June 24 was the roughest day for Member of Knesset Aida Touma-Sliman since being elected to the Israeli parliament.
As a debate on the 2003 Citizenship Law preventing family unification for Palestinians living in the West Bank with their Israeli relatives heated up, Deputy Interior Minister Yaron Mazuz turned to the Arab parliamentarians present and accused them of supporting Palestinian terrorism. “You’re the first one who should hand in your ID card,” he lashed out at MK Hanin Zoabi, who in May 2010 participated in a flotilla aimed at breaking the Israeli naval blockade imposed on Gaza. “We’re doing you a favor by letting you even sit here,” he told Arab MK Issawi Frej of Meretz.
As disheartening as Mazuz’s words were for Touma-Sliman, who called the meeting, it was the next speaker on the podium who really upset her. Not only did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not condemn his minister’s words of incitement, she said, he seemed to agree with them.
“I haven’t heard the ladies and gentlemen here condemn the real war crimes taking place in Syria and Yemen,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Arab MKs. “It is that hypocrisy which we oppose.”
To 51-year-old Touma Sliman — number two in the Communist Hadash party and fifth on the Joint (Arab) List’s Knesset slate — Netanyahu’s speech proved he had learned nothing from the brouhaha that followed his panicked televised election day appeal, in which he warned Likud supporters that Arab voters were “coming out in droves to the polls.”
“You’d think that realizing what [damage] his election day statements did, the prime minister would react differently in the Knesset, even if only for the cameras,” Touma-Sliman told The Times of Israel at her Knesset office. “Apparently, for him it wasn’t a slip of the tongue but a deep-seated belief.”
“You can’t help but see the general direction in which this government is going,” she added.
In fact, she opined, things are only getting worse. When Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman launched his 2006 election campaign using the slogan “no citizenship without loyalty,” he was publicly lambasted as a racist. Today, this type of rhetoric has become “almost mainstream,” she noted sadly.
Two weeks before Mazuz’s speech, Likud MK Oren Hazan, who served as deputy Knesset Speaker, told members of her party that in order to address the house on his watch, Arab MK’s will need to jib al-hawiyeh, a colloquial Arabic phrase used by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank meaning “give me your ID.”
“The campaign led by the right, calling our citizenship into question, is constantly accelerating and hasn’t been appropriately blocked,” she said. “I can’t accept this attitude gradually becoming accepted. We are constantly asked to prove our loyalty, to prove that we don’t support terror … we’re guilty until proven innocent,” she said, citing a bill submitted last month by MK Sharon Gal of Yisrael Beytenu (and voted down) that would have obligated parliamentary candidates to prove they do not “explicitly or implicitly” support terror.
‘Education is the best weapon’
In March, Touma-Sliman, a seasoned women’s rights activist from Acre, made it into the Knesset after five failed attempts to win a seat through Hadash since the elections of 1992. Last month, she made history when she was elected the first female member of an Arab party to head a permanent Knesset committee, the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.
Addressing Mazuz and Netanyahu from the Knesset podium in an impassioned impromptu speech that went viral on social media, Touma-Sliman evoked her father, who “was born in this land before the existence of the state which gave me my ID card.”
“It [Israeli citizenship] is small compensation for what has happened and what is still happening today,” she said. “Nobody should think they’re doing me a favor by giving me an ID card.”
There was no need for Touma-Sliman to spell out what she meant by “what has happened.” The Arab defeat in the 1948 War of Independence remains the most significant trauma in the collective memory of Israeli Arabs, who comprise 20 percent of the country’s population. A native of Nazareth, Touma-Sliman read about the Nakba, or catastrophe, in history books, but her parents never told her about their personal experiences during the war.
A few years ago, Touma-Sliman sat her elderly mother down in the presence of her two daughters and made her recount the family history during the war. When her mother was done, Touma-Sliman asked her why she had never shared the story before.
“She said: ‘How could this story have helped you in life?’ to which I said: ‘At least it would have placed me within history.’ She responded that for her generation it was important to carry on, to stand on their feet. These stories would have probably left them stuck.”
Touma-Sliman’s ignorance of that historic episode, she said, is typical of an entire generation of Israeli-Arabs born in the Jewish state after the “catastrophe” of 1948. While her Israeli-Arab peers often know little of what their parents lived through at the time, members of her generation living in the Palestinian diaspora cannot stop retelling the events.
“I first met these people during a visit to Russia in 1995,” she said. “It was a shock for me.”
Touma-Sliman’s father, a Christian orphan educated at the German Schneller Orphanage in Jerusalem, sublimated his childhood trauma through an insistence on giving his seven daughters a well-rounded humanist education.
“He would say to us: ‘Education is something you carry with you and which can never be taken away. They can take your land, your house, your money, but education is the best weapon. Wherever they drop you, you can stand up and carry on.'”
‘No one has the guts to invite us to join the government’
Situated on the left flank of her parliamentary bloc, Touma-Sliman often finds herself caught in the middle, forced to argue with critics on the Jewish left and the Arab right. Nevertheless, she continues to believe in the Joint (Arab) List, which has placed her on the same slate with Islamist polygamist Bedouins and Arab nationalists, far from her ideological world.
‘I used to tell people: ‘Don’t forget that at the end of the day we’re headed for the opposition.’ They didn’t like to hear that’
“Do you think I’d ever make it to committee chairperson were it not for the Joint List?” she asked rhetorically. “We are looked at differently now that we’re united, both by our own public and by the Knesset.”
Competitiveness between the three Arab parties in previous Knesset sittings had consumed significant energy and harmed public trust in Arab national politics, she said. “There was a sense that we’re wasting our time on infighting while we should be combating the grave dangers facing us, dangers which our public senses very well. These dangers are the result both of this government, but also of regional developments.”
The Arab upheavals, she explained, have had a detrimental effect on Arab society in Israel, increasing sectarianism, religious fundamentalism, and nationalist chauvinism.
“We’re in a kind of pressure cooker,” she said. “On the one hand, the Israeli government and on the other — regional changes. There’s a growing sense of disillusionment from an Arab world crumbling around us.”
Every Monday, the Joint List meets to discuss policy and hash out ideological differences.
“We make an effort to act as a unified faction. It doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges or that we agree 100% on everything, but we do agree on the significant, acute political issues.”
It was actually her public’s over-optimism, which she tried to subdue ahead of the March elections, that made her Joint List the third-largest faction in the Knesset, with 13 seats.
“Our society thinks that by forming the Joint List we’ve formed the next government and now all we need to do is make the right decisions and start implementing them,” she said with the gentle sarcasm characteristic of so many Arab MKs.
“I used to tell people: ‘Don’t forget that at the end of the day we’re headed for the opposition.’ They didn’t like to hear that.”
During the election season, Touma-Sliman would get angry with journalists who would ask her whether her party intended to join the government.
“I would always answer: ‘Is there something I’ve missed? Have they offered us to join the government and my friends didn’t tell me? Is there anyone in this country who has the guts to offer us to be part of the government? No one does. Our public should have been told this so it would have realistic expectations.”
Nevertheless, despite the “most right-wing government in Israeli history,” Arabs can wrench small achievements from a prime minister desperate to prove that he’s not anti-Arab.
“But I don’t think there’ll be a fundamental change,” she said.
‘Secularism is not a political program’
Even within her own liberal camp, more and more Arab voices are beginning to question the viability of a two-state solution — a solution she remains wholeheartedly committed to.
“There is a general backtracking on the idea of the two-state solution and we can thank Netanyahu for that,” she said. “The current government is doing everything in its power to sabotage the possibility of a Palestinian state, causing both Arab Israelis and Palestinians to wonder whether such an outcome is still viable.”
Many young Israeli-Arabs are now advocating a unitary, secular, democratic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, in which Jews and Arabs will receive equal rights.
Touma-Sliman scoffed at the idea as a naive pipe dream.
“How many will there be of us [secularists], both Jews and Arabs? Five percent? How many secular forces are there? Excuse me, but secularism is not a political program. You can be secular and right-wing at the same time,” she said.
“This government’s policy erodes the possibility of two states, but I still believe that it is much more practical and likely than one secular, democratic state for all.”
A unitary state, she explained, will surely resemble the vision of the extreme Jewish right much more than her social vision of total egalitarianism. “The balance of power between the Palestinian people and Israel is not favorable to a one-state solution.”
“In effect, one state exists on the ground today,” she admitted, “but it’s neither democratic nor secular, but an apartheid state,” she said. “One state controls the entire territory, depriving the other half of population the right to vote … even with regard to the small Arab population in Israel, you can either be a ‘good Arab’ and remain a citizen or join the other half.”
Her support for the two-state option is not the result of an ideological choice but of her understanding of realpolitik.
“As a communist, my ideal would be to support one state. But I believe that the Palestinian people still want to realize their self-determination in the form of two states, a Palestinian state alongside Israel … I have my own ideas, but I realize I’m in the minority.”
“Every politician needs to know what’s practical and what can be implemented. This is what’s possible now. In a one state-scenario, what will we do with the settlements? How will we compensate the Palestinians who lost their lands to settlements? What will we do with the right of return?”
But what about her brethren in the West Bank, left to their devices under a nondemocratic Palestinian government? her critics would ask.
“Who said the regime will be nondemocratic?” she lashed back. “It’s the right of every people to determine their own regime. Those who don’t like it can fight it, just as I do here.”