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What Makes Asma Run

How Asma Agbaria-Zahalka is turning a socialist party of Arabs and Jews into a political phenomenon in Israel

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Asma Agabaria-Zahalka at the March of Human Rights on Dec. 7, 2012. (Yael Golan)

Facebook is far from a reliable instrument for measuring political fluctuations, and the level of discourse it encourages often leaves much to be desired, but when I saw Asma Agbaria-Zahalka’s face for the umpteenth time on my virtual wall, I grew curious. The most remarkable thing was that my acquaintances who were posting enthusiastically about Agbaria-Zahalka were a diverse bunch—Jews and Arabs, some educated and others less fortunate, a few of them well-off and a few struggling. Yet all seemed intrigued by the young woman, and all seemed to suggest that she might be that rarest of birds: the one who might once again galvanize the moribund Israeli left.

On the surface, there isn’t much to suggest that Agbaria-Zahalka and her party, Da’am, stand much of a chance of making it to the Knesset come this month’s election. The party’s last few campaigns have been more or less disastrous; in 2009, it hardly won 2,700 votes. But that was before the J14 movement, before the tents in Rothschild Boulevard, before Israelis collectively howled against the steep cost of housing and stagnant salaries and the other ravages years of rampant neo-liberal economic measures had wrought. And when they started paying attention to the economy, they started paying attention to Agbaria-Zahalka: Her unabashedly socialist platform is attracting a growing amount of attention in recent months, from a series of ads featuring a wide array of Israelis ecstatically stating their support to the sudden swelling of attendance at her many public appearances.

For years, Agbaria-Zahalka herself wasn’t paying much attention. She was born in Jaffa in 1974, and like most people she hit adolescence and started looking for some form of teenage rebellion. The only path available to her, as a young Arab woman, was religion; her family was traditional, but Agbaria-Zahalka found herself diving deeper into Islam, becoming more observant, more strict. She liked what the religion had to offer and particularly what she saw as its commitment to justice and good will.

Then she enrolled at Tel Aviv University. In 1995, as a student with meager means, she took a job to help finance her education. It was with a brand new political party, Da’am; the party had its newspaper, and Agbaria-Zahalka was hired as a copy editor. “I was not interested in politics,” she told me, “but I read the stories I was editing and understood that there were problems and that we can advocate for alternative policies and help people in their struggles. I realized that what I needed to do wasn’t just fix texts, but fix reality. I joined the party.”

The party was an odd fixture in the otherwise monochromatic Israeli political landscape. It was founded in 1995 by a group of Jewish and Palestinian activists and focused on advocating both the establishment of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel and a radical reform of Israel’s economy. Its basic credo was that only real collaboration between Arabs and Jews could bring about peace and prosperity, which led the party to establish Ma’an, a workers-rights group, and start organizing.

An obvious demographic were Arab women, about 80 percent of whom are unemployed. Agbaria-Zahalka and her colleagues reached out to these disenfranchised women and helped them find jobs in agriculture. It was an uphill battle: For years, Israeli employers have been arguing that no Israeli would ever deign to take on such physically demanding, unrewarding work, which led to the government’s importing tens of thousands of laborers from abroad. And if employers did hire local residents, they usually did so through third-party contractors who paid their charges far less than the minimum wage and failed to provide rudimentary welfare and safety conditions.

Ma’an helped change that. Since it began its campaign in 2005, it helped more than 4,000 women find employment. It’s still a small fraction of the population, but for the few suddenly shown possibilities previously unimagined, the change was revelatory. “I would come home from work every evening,” one such worker, Wafa Tiara, said in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv. “I would shower, and then I’d sit down right away and start breastfeeding my baby. And as I was breastfeeding I was thinking about how it was that I left my home at four in the morning to go to work and came back with only 85 shekels. This pain of being exploited drove me mad, but I had no other choice.” Agbaria-Zahalka helped Tiara find work that paid double. Soon thereafter, Tiara, too, joined the party.

What was true for Tiara, Agbaria-Zahalka believed, was true for many other Israelis, of all religions and ethnicities and walks of life. “Whether they like it or not,” she said, “Jews and Arabs today are joined at the paycheck. They’re both victims of bad policy.” In recent years, Ma’an has organized art teachers, archeological-site diggers, and truck drivers and put out ad campaigns in Russian, Arabic, and Hebrew. With most Israeli-Arab politicians concerned primarily with their own constituents, and with most Israeli-Arab parties focused primarily on the question of the conflict, Agbaria-Zahalka realizes that her political approach is unorthodox.

“You can continue to fight over the country you say the Jews took from you in 1948,” she said, “or you can realize that the Jews themselves don’t have a country today. It was taken from them. It was taken by the government and given to tycoons, and we all need to fight to get it back.”

It’s a complex argument for Agbaria-Zahalka to make, and it’s rendered harder still by the presence of another high-profile Israeli-Arab female politician with diametrically opposed views, Haneen Zoabi. A combative member of Knesset from the nationalist Balad party, Zoabi is the bête noire of Israeli politics. In 2010, she was on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship that attempted to defy Israel’s siege on Gaza and was overtaken by Israeli commandos in what has become a highly publicized international incident. As a result, a coalition of her fellow Knesset members and right-wing activists attempted to have Zoabi barred from running in the upcoming election, an effort that failed only after the intervention of the Supreme Court. Exiting the courthouse, Zoabi was assaulted by thugs; she’s hardly treated any better when interviewed by the Israeli media.

Agbaria-Zahalka has much respect for Zoabi—“when Arab women enter politics,” she said, “each with her own vision, so different, objectively it shows that Arab women are breaking new ground, and that is blessed”—but could not disagree with her more. “We will not go together with the Muslim Brotherhood like she did on the Marmara,” she said. “I object to the siege on Gaza, I think it’s a travesty to starve an entire people. And I’m against the political persecution against Zoabi. But we’re fighting against the Brotherhood. I want to promote a real left that doesn’t see Islam as its salvation. I don’t want to go 1,400 years back in time. I want to go into the future.”


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julis123 says:

I went to hear her. Nothing new here. She refuses to condemn terrorism, doesn’t recognize Israel as a jewish state and is against Arabs doing national service.

Ayla Adler says:

Everything is new here. I’m so excited to vote for her in my first Israeli election.

“other ravages years of rampant neo-liberal economic measures had wrought”. Really? have we forgotten the basketcase that was the Israeli economy in the 80s and earlier? The constant devaluations, changes of currency (ahh, Israeli Lira, what cute coins!), massive inflation. Yes, please, by all means let make everyone equal…in poverty. What we need is not a socialist return to stagflation, but better programs (both public and private) to help those in need, to educate those who may not yet need with skills so that they can provide for themselves. No to Bibi on his failure to provide a positive, peaceful vision for our future, and no to the Left for their yearning of failed economic policies.

    mouskatel says:

    Since Liel was born during these fluctuations or was a small child then, not sure how he could remember them.

Habbgun says:

Ah paradise….when Jew and Arab come together to be phony little European pseudo-intellectuals.

PhillipNagle says:

Socialism has already failed in Israel, only a fool would try to bring it back.

    JehudahBenIsrael says:

    Communism has failed worldwide, only a fool would try it anywhere.

a bit ironic, this, in light of all the ex-soviet socialist/communist presumed jews guiding confused Israel in xhenphobic rightwing direction. fresh blood, all that.

Binyamin says:

Take a look at her video:

The platform is here:

I predict we will hear a lot more about her.

harvey stone says:

Funny to see some of the responses below. So many of us Israelis are terrified of change. That’s the national disease in fact. Because most Israelis can’t imagine a better future (especially as far as peace and “the conflict”) we react with extreme cynicism. But Asma is FACING the fears, unlike the 90% that, led by our fearful King Bibi, denies them…

    harvey stone says:

    And of course, the right responds to the fears by talking of more WALLS. But the fears won’t go away, until we address them, face the ones who we are afraid of. Asma Agbariah-Mahalka says in one of her talks, to a mostly Jewish Tel Aviv audience, “I invite you not to see me as your enemy”.

    Oslo was sold on “hope for the future”. It was a pipe dream.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

This is a break-away party of the Israel Communist Party (MaQI), and both Da’am and MaQI – thinly veiling itself behind the HaDaSH list to the Knesset – object to Israel’s RIGHT to be, to exist as the SOVEREIGN NATION-STATE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE.

In other words, singling out a people, the Jewish people and only the Jewish people, and, despite its historic, ethical and legal right to exercise the universally accepted right afforded all peoples of national self-determination and independence, refuse to view it this way and to accept the Jewish people’s right.

This is clearly a form of racism, anti-Jewish racism.

Sadly, some of us are blinded by “progressive” slogans to this fact and how others spit on our right as a people….!!

    Binyamin says:

    No one has a problem with a Jewish state, as long as its a democracy. The problem is the apartheid rule over the Palestinians in the “territories.” Why does the fact that Israel accords equal legal rights (so far) to its Arab minority justify denial of self-determination to the other four million Arabs who live under Israeli rule?

    And give us a break, the “Palestinian Authority” is NOT self-determination. Would you settle for a “Jewish Authority”?

      JehudahBenIsrael says:

      The entire Muslim-Arab – no, not Christian-Arab or Druse-Arab, mind you!! – world has a problem with the very existence of an independent nation-state of the Jewish people on ANY parcel of land of the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland. This has been the very essence of the Arab Israeli conflict that began, in its violent way, in 1920, some 28 years before Israel even came into being.

          JehudahBenIsrael says:

          Please, do point me in the direction where the “initiative” accepts Israel’s RIGHT to be, to exist as the SOVEREIGN NATION-STATE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, would you. And, if you can’t, why perpetuate this non-initiative for peace, but very much an initiative of yet another chapter of the think propaganda manual against Israel’s very existence…??!!

      Apartheid? Tiny Israel surrounded by 160 million Arabs with thousands of times its land area, yet ISRAEL is the bully? Nonsense, just as the “Palestinians” are nonsense – a convenient political construct that fools the weak minded. Yasser Arafat himself was Egyptian born and educated in Cairo, who served int he Egyptian Army. The perspective changes immensely when you view the entire Arab world as a whole vs. Israel.

        JehudahBenIsrael says:

        A “minor” correction: Israel is surrounded by 350 million Muslim-Arabs.

I don’t believe that Agbaria-Zahalka is the voice of Israel’s present, but she is the voice of Israel’s future. When the people of Israel get over their ethnic provincialisms, they will see what is holding back their lives. She grew up in Jaffe, and there are Jews in Jaffe, and they both share in poverty. In fact, Israel “boasts” one of the most desparate differences in income of the populations of Western nations, but so long as the politicians can create those fears that makes the people forget they have some other real problems, this is not the voice of Agbaria-Zahalka’s present.

    JehudahBenIsrael says:

    “Ethnic provincialism” to which the poster refers is called “nationalism” or “peoplehood”. It is the same phenomenon that we, Jews, have adhered to for some 4,000 years, and the one on the basis of which states came into being as nation-states, based on the concept of national self-determination and independence. Indeed, most states, worldwide, are nation-states and more are created with the split of larger ones.

    The State of Israel came into being based on international recognition of the Jewish people’s right, as all other peoples, to exercise its national self-determination and independence in its historic homeland; hence, this ethical right of all peoples was translated by the international community to legal right as expressed in the San Remo conference, 1920; the League of Nations decisions, 1922; and the UN Charter, Article 80, 1945.

    Singling out the Jewish people and denying it and only it this right is nothing short of a form of racism, anti-Jewish racism!!

      yakketiyak says:

      “The State of Israel came into being based on international…”… guilt at not having stopped the nazi madness. NOT because anybody thought that after 4000 years they had any claim to an ‘ancestral’ piece of land. For your info, this planet is OURS plural, and theres nothing written anywhere on the stones saying this is zion. ashkenazy jews who have been away for 4000 years have more claim on land and water and olive groves than the palestinian arabs? i dont think so..

        JehudahBenIsrael says:

        Perhaps the poster should delve into and read/study the meaning of the San Remo conference decisions, 1920; and, the League of Nations decisions of 1922; long before the Nazis came to power in Germany and certainly long before the Jewish Holocaust, 1938 to 1945.

        Specifically, both of the above elements of international law were based on the universally accepted ethical right of national self-determination and independence in a people’s ancestral homeland, which the international community has accepted regarding the Jewish people based on its historic/natural right.

        Then, the departure of the British mandatory power from Eretz Israel (Land of Israel), was advanced by the hard political and military activities of the Jewish community in the country, and the Zionist movement worldwide.

As an Israeli, I can tell you this “workers party” actually caters mostly to the far-left Tel Aviv hipster crowd – pretentious, arrogant, radical and detached people, very much like their American counterparts in Park Slope. I won’t call them “workers”, as sipping espresso or writing a blog isn’t much of a work.

    mouskatel says:

    Thanks. I have to laugh when my hi tech buddies are promoting her posts.

    Binyamin says:

    Ben-Gurion called himself the leader of the “Labor Party.” Wasn’t he an espresso-sipping dreamer as well? He studied law and never worked a day in his life in a factory or a field.

    What he had, was a vision. So does Asma.

      JehudahBenIsrael says:

      Sadly, there are certain institutions full of people with “visions”. Having a “vision” is not the only requirement for being viewed positively by the rest of society.

She should have little trouble finding traitorous, self-hating Jews on the left to join her cause.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

Asma, of course, is a Communist who, among other things, objects to Israel’s very being, very existence as the liberal democratic and sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people.

This singling out of the Jewish people, and only the Jewish people, and denying it, and only it, the otherwise universally accepted right of all peoples to national self-determination and independence is nothing short of a form of racism, anti-Jewish racism at that.

As a proud Jew, one couldn’t be sympathetic to her and her political movement.

    Wow, you may be a “proud Jew,” Jehudah, but you are one obnoxious nudnik too.

      JehudahBenIsrael says:

      Jehudah Ben-Israel is not the subject of this discourse; the Communist Asma and the political movement that she leads is. Any substantive contribution the poster can make to the discourse?


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What Makes Asma Run

How Asma Agbaria-Zahalka is turning a socialist party of Arabs and Jews into a political phenomenon in Israel

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