MK Hilu: an outsider in an insider's party

'I am in the coalition, but have my own thoughts and opinions that I'm responsible for expressing'.

hilu and priests 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hilu and priests 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are times, says Labor MK Nadia Hilu, when she feels trapped between her conflicting identities, loyalties and positions. "Everything seems to intersect and I am alone. I am one of only two Arabs in a Zionist party. I am one of only 17 women in the Knesset. I opposed the war when the leaders of my party were running it. And during the war, I talked about a social agenda when my party talked about victories. "This point of intersection isn't stable. Sometimes it just seems to explode with sadness and a sense that I can't stop the killing or the discrimination," she continues, But in apparent contrast to her words, her voice is strikingly strong and determined. "Then I pull myself together and remind myself that I can have an impact. That I have helped to make real changes to better the lives of the people who voted for me, men and women, Arabs and Jews." The daughter of a prominent Christian Arab family from Jaffa, Hilu, 53, holds a graduate degree in social work from the Tel Aviv University. After a long career working with youth in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, she moved on to Na'amat, the women's auxiliary of the Histradrut. It was in Na'amat that she connected with Amir Peretz, who has been her political mentor. The mother of four daughters, including a set of twins, Hilu lives in a spacious apartment in Jaffa, close to Bat Yam, filled with silk flowers and Christian icons, with a stunning fourth-story view to the open Mediterranean Sea. She tried to run for Knesset in earlier elections, but never placed high enough on the Labor list to make it in. This time, she ran on the national ticket and placed 15th. "Running on the national ticket was important," she says, noting that her slogan was "One for all." The slogan was a strategically smart statement of political intent and political positioning, helping her to avoid being labeled as either the token Arab or the token woman and broadening her base of electoral support. The poster from the primaries campaign is still pasted to the front door of her apartment. "My daughters told me to leave it up because it's a great picture, so I did. But it's also a reminder to me that I'm an elected official. I have responsibilities." Hilu is an outspoken rookie. One of the few MKs who decided not to even jockey for the ostensibly more prestigious committees, she serves on the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women; the Special Committee for Foreign Workers; the Ombudsman's Committee; the Committee for the Rights of the Child; and the Employment, Social Welfare and Heath Committee. She is a member of the Social-Environmental Lobby and the Lobby to Close Social Gaps, among others. FROM THE BEGINNING, she has been willing to clash with her mentor and purported comrade-in-social-arms, Amir Peretz. "I would have preferred to have seen Amir serving as a social general, not a war general," she says, referring to Peretz, as always, by his first name. "And even if he is Defense Minister, I still expect him to stay loyal to social values and peace positions - as he did when he pushed for the cease fire. "I'm not against Amir personally in any way. But sometimes we disagree, and I will say what I have to say, even if it's against Amir, or [Education Minister] Yuli [Tamir], or anyone else, within the party or outside the party." She was a vocal critic of the war. Referring to the cabinet decision to expand the scope of the fighting, she said, "I do not believe that a majority would have supported Amir [on the cabinet decision] if there had been a secret ballot. He did not have the support of a majority of the party, either. This will become clear as time goes on." She supports the cease-fire and the introduction of international forces. "There are greater experts than I on military issues," she explains. "I won't be irresponsible and make all sorts of pronouncements about what should be. But I know that when people are dying, on both sides, it is always preferable to at least try to take full advantage of possible diplomatic processes before deciding to continue the fighting. "And maybe, just maybe, this could be an opportunity for a comprehensive solution to the region, including even Syria." She adds, "I don't think that's naive or overly optimistic." Throughout, she maintained her social agenda. At the height of the fighting, Hilu demanded that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appoint a Social Affairs Minister. "We cannot separate the fighting from its toll on the civilian population. As the fighting continued, the civilian population's needs become more acute, especially among the Arab population. Now we can't abandon them," she told the Jerusalem Post at the time. "We have plenty of ministers who are responsible for war, but we have no minister responsible for the home front and for the results of the war." Through the auspices of Social Workers for Peace and Justice, an NGO of which she is a prominent member, Hilu had conducted a survey of the immediate needs of the elderly, children and individuals with special needs or disabilities in the most neglected Arab localities. "The Katyushas treated us, Arabs and Jews, equally, but the state does not," she says angrily. "In the Arab localities, there were hardly any shelters, security rooms, or formal support systems. Yes, the Education Minister increased the psychological support services, but that's not enough. "This government went to war without even considering the needs of its citizens. It was terrible for everyone, but even worse for the Arab citizens. "And the State of Israel doesn't even have a Social Affairs Minister to whom they can turn," she repeats. NOW THAT THE fighting is over, she is gearing up for another set of battles over the 2007 budget. "I'm not going to allow myself to get carried away and I will stand up for what I believe. The treasury and the cabinet should not assume that they'll talk about the war and the need for cutbacks and that the public will simply nod its head and approve. The war battered many people and there has to be more attention, not less, to social issues in 2007. "Of course we will have to add to the defense budget. But we will also have to find a balance between all the needs and that will require serious reassessments. I will study the budget carefully and I will not just yell and scream. I will make concrete suggestions and proposals. When I made my decisions about the 2006 budget, I consulted with the best experts I could find and I'll do the same for 2007." She had threatened to abstain on the vote for the 2006 budget but in the end, after being called in by the party for a disciplinary pep talk, she voted in favor. "I supported the budget in the first reading, but only after the finance minister promised me that I would be part of the committees that make the decisions, and I have real influence on those committees. And I only voted in favor on the second and third readings because additional monies were allocated to the National Insurance Institute for Arab localities. "It wasn't easy. I am torn between the demands of the coalition and my own position, and between wanting to be in a place where I am not only right, but where I can have some influence and effect." The Knesset, she notes, hasn't even begun to discuss the 2007 budget. "I don't know how we'll ever be able to pass the budget in time, since we haven't begun to study it," she says, "but I do expect that it won't be easy." Will she break ranks again, publicly protesting and demonstrating? "If it comes to that, I will. But I'll choose the stages on which I should appear and it will always depend on whether the overall message is effective or useful. I am a member of the coalition, but I have my own thoughts and opinions, and it is my responsibility as an elected official, to express them." She continues, "Politically, all I have are my credibility and accountability. If I lose them, the public will reject me, and they'd be right. I was elected on a social agenda, and I'll keep to that social agenda. "Maybe it's because I'm a woman, I don't know. But I do know that when making decisions, cold rationality shouldn't be the only consideration. Feelings and emotions should come in, too. If there were more feelings in public debate, maybe we would be in a better position." Hilu is also calling for the establishment of a Statutory Authority for Equality and Integration. "The war proved that the security of the State of Israel depends on the strength of its civilian population as much as on the strength of its army," she declares. "The civilian population cannot be strong when there is discrimination and poverty." Saying she has the go-ahead from coalition heads and from her own party, Hilu has been meeting with Knesset legal advisors to prepare the necessary legislation, which she intends to have ready for a first reading when the Knesset reconvenes in the fall. She says that she believes that the state is at a crucial crossroads. "If the Jewish majority embraces the Arab minority now, after this war, then we will be able to move forward." DESPITE HER opposition to the war, social agenda and outspoken criticism of discrimination against Arabs, and especially Arab women, Hilu is often at cross-purposes with the other Arab MK's in the Knesset. She speaks about this carefully. Referring to the numerous times that Arab MK's have been expelled from the plenary, she says, "Their behavior is unacceptable. I certainly feel the pain of the Arab population at least as much as they do, but I cannot condone their behavior." Does she understand their behavior? Is it a deliberate strategy on the other Arab MKs' part? Deftly, she responds, "I can barely understand where I come from in this confusing situation. I cannot explain anyone else." Then she adds, "I understand their frustration. I'm not in the consensus within my own faction, either. But I also know the limits of democracy and of my position. I do what I can for my constituency - the people who expect us to promote a social agenda and not just yell and scream about our opposition to the war or the needs of the Palestinians." Although few are willing to criticize her publicly, knowing that she is the only female Arab MK, other Arab MKs and Palestinian activists, hiding behind closed doors or anonymity, criticize Hilu as an Uncle Tom for the Zionist parties. "I'm not afraid to criticize my own party," she retorts. "My party has discriminated against Arabs, just as every other party has discriminated against us. "The Labor party is a party that can rule, and having the power to rule is what counts. Sometimes it's easier to be on the outside, where all you have to do is criticize. Sometimes, it's harder to change things from within. But the bottom line is that you can make greater changes and have more influence if you are part of a ruling party. "Because I am part of the Labor party, I am often invited to panels and conferences where I am the only Arab. And when I get up and present the Arab side, or the Arab interests - I know that that is my mission. Unlike some of the politicians, I really do want to do things and make changes. And so I judge the benefits and drawbacks of all of my positions." She has also been criticized for not taking strong enough position on Palestinian issues. "That's just not true," she says. "I've been a peace activist for many years. But unlike some of my colleagues, I don't think that the situation in Lebanon and the situation in the occupied territories are the same. The occupation is one thing and Hizbullah is another, even if they influence each other." As the only Arab woman MK, and one of only two Arabs in the Labor Party, Hilu made a point of attending the funeral of every Arab citizen killed by the Hizbullah rockets. "In Arab society, the men and the women mourn separately. The men can't go into the women's space. I am the only Arab MK who can mourn with the women, with the mothers." The cameras zoomed when she cried at the funeral of Fadiya Juma'a, 60, and her daughters Sultana, 31, and Samira, 33, from Arab al Aramsha, killed when rockets slammed into their home. "What else can you do when a mother buries her daughter and two granddaughters? And they couldn't even have a proper burial, because the Katyushas were falling and the security guards were shouting a people to take cover. These people don't even have shelters or secure rooms. Some of them don't have electricity or water. The mourning, the suffering, the fear, the poverty, the discrimination - and all of it as the war continued on, so close, and the Katyushas kept falling. I had come to try to ease their pain and could do nothing." Her eyes tear, but she maintains her near-perfect composure. "I'm not ashamed that I cried. Maybe if our leaders would allow themselves to cry a bit more, the situation wouldn't be as awful as it is." At some funerals, she was verbally, and one even physically, attacked by angry constituents. "I don't take it personally," she says slowly. "The Arab public felt abandoned and used. They thought that this government would put more attention on social issues, and then they found themselves in a without even the minimum resources that they needed." Did they also attack her because of wide-spread support for Nasrallah among the Arab population? "Yes, maybe they do. Maybe even a majority does. But why is this the only thing that the press reports? Why not report on the full range of feelings and emotions? The Arab public was torn - they paid a high price and they have relatives in Lebanon who were paying an even higher price. I know, I understand - I have relatives in Beirut. "I went to the women's tents and the women didn't talk about Nasrallah. They talked about pain and loss. The press showed the man in Nazareth who supported Nasrallah. I talked to the mother, who told me that if she had heard the sirens, she would have called the children in from the street, she would have tried to protect them. But there weren't any sirens in Nazareth at the beginning of the war, and no system of civil defense. "I will not judge people in their moments of fear or anger or loss and the public will judge me." The Arab public may judge her harshly. "Yes, that's true. I am part of government. They seem to think I have power that I really don't because I am a representative of the ruling party. "I am a representative of the ruling party, but I know my limits, too."