Ayman Odeh wants to be Israel’s Martin Luther King
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Interview'You’re the government, the police, the economy. Everything is yours. You have the opportunity and the strength to be moral. Use it.'

Ayman Odeh wants to be Israel’s Martin Luther King

Top Arab politician insists on pursuing a civil rights agenda for his country, even as he agonizes over bitterly conflicting nationalist narratives

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Hadash leader Ayman Odeh in the Knesset, January 28, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hadash leader Ayman Odeh in the Knesset, January 28, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s Arabs are a nation apart. They largely live in separate towns, attend separate Arabic-language schools and marry in their own Muslim and Christian religious courts. And they are almost entirely absent from those touchstones of identity, such as military service, that have helped bind other diverse Israeli communities together.

This stark ethnic divide is accepted almost without question as a basic fact of the Israeli experience.

And it is what makes the rise of Ayman Odeh, Israel’s newest and most powerful Arab Knesset member, so startling.

Odeh, 40, heads the largest Arab Knesset faction in Israel’s history, the Joint List (and the largest party in the Joint List — the socialist Hadash). And he is hard at work using that unprecedented position to radically reimagine the Arab-Jewish divide.

“We believe with every fiber of our being that we’re the children of this land,” Odeh began in a conversation with The Times of Israel editors this week.

“Maybe we’re mistaken. Maybe my grandpa lied to me. Maybe my grandpa’s grandpa lied to him. Maybe we weren’t here even 200 years ago – and maybe we’re descendants of Canaan 3,000 years ago. Anything is possible. But we believe we’re the children of this land, just like the Jews believe it.”

What does he make of the Jews’ competing belief?

“I can argue like a Marxist about whether there was a global Jewish nation 200 years ago, or whether it was just a religion. But this really doesn’t matter. We’re both here now, two nations. Everyone believes [their side] and is bound to the motherland. I’m interested in what you believe, not in how I define you, okay? [You have] one land, one people, one culture, a shared history, a shared language, a shared economy – so you’re a nation. If you believe you’re a nation, then I accept you as a nation.”

Arab Joint List head Ayman Odeh (center) reacts with other party members at the party headquarters in Nazareth as election exit polls are announced, March 17, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh (center) reacts with other party members at the party headquarters in Nazareth as election exit polls are announced, March 17, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

In his conversations with Jews, two impulses became clear. First, by his own admission, Odeh fears nothing so much as wasting more time in impotent debates about national narratives. There is little to be gained in letting disputes about history hold up Arab development, prosperity and equality in the present day.

Second, and more dramatically, Odeh emphatically believes that the Israeli Arab future will be an Israeli one. To that end, he has set out to construct a new Arab-Jewish politics – not with the negligible post-Zionist Jewish constituency that already votes for him, but with the Zionist mainstream that eyes him warily from across the ethnic divide.

His interview with The Times of Israel was dominated by this impulse, by his message to the Jews.

He began by shying away from questions of national identity. “I flee from symbols. I think those who don’t want to solve problems go to the symbols. I’m looking for content.”

There is an inevitable trauma at the core of Israeli Arab politics. The Arabs are not immigrants to the State of Israel. Their experience of Jewish independence is the experience of a state that is not their own growing around them and despite them, displacing their narrative and no small percentage of their countrymen

In describing his agenda, Odeh casts himself as a nonviolent civil rights champion in the vein of Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. He recalled his youth as an activist, his interrogation at the hands of the Shin Bet security agency and the rage that eventually led him to spar with police at demonstrations. Only when his anger was all used up did he conclude that his only way forward was to work with the Jews.

“In the end of 1998, I was elected to the Haifa city council,” he said. “I was like Malcolm X… I was Malcolm X all the time. It took me three to four years until I made the shift from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King. I loved the anger. But my head, and my party, wanted a different discourse, an approach that brought Arabs and Jews closer, that in sane Haifa, in red Haifa, in Haifa of coexistence, in mixed Haifa — that my language be more accommodating. And my language was so harsh, so aggressive.”

In recent months, in his quest for “content,” Odeh has put together a long list of problems and inequalities he hopes to tackle, from transportation and education to crime prevention and the construction of new Arab towns.

Bedouin near Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev, August 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Bedouin near Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev, August 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Odeh’s list runs to “80 issues that are not ideological,” each meant to “close the gaps” between Arabs and Jews. Much of the work of Arab MKs in the past has focused on complaining about these problems. Odeh said he’s out to solve them. And that means selling his solutions to the Jews.

“Someone who wants to advance the issue of equality for the Arab population has to convince 30 percent of the Jews in the country. And the other 30% don’t need to agree, but at least to be willing to listen. The last third hates him and will oppose him. But the first third is crucial. So I’m always talking to the Jewish public, to convince it of at least a part of what I’m saying.”

Odeh said he pins his hopes for his program’s passage in the Knesset on the openness and empathy of his Jewish colleagues, but also on Jewish self-interest.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri shakes hands with Joint Arab list head Ayman Odeh during the swearing-in ceremony for the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri shakes hands with Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh during the swearing-in ceremony for the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I ask the question: When do the Jews of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem start to benefit from my plan? Not just to benefit from the moral or social resilience [of greater equality] – that happens from day one – but from economic resilience. The answer: after two and a half years. An Arab who works also pays taxes. That’s good for you [Jews]. An Arab who doesn’t work takes national insurance money out of my pocket, not just yours. I also work,” he noted with a smile.

The revenge of symbols

Odeh returned repeatedly to his aversion to “symbols.” But after a while, this rejection began to sound like the Yiddish authors of old whose belittling of something as “unimportant” was a clear signal that it lay at the heart of their message.

There is an inevitable trauma at the core of Israeli Arab politics. The Arabs are not immigrants to the State of Israel. Their experience of Jewish independence is the experience of a state that is not their own growing around them and despite them, displacing their narrative and no small percentage of their countrymen. And so, participation in Israel’s institutions and national life carries with it tensions beyond those experienced by many minorities. Since the trauma of displacement has not yet been resolved – Palestinian independence remains unfulfilled, refugees continue to languish in far-flung camps – Israeli Arab politicians, despite their citizenship, despite the oath they take upon entering the Knesset, ultimately find themselves grudging participants in someone else’s national story.

So there is something doubly radical in Odeh’s program – indeed, in his rise to power. Not only is he an integrationist, he has the political clout to potentially realize at least part of his agenda.

And that’s where symbols come in.

‘Imagine if Arabic were not an official language in Israel. And I, today, in 2015, in the new Knesset, were to submit a bill making Arabic an official language. I’m certain that 90 MKs would jump up and say, “Absolutely not. This is the Jewish state. We have no other state.” And one MK would tell me, “You have 22 other states.” I, Ayman, I have so many!’

Asked if, with his talk of legitimate narratives on both sides, he actually believes the Jews deserve their own nation-state in this land, Odeh’s response wasn’t short, but it wasn’t ambivalent either.

“We all have to know and internalize that the situation is complicated. It’s not that the Jewish people continued [living here] for 2,000 years with a state and there isn’t another people that’s stuck in the middle [of the Jewish narrative].

“And the Palestinians need to know how complicated the situation is.

“Part of the answer is that I, Ayman, need to accept in the constitution of Israel that Israel has fulfilled the right to self-determination of the Jewish nation. I have to sign on to that. And that the Palestinian state [will] fulfill the right to self-determination for the Palestinian Arab nation.”

What may seem a formulaic acknowledgement to a Jewish audience — that Israel is the fulfillment of Jewish national rights — is a dramatic statement for the man who is effectively the titular leader of Israel’s Arabs.

Arab Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks with the press in front of the President's Residence during a demonstration of Bedouin activists in Jerusalem, March 29, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Ayman Odeh speaks with the press in front of the President’s Residence during a demonstration of Bedouin activists in Jerusalem, March 29, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But then, as he so often does, Odeh complicated things for the Jews. His recognition of Israel’s Jewish raison d’etre, he said gravely, “doesn’t have to hurt in the slightest the civil and national rights of Arabs in the State of Israel.”

“Now, you’re all of course in favor of civil rights,” he waved a hand dismissively. “In reality, civil rights are more important than national rights. They’re the content, the day-to-day: work, life. But people are sensitive to national rights.” They are “psychological” and “emotional,” and resonate too powerfully to be ignored, he said.

A conversation that began with “fleeing” from symbols took a distinctly symbolic turn.

“Imagine if Arabic were not an official language in Israel. And I, today, in 2015, in the new Knesset, were to submit a bill making Arabic an official language. I’m certain that 90 MKs would jump up and say, ‘Absolutely not. This is the Jewish state. We have no other state.’ And one MK would tell me, ‘You have 22 other states.’ I, Ayman, I have so many!

“Now imagine that I come forward with Israeli chutzpah and demand also Arabic street signs, not only in Shfaram and Nazareth, but also in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Not only would they not agree, they’d say I’m crazy.

“But it is a fact that Arabic is an official language. There is signage in Arabic in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth, and people don’t even notice it.”

It was often hard to tell if Odeh was criticizing Israeli Jews or praising them. Are they more accepting than even they realize, or simply hypocrites? He seemed to couch his carefully honed arguments as a choice between the two.

“I’m telling you that Arabs already enjoy national rights in this state. Language is the most important national right, and the Arabs’ [language] is recognized by the state. So what’s the problem with talking about national rights?”

‘This is their anthem’

Arab national rights are no danger to Jews, Odeh insisted. And with that reassuring claim, he began to outline the dramatic – and symbolic – changes that Israeli Jews must make to their state before it can be a suitable home for its minorities.

Israel’s very anthem, which speaks of a “Jewish soul” that yearns for the land of Israel, is one example.

Odeh caused a stir last month when he pointedly remained in the Knesset plenum and stood silently at the singing of the “Hatikva” during the 20th Knesset’s opening ceremony. Most of his faction’s lawmakers walked out.

Arab Joint List leader Ayman Odeh (bottom R) seen during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ayman Odeh (bottom R) seen during the swearing-in ceremony of the 20th Knesset, March 31, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It hurts me to stand for ‘Hatikva.’ What connection can I have to ‘Hatikva?’” he said.

So why did he stand? “I often regret it. But I wanted to leave an opening for more dialogue. I want to respect my colleagues — this is their anthem — the people I will work with.”

He paused. Then: “But another thing, and this is extremely, extremely sensitive. There is the issue of citizenship in the state of which I’m a citizen. I said [to myself], ‘I am going to take citizenship seriously.’ I disagree with the content of the anthem. But if this is the anthem of the state in which I fight for full citizenship…” He trailed off for a moment.

“But part of the truest full citizenship is that I have some connection to the anthem. [Let’s have] another anthem – there are some countries in the world with two anthems – or [let’s] change something.”

He even had a suggestion for a new anthem: the first few stanzas of the poem “I believe” by the Zionist poet Shaul Tchernichovsky – a Jewish Zionist source, a universal message.

Unabashed, even earnest, Odeh began reciting the poem’s second stanza: “For my soul still strives for liberty, / I have not sold it to a shining calf, / For I still believe in man, / And in his spirit, which is strong.”

“That’s me,” he breathed. “But we’re not there yet.”

Indeed, as far as Odeh is concerned, Israel is moving in the opposite direction, fretting obsessively over Jewish rights and advancing legislation such as the “nation-state law” to strengthen them at the expense of the Arabs.

“Go to Google and search ‘national rights for minorities.’ You’ll find a lot of links, conventions, all sorts of things. Now type ‘national’ or ‘collective rights for majorities.’ Google doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

“Only in the State of Israel do you find a majority that’s always looking to strengthen its national rights. Majorities are supposed to be open, accepting. Let me have that at least. You’re so strong and I’m so weak that I have to beg you to collect the illegal guns in my streets. You have Dimona [i.e., Israel’s reputed nuclear weapons arsenal], the fifth-most powerful army in the world. But with all your strength, you feel weak. You want to be a majority, to be strong, to feel weak, and to act like a minority. You don’t leave any space for me. And that’s something that chokes us. We’re weak but don’t have the privileges of weakness.

“Let’s build something else. Let’s make an example. You’re the strong. You’re the government, the police, the economy. Everything is yours. You have the opportunity and the strength to be moral. Use it.”

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