For years I have known that no understanding of the conflict would be complete without seeing the Palestinian politician Haneen Zoabi in action, but it was not till last Friday, when the embattled member of the Israeli Knesset came to New York University and spoke to a room of 300 people as a guest of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, that I had that privilege. Zoabi’s performance was staggering. She is now on tour in the U.S.; and if you have any chance to see and hear her, you should.
In fact, as Zoabi spoke– a woman of small stature but majestic spirit and political intelligence, exercising complete control over the crowd, even over her opponents holding the Israeli flag at the back of the room and over Theodore the student from Stuyvesant High School in the third row who rose to challenge her — I kept wondering why the New York Times has not run a huge profile of this woman, why my president and congresspeople are not meeting her, why she does not have the status that she ought to have in our discourse as a global justice figure, along the lines of a Havel, a Walesa, a Martin Luther King, a John Lewis, an Aung San Suu Kyi. And the answer of course is, Because she is Palestinian.
[Watch her entering the hall, to applause, in the video below]
And I say this without being smitten by her. Zoabi is a strong character who in taking control of the room could be a bit imperious–ignoring questions she didn’t like (about the Iran deal, for instance) and dismissing out of hand the idea that African migrants could contribute to the Palestinian struggle. There was nothing warm and fuzzy about her, though like other great speakers she is quite funny. But whether you like her or not is not the point, as Zoabi said again and again, speaking of Palestinians. You don’t have to love us or even like us, she said, but you must treat us as human beings with full human rights.
And when Theodore rose to object that she had not answered his second question– how will the people live together? she softened for a moment and stepped toward him in a gentle way.
“How we can live together? Theodore– I have spoken for one and a half hour trying to answer this question. Justice.”
The theme of the speech was democracy. Every point that Zoabi made about Israeli society and Zionist history and the Palestinian struggle was tied into the issue, what does Israeli democracy mean? She pointed to the group with the big flag at the back of the room:
“What makes those people so proud about their racism? It is their stupid belief that Israel is a democracy.”
But the challenge for Palestinians is that Israel is seen as a democracy; and Haneen Zoabi’s speech was aimed at changing that image.
And since you will not be reading about it in the New York Times or seeing her on Charlie Rose, let me quote a few of her riffs. Because Zoabi spoke without notes, and often went on soaring thermals.
On the struggle:
I am not the exception. It would be a catastrophe if I am the exception. I represent every Palestinian woman and man who is for justice not because he is a Palestinian but because first of all he is a human being, she is a human being, and it is part of our humanity, part of our self-dignity to protest against injustice….
We are not better than other people in the world. But we are not worse than other people in the world. We are not less than other people in the world. And we will not agree to give others advantages in our homeland. We still live in our homeland, as Palestinians…
The historical roots of the struggle are between us and Zionism. Not between us and the Jews. The Jews are not our enemy– of course! We are not fighting against a human being, we are fighting against racism.
On the nature of Israeli government and political identity:
This is the only meaning of democracy in Israel– the tyranny of the majority. We allow you, we the masters– allow you to be elected in the Knesset, we allow you the freedom of expression. We stole your homeland– but we allow you to scream.
We stole everything from you, now we want to make you Arab Israelis. You are not 100 percent Arab, and of course not at all Palestinian and not 100 percent Israeli, because Israel is a Jewish state and in order to be 100 percent Israeli, you must be a Jew. And I am not. So you are in the middle, with a distorted identity. This is the meaning of democracy in Israel. Democracy is the rule of the majority…and if we have a majority in the Knesset, so any law that we pass is part of the democracy. And in Israel there is 50 laws in every theme of llife that you can imagine, which discriminate against us.
On Israel’s legal separation of Palestinian families.
Anyone can be tomorrow a citizen of Israel– except the Palestinians. Anyone! The Palestinians cannot be. Even the second generation, who their fathers, their parents left their home, they have a key and they have family [in the country], they cannot return. No family unification– and that a basic law which all the countries respect. …
If I am a Palestinian—and I am a Palestinian– if I want to marry a Palestinian from Ramallah, from Jordan, from anywhere in the world, I cannot live with him in Nazareth, inside ’48, inside Israel. I cannot live with him! I must leave the country, because Israel doesn’t guarantee family reunification with a Palestinian from the refugees camp or from the enemies’ state. Even family unification.
On the Nakba:
And this project of evacuating my homeland from the Palestinians is still ongoing. The Nakba is not an event in the past. What happened in 1948, some think that they didn’t complete the mission in 1948, they must still control what is happening– not as a state but as an ideological project. In fact, someone said that Israel is a tool in the hands of the Zionist project.
On the frequent argument that she is better off in Israel than in a neighboring Arab state:
Israel cannot compare my life with the life of the Syrians and Egyptians and say Look, in a very superior and arrogant way, look– you live in better conditions than the Arab world. This is what we hear, everyday. So– OK, you want to compare yourself to the dictatorship states? OK. But Syria didn’t claim that she is a democracy, and we never heard Egypt or any Arab state claim that it is a democracy. OK, tell everybody! Halas, we are satisfied, we are satisfied. If you reach the conclusion that you are a dictatorship, then our struggle will be so easier. Tell everyone that you are a dictatorship.
But whenever it comes to me, they want to compare us to the Syrians, the Jordanians, and the Egyptians.
But when they want to talk to the US and the Europeans about the democracy, they compare themselves to the British, the Americans, the Germans.
On the Palestinian economy and the absence of any Palestinian university inside Israel:
We are 18 percent of the Israeli society. We are 10 percent of the governmental position, we are 10 percent in the universities, we are 2 percent in the private sector, we are less than ½ percent in the high-tech sector. We are marginalized in every sector. Israel doesn’t permit the development of a Palestinian economy. We don’t have Palestinian banks, we don’t have Palestinian insurance company.
We are not allowed to have a Palestinian university– we are 1 million, 200 thousand– 18 percent of the society! Israel doesn’t allow us to develop our Palestinian economy… and neither to be involved equally in the Israeli economy. We are in the margins of the Israeli economy.
Here’s the most extended riff, which includes her vision and consideration of one-state/two state:
The problem is not occupation, the problem now is worse, the problem is, How easy it become [for Israelis] to occupy the Palestinians. And you know, for those who have a daily conversation with the Jewish Israeli– and we live with each other– we have a vision to stay and live with each other. And we need to stress this. We don’t want to throw anyone in the sea! No! We suggest when we say equality it is equality with you, this is to recognize you.
When we say equality, this means to recognize your rights: you has been born here. We don’t give legitimacy to the Zionist project, but we have the ability, the human values, to live with equal, with very equal, civic and national rights with the Jews, in our homeland.
Now this is my party vision, which become a consensus regarding the Palestinian side: a state for all of its citizens. A neutral state. So all the citizens with full equality and a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza strip and the right of return of the refugee.
Yanni, for me it’s not a practical question, whether we are talking about two state or one state. But two states– not a Zionist state one of them. Two states, I mean a Palestinian state and a neutral democratic state. Now it is so academic to raise the question about one state or two state– for us. What is more important is values of equality, values of justice.
Some say that it is not practical to talk about one state– first of all we must talk about ending the occupation. I agree with this. I agree that I don’t like this question of one state or two state. Ending the suffering of Palestinian people, ending occupation now!
And there is no way to end occupation as long as Israel doesn’t pay the price of occupation and Israel doesn’t pay the price of occupation, Israel just enjoys occupation.
On Israeli racism:
Fifty rabbis in 2010 has published a letter, not to rent houses for Arabs! … It was so, yanni, usual– not unusual to have this letter. Now imagine that 50 priests has published a letter not to rent houses to the Jews. Close your eyes and imagine. You cannot imagine this– in any country! This happened in Israel, and without a lot of yanni, debate.
During the Q and A, there were some good questions.
Do you condemn Hamas also as a racist ideology? was one. Zoabi:
No I don’t. I don’t. We don’t as Palestinians define our national movements as terrorist movements, nor as racist movements. They are part of our national struggle.
And here is an answer addressing two questions. Theodore asked her about Muhammad Zoabi, a cousin of hers who has vocally defended Zionism, and a woman asked about whether Palestinians shouldn’t boycott the Israeli elections because they are used as symbols of democracy.
Israel wants Muhammad– my nephew, he wants to be famous, so he says he is Zoabi, OK– so Israeli Knesset wants Muhammad and those [in the audience] who claps to Muhammad, this is their example the distortion of nationality, the distortion of history: they want an inferior Arab. They want an Arab without identity, without dignity– yes this is the Arabs they want, these are the good Arabs.
You find, Theodore, you find in any society people who want to identity themselves with the oppressor. There is always those who cannot struggle with the oppression. So the only way they choose for themselves is to identify with the oppressor…
It is, yanni, a normal phenomenon and you are talking about the exception of the exception of the exception. Also you can find the Palestinians who serve in the Israeli army. You can find that! Half of them they will say it is for economic reasons. This is an indication of weakness.
Even those who serve in the army, we cannot give up addressing them and trying to convince them, to raise political awareness. This is our role. It is not a symbolic role: to have a Palestinian national voice inside the Knesset, to be vocal, to give the victim voice. It is not by accident that five Palestinians from within Israel has participated in Marmara, Freedom flotilla. But they have targeted the Knesset member.
Because you call it symbolic, but I call it concrete. This concrete and very practical power, that when you represent your people, when you represent your history, when you mediate, make national mediation between the Palestinian citizen and the state, then you contribute more to your struggle, you become more visible to your people as a Knesset member and you become more visible to those outside Israel. So no it is not symbolic. Otherwise, if you were not in the Knesset, then the address for Palestinians would be people like Muhammad and Zuheir Bahloul in the Labor party.
On supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and boycotting Israel. “You would boycott all Israelis, including yourself?”
I hope I have gotten some of Zoabi’s power across to readers, and to Americans. This commanding, charismatic figure wants one thing, democracy, and would accept it even in a two-state paradigm. While she refused to rule out violent resistance, this is clearly not her way now; and we should honor her struggle any way that we can, as we honored the civil rights movement in our country, so that the passage out of this conflict is as nonviolent as it can possibly be.