For years, Israelis have gotten used to hearing Zouheir Bahloul’s voice from the broadcaster’s booth, but if the veteran sportscaster gets his wish, the country may soon be hearing him regularly from the Knesset podium.
Bahloul, one of Israel’s most famous play callers and radio hosts, as well as a journalist covering politics and society, recently announced his intention to run for a seat in the 20th Knesset.
Exactly which party’s ticket Bahloul, a Muslim Arab from northern Israel, will join is as yet unclear. He is in negotiations with several parties, and says he will not accept an offer from any of them unless they are willing to advance his platform.
“I want to rehabilitate relations between Jews and Arabs and establish true equality for all Israeli citizens,” he told The Times of Israel during an interview on Thursday at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center.
He believes that Israelis will enjoy security only once the welfare of all the country’s citizens is achieved, and more opportunities for Arabs to integrate into Israeli society are created and realized.
During his long career in broadcasting, Bahloul, 63, was satisfied with being an observer and reporter of Israeli society. However, something changed for him this past summer as Israel fought Hamas during Operation Protective Edge.
What he saw happening in his country prompted him to seriously consider entering politics as a way to try to fix a society he believes is dangerously broken.
“This war was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me,” he explained. “It was supposed to be a war between Israel and Hamas, but it was really a war between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.”
‘They see us as enemies, and that message got amplified through the racist rhetoric that got circulated on social media’
According to Bahloul, who refers to himself as a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel, Israel’s attempts at Arab-Jewish coexistence failed long ago. But the situation had never been as bad as it was in the summer, with what Bahloul says was intentional incitement against Israeli Arabs by Israel’s political leaders.
“They see us as enemies, and that message got amplified through the racist rhetoric that got circulated on social media,” he said.
“We were made to feel like we weren’t citizens of this country, when 99 percent of us have never tried to damage Israel’s security.”
As Bahloul sees it, the biggest problem in Israel is that the trajectory of the lives of most Israeli Arabs has not followed that of his own. Relatively few Israeli Arabs have experienced the coexistence fostered by living in “mixed” cities like Haifa and Acre, as Bahloul has, and few have received a solid education and employment opportunities in the country’s center similar to his.
Without serious efforts to put an end to what Bahloul referred to as discrimination against Israel’s Arab population, nothing will change for the better.
“Our schools are in terrible condition and lack resources, we don’t get budget allocations, our towns and villages are slums,” he said.
“Young Arabs with academic degrees sit at home in the periphery because hi-tech firms in the center won’t employ them. Eighty percent of Arab women don’t work. We have become an economic burden,” he added.
‘We are Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. We need to turn our Israeli citizenship into a source of pride for ourselves’
Bahloul doesn’t reserve blame for the disconnect between Arabs and Jews only for the latter. He believes that Israeli Arabs must accept the Jewish Israeli historical narrative as legitimate.
In addition, the broadcaster, who has a better command of the Hebrew language than many Jewish Israelis, thinks Israeli Arabs must learn to speak Hebrew well so that they can interact more regularly and effectively with Jewish Israelis.
“We are Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. We need to turn our Israeli citizenship into a source of pride for ourselves,” he continued.
Israeli Jews must recognize and nurture this citizenship, as well. According to Bahloul, a major problem is Jews’ lumping of Palestinian citizens of Israel together with Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
“We identify with Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank on some things, such as protecting al-Aqsa, the most holy site for Muslims after Mecca, but their struggle is not our struggle,” Bahloul said of Arabs in Israel. “Their struggle is for self-determination. Ours is for equal rights as Israeli citizens.”
Bahloul, the widowed father of three grown children, is circumspect about which political leaders he admires and exactly which parties he is in talks with.
All he will say is that he is open to joining the Arab parties, provided they merge so they have a better chance of meeting the new electoral threshold, or a Zionist party on the center to left end of the political spectrum.
“I am not afraid of the Zionist label. This is de facto a Jewish state,” he said.
What he takes issue with is legislating that Israel is a Jewish state, as was proposed in the contentious “Jewish state” bill which, in part, led to the break up of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition earlier this week.
“A law like that would take away Israel’s democracy and make a state that was not for all its citizens,” he said. “I can’t be Jewish, but I am no less Israeli than you.”
Should Bahloul decide to run for the Knesset and go on to win a seat, his first order of business would be to try to change the national education system to foster more diversity and tolerance. He’d like to see schools integrate Jewish and Arab students and teach both Hebrew and Arabic to everyone. He also thinks it is time for Arab teachers to teach Jewish children and vice versa.
‘I am not afraid of the Zionist label. This is de facto a Jewish state’
“Currently, our schools teach, but don’t educate. There is no education for shared values. Everything is geared toward the Jewish perspective,” he said.
Bahloul also wants to see the right of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to protest protected. Citing the November 8 shooting by Israeli police of 22-year-old Kheir Hamdan in Kafr Kanna, he said he is highly concerned about what he sees as the police’s over-readiness to use force against Arabs.
The police claimed Hamdan, who was suspected of having thrown a stun grenade, was shot while attempting to stab an officer who had come to arrest him at his home, while a videotape of the incident cast doubt on this version of events. Bahloul wants to know why there are not yet any findings from the ensuing investigation.
“I condemn stone-throwing or any other type of violence, but we have the right to protest and demonstrate for our rights,” he claimed.
Bahloul knows sitting in the Knesset can be a dirty business, but he feels he can’t stay on the sidelines any longer.
“The Jewish public has loved me for three decades. I know I won’t get as much love from them when I enter politics,” he said.