Provocative Parliamentarian (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Haneen Zoubi, the new Arab woman Member of Knesset, is bracing herself for confrontation Her gentle voice and demure demeanor belie a sharp tongue and blistering political attitude. A petite, dark-haired woman of 39, newly elected Member of Knesset Zoubi refers to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Kadima's Tzipi Livni and Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Leiberman as "all a bunch of fascists." She calls the Knesset "a citadel of inequality." And she is not sure whether Zionist feminists can ever understand Palestinian feminists like herself. Meet the only Arab woman MK in the current Knesset and the first woman ever to represent a non-Zionist party in Israel's parliament. Zoubi was elected as the No.3 candidate on the slate of Balad, an Arab nationalist party, with a platform calling for the transformation of Israel from a Jewish state into "a democracy for all its citizens," irrespective of national or ethnic identity, which would mean eliminating, for example, the Law of Return and other such institutions that accord preference to Jews. Balad, founded in 1995, won three seats in this year's election, as it did in 2006, and is one of three Arab parties in the Knesset. Other Israeli Arab women - Labor's Nadia Hilou, who served from 2006 to 2009 and Meretz's Hussniya Jabara, who was an MK from 1999 to 2003 - have sat in previous Knessets but, unlike Zoubi, they represented Zionist parties. Deep ambivalence - some might say that it borders on outright hostility toward the Jewish state - has consistently characterized the rhetoric of Balad, which is a Hebrew acronym for Brit Leumit Democratit (National Democratic Assembly). Political opponents have made repeated attempts to have the party disqualified from running for elections, on the grounds, among other reasons, that it did not recognize the State of Israel and called for armed conflict against it; however, Israel's attorneys general or Supreme Court have rejected each of these initiatives. The party's founder was Dr. Azmi Bishara, an Arab intellectual who, according to media reports, is suspected of assisting the Hizballah during the Second Lebanon War in exchange for large sums of money. Bishara has denied the charges, but resigned from the Knesset in April 2007, thus losing his parliamentary immunity, and has chosen to live abroad, citing fear of the threat of a possible long-term jail sentence. Zoubi, who has been a friend and supporter of Bishara since Balad's early days, says he is living in Amman, but she would not reveal any more about his life or plans. And she waves off the attempts to disqualify Balad as "politicized attempts by Israel's right-wing to silence Arab voters." Zoubi is bracing herself for what she sees as "the inevitable confrontations" she'll have in the Knesset, in which Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party will play a pivotal role. His controversial proposal to make loyalty a condition for citizenship is aimed at Israeli Arabs, in general and at parties like Balad, in particular. She tells The Report that she regards Netanyahu and Livni as being "in the same boat" as Lieberman. "As far as I am concerned, they are all a bunch of fascists pure and simple," she says during an interview in Jerusalem, where she was attending a special Knesset orientation day for incoming MKs. The fact that Livni, whom Zoubi does not know personally, "even talks to Lieberman makes her a racist in my eyes. Racism is a contagious disease." Zoubi does not plan on extending collegial greetings to Lieberman if she encounters him in the Knesset. Nor to Netanyahu, who is almost certain to be prime minister. "He [Netanyahu] is much more dangerous. He shares Lieberman's fascist views but takes care to sugarcoat his message for the international media. My anger is real, not a joke for the TV cameras. I will not shake the hands of these men." She continues, bristling, that it is Lieberman who should take an oath of loyalty. "He is an immigrant from Moldova. I was born here, as were my ancestors. He's the outsider, not me." Born and raised in predominantly Arab Nazareth, the northern city which serves as the unofficial capital for Israel's Arab citizens, Zoubi, a Muslim, grew up amid a large, well-known family. Some members of her extended family have been part of Israel's establishment, including cousin Abd-El-Aziz E-Zoubi, a one-time mayor of Nazareth who, as a representative of the Labor Party, was the Knesset's first minority minister (deputy minister of Health from 1971-1974 ), and Nazareth District Court judge Abd El- Rahman Zuabi, who served as a temporary Chief Justice for nine months, but was not appointed permanently to the bench. One of four children, her father is a retired lawyer and shari'a [Islamic religious] court judge and her mother is a local high school math teacher. Zoubi has an undergraduate degree in psychology and philosophy from Haifa University and a Master's degree in communications from the Hebrew University. She says she grew up in a home where academic achievement was extolled and points out that her brother is an economist with a degree from Tel Aviv University and one sister is an Arabic language instructor. "We always grew up surrounded by books," she says. She herself taught high school briefly. An outspoken feminist and occasional columnist for the Arab media, Zoubi says that she decided to go into politics because of her family's commitment to public service as well "as a desire to effect even small positive change for my people." She joined Balad in 2001, although she says she was active in the Arab nationalist party even earlier. In 2003, she founded and became the general director of I'lam - Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, a fraternal organization for Arab journalists that also publishes regular critiques of what its supporters view as anti-Arab bias in the Hebrew press. With the support of her influential Muslim family, she ran in the 2006 elections on the Balad slate but her position was so low on the list that she did not make it into the Knesset. This prompted Balad's officials to decide to set aside a seat on the next slate for a woman. Zoubi resigned from I'lam three months ago to spend her energies on her political career and was elected in February. Seated in the pristine lobby of a hotel near the Knesset, Zoubi is the picture of chic Western modernity. Her hair is breezily styled in a layered look; she wears an elegantly cut brown pant suit, fitted violet top, topped off by a demure string of white pearls and silver earrings. She seems wary and even slightly annoyed when asked about her plans to further Arab women's status. Arab women parliamentarians should not automatically be assumed to represent only women's issues, she says. "Israel's racist policies affect me if I am a Palestinian man or woman. Israel robs my people of their land and cultural identity, and bombs my brethren in Gaza, regardless of my gender. By definition someone who fights for the rights of Palestinians is also a feminist, and vice versa, because both are liberation movements. There is no such thing as a right-wing feminist," she asserts. Nevertheless, Zoubi concedes that she will fight for the rights of Arab women and will do so within the framework of the Knesset's Committee on the Status of Women. But she adds that she isn't sure whether "Zionist feminists can truly understand Palestinian feminists. We have very different agendas. For example, they are fighting to have women fighting in the military in special elite units. That's light years away from Arab women's concerns who don't even go to the army." She maintains that "the struggle to establish a democratic regime in Israel, will automatically improve" the plight of Palestinian women. She acknowledges that Arab society imposes certain restrictions on women, which limits their authority. Pressed to explain how she plans on helping women, she says that she hopes to tackle the high unemployment rate among Arab women in Israel - approximately 80 percent - with an eye toward improving their financial independence. But then she quickly returns to her original point. "In Israel, Arabs - men and women - are virtually excluded from government positions. They don't go to the army so entire areas of post-military jobs, such as the field of high-tech, are closed to them. There are numerous examples." Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.