ISRAEL: Arab Woman Leads Israeli Daam Party

Thursday, January 17, 2013
GF Gate
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

An Arab woman who's been toiling on the fringes of Israeli politics for nearly two decades has broken out of obscurity in this year's election with a nonconformist message that's resonating with protest voters.

The message of the Daam Party is as unconventional as its leader, Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka.

She preaches for the nationalization of key industries - a rare idea in this capitalist land. She calls for coexistence with Israel's Jewish majority as fervently as she demands Palestinian statehood. She's a Palestinian woman who heads a Jewish-dominated party even though she hails from a conservative Muslim family.

Although she's a long shot for a seat in parliament, the 39-year-old Aghbaria-Zahalka has capitalized on exposure she gained during last year's massive social protests across Israel. She has gone from talking to near-empty rooms to drawing standing-room-only crowds at parlor meetings and bars, where she urges listeners to cast their ballots for her party in Tuesday's election.

Seeking an alternative

"People are searching today for an alternative," Aghbaria-Zahalka told a packed, hip bar on a recent evening in Jerusalem.

Observers often contrast her with parliament's sole female Arab legislator, Hanin Zoabi, whose passionate defense of the Palestinian cause has made her widely despised among Israeli Jews. Her decision to join a 2010 pro-Palestinian flotilla toward Gaza in which activists clashed with Israeli soldiers further enraged Israelis. Zoabi recently told an Israeli newspaper that she had no Jewish friends.

Aghbaria-Zahalka, on the other hand, said she seeks consensus, not confrontation, with Israel's Jews.

For years, the Jewish-Arab socialist party was unknown to all but a few Israeli academics, artists, unemployed women and workers represented by the party's labor union. The party was even little known to Israel's Arab citizens who tend to vote for three other parties in equal numbers.

In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, lamenting the high cost of living, poured into the streets in protest, and social issues rose on Israel's political agenda.

Aghbaria-Zahalka's party loyalists sensed the mood had shifted in their direction.

They pitched protest tents and preached their manifesto, and Aghbaria-Zahalka's speeches started circulating on social networks, giving them unprecedented exposure.

Sweeping critiques

Speaking in rapid-fire Hebrew, she drew applause for alternately criticizing patriarchal societies, the Palestinian militant Islamic group Hamas and racism in Jewish-Israeli society.

Aghbaria-Zahalka is one of six children from a conservative working-class Muslim family in Jaffa, an area of Tel Aviv. Though her family was not devout, she donned the headscarf of devout Muslim women at 14 - only to take it off after philosophy studies destroyed her belief in religion providing answers.

She channeled her former religious fervor into political activism after answering an ad for an Arabic-Hebrew translator for a communist publication. Her parents, afraid that Israeli authorities would peg their activist daughter a troublemaker, once banned her from leaving the house for two months, she said. Eventually, she rebelled and joined the party when it was established in 1996.

Israel's Arab minority makes up one-fifth of the country's 8 million people.