Interview'I want to show Arab Israelis that they have power'

The woman who teaches Jewish Israelis how to protest in Arabic

‘I want to be a bridge between communities,’ says Sondos Alhoot, an Arabic and Hebrew teacher and social activist who dreams of one day being elected to the Knesset

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Sondos Alhoot, a Yesh Atid member and a candidate for Jerusalem city council in the 'Kol Toshaveha' slate in the 2023 municipal elections, March 9, 2023, in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)
Sondos Alhoot, a Yesh Atid member and a candidate for Jerusalem city council in the 'Kol Toshaveha' slate in the 2023 municipal elections, March 9, 2023, in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

Sondos Alhoot is one of the few Arab Israelis to have taken the stage at the weekly protests in Tel Aviv against the government’s judicial overhaul. Among that small minority, she is also one of the even fewer speakers who made a point of addressing protesters at least partly in Arabic.

“Arab Israelis have mostly stayed away from the protests. Partly because demonstrators wave Israeli flags, with which Arab citizens do not identify, but it goes deeper than that,” Alhoot told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “Liberal Jewish Israelis feel that the threat to their democracy began with the judicial overhaul, but Arab Israelis have felt like second-class citizens for far longer than that.”

Alhoot said she began taking part in the protests on Kaplan Street because, “as an Israeli Arab, as a Palestinian Arab, as a woman and as an educator, I could not remain silent in the face of what this racist and dictatorial government is doing. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough, and I did not hear any voice that bridged between the demands of Jews and the demands of Arabs. I decided I wanted to be that voice.”

Born in Nazareth, Alhoot, 33, moved to Jerusalem to study education in 2010, and has lived in the city ever since. Following her studies, she began working as an Arabic teacher in Jewish public schools, including religious ones, while also working as a Hebrew teacher for Arab women in East Jerusalem.

As she developed her experience as an educator and intercultural mediator, Alhoot also began to think about scaling up her social involvement. She took part in several leadership courses and joined Yesh Atid, becoming one of the few Arab members of the centrist political party headed by Yair Lapid.

Her urge to take action grew even greater when the government was sworn in late last year, she recalled. She felt that the current coalition posed threats to her as both an Arab Israeli and as a woman, and she could no longer remain silent.

Sondos Alhoot, speaking in Hebrew and Arabic, at a protest against the judicial overhaul, Tel Aviv, July 1, 2023. (Facebook screenshot, courtesy)

“Every morning, we have been waking up to the news of a new killing in Arab communities, and the government is doing close to nothing to stop the wave of killings. On top of that, we see a regression in women’s rights. As of today, there is only one female director general in Israeli ministries,” she said. “And representation has gone down for women in the Knesset too. It’s hard for a Jewish woman to be elected, let alone an Arab woman.”

The current Knesset has 31 female members, down from 36 in the previous legislature. There are currently only two Arab female MKs, Aida Touma Suliman of Hadash and Iman Khatib Yassin from Ra’am. The current government has also seen a drop in female representation, with only six women among the 32 ministers in the cabinet.

In February, Alhoot was contacted by the Israel Women’s Network, an organization promoting gender equality, to speak at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government’s proposed judicial overhaul — an invitation she readily accepted.

“I spoke against the government’s intention to strip the Supreme Court of its powers to defend citizens, particularly women, from politicians’ decisions that may harm them,” Alhoot said. “I spoke against the authorities’ inaction toward the scourge of violence against women in Arab society, and how we feel we have no recourse, neither with the police nor with the judicial system.”

A study conducted by the Women Against Violence organization revealed that in 2020-2021, 84 percent of unresolved murder cases had a female Arab victim.

“The murderers are walking around freely,” Alhoot said in her February speech. “Women also have the power to make a change, to create a better reality for the next generations, for our daughters and granddaughters. A reality in which we will be equal, and will enjoy equal representation.”

A few months later, Alhoot was invited once again to take the stage at a Tel Aviv protest — and this time, she decided to express herself in her mother tongue.

From the stage, Alhoot taught the crowd how to translate their slogans into Palestinian Arabic. Speaking confidently from a podium covered in an Israeli flag, she got the crowd to shoutAsh-sha’b biddo democratia” — The people want democracy — and “Fish mustaqbal bidun ta’leem” — There is no future without education.

While the largely liberal Jewish crowd reacted enthusiastically to her impromptu language class, the real surprise came in the following days. “I started getting hundreds of friend requests from Arab Israelis on Facebook each day,” she recounted.

“Arabs were shocked to finally see someone who spoke their language at Kaplan,” she added. “Suddenly, they felt the protests were about them. They congratulated me. They told me to keep my head up high for the community. And all of that just from seeing me say a couple of sentences in Arabic. A wall was broken. Language is really a powerful tool in building bridges between communities.”

Sondos Alhoot (left) sitting next to Jerusalem mayoral candidate Waleed Abu Tayeh (right) who is running for mayor of Jerusalem in the 2023 municipal elections. Alhoot is number two in the electoral list for city council headed by Abu Tayeh, called ‘Kol Toshaveha,’ Jerusalem, August 17, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

The status of the Arabic language is under constant threat in Israel. In the latest blow, on August 22 the labor minister announced that vocational training schools will be allowed to hold certification exams in Hebrew only, based on the fact that Hebrew is the only official language of the state. The controversial nation-state law in 2018 effectively downgraded Arabic to a “special status” in Israel, alongside the official language of Hebrew.

“Arab Israelis are in a dire situation. Arab towns receive lower budget allocations from the government than Jewish ones do,” Alhoot noted. “They are not given the same resources, especially for education. And then they portray us as violent criminals, or even worse as terrorists, while they are holding us back.”

The activist added, however, that she “will not deny that we also have our responsibilities. There is a lack of awareness in much of Arab society when it comes to democratic participation. At the last electoral round, many preferred to harvest olives than to go to their polling stations.”

Alhoot also had words of criticism for the Arab elected officials in the Knesset: “Their main problem is they do not know how to cooperate. If you are in constant competition with each other, voters end up confused and lose trust.”

Two years ago, Alhoot decided to join Yesh Atid, a party that is not particularly known for its involvement in Arab issues, and she has been busy organizing a national focal point for Arab women inside the party. She is also the only woman on an Arab slate running in the upcoming municipal elections in Jerusalem. The ticket is headed by Waleed Abu Tayeh, the first Arab citizen to run for mayor in the city since Israel took control of its eastern section in 1967.

But Alhoot’s ultimate goal is to one day be elected to the Knesset.

“I would have so much to change there, starting from education,” she said. “But most importantly, I want to show Arab Israelis that they have power. They just need to realize it.”

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