In the hummus capital outside Jerusalem, Arab nationalism challenges apathy

Abu Ghosh used to vote Zionist, if it bothered to vote at all, but the younger generation now demands a more authentic voice

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Posters of Shas leader Aryeh Deri adorn the entrance to Abu Ghosh, January 24, 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Posters of Shas leader Aryeh Deri adorn the entrance to Abu Ghosh, January 24, 2013 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

At the entrance to Abu Ghosh, a picturesque Arab village nestled in a valley eight km. (about five miles) west of Jerusalem, two yellowing posters display the smiling face of Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas. “Shas — equality and dignity between people,” rhymes the election slogan in Arabic. “Shas — for everyone.”

Although its main constituency is religious Sephardi Jews, Shas received 106 votes here, six percent of the tally, surpassing the Arab-Jewish communist party Hadash. Local residents emphatically claim that Shas bought local votes with cash.

“Many people here vote according to family connections. If the head of the family votes Shas, other family members will vote the same,” explains Hassouna, who manages a local sweets shop with his brother. He sells homemade knafeh, a dessert made of sweetened goat’s cheese; freshly ground coffee; and olive oil, pressed from olives of the family grove.   

Hassouna flips through the satellite channels on his small TV and stops on the Knesset channel, which broadcasts live plenum sessions and other political content, but is blank now. “My father used to watch this channel all the time,” Hassouna says. “But he passed away four months ago, and now the channel too is dead.”

Abu Ghosh (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Abu Ghosh (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Abu Ghosh is one of the only Arab villages in the Jerusalem region to have withstood the 1948 War of Independence intact, due to its residents’ cooperation with the nascent IDF. It is surrounded by Jewish communities, and the identity crisis experienced by many Israeli Arabs could hardly be more poignant than here.

Up until 20 years ago, the Labor Party would win more than 90 percent of the Abu Ghosh vote, local residents say. But that began to change when new Arab parties emerged and started campaigning here. This time round, Balad, a secular Arab nationalist party, and Ra’am-Ta’al (the United Arab List), with its more religious tint, together garnered over 75 percent of the votes, shared almost equally.

“Your headline should be ‘In Abu Ghosh, people don’t care about Israeli politics,’ ” says Hassouna, as he serves me a small cup of coffee on an etched, gilded platter. He himself voted for one of the Arab parties, because his brother had a beef with the competing party over a local issue. He, himself, could not care one way or the other.

On Tuesday, voting rates here reached a mere 47 percent — 20 percent lower than the national average, and significantly lower than the average in the Arab sector, which climbed to 56 percent, despite more pessimistic forecasts.

At the highly rated Lebanese Restaurant, owner Azmi Ibrahim is busy shouting orders to waiters hurriedly delivering plates of hummus topped with minced beef and French fries. Abu Ghosh’s convenient location on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway has made it a popular venue for commuter lunch breaks and weekend shoppers.

Ibrahim says he was undecided about his vote until the last minute, but eventually cast his ballot for Labor as he had done in previous years.

Azmi Ibrahim, owner of the Lebanese Restaurant in Abu-Ghosh (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Azmi Ibrahim, owner of the Lebanese Restaurant in Abu Ghosh (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“People here feel differently than in other Arab communities. The Galilee is pretty far away,” Ibrahim says. “The presence of Arab parties is not really felt here; they only won because they’re popular among the younger generation.”

Ibrahim attributed the new trend to the emergence of Arabic language media in Israel and the fact that local students meet fellow Arabs at university, where they exchange political points of view.

“People open their eyes to new ideas,” he says.

Once, Ibrahim recalls, extreme right-wing politician Meir Kahane — who believed Arabs could be incentivized to emigrate from Israel — visited Abu Ghosh and began distributing T-shirts. The following day, two local residents went to his Jerusalem headquarters and offered to sell him their houses and property for $200,000. Kahane’s reaction was surprising, he says.

“He picked up a chair and said, ‘If you don’t get out of here, I’ll call the police.’”

The lesson of this story, Ibrahim claims, is clear. “It’s all a game of give-and-take. I sell hummus; you’re a journalist. Every politician sells his merchandise, but you can’t really believe any of them.”

“Any way you look at it, we Arabs are only here for decoration,” he says. “The younger generation thinks differently, but it can’t be any different. There are certain decisions that Arabs shouldn’t even take part in.”

A waiter at the Lebanese restaurant in Abu-Ghosh (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
A waiter at the Lebanese Restaurant in Abu Ghosh (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Bushra Abed, 22, a student of political science and gender studies at Tel Aviv University, is a member of the younger generation Ibrahim was referring to.

“I understand why someone in Abu Ghosh would say that, but I disagree,” she says. “Even as a minority, I believe we can and should be involved in the country’s economy, education and even security.”

People in Abu Ghosh prefer their Jewish neighbors to view the village as a tranquil and friendly getaway, Abed opines, but says that’s the wrong attitude.

“We can admit that we’re an Arab village and still remain friendly to the outside world.”

Abed added that originally she intended to boycott the elections, believing that the parliament was not the place for Israeli Arabs to determine their collective destiny. But after consulting members of Knesset and reading party platforms, she decided to vote for Balad, even convincing others to do the same. 

“I believe this party can contain us all: Muslims, Druze and Christians,” she says, referring to the different faith groups within Arab society in Israel. “[Balad] will galvanize us as a nation and ensure that we get more than just four or five seats in the future.”

Before the last elections in 2009, Abed and her friends worked tirelessly on the Balad campaign, convincing people in the village to vote for the Arab nationalist party and capitalizing on their reputation as local intellectuals. This time round, she says, there was no need for campaigning; people knew whom to vote for all by themselves.

Back at the Lebanese Restaurant, customers keep coming for their hummus fix even after lunchtime. Ibrahim would like things to stay that way.

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