women have to cross more hurdles than do other women to get into Knesset, stemming from the fact that the support system for them isn’t as versatile as it is for Jewish women. Furthermore, political questions regarding their loyalty or agenda can overshadow their goals.

Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, head of the Daam party, one of four Arab-Israeli women running for Knesset Tuesday (photo credit: Courtesy/Daam(

Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, head of the Daam party, is one of four Arab-Israeli women running for Knesset Tuesday (photo credit: Courtesy/Daam)

“Female Arab leaders with strong social agendas have often been judged by their security or national agendas, and not by the other initiatives,” said Galit Dehesh, executive director of The Israel Women’s Network, “but some, like Zoabi, did wonderful things for women’s rights in Israel.”  

Another statistic stacked against the female candidates is that 55%-60% of Arabs in Israel — the group that could potentially help bring a female Arab candidate to the Knesset — don’t vote.

Ofer Kenig, political researcher and head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Forum for Political Reform, said one reason for the low turnout of Israeli-Arabs is their leaders’ calls to boycott elections and not to partake in the Zionist system — although the Arab League has called on Arab-Israelis to vote this time. “The second reason is more to do with their frustration — both with their inability to enact policies and also vis-à-vis the feeling that Arab-Israeli politicians don’t really represent their true interests,” Kenig said. 

One of their major concerns is financial security: Approximately 60% of Israeli-Arabs live under the poverty line. Moreover, only 20%-22% of Israeli-Arab women are part of the workforce. 

“Their leaders have the reputation of being more concerned with the Palestinian question, or the policy in the West Bank, rather than taking care of the day-to-day concerns of the population,” Kenig added.

Practical revolutionaries?

The campaigns of both Aghbaria-Zahalka and Espanioly are strongly tied to the demand for restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to the social justice movement. Daam organizes workers via unions and and Hadash supports a socialist system. The two parties’ platforms may appear very similar to an outsider: They’re both left-wing Jewish-Arab groups, and they even compete for a similar voter base — an issue that has caused somewhat of a rift in left-wing circles.

In mid-January, Aghbaria-Zahalka, 39, a prominent women’s rights activist and labor organizer, addressed a group of mixed Jewish-Arab activists at a cavelike tavern bar in Jaffa. An effective speaker, Aghbaria-Zahalka captivated her audience as she presented Daam’s platform.

“Isn’t it about time an Arab woman led a party in the Knesset? To enact change, real change, for all of us?,” Aghbaria-Zahalka asked.

Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, the head of Daam and the only Arab woman that's leading a political party into the elections Tuesday. (photo credit: Yael Golan/Daam)

Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, the head of Daam and the only Arab woman leading a political party into the elections Tuesday. (photo credit: Yael Golan/Daam)

When Aghbaria-Zahalka finished speaking, Ronen Dan, a quiet, lanky computer scientist, said he felt that she was “the hope of our generation” but that he wasn’t sure if he should vote for her — not because of his conscience, but due to cold calculations. The party is unlikely to clear the 2% Knesset threshold, so a vote for it would be wasted.

Alon Lee Green, the director of field operations for the Hadash campaign, said that in the last election, his party was one-third of a mandate away from getting a fifth seat in the Knesset.

“We are extremely effective when it comes to legislating and enacting policy,” he said, “and this seat is so important.” In this Knesset, Green said, Hadash and the parties it banded together with were able to prevent 150 anti-democratic measures from being passed; they added riders onto bills and exhausted all possibilities in the legislative process to stall other motions, for example.

So why doesn’t Aghbaria-Zahalka just join Hadash and get herself a shot at a Knesset seat?

During an interview this week, Aghbaria-Zahalka acknowledged that the two political groups strive for similar things but noted a few basic differences. First, Daam seeks to be an alternative to the Histadrut labor federation. It has unionized several thousand workers and given legal assistance to some 20,000. “Hadash is part of the Histadrut,” Aghbaria-Zahalka said, “but if you claim to be a person of the left, then this doesn’t make sense. We need to give workers an alternative,” she said.

Another difference is that Daam “doesn’t close deals with the Arab patriarchy — the chamulot [clans] — that Hadash does,” Aghbaria-Zahalka explained. “Because Hadash cooperates with the chamulot, they don’t bring enough women into the fold,” she said, “and a lot of their voters are Arabs, not Jews. Their dialogue is different to the two groups — to Arabs the rhetoric is more chauvinistic and nationalistic than it is to Jews, and these are things Daam won’t do,” she said.

A few days later, during a telephone interview, Aghbaria-Zahalka’s claims were countered by veteran activist Espanioly, 57, who is in the 5th spot on the Hadash list.

A Hadash campaign ad featuring Nabila Espanioly, a noted activist and women's rights advocate, who is number five on the party's list for the upcoming elections (photo credit: Courtesy/Hadash)

A Hadash campaign ad featuring Nabila Espanioly, a noted activist and women’s rights advocate, who is number five on the party’s list for the upcoming elections (photo credit: Courtesy/Hadash)

Espanioly, a clinical psychologist by training who was one of the people who established Hadash in Nazareth in the 1970s, was named one of the world’s 100 most influential women in the world by Women Deliver, an international nonprofit advocacy group, for working to promote gender equality and conflict resolution for 40 years. She founded and runs the al-Tufula Pedagogical Center and Multipurpose Women’s Center in Nazareth and helped found the leftist pro-peace groups Women in Black and the Coalition of Women for Peace. Perhaps most revolutionary of all is her decision not to get married — a step that “isn’t easy,” she admitted. “But I feel loved, and I feel complete.”

Speaking about Aghbaria-Zahalka’s comments, Espanioly said that Hadash uses the same discourse for all groups. ”It’s no secret that most of Hadash’s voters are Arabs… We respect our community — that’s why they vote for us — but we don’t compromise on our values, and if there is one thing that Hadash stands for, it’s equality,” she said.

“Our society is patriarchal, and we know it, and we try to change it,” she said. Hadash believes the family system, the chamula system, is antithetical to democracy, she explained. “Yet, we still want to work with all the people in our society, and we begin from where the people are,” she said.

She put the larger theme of Israeli-Arab female participation in politics this way: The candidacies of Aghbaria-Zahalka’s and Zoabi, a younger generation of candidates, are a direct outcome of years of work by Hadash and other activists to make political participation of Israeli-Arab women a reality. 

As for Aghbaria-Zahalka, who’s become the darling of the left-wing Arab-Jewish activist scene in Tel Aviv, she knows her party may not pass the threshold needed to enter the Knesset. But, she said, Daam’s struggle — to unionize Jewish and Arab skilled truck drivers and laborers and establish more workers’ committees while fighting for social justice and Jewish-Arab integration — will continue.

As is the case with her compatriots in Labor or Hadash, the road to the Knesset may be a long one, but it’s not the only one, she said, because their agenda of community activism stands regardless of whether they make it to the Knesset on Tuesday or not.