Invisible Man

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Hanna Swaid (right) with constituents

I had a late dinner in Jerusalem last week with an old friend, Hanna Swaid, who is a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset. He is one of four representatives of the Hadash/Jabha Party, “The Front for Democracy and Peace” which was originally established as a left coalition of the Communist Party and allied organizations with a non-Zionist orientation. Eventually it evolved into one of the primary electoral vehicles for Israel’s Palestinian minority. Today Hadash/Jabha is also the usual electoral choice of those anti- or post-Zionist Israeli Jews who choose to vote. Three of its elected Knesset members are Palestinians, one Jewish.

(There are two other electoral parties representing different streams of opinion within the Israeli-Palestinian community: Balad, which is Arab nationalist in orientation and campaigns primarily for the evolution of Israel into a non-denominational “state of all its citizens” with three seats; and the Islamic Movement, based mainly in Umm el-Fahem , with four seats.)

Our dinner was late because Hanna was tied up with a budget debate in the Knesset that lasted well into the evening. He told me that the usual format was for representatives of the various parties to comment and question the budget presented by the government and then for the finance minister to respond. One-by-one all the opposition parties – Left, Center, and Jewish Religious — voiced their objections to this or that section of the proposed budget or submitted questions to the government.

The Palestinian representatives had ample cause to protest the usual financial measures which privileged Jewish citizens over Christian or Muslim Palestinians. For example, the budgets typically allocate extra resources for towns with a high proportion of army veterans, for “development towns”, for “front-line” communities near the borders and so on. All of these budget policies are intended to discriminate against Palestinian citizens and favor Jewish ones without actually saying so explicitly. The result is that spending per capita for Palestinian schools and social services is always considerably lower. A recently proposed Knesset bill would provide further financial benefits to “army veterans” – which in Israel means, effectively, Jews.

At the end of the question and comment period in the Knesset, Hanna told me that “centrist” Finance Minister Yair Lapid responded to each party in turn, as usual. But he ended his comments without addressing or even acknowledging any of the proposals from the “Arab” party representatives, who total about 10% of the Knesset.

–“It was as though we were transparent,” Hanna said.
–“You mean invisible?” I asked
–“Yes, transparent, invisible. I mean he looked right through us without seeing”

* * * *
Hanna Swaid is from the town of Eilaboun, in the Galilee northeast of Nazareth. In November 1948 the Haganah perpetrated a massacre there and then drove the survivors at gunpoint over the border into Lebanon. However, the people of Eilaboun were more fortunate than most other Palestinians who were cleansed from their villages, because they were all Roman Catholics and could appeal to the Pope to intercede with the Israeli authorities. According to Hanna, Ben-Gurion felt obliged to placate the Vatican and so allowed the people of Eilaboun back to their homes a few months later. Very few other Palestinian refugees in 1948 had the same option.

Hanna was born in Israel in 1955 and became considerably accomplished through education and hard work. He speaks and writes flawless Hebrew and Arabic; his English is fluent. He graduated and then got his doctorate in civil engineering and urban planning from the prestigious Technion University. He served as mayor of Eilaboun before being elected to the Knesset in 2006.

His children are also unusually high achievers. Hanna’s son completed medical school in Haifa – where entry is virtually barred to Palestinian students, through a combination of ethno-centric “psychometric testing” and screening interviews; aspiring Palestinian medical students generally have to seek medical training abroad. One of Hanna’s daughters is studying law in Haifa and the youngest majoring in Social Work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In other words, Hanna Swaid and his family have reached the pinnacle of achievement open to talented Palestinians in Israel.

But still, in the Knesset he is invisible.

* * * *
Hanna speaks passionately and with great dignity about the need for Palestinian citizens in Israel to carve out a space for themselves in Israeli society. He argues that Palestinians can keep their national and cultural identity while struggling for equality within a reformed civil and political structure in Israel. Meanwhile, he fights doggedly to oppose discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of the Jewish State, while representing his constituents in the time-honored way of elected officials. It is a frustrating and mostly ineffective battle.

* * * *
Can Israel evolve into a democratic state of all its citizens as Palestinian reformers hope?

In 1948 Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and these rights were supposed to be written into a constitution that was to be adopted within a matter of months. Now, 65 years later, there is still no Israeli constitution and no bill of rights guaranteed to all citizens.

By chance, the same day of our dinner I happened to come across a posting by As’ad AbuKhalil in his “Angry Arab” blog, citing a quotation from the late US-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, the racist patron saint of Israel’s far Right. Kahane expresses a truth that “mainstream” Israeli politicians generally avoid:

“…let me explain why everybody is mad at me. It’s because I have confronted people with the following contradiction: you can’t have Zionism and democracy at the same time. And for those who criticize me, it’s very difficult to get out of this contradiction.

“Now let me answer your question. First of all, Western democracy has to be ruled out. For me that’s cut and dried: there’s no question of setting up democracy in Israel, because democracy means equal rights for all, irrespective of racial or religious origins. Therefore democracy and Zionism cannot go together. And Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed this state to be a Jewish state, is a totally schizophrenic document. You just can’t, on the one hand, want a Jewish state and at the same time give non-Jews the right to become a majority. When Abba Eban makes beautiful speeches in twelve languages and starts talking about Jewish democracy-what on earth does that mean, Jewish democracy?”

Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and long-time peace and solidarity activist who travels regularly to the Middle East. He is visiting Lebanon and Palestine this month to do research for writing and speaking. A version appeared on Jeff’s blog “At a slight angle to the universe”

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Hypothetically, if Palestinian-Israelis voted at a 100% rate, wouldn’t that increase their representation in the Knesset to greater than 20%? I know it’s hard to get everyone out to vote when it just doesn’t matter, but as I understand it Israel’s list system offers the opportunity to do so collectively and nationally. Hypothetical point being, with 20+% of the MKs being excluded from government, the coalitions of Jewish-Israelis would become harder to form, and less… Read more »

To the best of my knowledge, political party representing Israeli Palestinians has never been a part of a ruling coalition in Israel. Never.
They were, are and will be just a swarm of flies to be tolerated to shut up outsiders.
There was once a Palestinian Minister for Sport for a few months, without a seat in a cabinet ( and I strongly suspect without a desk and a chair to his name).

Jeff, because you refer to Israeli arabs as Palestinians, why should they have “equal” privileges? If every muslim citizen of India called himself a Pakistani, or whatever, you’d laugh at them. I agree Israeli arabs should be treated as equals, and they can maintain their own culture and beliefs, but if their goal, Ritzl the Spritzl, is to destroy the country, they might just find themselves completely marginalized, and some chucked out. And they’d deserve… Read more »