The professor who found himself in the Knesset

Zionist Union MK Yossi Yonah discusses his entry into politics, harrowing war experiences, strategies for the opposition and approach to the peace process.

Zionist Union MK Yossi Yona and PA President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in the Mukata in Ramallah. (photo credit: COURTESY OF PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY PRESIDENCY OFFICE)
Zionist Union MK Yossi Yona and PA President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in the Mukata in Ramallah.
‘I don’t know why I went into politics,” admits Zionist Union MK Yossi Yonah. “My dad, who is 96 years old now, was unhappy with my decision. He told me, ‘You are a respected person. What is in it for you?’” Yonah is a rarity among Knesset members. Sitting in his office in the Knesset beneath a large photo of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, he sounds more like a liberal arts professor than a politician. He calls himself “an involved intellectual.”
Yonah was born in 1953 in an immigrant transit camp of Iraqi Jews in the northern town of Kiryat Ata.
He was sent to a vocational high school to study machinery, and after his military service, which included fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, pursued a BA in philosophy, history and art history at the University of Haifa. From there he enrolled in a PhD-track program in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.
He has taught philosophy, social work and education courses at Ben-Gurion and Hebrew universities, published many academic books and authored one novel.
He was also part of several peace initiatives, including the Geneva agreement, and is one of the founders of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition.
Yonah decided to join the Labor Party after the 2011 social protests. He ran for office in 2013, but wasn’t elected to the Knesset. He ran again, successfully, in 2015, and became one of a small number of Jewish MKs that speaks, reads and writes fluently in Arabic.
Yonah sat recently down with The Jerusalem Post Magazine to discuss the changes in the Labor Party, plans for the new year and the role of intellectuals in today’s politics.
Aren’t you too naive for politics?
“Not at all. It’s true that this is not my style, and perhaps the current environment isn’t ideal for my kind of leadership. I was educated on standards of decency.
I won’t degrade myself to unnecessary provocations.
But I believe that when you do good work, when you are consistent, the public remembers and the contribution is valued. Perhaps I won’t become head of state, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for humble politicians.”
Speaking of provocations, why does it seem like the opposition is so quiet?
“That’s not true. I participated in demonstrations in Modi’in, Jerusalem and Petah Tikva. I uphold [Labor Party leader] Avi Gabbay’s position: I’m against the corruption, not against the legal system. And the opposition is fighting.”
Are you content with the opposition’s activity?
“No, of course not. I will be content when our chances of replacing the government will become real. The Right bloc is still leading in the polls. Until we change the public’s opinion, we cannot be satisfied. In practice, as long as our worldview isn’t embraced by the public, we are a failure.”
Does that mean that Isaac Herzog failed as the head of the Zionist Union?
“Yes, undoubtedly. Assuming he had good intentions, he nonetheless failed. The public didn’t see him or the party as an alternative to the government. For over a year, he tried to join Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s coalition. This is another way to say, ‘We are not offering anything different.’ Even if his intentions were good, even if there was a political [peace] initiative, it was a failure.”
In your bio on the Knesset website it says that you were brought up in a family of workers. Is the Labor Party a workers’ party?
“The answer is clear and is reflected in the voting demographics. Our voters come from middle class and bourgeois families. We have the right ideology, and our challenge is to cater it to the working class, to create bridges and engage more people.”
You are an ideological leftist and a socialist.
Why did you support Avi Gabbay?
“We met several times. He asked for my support. I laid out my socioeconomic plan and he replied that he doesn’t have a holistic ideology. Instead, we went over his operative strategic plan with me, and many things that he wants to do coincide with my beliefs. For instance, reducing the cost of living.
“It’s true that we aren’t on the same page regarding everything. But he, too, is against corruption and concentration of power in the market. We are on the same page regarding the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And also, it’s okay that there’s friction between us. We don’t live in North Korea. It’s okay to disagree.”
Gabbay is flirting with the idea of bringing former prime minister Ehud Barak on board.
You worked with Barak. How would you advise Gabbay?
“I think he should not be our first choice for the military-man position. I think Barak killed the Zionist Left. He is problematic when it comes to responsibility.
He comes and goes. He founded a party, then left it.
Back in the ’90s, he used me to draft the education policy since I have a good reputation, although he never meant to use it and secretly commissioned another committee for the same task.”
You occasionally meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Why talk with a leader with such low approval rates?
“He is the person manning this seat for the time being.
Also, what can I do? Help behead him? We, too, have a corrupt leadership, one I hope to replace. I don’t want them to meddle in our affairs. I won’t behave like the Americans who push things around in foreign countries and stage coups. This is for the Palestinians to figure out. I do support fostering relationships with other representatives of the Palestinian people. At the same time, it must be noted that the Palestinian Authority under Abu Mazen [Abbas] frustrates most possible terrorist attacks against Israelis.”
What is on your agenda for the upcoming year?
“We are working on various legislation. One of them, which we are working on with [Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked, will make it easier for architects to integrate into the job market. Another piece of legislation that I have my eyes on is preventing commercial banks from providing financial literacy in schools, something Education Minister [Naftali] Bennett is trying to push forward.”
AT THE age of 15, Yonah knew his inclination was toward the humanities.
“From the moment I was able to read, I turned into a newspaper freak. During lunch breaks in school I ran to the convenience store to fetch the newspaper. Also, since I was short and skinny, it was clear to me that I was not going to excel in sports. This is a roundabout way to say I was a dork.
“I love Bible, history, literature. I inherited this love for stories from my mom, who is a fantastic storyteller.
To this very day, I can ask her a question, and instead of answering straightforwardly, she will reply with two lines from an Arabic poem and ask, ‘Got it?’ “In winter, my uncles would come over and recite lengthy tales from Arab folklore. Every story could take three or four sittings.”
After graduating from high school, Yonah enlisted in the Tank Corps.
“A year into my service, I had medical issues that forced me to leave the division. When the Yom Kippur War began, we started hearing rumors about tank soldiers who died in scores. There was a feeling in the air that the state was falling apart. I was sent to call reserve soldiers to go to the front in my town. I knocked on doors of people I knew. One of my parents’ neighbors told me, ‘I got married a year ago. I have a month-old child. Just say you haven’t seen me. I don’t want to go to war.’ I asked myself, ‘What are you doing here?’ and went to fight.
“The entire army was a mess. I found a team, a tank, and we were sent to the southern front.
“One of my most terrifying memories is when fellow Israeli soldiers applauded our caravan on our way to the front line. Civilians is one thing, but soldiers clapping their hands at us – that was weird. That was when I understood that we were marching toward our death.
“Crossing the Suez Canal was probably the scariest moment of my life. The Egyptian army found out we had made a bridge, and a rain of bombs started falling on us as we were trying to cross it. It’s not like the other side meant safety. When we reached it, there were 13 corpses everywhere, black boots sprouting from piles of bodies.
“I returned different from the war. Aside from losing part of my hearing and becoming claustrophobic, I wasn’t injured. The war forced me to rethink many things. I had some anger against the generals. There were many stupid things about the Sinai campaign, and thousands of Tank Corps soldiers lost their lives thanks to bad decision-making.
“After the war was also when I became more inclined toward political solutions rather than fire and steel. I understood that the only way for a sustainable life alongside the Palestinians is an agreement; that as long as we use solutions of force, the backlash will be bloody.
“Some people don’t like calling the current situation ‘occupation.’ There is some merit to the Right’s claim that Jews have a right to this land, and therefore it’s not occupied. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Palestinian people are occupied people under Israel’s military. It’s also important to underline that 1948 and 1967 aren’t alike. We have a right to our own country.
That doesn’t mean we should also govern other people.”
Do you think that the word “Zionist” still has meaning today?
“Yes, of course. To say that I’m a Zionist is like someone else saying they are French or American. It’s also important to remind ourselves, and the world, in face of the delegitimization attempts, that Israel has a right to be here.
“I believe it’s important to be acknowledged by the other. I think that Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel is a legitimate demand. I also think that he is just using this as a trick to avoid any serious negotiations, and that this demand should be answered in a final stage of negotiation. It shouldn’t be presented as a precondition. Some Palestinians tell me things like, ‘I don’t have a problem with Jews. I take issue with Zionism.’ I don’t make this distinction.”
YONAH dedicates his weekends to penning a novel about his family’s history of immigration that begins in mid-19th century Iraq and concludes in contemporary Israel. The tentative name for the novel translates roughly to “very good figs,” which is taken from the Book of Jeremiah.
“Jeremiah encourages the Jews exiled to Babylon to stay put. King Jehoiachin was exiled there with his entire community and they enjoyed prosperity, so the prophet tells them that there are two kinds of exile – one is like bad figs, the other like good figs,” says Yonah.
“From day one, the exile of Iraqi Jews wasn’t one of refugees. They immigrated there as a community and maintained the social structure. Perhaps that’s why Iraqi Jews are so strong a community to this very day.
“My first novel is called Not a Good Time for Love. I wanted to write an apolitical novel that takes place in a political reality. At the time, I was highly involved in negotiation initiatives with Palestinians and became jaded by the endless meetings that brought little results.
I felt that what we really need is something more basic: to change the demonization of the other. My motivation was to write a story about us and them that isn’t around the conflict, but revolves around banal, everyday life.”
The novel is about a couple from Tel Aviv and a couple from a village near Ramallah.
The Israeli couple are academics who deliberated pursing a PhD in the US. The Palestinian man is a high-school teacher who is a failing poet, and his wife works in a women’s rights organization.
Yonah himself is single and lives in Tel Aviv.
“In order to write it, I spent much time in the villages around Ramallah. I hung out, listened to poems and songs, and tried to understand the cultural reality there. When it came out, people didn’t want to hear about the thin everyday-life lines connecting Israelis and Palestinians.
I hope this is something we can still change.”