The new prominence of Ayman Odeh, the dynamic and popular Palestinian Israeli political leader, means that the apologists for Israel can no longer even pretend that there are no significant non-violent movements for justice there. Odeh is the 40-year-old head of the Joint List, the coalition of Arab parties which won 13 seats in last March’s elections, making it the third-largest political group in the Knesset. He is on a busy 2-week tour of the United States, and he made a point of visiting the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home congregation, where he was introduced from the pulpit to a standing ovation.
He stopped off at The Nation magazine offices in New York the other day, where he explained that Dr. King is his hero. “Maybe for you in America, Dr. King has become boring because you hear about him so much,” he said. “But for me he is the man who has most inspired me. During the campaign I used to speak about him all the time. In my first speech in the Knesset, I quoted him.”
Ayman Odeh spoke in a mixture of English and Hebrew, fluently interpreted by his (Jewish) press secretary, Reut Mor. “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s approach is to create hate,” he said. “But we don’t want Jews against Arabs, Arabs against Jews. We want another approach: Arabs and Jews against racism and segregation.” He emphasized that he and the Joint List do not see themselves as only representing Palestinian Israelis. “We have spoken out about all the marginalized groups,” he went on. “Ethiopian Jews, Holocaust survivors, the unemployed, single parents.”
Odeh, a lawyer from Haifa, is not some well-meaning but obscure idealist. He is one of the main political leaders of the 20 percent of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. He is friendly, humorous, and he knows how to work a room. He says he has found ignorance about Palestinian Israelis even among Americans who have a general understanding of Israel/Palestine. “People may not know much about us,” he said, “but there will be no peace without us.” He said Palestinian Israelis suffer “structural discrimination,” and he listed huge statistical disparities in housing, education and public services.
Despite Ayman Odeh’s mild, non-violent approach, the Israeli right attacked him and the Joint List viciously during (and after) the political campaign. In a celebrated exchange during a televised debate, Avigdor Liberman, the former Israeli foreign minister, said, “Why did you come to this (TV) studio and not to a studio in Gaza. . .? Why are you even here? You’re not wanted here.”
Odeh answered calmly, “I am very wanted in my homeland. I am part of the scenery, part of the region. I resemble it. I believe we need to change our attitude, to replace demagoguery with dialogue.”
He laughed when he explained that Liberman maintains the nastiness even when the cameras are off. Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, is more cunning. He invited Odeh to a meeting, but it was a trap, an effort to suggest that Netanyahu’s ugly comments about Arabs on election day had been forgotten. “They planned to have many cameras there,” Odeh said. “I’m a warm person, I smile a lot. They would wait with the camera for that moment, and then they would have a picture of me smiling with Netanyahu.” He declined. He has met several times with the prime minister, but with no media present.
Odeh does warn that “Netanyahu is the main problem.” He says the prime minister is unquestionably a “racist,” but that his remarks are also politically calculated. “By demonizing the entire Arab population, he tries to delegitimize us,” he explained. “We are 20 percent of the population. We just need another 30 percent to start to move the country in a different direction.”
Odeh is aware that people consider some of his views too utopian. “But if you asked the African-American community here 20 years ago if they thought there would be an African-American president, I think they would have said, ‘No way.'”
There was a pleasant surprise in the New York Times yesterday: a brief article by the excellent Rick Gladstone about Odeh’s visit to the United States. Odeh has been big news in Israel for most of this year; this site’s Allison Deger did an interview with him back in March. The Times does have correspondents in Israel/Palestine, but they seem to have had trouble locating him. Too bad Ayman Odeh had to travel to New York to get his his non-violent, conciliatory message heard in the newspaper of record.